DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you so very much, Michele. And I have to say that the incredibly kind words that you just addressed in my direction are pretty much precisely what I would say about you. You’ve been for so many years now one of the most extraordinary colleagues I’ve had the privilege to serve with, and it is a great pleasure to be here today.
I really do appreciate the kind welcome and the even kinder decision to slot my remarks after a panel called “2017 and Beyond: An Agenda For the next Administration.” I always knew the day would come when I’d have to follow Jake Sullivan’s lead. I just thought I had another 18 months. Actually, following Jake makes me sympathize with Allen and Rossi. And for those of you who don’t remember Allen and Rossi, that’s actually exactly the point. They were the comedy duo who followed the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Laughter.) But it’s a great pleasure especially to be with everyone at CNAS and among very good friends and colleagues.
There’s been a perennial battle between CNAS and the Obama Administration over talent, and once again CNAS appears to be winning. But that’s quite all right, because it makes a little bit of room for the rest of us.
But in all seriousness, CNAS in a very short period of time has become truly a model among its peers, an invaluable reservoir of good counsel and strategic insight – no more so than when events in the world confound us or the flow of information threatens to overwhelm us. We owe our thanks to Michele and the outstanding team here with Rich Fontaine, who have built a Center dedicated to helping us make sense of our world today; the order and the disorder, the risks and the opportunities.
And there’s no denying there is a lot to try to make sense of. Just a few days ago was World Refugee Day, a ticker tape of searing new tallies. If all of the refugees in the world comprised the population of one country, it would be the 24th largest country in the world. One in every 122 people has fled their homes from war, violence, or persecution – risking their lives on rickety boats, crawling through barbed wire fences to escape Assad’s fury, or raising a generation of children in tents and under tarpaulins, nearly 60 million human reminders of the world’s disarray.
It certainly feels like we’re living through a more dangerous time than any in recent memory as we contend with threats from rising seas and emerging diseases, sophisticated cyber attacks, and nihilist terrorists. And again this morning, devastating attacks in multiple places around the world only underscores that point.
It can seem at some moments and from some perspectives as if we’ve entered a new era of cataclysmic change and uncertainty. Those who see the world this way often assert that America’s response has been to retreat, to abdicate our responsibility to lead, to shelve our unique capabilities to influence change. I think that assertion bears close scrutiny, because it is wrong.
Indeed, I would argue that the United States has never been more engaged in more places than at this moment in time, and that our leadership is producing powerful and positive results – helping speed the winds of progress and temper some of the gales of turmoil.
Just think about the last 18 months alone. American global leadership has mobilized countries to confront ISIL and Ebola. We have revitalized NATO’s commitment to the defense of its own members, rallied European allies to support Ukraine, and penalized Russia for its actions in Ukraine. We’ve deepened our engagement with the Asia Pacific, a region that increasingly is embracing the connection between good governance, sustainable growth, and long-term stability. Last month, I visited Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar – countries that are experiencing the benefits of economic and democratic progress.
We have enlisted China in the effort to mitigate climate change, and just this week we held the 7th U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an opportunity to forge new areas of cooperation, even as we deal forthrightly with our differences.
And we are coming closer every day to a major new trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, if achieved, will cover 40 percent of world GDP with a more level playing field for American business, higher standards for labor, the environment, and intellectual property.
We have carried our relationship with India to new heights, forging landmark partnerships on clean energy, higher education, and defense cooperation. In January, when President Obama attended Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi as Prime Minister Modi’s honored guest, he was the first American president to do so.
And we are charting a new course in our relations with Cuba, helping the people of Colombia secure lasting peace, and forging new and equal partnerships across the Americas. And we are working with leaders of Central America to combat the corruption, crime, and trafficking that affect our own security.
We have negotiated, of course, an interim agreement with Iran that froze and in some places rolled back its nuclear program with unprecedented inspections, with the possibility of a comprehensive solution now before us.
We have helped competing Afghan political blocs avoid civil war and achieve the first-ever peaceful, democratic political transition in that country’s history.
We hosted the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to build new relationships among our governments and with the private sector.
In each of these cases, I like to do a little thought experiment, and it’s based on the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. We all know what happened to Bedford Falls when George Bailey was out of the picture. And I think it’s self-evident where the world would be without American leadership on these challenges and so many more.
For me, the question is not and indeed it’s never been whether America is leading; the question is how we’re leading – by what means, and to what ends. That is the proper subject for debate and discussion. And I would suggest there are a few basic principles on which we must ground our leadership.
First, we must lead with purpose to ensure the security of our country, its citizens, our allies and partners; to promote a strong U.S. economy to advance our values; and to shape an international order that bolsters peace, security, and prosperity.
Second, we must lead from a position of strength, with unrivaled military might, a dynamic economy, and the unmatched strength of our human resources.
Third, we must lead by the power of our example as well as the example of our power – lifting our citizens, growing our economy, and living our values here at home. With today’s Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, we can be proud that we’ve done just that.
Fourth, we should lead with capable partners, because we can best advance our interests in an interconnected world when others are working with us, while recognizing that America and our leadership is often necessary to mobilize collective action.
Fifth, we must lead with all the instruments of American power – with determined diplomacy, an ever-ready military, our economic might, and the powerful attraction of American innovation, science, education, and culture.
And finally, we must lead with a sense of perspective that marries confidence and humility, strength, and wisdom.
The strategic environment in which we are operating is more fluid and fraught with complexity than ever before. Power among states is shifting, with new entrants and aspirants to the ranks of the majors. Power is shifting below and beyond the nation-state, requiring governments to be more accountable to sub-state and non-state actors, from the mayors of megacities to the private sector to super-empowered groups and individuals. And of course, the growing interdependence of the global economy and the rapid pace of change are linking people, groups, and governments in unprecedented ways, incentivizing new forms of cooperation, but also creating shared vulnerabilities.
All of these changes are happening within a system of international economic, political, social norms and institutions that have helped preserve peace and foster prosperity for seven decades. International law, maritime rules, environmental protections, trade regulations, anticorruption laws, child labor laws, human rights safeguards, the nonproliferation regime, public health systems, international financial institutions, UN peacekeeping, civil society – these norms and institutions give life to a global order which provides still today the best and sometimes only means to prevent conflict, energize progress, and allow countries to resolve diplomatically and peacefully their differences.
But over the last decades, our international system has struggled to keep pace as major new economies have emerged, technologies have advanced, citizens have questioned the status quo, spoilers have flexed their muscles.
Our challenge is to adapt the global order to suit this young century while also ensuring that the fundamentals of its construction – the rules, the norms, the principles we depend on for our security and prosperity – meet the highest standards.
In the face of these challenges, the United States remains clear-eyed about our role and our responsibility. We know that we cannot solve all the world’s problems, and we cannot fully solve any of them alone. But we are seizing America’s unique capacity to mobilize against common threats and lead the international community to meet them.
That’s the case in eastern Ukraine, where the United States and our allies remain firmly united in our support for Ukraine and our commitment to hold Moscow to a full implementation of the Minsk agreements. And it’s the case in the South China Sea, where China has been engaged in large-scale land reclamation projects that threaten peace and stability. The United States takes no position on the merits of competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, but we have a strong interest in how those claims are pursued, and in preserving freedom of navigation, sustaining peace and stability, and upholding international law and norms. The way forward is for China and all claimants to freeze their reclamation activities and resolve their differences in accordance with the rule of law.
In both eastern Ukraine and the South China Sea, we’re witnessing efforts to unilaterally and coercively change the status quo – transgressions that the United States and our allies and partners stand united against. In the greater Middle East, we’re witnessing something entirely different: a period of tectonic change that has brought the regional order to the brink of collapse. We see it in the challenges to domestic order within states in the greater Middle East – the rise of new constituencies, the empowerment of new voices, the demands for greater freedom and opportunity. And of course, this can be a welcome development, but it can also produce a violent counter-reaction from the old order. As for example, in Syria, with its long death spiral of violence, or when the old order is deposed, as in Libya, it can produce a vacuum filled by extremists.
And there is another dark flip side to the challenge to order within states in the Middle East – the weakening of state authority, the erosion of order, the emergence of ungoverned space, the proliferation of weapons and technology, the surfacing or resurfacing of sectarianism and religious extremism.
We see it too in the challenge to order among states: the growth of regional rivalries; the intensification of the faceoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the spread of dangerous proxy wars.
We see it in the intra-Sunni struggle between violent extremists and the vast majority of moderate Muslims, and the contest for leadership between establishment powers and political Islam often represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.
And we see much of this come together in Iraq, where the lid has been lifted from decades of dictatorship, war, or foreign domination – allowing many of these actors to collide head-on with the very fragile effort to build a more inclusive, representative government. One of the most poisonous products of all of this churn has been the alienation from their respective governments of large segments of the Sunni community – some 20 million of whom live between Baghdad and Damascus.
In the face of such widespread destabilization, it is tempting to want a grand American solution that imposes order and transforms the region overnight. We can and we should debate the nuances of the various proposals that we hear. But we cannot deny the lessons we’ve learned over a decade of sacrifice about the effectiveness and sustainability of large-scale, open-ended military intervention in the Middle East.
We need to recognize that historic transitions are underway in the Middle East that are not about us and cannot be fully controlled by us. The United States did not put one million people in Tahrir Square, we did not create the Arab Spring or even the democratic aspirations that it embodied.
But while events in the Middle East may not be about us, they affect us. They affect our partners, they affect our interests. And carefully guided American leadership – more than that of any other nation – can mitigate the worst of the risks and make the most of the rewards.
Even in this chaotic and dangerous environment, we will secure our core interests and build the capacity of capable partners to tackle their own problems with our strong, but smart support.
Peace and stability in the Middle East cannot be imposed from above, from the outside, or by force – they need to be built from within by governments that are inclusive, accountable to their citizens, and interconnected with the world. Military might alone can’t get government there. It requires political accommodation – including, increasingly, the decentralization of power – to ensure the freedom, dignity, and security for all citizens.
In Iraq, we have partnered with Prime Minister Abadi to fight the scourge of ISIL or Daesh by supporting his efforts to rebuild and reform the Iraqi Security Forces. Together with our coalition partners, we’re training and equipping these forces, advising its leaders, providing critical air support, and expanding recruitment, especially from among Sunni communities who will fight for their communities, for their towns, and for their lives.
But to succeed, we have to address the political dimension. Iraqis – be they Sunni, Shia, Kurd, or other – have to be convinced that the state they have been – they’re being asked to fight for will stand up for their rights and equities, that they can advance their interests more effectively as citizens of Iraq than as supplicants of ISIL or Iran.
Prime Minister Abadi proposes a vision of what we call “functioning federalism,” which basically means empowering local communities to make their own decisions. After decades of oppressive dictatorship, all ethnicities and religions need to feel that they’re represented by the nation they call home.
Across the Middle East, we have tried to apply this approach to empower capable partners and secure our core interests. We’ve intensified our security cooperation with our allies and partners; we’ve preserved maritime security and ensured the free flow of energy; we’ve assembled a coalition of 62 countries and organizations to deal with Daesh; and we’ve taken steps to ensure that Iran is not, under any circumstances, allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.
This last point is at the top of our minds as we near the June 30th deadline. We don’t have a comprehensive deal yet, and we may not get one if we can’t get to where we need to be on some of the core issues.
But we continue to believe that the very best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is through a verified, negotiated agreement that resolves the international community’s concerns about Iran and, as a practical matter, makes it impossible for Iran to develop the fissile material for a weapon without us being able to see it and to stop it.
The deal we’re working toward will close each of Iran’s four pathways to obtaining enough fissile material for a weapon – the uranium pathways at Natanz and Fordow, the plutonium pathway through Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak, and a potential covert pathway.
To cut off all of these pathways, any comprehensive arrangement must include exceptional constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and extraordinary monitoring and intrusive transparency measures that maximize the international community’s ability to detect any attempt by Iran to break out, whether overtly or covertly.
Let me quickly address to conclude some of the concerns that are floating around about the deal that we’re working toward – many of which are based much more on myth than they are on fact.
First, the deal that we’re working to achieve will not expire. There will not be a so-called “sunset.” Different requirements of the deal would have different durations, but some – including Iran’s commitment to all of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including the obligation not to build a nuclear weapon, as well as the tough access and monitoring provisions of the Additional Protocol – those would continue in perpetuity.
By contrast, in the absence of an agreement, Iran’s obligations under the interim agreement that we’ve reached – the so-called Joint Plan of Action that stopped Iran’s nuclear program in its tracks – those would sunset immediately. Then, Iran could speed towards an industrial-scale program with tens of thousands of centrifuges with no inspections and no visibility into its program.
Second, this deal would provide such extensive levels of transparency that if Iran fails to comply with the international community’s obligations, we will know about it – and we will know it virtually right away, giving us plenty of time to respond diplomatically, or, if necessary, by other means. Most of the sanctions would be suspended – not ended – for a long period of time, with provisions to snap back automatically if Iran reneges on its commitments.
Third, we will only agree to a deal that guarantees the IAEA timely access to whatever Iranian sites are required to verify that Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful – period.
Fourth, there is simply no better option to prevent Iran from obtaining the material for a nuclear weapon than a comprehensive agreement that meets the parameters that we set and announced in Lausanne.
Just like the Joint Plan of Action, any agreement will be subject to legitimate scrutiny from our citizens, from our Congress, from our closest partners. We will not agree to any deal that cannot withstand that scrutiny.
At the same time, any opponents of the agreement, if it’s reached, will have an obligation to tell the American people exactly what they would do differently – and how they would get it done.
It’s a fantasy to believe that Iran will simply capitulate to our demands if we ratchet up the pressure even more through sanctions. After all, Iran suffered much greater deprivations during the war with Iraq. And despite intensifying international pressure over the last years, Iran went from just 150 centrifuges in 2002 to 19,000 before we reached the interim agreement.
Nor is it likely that our international partners – without whom our sanctions cannot work – it’s not likely they would go along with such a plan. They signed on to sanctions in order to get Iran to the negotiating table to conclude an agreement that meets our shared security interests – not to force Iran to abandon a peaceful nuclear program.
Up until now, we’ve kept other countries on board – despite the economic loss that it presents to many of them – in large part because they’re convinced we’re serious about reaching a diplomatic solution. If they lose that belief, the United States, not Iran, could be isolated, and the sanctions regime could collapse.
To those who would prefer to take military action now against Iran without going the last diplomatic mile, they need to consider the fact that such a response would destroy the international sanctions coalition and only set Iran’s program by a few years, at which point Iran likely would bury a new program deep underground and speed toward an actual weapon.
With the comprehensive agreement that we’re working to conclude, we have a chance to achieve much, much more.
But reaching a comprehensive deal will not alter our commitment to support those in Iran demanding greater respect for universal human rights and the rule of law. And we continue to insist that Iran release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian, and help us find Robert Levinson.
And reaching a comprehensive deal will not alter our commitment to fighting Iran’s efforts to spread instability and support terrorism. That will not change – with or without a deal.
But Iran without a nuclear weapon will be less emboldened to take destabilizing activities in the region. It will reduce the pressure for a regional nuclear arms race and strengthen the international nonproliferation regime. In short, it’s a critical step to greater global security – for the United States and for our partners in the region.
Having now been in service for six and a half years, as Michele pointed out, I have been struck again and again by how one snapshot – one tweet, one headline, one article – captures our attention and diverts our focus from the moving picture. Heightened by an almost insatiable appetite for round-the-clock news, these snapshots have an outsized influence over our perception of the world – telling us, whether we like it or not, at almost any given moment, every hour, every minute, of the dangers that we face, of the risks of action and the consequences of inaction.
But when you step back and try to gain a little bit of perspective and consider also the moving picture, there is something that is extraordinarily consistent and that emerges from looking at it: In times of crisis or calamity, it is the United States that the world turns to first and always. We are not the leader of first choice because we’re always right or because we’re universally liked or because we can dictate outcomes. It’s because we strive to the best of our ability to align our actions with our principles, and because American leadership has a unique ability to mobilize others and to make a difference. Seventy years ago, that leadership produced victory in world war and then built a global order dedicated to the peace, stability, and prosperity of every nation.
Today, our leadership remains vital to protect and adapt that international system to reflect the times that we live in, to navigate the turmoil, and to reap the rewards that are there. It cannot – it must not – be our responsibility alone, but it is one we will seize, leading, as always, from a position of strength with capable partners, with all the instruments of American power, with the power of our example, and with a hard-earned sense of perspective, with our eyes cast forward and our spirit ever hopeful. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. That was a wonderful sort of tour of the world and a very clear articulation of the Administration’s policy on many, many points. I wanted to key off a little polling that we did before you arrived, and the question was something along the lines of, “What should the next administration – which region of the world should get more attention?” And there was this huge bar – I think it was 48 – almost 50 percent said Asia. And the more Richard kept talking, the more the bar kept growing. And President Obama announced a rebalance strategy – pivot, rebalance. If the Administration is successful in getting TPP, that will be a huge win. But we do see, as you mentioned, China really taking a number of unilateral actions to try to change the status quo, particularly in the maritime domain. Can you talk a little bit about the next 18 months and how you all are thinking about responding to China’s more assertive behavior in the maritime domain in particular?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure. Let me say one thing at the outset, which is I would largely agree with where the poll was driving the conversation. And I think one of the things that I’m proudest of what we’ve done is in fact the rebalance toward Asia. When I was moving from the White House to the State Department and I sat with President Obama just before coming over, and I asked him, “What would you like me to focus on?” And the first thing he said was, “Asia.” And then when I got to State, I asked the same question of Secretary Kerry, and thankfully I got the same answer. (Laughter.) It was very helpful.
MODERATOR: Always good.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Always a good thing. And it is a recognition of the fact that for both the President and the Secretary, this really is at the top of our priority list, because we can see so very clearly the future taking shape in the Asia Pacific – America’s future taking shape in the Asia Pacific with all of the possibility and potential we’ve talked about. And TPP – when we get there, it has obvious economic benefits, which I won’t rehearse. But from my vantage point at State, it’s the strategic benefits that are equally important. It’s the strongest possible message to other countries in the region that we’re there for the long haul; that our engagement won’t simply be dictated by temporal interests and not simply by, as important as they are, security relationships. And it has the tremendous potential, with 40 percent of GDP covered, to be a magnet to move other countries in the direction of the highest possible standards. And that’s hugely important too.
But of course, it’s not about the rebalance – or TPP, for that matter, is not about isolating China or keeping it down or containing it. To the contrary, our hope is that at some point China may well be part of TPP. But as all of you know, the relationship is incredibly complex. It has very important and growing elements of cooperation, and we’ve seen that just over the last year. I mentioned a couple of these. The fact that the United States and China could come together on climate change is a very powerful message to the rest of the world and has the potential to bring other countries along as we head to Paris. The work that we did together on Ebola also sends a very strong message about what’s possible when the United States and China cooperate. And interestingly, as you know from all of your work on this, even the military-to-military relationship has improved over the last few years, with —
MODERATOR: Got better after I left.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well – (laughter) – and it’s a challenge, but it really is making strides. But – so that’s the good news. And actually, there are many other areas of cooperation. Afghanistan, we’ve been training diplomats together. We’re looking at – we’ve been working together diplomatically in South Sudan, in many other places around the world.
But as you said, China is also taking actions that are a risk to the stability that is so necessary for the region to continue to move forward and that risk increasing tensions, and the South China Sea is probably the most salient example of that. We’ve been very clear, including this week with our Chinese friends when they were here for the Strategic & Economic Dialogue. We’ve said that we don’t have, as I mentioned earlier, a position on any of the merits of these different claims, but how the claims are pursued makes a big difference. And any actions that threaten to undermine freedom of navigation or freedom of flight or that risk the peace and stability of the region, or that contravene basic norms and laws, that’s a problem. And we’ve had the back-and-forth conversation with the Chinese about this.
Two things. One is there’s a clear path forward for the South China Sea, and that is for all of the claimants – because it’s not just China; it’s certainly true that other countries including Vietnam, including Malaysia, including the Philippines, are engaged in their own reclamation projects. Of course, the size and scale of what China is doing dwarfs what these other countries are doing, but what we’ve suggested to all of them is a freeze on reclamation activities: the reclamation itself, the construction that goes on on these so-called islands, and any militarization, whether for defensive or other purposes. If you do that, you create the time and space to actually resolve the differences that exist through peaceful means, whether it’s arbitration, whether it’s adjudication, whether it’s by bilateral means. The Chinese say that their claims are clear and undisputed; they’re not even claims, they’re just facts. And we’ve said, great; if you demonstrate that, we’ll back you 100 percent. But you can’t expect other countries to engage in some kind of diplomatic process that goes nowhere where you create what are, in effect, facts on the sea.
So we’ll see if they and the other claimants respond to that. Meanwhile, we will continue to do everything that we are able and allowed to do under international law, including fly our planes through international skies and drive our boats in international waters. That will not change.
MODERATOR: Great. So moving to – back to the Middle East, we also had an earlier discussion of dealing with ISIL and sort of Middle East more broadly. A couple of questions came up. The first is: We clearly have an initial focus on sort of beating back ISIS in Iraq, and I think the Administration’s laid out a strategy. There’s a debate about should it be more urgent, can we resource it more, and so forth, but there is a strategy. I think on the Syria side of the border it’s harder from the outside looking in to really understand what is the theory of the case. What is the strategy on the Syrian side of the border?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Let me say two things. Let me just say a word about Iraq first then come to Syria.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: And this is maybe a good example of what I was talking about a little earlier about how it’s so easy to be captured by a headline, by a snapshot, and not a moving picture. We had the real setback in Ramadi a few weeks ago in Anbar province, and that became almost a metaphor for failure in Iraq. And it was a setback and it needs to be dealt with, and in fact we are, and I’ll mention that in a minute. But if you look at the moving picture, over the last year since we formed this coalition, Daesh has lost 35 percent of the territory that it held or controlled at the time the coalition was formed. We have taken out thousands of Daesh fighters and huge amounts of its materiel. And in many parts of Iraq – Diyala, Nineveh, other places – and of course in the north in the Kurdish region, the efforts are going quite well.
Anbar has always been a particular problem, and the problem there, as you know so well, is that you had an Iraqi national army and security force comprised primarily of Shia fighters in a Sunni area – an army that felt alien and didn’t know why it was fighting there and a populous that didn’t particularly want to accept it, and at the same time, Popular Mobilization Forces – comprised, again, predominantly of Shia coming into Sunni areas and sometimes liberating towns but then wreaking some havoc afterward.
So the challenge in Anbar has been to mobilize Sunnis into the fight, and the plan the Prime Minister Abadi announced in Paris a couple of weeks ago to do just that is exactly the direction we should go in, and we’ve made it very clear that we support that. We also see, if you look at Anbar and you look at a map, that much of it is red – red being Daesh – but there’s one area that’s green, and that’s the area immediately around Al Asad, where we’ve had a presence to help train and integrate both the Sunni fighters and the Iraqi forces. And we now have another presence that the President announced a week ago in Taqaddum, where – in the east of Anbar with Al Asad in the west. And I think there’s really the potential there between Abadi’s plan and the work that we’re doing to make a difference and to start to turn Anbar in the same direction that much of the rest of Iraq is going.
So all of that though said, if the political accommodations that I referenced earlier don’t move forward, that will put a real ceiling on what’s actually possible in Iraq, and that’s vital and we’re working on it every day.
Syria, I guess I’d say two things. One is that as long as Assad is there he will be a magnet for Daesh, for extremists; the best recruiting tool that they have. And that’s one of many reasons why Assad needs to be transitioned out. And so one of the things we’re doing is trying to energize the diplomacy around that proposition. And things have changed, which gives me – hope is too strong a word, but I think there’s greater possibility for that diplomacy to start to achieve results.
If you’re looking at it from the perspective of patrons of Assad, who make a big difference, including and maybe starting with Russia, the dynamics on the ground with ISIL or Daesh taking more and more territory in certain parts of Syria – that poses a growing threat to Russia’s interests. There’s also the possibility of what has been termed “catastrophic success” – that is, Assad goes tomorrow and we’re not prepared for it. And so there’s a real incentive, including on the part of Russia and I would argue even Iran, to have a managed transition that at least mitigates the real danger of a post-Assad vacuum that is filled by extremist forces that are not in the interest obviously of the United States or our partners in the region but also not of Russia and Iran. So we’ll look to mobilize the diplomacy.
Second, on the ground other things are happening. It’s not just Daesh or ISIL. In the north, the Syrian Kurdish forces in recent weeks have shown dramatic gains supported by our air power. And there is now a long stretch of the border between Syria and Turkey that is actually controlled by those forces in alliance with other Syrians. And that’s critical, because if you can get that piece all across the border, you cut off the supply lines between Daesh and supplies and personnel coming in primarily from Turkey and going to Raqqa, their capital. You similarly make it more difficult for things to get into Iraq from outside, and that begins to have a real impact. In the south, the new and free Syrian forces are actually doing quite well in areas south of Damascus, but the complication there is that they’re often doing so in alliance with Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham, and other groups that we can’t abide. So that’s a challenge.
We’ve been engaged, as you know, in this program to build up moderate Syrian opposition. And we have the train and equip program that is just starting to really get off the ground. It’s small, it’s slow, it takes time; it’s not a silver bullet. But if it begins to show some success, it can build on itself because, as recruits are looking at their possibilities and they see something that’s working where they’re getting effective training, they’re getting the right arms, they’re getting the right direction, they may see that as a more effective vehicle than some of the other groups that have tempted them in recent years.
At the same time, beyond the train and equip program, we’ve been working with the opposition in various ways for years now. And we’ve built up some greater knowledge, stronger relationships, an ability to identify who we can work with effectively and who we can’t. And I think there too we can start to show some results. At the end of the day, the critical thing is to use both the changing dynamics on the ground and an energized diplomacy to move toward a real transition that may take some time but that moves Assad out, keeps the institutions of the state together, demonstrates to Russia and even in some sense to Iran that many of their core interests can be preserved in the post-Assad Syria, and then allows everyone to focus on the common threat, which is extremism.
So this isn’t easy. It’s sure not simple and it will take some time to do, but I actually think there’s a greater dynamic now than there’s been at any time in the last few years to move in a more positive direction.
MODERATOR: Let me ask one more question then we’re going to open it up to all of you. So please be thinking of your questions.
Something that has been oddly sort of not a central topic today – and it wasn’t really in your speech either – and yet it’s very important is the endgame in Afghanistan. And I think there were many who were pleased that, in the wake of the Afghan elections and the formation of this new government that took some time to form, that the President was willing to be a bit flexible on the plans for the troop drawdown and the timelines and so forth to give the new government a more – a little more of a chance to get on its feet, to support the Afghan National Security Forces that are very much engaged in the fight and so forth. But as we near 2016, the original sort of deadline or timeline for drawing down is still hanging out there.
And I wondered, in the wake of kind of what’s happened in Iraq as we look at – if we take a forward looking perspective in the Afghan-Pakistan region to look at what – the threats as they are and what we’re going to need to protect our interests in the future, is there an openness, in your judgment, to think more about what should our posture be in Afghanistan and in the region looking forward – 2016 and beyond? Or is the sort of timeline to get to zero absolutely set in stone without being informed by what’s needed beyond 2016?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I guess I’d say two —
MODERATOR: I don’t want – I know you can’t make any announcements, but I’d love to know the thinking at this point.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I guess I’d say two things. First, in terms of the transition itself and the new government, as I mentioned, that would not have happened without us. And it would not have happened without the extraordinary personal engagement of the Secretary of State and the team that supports that effort. That was a great example of American leadership.
With regard to where we are in 2017 and beyond, first, we are going to remain committed to the country no matter what. And on the security side, we’re going to have to have in place, as we plan to do now, the ability to continue to prosecute counterterrorism missions for our own security and that of our partners, the Afghans, and also the capacity to continue to support and train Afghan security forces. But the President’s been very clear that even as we stay at around 10,000 forces through this year, by the end of 2016 we want to get down to a Kabul-centered, embassy-focused presence and whatever goes along with that in terms of the security requirement. And the rationale from our perspective is this: We cannot and we should not be the guarantor of Afghan security in perpetuity. And the Afghans deserve to know what’s expected of them and when it’s expected. And that has an ability to hopefully galvanize and energize their own commitment to look out for their own security and to take the steps necessary with our strong support and that of our partners to get there.
So that’s the rationale. That’s the thinking. I think you’ve seen already that within those parameters, as you said, the President has adjusted, given flexibility, including to the military, to look at glide paths and to change them as necessary. But at the end of the day, in place after place, including Afghanistan, ultimately people have to be willing to stand and fight for their own countries – with our support, with our assistance, with our best advice, but they need to take the lead, to take the responsibility. And being clear about when they’re expected to do that is the best way to get them to stand up and do just that.
MODERATOR: I think just to follow up on this, I think the thing that I have trouble squaring is the objectives of continuing to support the NSF and their continued development with them absolutely in the lead, clearly having the responsibility for the country’s security, and continuing to conduct effective joint counterterrorism operations that protect our interests as well as – it’s not clear to me that you can do those things with a Kabul-centric force or a Kabul-only force, and I think that’s the big question that many people have.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: And it’s a fair question, and let’s see how things evolve. But as you said, I’m not here to make any announcements.
MODERATOR: You’re not authorized to make any announcements today.
Okay, so we’re going to go to the audience. Sir with the – holding up the piece of paper. That was a very effective tactic. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Dana – thank you. It’s Dana Marshall (ph), and very nice, Tony, to see you.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Hey, Dana. Nice to see you.
QUESTION: Thank you for that very good speech. Before you came, Sullivan and Sullivan agreed on a couple of things, and you were touching on the same point about the – sort of the need to focus on commonalities with some of these emerging, sort of rising powers. Let’s talk about China. You just came off the S&ED. You mentioned and so did other speakers the climate change, Ebola, Afghanistan. These are areas where it’s clear that there is no – there’s no conflict. There’s no need for them to accommodate our interests; we have clearly common interests. They have at least as large, if not a larger, presence in Africa, for example. Their people are dying because of terrible coal problems in China. It’s clear – Afghanistan borders them, not us; all these things. The question, I guess, for us is: For me to truly believe that there is a future in looking at an approach with China, looking at where the commonalities are – it’d be interesting to get your thoughts about where we can start making headway where there is a need for them to accommodate some of our principal concerns, such as, obviously, cyber – that must have been a big subject for you. But there’re a number of other things involving trade practices, to say nothing of apparently a complete rejection of any concept of a Western-style government there. Maybe we don’t care much about that anymore, but I’d be interested to see if you could focus in on those areas where it’s not completely in their interest to do it but where they need to take some steps to accommodate our views.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure. I think that there are clear trends and lessons that suggest that in various ways, it may well come to the conclusion of the Chinese that they need to move in directions that are more congruent with the direction we’ve taken. And let me give you two examples. First, one of the things that’s been so striking about their actions in the South China Seas – and the East China Seas, for that matter – has been the effect it’s had on their neighbors. And we now have more countries in Southeast Asia looking to the United States and striking stronger relationships with us than we’ve ever had, less because of what we’ve done than because of what China has done. We’ll have the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam coming to the United States to visit President Obama in just about 10 days’ time – the first visit by a general secretary in history – on the 20th anniversary of the restoration of relations. The relationship with Vietnam has moved to a very different place, and part of that has been actually energized by China’s actions.
I had some interesting conversations the last time I was in Beijing and then again at the Strategic & Economic Dialogue with China about that, and I suggested to them that while our countries were, of course, very different – different systems, different histories, different stages of development – that in some ways, without oversimplifying it, China today is a little bit where the United States was at the end of World War II. Then, we were the emerging global power, and our leaders had to decide how to use that power. And of course, the decisions that they made were to write the rules, create the institutions, develop the norms that on one level actually constrained our power, because we gave other countries a voice and a vote and an ability to shape the direction of the world. And yet, of course, the real effect was to disincentivize other countries from gathering together against us because they feared our power. And as a result, we actually magnified and extended our influence. And I suggested to our Chinese friends that there might be something interesting in that lesson. We’ll see.
Second – but I do think that they’re going to have to increasingly absorb the fact that their actions have consequences and some of them are not the intended consequences in terms of how other nations respond. Second, when you think about the wealth of a nation and what defines it, if we talked about that 50 years ago or 100 years ago, you’d probably talk about how large the country is, the size of its land mass, the size of its population, the strength and size of its military, the abundance of natural resources. And of course, all of those things still matter, and as it happens, the United States and China are both very wealthy by those measures. But we know that in this century, the true wealth of a nation is defined by its human resources and especially their ability to innovate, to create, to think, to exchange ideas, to argue, to criticize. The nations that maximize that potential are the nations that will truly succeed in the 21st century, and that too has implications for China. We haven’t seen them yet. I’m convinced that we will.
So I think there are larger dynamics at play that suggest to me that over the next 10 or 15 years, there will be effects on the way China decides to conduct itself in the world that move it actually closer to us. At the same time, here and now, as they take actions that are inconsistent with our interests, we will uphold those interests, and I talked a little bit about the South China Seas. But we also believe that the more we can maximize areas of cooperation – and obviously, trade and investment is critical because of the benefits that it brings to both of us, and that creates at least a frame around which the relationship hopefully will not deviate because of the common interest in preserving those benefits. But the more that we do that, I think the more it will be clearly in the interest of China to make accommodations where our interests are in conflict.
MODERATOR: Right here.
QUESTION: Thanks for your speech. I’m Jennifer Chen, reporter with Shenzhen Media Group, one of TV network in China. And you just mentioned in your speech – you said China and U.S. military-to-military relations is getting better. And we know General Fan Changlong just visited U.S. And I just wonder would you please give us some details, like what is the trend of the military-to-military U.S. and China relations, and what are the possible obstacles as far as you are concerned? Thanks.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure. Thank you very much. I actually had the opportunity to meet with General Fan when he was here, and we had a very good exchange. And of course, more importantly, he saw the Secretary of Defense and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And I’d say that we’re really seeing three strong pillars emerge in the military-to-military relationship. First, increasing and sustained dialogue and exchange. We have more meetings back and forth, including the one you just cited, than we’ve ever had, including at the most senior levels. And that kind of regular contact, and exchanges also at lower levels, starts to build a little bit more trust and confidence, and that’s important and we’re doing more of it than we ever have. Second, actual, practical cooperation when it comes to exercises, when it comes to working together in areas like counter-piracy or humanitarian response – that too builds trust and confidence. And then finally, making sure that we have mechanisms in place to deal with potential differences and disputes – and there too, just over the last nine or so months, we’ve worked together to develop more confidence-building measures that actually address that challenge, including, for example, procedures when our aircraft may come into close contact to deconflict them and avoid any undesired conflict. So each of those legs of the stool are being built and are getting stronger. And I think that at least offers the prospect for both greater stability in the military-to-military relationship, finding greater areas of cooperation, and then when our forces – as, increasingly, with China’s growing its navy and military, as is totally understandable in a country that’s growing economically – as those forces come into more and more contact, to make sure that there is no – there are no unintended consequences of that.
MODERATOR: Tony, this has been terrific, as I knew it would be. And we could – we’d love to keep you for longer, but we know you have the next eight hours of your day about to start now. So thank you so much for joining us. Please join me in thanking the Secretary. (Applause.)
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much.