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In His Post For 3 Weeks, Secretary Of State Blinken Has A Lot On His Plate


President Biden's top diplomat is outlining his approach to the world. Antony Blinken is a different figure with a different tone and different approach than his predecessor. Mike Pompeo followed the president he served by criticizing U.S. allies and quarrelling with reporters. He famously walked away from a hard question posed by our colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, who spoke at length yesterday with Tony Blinken. And she's with us now. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How different was this conversation?

KELLY: (Laughter) It, in tone, was a different world. There was no map quiz this time. In substance, it was remarkably similar, I think, perhaps, because of the myriad of challenges that the U.S. faces around the world remain remarkably similar. I caught myself once or twice asking Blinken the exact same question I had put you Pompeo a year ago on Iran, for example. If U.S. policy remains, as it does, that Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon, I said, so how do you stop them? Same question as a year ago, very different answer, of course, from this administration because Blinken wants to return to the nuclear deal that Pompeo and President Trump walked away from. Now, he did say he wants an agreement that, in his words, would be longer and stronger than the original. He said, look; we get it. There's a long way to go. But he was optimistic. Here's what he said.


ANTONY BLINKEN: The first step would be Iran returning to compliance. And President Biden has been clear that if they do, we would do the same. The path to diplomacy is open. Right now, Iran is still a ways away from being in compliance. So we'll have to see what it does.

KELLY: And there was one interesting moment after that following on that, you know, his comment, the path to diplomacy is open. I said, OK, is direct diplomacy with Iran, perhaps, on the table? And he paused. And then when pressed, he did not rule that out.

INSKEEP: So still open to the idea of directly talking with Iran. But what is the secretary saying about possibly the biggest long-term concern for the United States, which would be China?

KELLY: Well, this was interesting because Blinken has said that the Trump team was right to be tough on China. And I said, OK, fine. But what evidence do we have that has actually worked, that China has changed its behavior as a result of the tougher approach from the U.S.? And I want to play you a longish chunk of that part of our conversation.


BLINKEN: There's a difference, Mary Louise, between getting tough on China and doing it effectively and getting results. And so - yes, I think that President Trump was right to take a tougher line on some of the egregious things that China has done and is doing. But I think the way that we went about doing it did not produce results. Being engaged, leaning in, showing up around the world is a source of strength. When we pull back from that, when we abdicate our responsibility, when we're not engaged in helping to write the rules and shape the norms that govern relations among nations, then guess what happens? China fills in and takes our place. That puts us in a position of weakness, not strength.

We're in a position of strength when we actually stand up for our values, when we don't say it's OK for China to create concentration camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang or to trample on democracy in Hong Kong. And of course, we're acting from a position of strength when we're actually investing in our own people and in our own technology so that we can be as competitive as possible. The good news about all of those things is that they're actually within our control. These are things we can do. These are decisions we can make. And if we do them, that sets the foundation for engaging China, whether it's in an adversarial aspect, a competitive one or a cooperative one from a position of strength, not weakness.

KELLY: To follow, you just mentioned the Uighurs in Xinjiang. You have called the treatment of Uighurs in China genocide. You've also talked about human rights being at the very center of this administration's foreign policy. And I'm trying to reconcile those two things. How does the U.S. do business with a government engaging in genocide?

BLINKEN: This has been a challenge for American administrations going back decades and decades. And we have to be able to find ways to do both.

KELLY: You'll know that human rights groups are pushing for a boycott, for example, of the 2022 Winter Olympics. I know that's not your call. But should the U.S. participate in an Olympic Games being hosted by a government if you believe they're engaging in genocide?

BLINKEN: Well, first and foremost, I think the things that we can and should be doing, for example, to make sure that any products or technologies that we make are not being used to repress people, including in Xinjiang. Similarly, we ought to be able to make sure that we're not importing things that are made with forced labor. Those are all things that we can take action on.

KELLY: So you'll hear there, Steve, the very tricky balancing act that they are trying to strike. How do you push China on the human rights front and other areas while you continue to do business with them?

INSKEEP: How does it complicate the effort to promote human rights and democracy when there has been this attack on democracy here?

KELLY: It complicates things. And Blinken was pretty candid about it. He said that his ability to - I think his line was to wave the banner of democracy and human rights, that it has been tarnished by the attack on the U.S. Capitol. He said when he's calling counterparts around the world that they will sometimes put in a dig about that. Blinken's argument is we're not denying what happened here. We're confronting it. That - in his view, this distinguishes the U.S. And he said, look; U.S. democracy, it can be painful. It can be ugly. It is also strong. It is resilient.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, host of All Things Considered, talking about an interview with Antony Blinken, secretary of state. Thanks so much.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.