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Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities

In his first speech as secretary of state, Antony Blinken on Wednesday unveiled the Biden administration's top foreign policy priorities, including containing COVID and putting Americans first. Judy Woodruff spoke with Blinken about those topics as well as vaccine diplomacy, China's human rights record, Iran nuclear talks, U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations, and U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In his first speech as secretary of state, Antony Blinken today unveiled the Biden administration's top foreign policy priorities, topping that list, containing COVID-19 and melding foreign policy with domestic policy.

    I spoke with Secretary Blinken moments ago.

    Secretary of State Tony Blinken, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much for joining us.

    The world looks a lot more complicated today, I think it's fair to say, than it did just a few months ago. There are problems bubbling up just about everywhere. And in your statement today, you made a clear focus on American workers right here at home.

    Explain how that connects to what the U.S. challenges are around the world.

  • Sec. Tony Blinken:

    Well, first, Judy, it's great to be with you. Thanks so much for having me.

    And what I tried to do today is to really lay out the president's priority that our foreign policy has to have the American people first and foremost in mind. And he's basically asked us to make sure that, in anything we're doing around the world, the first question we ask ourselves is, how is this going to make life a little bit better, a little bit more secure, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more hopeful for our fellow citizens?

    And of course, the economic aspect is critical to that. But this has to be a foreign policy that's grounded in making a real difference in the lives of Americans. That's the first question we ask ourselves.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You said today that the first priority has to be around COVID-19, making sure that the world addresses it.

    But, as we know, the country where it originated, China, has not been transparent. And right now, China is taking the lead in supplying vaccines to poorer countries. So, I know many people are looking at this and wondering if the U.S. is ceding its leadership in COVID to China, which is a country your administration is calling the chief threat to the United States in the coming years.

  • Tony Blinken:

    Well, you're right, Judy, that China has not been fully and effectively transparent, either at the start of this crisis, when it mattered most, or even today, as investigations are going forward trying to get to the bottom of what happened.

    And it is vitally important that we see real transparency, we see real access for international experts where it counts, we see real information-sharing, not just with regard to the past, but, critically, going forward to make sure we can avoid another pandemic in the future.

    We're leaning in. The United States is leaning in on dealing with this, of course, both at home, where we're making very significant progress. You heard the president address that just yesterday, but also around the world. We have joined this COVAX arrangement.

    We're contributing billions of dollars to creating greater access to vaccines. And I think, as the months go on and as we vaccinate our own people and make sure that every American is protected, we will also be engaged in helping the world get vaccinated, because, at the end of the day, we will not be fully secure until the world is vaccinated, not just Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another China question, Mr. Secretary.

    The U.S. has said that China is guilty of genocide when it comes to the Uyghur minority population in that country. If that's the case, what should the penalty be? China denies it. But what should the penalty be for that?

  • Tony Blinken:

    When it comes to specific issues like the — like the Uyghurs, I think there are a number of things that we can and should be focused on.

    We have got to make sure that products and technology being exported to China, whether it's by us or anyone else, can't be used for repressing their minority populations. Similarly, if products are being made as a result of forced labor, including from Xinjiang, we shouldn't be buying those, and we should get other countries to do the same.

    And, of course, we should make sure that the world is speaking out with one voice in opposition to what's happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to ask you about, Mr. Secretary. I'm going to try to fly through several more parts of the world.

    But Iran is next. As you know, just a few days after the United States launched an attack on Iranian-backed militias in Syria because of their attack on a — on U.S. forces based in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have again today fired a rocket attack on U.S. forces at a base in Iraq, another attack by them.

    What should the penalty be for Iran? How should they pay the price for this?

  • Tony Blinken:

    Well, Judy, we have made very clear that — and President Biden has made very clear that his first and most important obligation is to protect the lives and safety of Americans, as well as our partners.

    And in the case of the earlier attacks, the first thing we did was to make sure we understood who was responsible. And that took some time. And then we worked very closely with our Iraqi partners to make that determination, and then to take clear action to demonstrate that these things could not go forward with impunity.

    Now, you're right. We have another attack in the last 24 hours. The first thing we have to do is get to the bottom of it and find out, to the best of our ability, who, in fact, is responsible.

    And then I think the president's been very clear that we will take appropriate action in a place and at the time of our choosing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Will that have any bearing on the attempt by the United States to get Iran back to the negotiating table when it comes to the Iran nuclear talks?

    And is the U.S. prepared to relieve Iran of some sanctions in order to get them back?

  • Tony Blinken:

    So, with regard to the nuclear talks, when we pulled out of the nuclear agreement, the so-called JCPOA, that had put Iran's nuclear program in a box, Iran then started to break out from that box.

    And it is now in a position where it is closer to having the ability to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order, in a matter of months. The agreement had pushed it past a year.

    So, we have real interests in trying to put Iran back into that box. And diplomacy is the way to do it. We have made clear that the path of diplomacy is open. The European Union, which is one of the parties to the original agreement, invited all of the other parties, our European partners, Russia, China and Iran and us, to come to start to talk about the possible return to the nuclear agreement.

    We said yes. Iran said no. We will see what they do going forward. We have been clear that the path of diplomacy is open. The ball is in Iran's court to decide if it agrees.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, yes or no, the U.S. considering lifting sanctions?

  • Tony Blinken:

    We have been very clear that Iran has to come back into compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement. And if it does, we will do the same thing.

    And that would revolve — that would involve, if they do it, some sanctions relief. But, again, we're a long ways from that. Unfortunately, Iran is moving in the wrong direction. It continues to take steps that lift the various constraints of the agreement and is making its program more dangerous, not less dangerous.

    So, first and foremost, we want to see Iran come back into compliance with its obligations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Saudi Arabia, a lot of attention there, as you know.

    The U.S. intelligence community report released just a few days ago putting the responsibility on the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for authorizing, directing the killing, the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

    The administration has imposed sanctions, but not on the crown prince himself. President Biden said during the campaign that Saudi Arabia would be a pariah, based on what happened. Has he blinked on this?

  • Tony Blinken:

    Let's look at what we did.

    First of all, as you noted, we put out a report, a report that was not written yesterday. It's been there for well over a year. We released it. And that made clear, as you said, the responsibility for the heinous murder of Mr. Khashoggi.

    And, obviously, this has been reported before. It's not that there were any very new facts in there that hadn't been reported. But it makes a big difference when that comes out with the full imprimatur of the United States government behind it. I think that, in and of itself, is important.

    We sanctioned, including using the so-called Magnitsky sanctions, some of the people directly involved in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. And, critically, we also denied visas to about 76 Saudis also involved.

    And maybe most important going forward, because, as much as this is about accountability for the past, it's trying to do everything we can to make sure this never happens again in the future, we put in place a new rule, the Khashoggi ban, that basically says that, if at the direction of a foreign government, an individual does anything to harass, surveil or harm a political opponent of that country in the United States, that person will not set foot in our country.

    And that applies not just to Saudi Arabia. It applies to the entire world. So, I think there are clear, demonstrative actions that we have taken that not only shed a light on what happened in the past, but also put us in a stronger position going forward to prevent it from ever happening again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But when you combine that, however, with the — not holding him personally responsible, with not imposing sanctions against Russia's President Vladimir Putin for the poisoning, and then again now the — imprisoning again of the chief — the lead opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, does that send a signal that the U.S. is waffling when it comes to abusing human rights, that human rights are not the priority that this administration says they are?

  • Tony Blinken:

    Whether we like it or not, we don't choose Saudi Arabia's leaders. They do. And the crown prince is likely to be in a position of leadership for years, decades to come.

    We have gone back to clear regular order. The president engaged with the king. And various Cabinet secretaries have engaged with their counterparts.

    We deal, unfortunately, every single day with leaders of countries who are responsible for actions we find either objectionable or abhorrent, whether it's Vladimir Putin, whether it's Xi Jinping, whether it's any others on a long list of people I can name. But we find ways to deal with them.

    And the question I think we have to ask ourselves, and we did ask ourselves, is, in terms of advancing not just our interests, but our values, are we better off rupturing the relationship with Saudi Arabia or recalibrating it, as we did? In terms of ending the war in Yemen, are we better off having recalibrated the relationship or rupturing it?

    I think the answer is clear.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Final question, Mr. Secretary, Afghanistan.

    As you know, the U.S. is scheduled to pull troops finally out of that country after 20 years of war in less than 60 days. Today, the White House made public what it's calling its interim national security strategic guidance document, which says, among other things — and I'm quoting — "The United States should not and will not engage in forever wars that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. We will work to responsibly and America's longest war in Afghanistan, while ensuring that country does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States."

    What does that mean, exactly, in terms of keeping troops there?

  • Tony Blinken:

    Well, that's exactly what we're looking at now.

    And we haven't made any decisions about the May 1 deadline to withdraw the remaining roughly 2,500 troops that are in Afghanistan, as well as, of course, partner troops, NATO forces that are there. We're in very close consultation with our NATO allies, with all of the countries in the region.

    And what we're looking at very carefully is, what further progress can and must be made on the agreements that, for example, we reached with the Taliban under the previous administration and the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan are working on to see if the conditions can be in place for a durable peace?

    All of those things are what we're looking at. We're making the effort to advance them. But, right now, we're reviewing the question of our troop presence, and we're doing it in full consultation and coordination with our allies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary of State Tony Blinken with a very full plate, thank you.

  • Tony Blinken:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you so much for joining us.

  • Tony Blinken:

    Great to be with you. Thank you.

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