Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability

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SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Good to see you all.

I suspect that most of you are looking forward to what will be a well-deserved break.  It’s been quite a year.

When I walked into the State Department on my first day as Secretary, we had COVID-19 lockdowns around the world.

Less than 1 percent of the United States was vaccinated, compared to more than 60 percent today.

We were dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The climate crisis was accelerating.

Our relationships with our allies and partners were badly strained.

And many questioned whether America would – or even could – lead again.

A few guiding premises animated our work this year.

One is that American engagement – American leadership – matters.

The world doesn’t organize itself.

When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one does, and then you get chaos.

Either way, it doesn’t serve the American people.

Another premise is that finding new ways to cooperate and coordinate with other countries is more important than ever, because none of the really big challenges that we face and that affect the lives of Americans – from COVID to climate to the disruptive impact of new technologies – can be solved by any one country working alone.  Not even the United States.

So much of our work this year has been about rebuilding the foundations of American foreign policy.

That started with restoring and revitalizing our network of alliances and partnerships – and reengaging the multilateral system, where so much of the day-in, day-out work of diplomacy takes place.

Since January 20th, we’ve reinvigorated our engagement with key allies, with NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the OECD, the G7, the G20, ASEAN.  We created AUKUS; we elevated the Quad with two leader-level summits; we launched the Build Back Better World global infrastructure initiative.

We’re much more aligned with our allies and partners now than we were a year ago on nearly every issue, including Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and its neighbors, Iran’s nuclear program, and China’s efforts to challenge the rules-based international order.

And I can attest from my dozens of face-to-face meetings with counterparts in every region of the world that they’re glad – frankly, relieved – that the United States is once again engaged and once again leading.

At the start of the year, we said that we would lead the global effort to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, we’ve donated more than 330 million vaccine doses to more than 110 countries, on our way to 1.2 billion donated doses next year.

That’s more than the rest of the world combined.

We’ve led the world in funding COVAX, the global partnership that distributes safe vaccines equitably around the world.

And just this morning, I announced another $580 million in COVID relief funding, to provide life-saving health and humanitarian assistance to places where the suffering is acute.

That brings total U.S. assistance to nearly $20 billion.

And it’s not just the amount of our assistance but how we’ve done it – rooted in science, based on need, with international and regional institutions, and with no political strings attached.

We’ve done all this because – as we see happening right now, with the rise of the Omicron variant – none of us will be safe until all of us are safe.

We still have a long way to go to beat the pandemic.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’ve come very far, the world, the United States this past year – with American leadership – in building the foundation for a more effective global COVID-19 response and saving lives.

We’ll keep working toward the goal President Biden set in September at the global COVID summit that he convened: vaccinating 70 percent of the world by next fall.

And we’ll keep leading the push for greater global health security, to better prevent, detect, and respond to future pandemics.

We said we’d restore American leadership in the climate crisis.

Well, on day one, we rejoined the Paris Agreement.

We raised global ambitions to reduce emissions through major investments in climate finance – including quadrupling our own funding.

After a year of dogged diplomacy, countries accounting for 65 percent of the world’s GDP are committed to targets that will keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We led the global pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 percent and helped spearhead the effort to end and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade.

More than 100 countries have joined both of those pledges.

And we secured commitments by many of the world’s major economies to move away from financing fossil fuel projects abroad.

We said we would take on issues that affected American workers and families.

That starts with COVID and climate, but it doesn’t end there.

Thanks to American leadership, the logjams at our ports and the shortages of critical goods are easing.

We brought 136 countries together to secure a Global Minimum Tax to end the race to the bottom on corporate tax rates, prevent corporations from shifting jobs overseas, and generating billions of dollars to invest here at home.

We’re shaping the governance of new technologies, so that they serve democracies, instead of undermining them.

And as with everything else, we’re doing it with our allies and partners, including through the U.S.-European Union Trade and Technology Council, which we launched this year.

President Biden pledged to end America’s longest war.  This summer, we made good on that promise, bringing Operation Resolute Support to a close and leading an international coalition to evacuate more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan.

We knew this would be challenging.  It was.  And there are lessons from the evacuation and relocation that we’re learning for the future.

But this is also the first time in 20 years that no U.S. troops are spending the holidays in Afghanistan, and we’re not sending a third generation of American soldiers to fight and die there.

The last time I was in this briefing room, I faced some appropriate questions about our ability to continue to facilitate the departure of American citizens and others to whom we have a special commitment.

In the months since, we’ve made good on that promise, including our pledge to help any U.S. citizen who wants to leave.  Since September 1, we’ve helped nearly 500 Americans depart Afghanistan.  That’s virtually every blue passport holder who remained in Afghanistan after August 31st who has said they wanted to depart and was ready to do so – and we’ll keep at it.

We’ll also keep working to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan – through our aid, as the single largest provider of assistance to the people of Afghanistan, as well as through our diplomacy.

Finally, we invested in the State Department – to make it an even stronger, more effective, more agile, more diverse institution that can deliver for the American people in what is an increasingly complex and competitive world.

We’re building our capacity to lead in areas of diplomacy that will matter more and more to our people in the years ahead, like global health, like climate, like technology, like economics.

And as we do, we’ll never take our eye off the ball when it comes to strategic competition, upholding our democratic values and human rights, working for peace.

We launched a sweeping modernization agenda, including our intent to establish a new Cybersecurity and Digital Policy Bureau and Special Envoy for Critical and Emerging Technology, to help us make sure that the digital revolution serves our people, protects our interests, boosts our competitiveness, and upholds our values.  New resources to enable the largest hiring increase in a decade and a significant increase in our IT budget; Foreign Service positions dedicated to economic and climate issues; and new initiatives to win the competition for talent and advance diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility.

This year, we also appointed the State Department’s first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, because our diplomatic corps should reflect our nation’s full diversity, talent, and experience.

And across everything we do, our number-one priority is the safety and well-being of our people.

Later today, I’ll visit the Executive Medical Center at Johns Hopkins, where some of our colleagues who’ve suffered from anomalous health incidents are getting treatment.

All of us at the State Department and across the U.S. Government are intently focused on getting to the bottom of what and who is causing these incidents, caring for those who’ve been affected, protecting our people.

Critical to the success of our foreign policy are the investments we’re making in ourselves here at home – in education, infrastructure, research and development, and health.

Domestic renewal fuels our competitiveness and it elevates America’s standing in the world.

Put it all together, and there is no question that we’re stronger now than we were 11 months ago.

We’re stronger in the world.  We’re stronger at home.  We’re on stronger footing when it comes to COVID, climate, and other urgent challenges.

And we’re in a stronger geopolitical position to deal with countries like China and Russia, as they seek to undermine the international system that we’ve built and led – a system that has made the world freer, more prosperous, more secure, more connected, and has allowed our country and people to thrive.

We’ve got a profound stake in upholding that system, in standing up for the rule of law, for democratic values and human rights, a level playing field that gives everyone a fair chance to compete and to succeed.

And we’ll continue to drive that positive vision – with our allies and partners right alongside us.

Just about all the work that I’ve named here today will continue in 2022: ending this pandemic and strengthening global health security; making sure the standards, hardware, and policies for new technology secure our competitive edge and improve the lives and livelihoods of our people while keeping them safe and our democracy strong; defending and strengthening the rules-based order against those who would tear it down; building a State Department ready to lead on 21st-century challenges.

We’re much better positioned to make strong progress on those challenges than we were when we began, because we’re building on the foundation we laid this year.

And I’m proud and grateful to all the diplomats and development experts who’ve worked so hard to make that happen and who represent the very best our country has to offer.

This year, we said goodbye to two giants of American diplomacy – George Shultz and Colin Powell.  They both loved the State Department.  The State Department loved them.

They both believed in the power of diplomacy.

And they both knew that the State Department doesn’t exist to deal with problems elsewhere, to focus out there on the rest of the world — but rather to deliver for the American people, to solve the challenges that affect their lives, to create opportunities that will make their futures brighter.

Those are beliefs that we wholeheartedly embrace in this administration.  And I know they’re shared across our political aisle.  So I want to thank Congress for confirming a large slate of our nominees over the weekend.  No administration in American history has had fewer confirmed ambassadors and senior officials than ours.  And we need our full team on the field right away to protect our interests and our people.

It has been an honor to serve the American people this year as part of our outstanding diplomatic workforce.  It’s also been an honor to travel with many of you here in this room, to take your questions up here at this podium from time to time.  Thank you for your dedicated, persistent work to keep the American people and people around the world informed about what we do here and to hold us to account.

So I hope you all have a very healthy, restorative break.  I wish you all a very happy New Year.  I look forward to getting to work next year.  But meanwhile, I’m happy to take some questions.

MR PRICE:  Michele.

QUESTION:  Now you’ve had a few months to reflect on what went wrong in Afghanistan, and I wonder what regrets you have about how you handled the diplomacy surrounding it and what concerns you have – whether you’ve lost credibility among your allies in the way that it ended and what you intend to do to head off a humanitarian catastrophe there given that the U.S. still has a lot of Afghanistan’s money frozen in bank accounts here.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  When it comes to regrets, to looking back, there’ll be a lot of time for that in the years ahead.  Right now, we’re focused on what we’re doing, what we need to do, on action to move our foreign policy forward, to move our national security forward, to deal with the challenges that are in front of us.

Now, I also ordered a review of our Afghanistan policy and the implementation of that policy, starting in 2020 and going through the relocation and evacuation.  As I think you know, one of our most respected now retired diplomats, Dan Smith, will be leading that effort, and I look forward to learning what he and his team learn in terms of the lessons to take from that experience.  Others are also rightly looking at the last 20 years of our policy in Afghanistan to try to draw lessons from that – what went right, what went wrong, and how we take that going forward.

But to your point, what I am focused on right now is the situation in Afghanistan, including the humanitarian situation.  We continue to be the largest single provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.  We’ve issued multiple now general licenses to make sure that other countries, institutions, can feel free to move forward with their assistance and not be concerned about the application or implementation of sanctions against them.

We’ve participated in the release of about $280 million recently in the Afghan Trust Fund monies that are there.  And we are looking intensely at ways to put more liquidity into the Afghan economy, to get more money into people’s pockets, and doing that with international institutions, with other countries and partners, trying to put in place the right mechanisms to do that in a way that doesn’t directly benefit the Taliban but does go directly to the people.

We’re very conscious of the fact that there is an incredibly difficult humanitarian situation right now, one that could get worse as winter sets in.  And so that’s an area of intense focus for us working closely with allies and partners.  We’re also, of course, focused on ensuring that the Taliban make good on the expectations of the international community when it comes to continuing to allow people who wish to leave Afghanistan to do so, when it comes to upholding the rights of all Afghan citizens but notably women and girls and minorities, when it comes to not engaging in reprisals, when it comes to making good on their commitments to counter terrorism coming from Afghanistan.

So all of those things are front and center on our agenda.  We’re working them virtually every day with international partners around the world.

MR PRICE:  Andrea.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.  Russia is increasing its demands on NATO.  Today, the defense minister is saying that U.S. mercenaries are plotting a provocation in the Donbas, which some would say could be a pretext for some sort of invasion.  The question is:  Since the President talked to President Putin, it seems as though the buildup is continuing, the threats are continuing from Vladimir Putin.  So at this point, how do you counter the Russian aggression?  Are you concerned about something that would be less than a military invasion, in some sort of a grey area where it might be more difficult?  What would the U.S. response to that be in the Donbas for instance?

And there are reports that the U.S. and the UK are on high alert for a potential Russian cyber attack on critical infrastructure in Ukraine, which has happened in previous years during the holiday season to either weaken the Zelenskyy government as a predicate before an invasion or as an alternative to a military or economic attack, which would be harder to retaliate against.

So the bottom line is:  How is diplomacy going to deal with this increasing Russian threat which doesn’t seem to be minimized at all by the talks, by the presidential talks, and a threat —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Andrea, we’re engaged in diplomacy and deterrence at the same time.  These two things go hand in hand.  As you know, just to step back for a second, President Biden when he first met with President Putin in Geneva some months ago – and you were there – said to President Putin that our strong preference is for a more predictable and stable relationship between Russia and the United States, but if Russia continues to engage in reckless or aggressive actions we will respond and we’ll respond strongly.

Since then we’ve seen this buildup again around Ukraine that is of deep concern not just to us but to allies and partners in Europe and beyond.  And we’ve seen plans that Russia has to commit renewed acts of aggression against Ukraine that it could implement on very short order.

And so we’ve done two things.  We have worked in very close coordination with allies and partners not only to show the shared concern but to put in place what would be a very meaningful and massive response if Russia commits renewed acts of aggressions.

We’ve seen, and I think you’ve seen, statements coming out of NATO, the European Union, the G7, all making clear that there would be massive consequences.  That’s the language used: “massive consequences” for Russia if it engaged – engages in further acts of aggression against Ukraine.

At the same time, President Biden has made clear that there is a much better path, and that is diplomacy.  And we’re committed to engaging in that if Russia is too.  And to that end, the President spoke to President Putin, as you know, a couple of weeks ago by video conference.  There were follow-on conversations, notably between the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Russian counterpart.

And as the White House noted yesterday, we have said and Russia has also said that we’re prepared to engage diplomatically through multiple channels, the existing Strategic Stability Dialogue that we have with Russia between Russia and the United States, through the NATO‑Russia Council on issues of particular concern to NATO, and through the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that has as its members among others all of our European allies and partners Ukraine, the United States, and Russia.

And I think you’ll see relatively early in the new year engagements in all of those areas to see if we can advance the differences diplomatically.  Russia has said – and it put out some papers on this – that it has grievances, demands, concerns.  Well, so does the United States and all of our European partners about Russia’s conduct, the actions it’s taken.  All of that will be on the table.  And if we can make our way forward diplomatically, that is far preferable.

The last thing I’ll say on this is that in all of this we are in absolute solidarity, coordination, consultation with allies and partners.  We are doing nothing about them – without them.  All of this is being done together.  And we’ll see which direction President Putin will take.

QUESTION:  Isn’t one of his demands though —

MR PRICE:  We’re going to move around a little.

QUESTION:  — to not deploy troops in any of the NATO countries?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There are some very obvious nonstarters in things that the Russians have put on the table.  There may be other issues that are appropriate for discussion and conversation, just as there are things that we would put on the table that Russia needs to respond to.

But look, the President’s been extremely clear for many, many years about some basic principles that no one is moving back on:  the principle that one country does not have the right to change by force the borders of another; that one country does not have the right to dictate the policies of another or to tell that country with whom it may associate; one country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence.  That notion should be relegated to the dustbin of history.  And those principles are inviolate.  They’re very clear.  The President’s held them for a long time.  That’s not going to change.

MR PRICE:  Kylie.

QUESTION:  Just to go off of that, you’ve just reiterated that the United States is prepared to engage diplomatically with Russia in multiple different venues, different channels.  We’ve been hearing that over the last few days.  I wonder if a meeting between President Biden and President Putin is one of those options that the Biden administration would consider and if there would be any preconditions that Russia would have to take before another meeting between President Biden and President Putin.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, of course, the presidents have met twice – once face-to-face in person in Geneva and then just a couple of weeks ago by video conference.  And the next steps on the diplomatic track, as I said, are through the Strategic Stability Dialogue that we’ve already established that is between Russia and the United States, the NATO-Russia Council, and the OSCE.  And let’s see if and where any of these conversations go, whether we can actually make progress diplomatically.

At the same time, when it comes to Ukraine itself, we’ve said – we’ve long said – that the best way to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and to restore to Ukraine the border that it’s entitled to is through the so-called Minsk process, the agreements that Russia and Ukraine reached many years ago now to resolve the – these differences peacefully.  And there we’re very much prepared to try to facilitate that, to act in support of what France and Germany are doing with Russia and Ukraine in what’s called the Normandy format.

So we’re working on all of those lines.  Whether that leads to at some point or another a meeting between the President and President Putin, I leave that for another day.  But no plans to do that now.

I think we have to see if, in the first instance, there’s any progress diplomatically.  We also want to see Russia de-escalate, to move forces back from the border with Ukraine, to take down the tension.  It’s much more appropriate to have a conversation in those circumstances than it is when escalation is happening, not de-escalation.

MR PRICE:  Will.

QUESTION:  Thank you and happy winter solstice to you.


QUESTION:  I wanted to ask about the Indo-Pacific, if I may.  The Build Back Better program seems to have melted down in Congress.  It’s unclear whether bits of that will be put back together next year, and this administration has presented domestic renewal as almost a precondition for competing and – with and presumably confronting China, if need be.  So where does that leave your foreign policy, the fact that that has gone a bit by the wayside?

And what do you hope to achieve with allies and partners in the region next year?  Your Southeast Asia trip was cut short.  And then what do you hope to achieve with the Quad or other countries in the region?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks.  I’ll preface this by saying I don’t do politics.  I don’t do domestic politics, but what I can say is this, because it’s what I’ve heard around the world:  First, countries around the world have seen the investments that we’ve already made and that are on the books, including a historic investment in infrastructure, something that goes directly to our competitiveness; including the recovery from COVID and the support that was provided to the American people in that instance; and they also see what remains on the agenda ahead.

But that does speak powerfully already to people around the world, and I think the President’s commitment to reinvest in education, in research and development, in infrastructure resonates.  In each of these areas we used to lead the world.  We’ve fallen way, way back, and the President wants to change that.  And I think as we continue to work on that, building on what’s already been done, that will resonate.

And yes, it’s true that it does make a difference if we’re able to get things done, to demonstrate, as the President said, that democracy can actually deliver.  That’s not only important for people here at home, it is important for our standing around the world, and he’s already shown powerful examples of that.  Let’s see where we get in the year ahead.

In the Indo-Pacific, we’ve had extensive and extended engagement almost from the start of the year right through to last week, including with the trip that a number of you were on, but not just me – the President, of course, engaging with ASEAN, elevating the Quad Leaders’ Summit, having as his first visitors the leaders of Japan and South Korea, and so on.  The Vice President’s trip to Singapore and Vietnam; virtually every senior official in this department and other relevant departments, including the Commerce Department, the Treasury Department, engaging with allies and partners in the region, and that will continue.

When I was there just this past week in Indonesia, in Malaysia, coming off of the G7 meetings in Liverpool, one of the things I was able to do was lay out our vision for the region, the basic approach we’re taking to the Indo-Pacific.  A lot more of that’s going to get fleshed out in the weeks and months ahead, but at least in the responses that I got, it seemed to resonate.  So we’re – the foundation is there, we’re going to be building on it.

And speaking of Build Back Better, we have Build Back Better World, which is a program that was announced at the G7 by the President and our G7 partners to make significant investments in infrastructure, including in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific but as a race to the top, not a race to the bottom, an affirmative vision of what those investments can and should be, making sure that as they’re made, countries don’t assume a huge debt burden that they can’t afford, that we make sure that projects are done to the highest standards with respect for the environment; for workers, that we actually transfer knowledge and skills as we’re doing it, that we allow local workers to build things and don’t import our own.

And we are now working to rally not only partners and allies to this, but also, and importantly, the private sector.  That’s our comparative advantage.  That’s what we really bring to the table – the ability to be a catalyst for private sector investment.  And these projects are going to focus on things that also help us deal with the climate crisis in terms of green technology, green infrastructure, also building a stronger health security system throughout the region and beyond, as well as dealing with infrastructure for new technology.

So all of that got, at least from what I heard, a very strong reception in Southeast Asia.  And again, what I also heard – but you have to check with your own sources – genuine satisfaction that the United States, across the board, was showing up, was re-engaged, and had a real vision for the region.  We are a Pacific country.  We are a Pacific power.  It matters to us.  So much of the future is going to be there.  Fifty percent of the world’s population is already there.  Some of the most dynamic economies, certainly pre-COVID, bouncing back now as we continue to work through COVID.  We see the future in the region.  And our policy, our resources, our focus are being directed accordingly.

MR PRICE:  We have time for one more question.  Francesco.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  On Iran, you’ve been saying for the past weeks that the runway is getting shorter and shorter, that you won’t let Iran drag its feet at the negotiation table while developing its nuclear program, but can you be a little bit more specific?  Are you ready to wait until January, February, March, or beyond?  And doesn’t that weaken your position to keep saying those things while not giving a deadline to Iran?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks.  I’m not going to put a time limit on it or give you the number of meters remaining on the runway, except to say yes, it is getting very, very, very short.  And being able to recover the benefits – the full benefits of the JCPOA by returning to compliance with it is getting increasingly problematic by the advances that Iran makes every single day in its nuclear program.

Now, we are where we are because of what I consider to be one of the worst decisions made in American foreign policy in the last decade, and that was getting out of the Iran nuclear agreement, the JCPOA – an agreement that had put Iran’s nuclear program in a box.  And in getting out of that agreement, we were promised that it would be replaced by a stronger one, and, at the same time, maximum pressure being exerted against Iran would curb its malicious activities throughout the region.  And instead, of course, we’ve seen just the opposite.  There hasn’t been a new and improved agreement.  To the contrary, Iran has broken loose from the constraints imposed on it by the JCPOA, and at the same time, it continues to act aggressively in country after country in the region.

So that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with, but we are dealing with it.  We will deal with it.  We continue to have a strong interest in seeing if we can put the nuclear program back into the box that it was in.  But if we can’t do that because Iran will not engage in good faith, then we are actively looking at alternatives and options.

And what will not endure is Iran playing for time at the negotiating table by not engaging in good faith and with speed, while, at the same time, continuing to build up its program.  That is not a sustainable proposition, and it simply won’t be.

Thank you.

MR PRICE:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And to all, a very Happy New Year.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Happy Holidays.

QUESTION:  Happy Holidays to you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Happy Holidays.  Thanks.