Blinken: I Understand Why Zelensky Is Demanding That the U.S. ‘Do Even More and Do It Even Faster’

The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, in conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Two black-and-white photos side by side against a red background. One is of Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, and the other is of Secretary of State Antony Blinken
The Atlantic

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One year ago, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, escalating aggression that began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been at the center of the U.S.’s involvement in the war, relaying intelligence to President Volodymyr Zelensky and working with allies to provide aid to the Ukrainian military. Today, Blinken spoke with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, about foreign policy in the post–Cold War era, deterring similar aggression from China across the Taiwan Strait, and what a Ukrainian victory might look like. “There is more convergence now over the last couple of years with our partners in Europe, but also in Asia, than I’ve seen any time in the last 30 years,” Blinken said. “For me, that tells us that America’s place in the world and ability to confront these challenges is much stronger than it’s been.”

Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Jeffrey Goldberg: We’re talking on or about the first anniversary of the full-scale invasion, but the invasion actually began in 2014. The first question I have is actually a very simple one: What is the most surprising event of the past year, excluding the fact that Russia launched a full-scale invasion thinking that it could take Kyiv in a matter of days? What is the most surprising development to you over the past year, either in the Ukraine theater or globally?

Antony Blinken: Well, Jeff, first, let me just say, it’s great to be with you. It’s great to be with the entire Atlantic community. As you’ll notice, my voice is a little bit hoarse. I think I left it somewhere along the way in Munich last week, or maybe Turkey. I’m debating whether it’s God’s way of telling me that I need to be listening even more and talking a little bit less. But we’ll leave that. I hope that’s right.

First of all, we were, of course, not surprised, unfortunately, by the reinvasion of Ukraine—the second shot, as you put it—because as everyone knows, we had extraordinary information for many months leading up to it. And while part of you wanted to believe that Vladimir Putin would simply not pull the trigger at the end, unfortunately, all the information was tracking that way. But once he did, while many months of work that we put into this, through diplomacy, to build a strong coalition, to build strong partnerships in advance—which, by the way, was the big difference from 2014—we had a run-up, and we were able to use diplomacy to bring countries together, both in terms of the support they provide to Ukraine, the pressure they put on Russia, and the strengthening of our NATO alliance in a defensive way. And having done all that work, nonetheless, we weren’t 100 percent certain that the center would not only come together but would hold. And it has.

What we’ve seen a year in is not just an alliance but a broader partnership that is strong, that is solid, that is standing up, providing the support to Ukraine, keeping the pressure on Russia, taking steps to strengthen our alliance. And you see that reflected all the way from the UN to the NATO theater itself and around the world. And finally, Jeff, this resilience has been all the more remarkable because, from energy prices to food scarcity and prices, inflation more generally, all exacerbated by Putin’s war of aggression—despite that, there’s been incredible resilience. And we’ve seen countries coming together and working together to deal effectively with those challenges that were, as I say, put in overdrive by the aggression.

Goldberg: How surprised were you that Ukraine was able to withstand and then even go on the offensive in certain cases against the invasion of a seemingly overpowering force?

Blinken: I think we’ve had a couple of signs of this in the lead-up. First of all, if you go back before the reinvasion, the re-aggression, for many months, we had been working quietly to make sure that Ukrainians had in their hands what they would need to repel the initial assault, which we did see coming right at Kyiv. And if you go back to Labor Day before the aggression, President Joe Biden did an initial drawdown of military support for Ukraine, things like Stingers and Javelins. And an even bigger one in December, again before the March invasion. So in that sense, they were prepared.

Second, we have been working very closely with them to help them see what was coming and encourage them to make the necessary preparations beyond having some of this weaponry and just getting organized. And they did that and they did that a little bit quietly, because one of the concerns that President Zelensky had was the more that we talked out the possibility of an aggression—before the aggression—the more we all risk talking down his economy and foreign investment. People might be scared off. So he was trying to walk a careful line between being prepared and not raising too many concerns publicly. So it may be that in part because of that, people were a little surprised at how well the Ukrainians did initially. Having said all of that, I’ve got to say we have been in awe of their courage, their resilience, their strength, and their effectiveness. I think it has in some ways gone beyond what we might have anticipated.

Goldberg: Right. Before I get to some even bigger questions, go to this question of President Zelensky and his leadership. We had, in our minds, a model from Afghanistan of a president fleeing in the face of an onslaught and aggression, in this case in a civil war. But President Zelensky stayed. And I’m wondering if you could encapsulate your feelings about him, your analysis of his leadership, and obviously fold into that your understanding of how President Biden understands the performance of President Zelensky over the past year.

Blinken: Right man, right place, right time. Someone who stood up to this moment in history.

I had the almost surreal experience of being asked to tell him on the margins of a summit meeting in Europe back in October that we believed it was likely that his country was going to be invaded in the months ahead. I had the intelligence information that I shared with him. And we were sitting alone in a small room off of this summit meeting and almost two to three feet apart. And I shared this with him, and he took it very stoically, very seriously, brought in some of his advisers so that we could discuss it with him. And I think, from that moment on, he certainly was seized with the very real prospect that this was coming and, as I said, did a lot of work, some of it very quietly, to get ready.

But I think we’ve seen ever since that he’s become an extraordinary figure on the world stage as well, all to the benefit of his country. And, of course, he cajoles, he encourages, he prods us to do even more. If I were in his shoes, I’d be doing exactly the same thing. I think President Biden has a lot of admiration for him, a lot of respect for him. And I think that was on full evidence when the president was in Kyiv, standing side by side with President Zelensky, in a Kyiv that remains free and part of a strong, independent Ukraine.

Goldberg: Take us back to this for one minute. It’s a very interesting diplomatic-craft question. How do you take a president of a sovereign nation aside at a meeting and say, “Hey, listen, by the way, you’re about to be invaded by a superpower?” How do you say that in a way that gets the message through without seeming panicky or without seeming Chicken Little–ish? How does it actually work?

Blinken: Quite simply, in this case, what I shared with President Zelensky was that President Biden asked me, because we were going to be at the same meeting, to share with him the information that we had about Russia’s plans and intentions. Everyone saw the massing of Russian forces along Ukraine’s borders. That wasn’t a secret. Ukrainians saw it. We saw it. Europeans saw it. But what we had uniquely, in addition to that, was very explicit information about what the Russians were actually thinking and what they were planning and what they were plotting to do with those forces, as well as other things that they were going to bring to this fight. And so, in a very direct, deliberate way, I laid out the information that we had. And of course, President Zelensky asked me a number of questions about it but, as I said, took it very seriously and very stoically. And that’s when he brought in some of his advisers. We walked them through it as well. And he said, in effect, “Well, we need to work closely together to make sure that we’re prepared.”

At the same time, we were engaged in intense diplomacy with Russia to try to prevent this from happening both directly through NATO, through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, because, of course, what we most wanted was to try to stop this. And unfortunately, when Russia’s objectives and Putin’s objectives became crystal clear, it was never about NATO enlargement. It was never about some threat to Russia’s security. It was all about Putin’s vision that Ukraine should not be an independent country and should be absorbed back into Russia.

Goldberg: Right. You alluded to a certain level of tension that exists between the Zelensky administration and the Biden administration around the subject of the types of arms and the speed at which Ukraine is being armed. Do you think the United States is going fast enough?

Blinken: Jeff, I do. But again, if I were in President Zelensky’s shoes, I would probably be doing and have done exactly what he’s done, which is to continuously prod the international community, not just the United States, to do even more and do it even faster. And of course, this has been an evolutionary process in a few ways. First, the battlefield itself has shifted dramatically, first from Kyiv, where, as I said, a lot of the work we did months before the aggression helped the Ukrainians repel that aggression with the Stingers, with the Javelins, with other systems. But then, of course, everything moved east and south. The very nature of the conflict changed. What the Russians were doing, where they were doing it, how they were doing it changed. And we had to make sure that we were changing with that. And we did.

Many months ago, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin set up a very effective process we call the Ramstein process—because the first meeting and subsequent meetings were held in Ramstein, Germany—to bring together all of the allies and partners in this effort so that we were coordinated and could make sure that we were delivering what was needed as quickly as needed. And that process has worked very well. But this is what’s really important. And again, I’d refer you to the secretary of defense, chairman of the joint chiefs, who are the real experts in this. It’s not just the individual weapons systems that count. And of course, we tend to get focused on one at any given time, and it becomes a story in the media.

What matters as much is, can the Ukrainians effectively use that system? And as we’re providing more NATO standard systems to them, it requires training, because these are not things that they’re used to using. Second, can they maintain them? Because if you give them something and it falls apart in a week because they can’t maintain it, it’s not going to do you a lot of good. And third, can it become part of a cohesive battle-plan maneuver, as our military experts call it, that brings to bear various elements all at the same time, at maximum effect? And that, too, requires training and advice. And we’ve now been doing, with a number of other countries, unit-level training. So it’s just not as simple as some people portray this: “Oh, yes, let’s give them this. Flip the switch. They’ll have it. And that’ll be that.” That’s not how it works.

Finally, we’re very focused on what it is that they’ll need in the months ahead to have the maximum effect possible. But even as we’re doing that, we’re thinking about their longer-term defense posture, because at some point, when this is over, what’s going to be very important is to do everything we can to make sure that Russia can’t repeat the exercise a year later, two years later, five years later. And that means building up Ukraine’s longer-term deterrent and defense capacity. So all of those things are being worked on at the same time. We’re running and chewing gum at the same time.

Goldberg: I want to come to this question of what “over” looks like in a moment. But let me just stay on this question of arming and escalation. The American defense establishment has a certain level of anxiety around the danger of inadvertently entering into an escalatory cycle that could end conceivably, God forbid, in the use of at least battlefield nuclear weapons. How worried are you that the United States and its allies will cross a line that will provoke Putin into doing something dire?

Blinken: Well, Jeff, first of all, any administration has to factor in the possibility of escalation into what they’re doing, what they’re providing, and how they’re helping. And, of course, President Biden has been very clear from the start that our support for Ukraine is fundamental, and we’re with them for as long as it takes. But we also don’t want to broaden this war and certainly don’t want to do anything to create a wider conflagration. So the president has had to factor both of those things into the decisions he’s made. And by the way, he’s the one who makes the decisions. The rest of us, we can give him advice, recommendations. If you’re not in government, you can opine and criticize, which is always what’s needed to make sure we’re doing the best that we can. But ultimately, as the saying goes, the buck stops with him. And that’s something that he takes very seriously.

Now, what we’ve seen, at least thus far, is that some steps that we’ve taken that some might have been concerned could be escalatory have not proved to be so. And I think there’s one powerful reason for that, and that is the last thing that Vladimir Putin needs is a wider war, and one that brings in NATO in order to defend itself—which is NATO’s purpose, not to attack Russia. It never has been, never will be, but to defend the countries of NATO who are very concerned about Russia’s aggressive posture. If Putin did something that created escalation and brought NATO in, that’s really the last thing he wants, because as it is, we all know, he is struggling mightily in Ukraine right now. He’s got about 80-plus percent of his land forces committed in Ukraine. And in fact, in an almost perverse logic, because he is falsely concerned that NATO poses a threat to Russia, he has to keep some things in reserve lest there be a conflict that he creates with NATO. So I think that’s been the biggest deterrent against escalation.

Now, there have been moments where the concern has been a little bit heightened. For example, when the Ukrainians went on a counteroffensive last spring and had very significant success, there was some concern that Putin might react even more irrationally. And there was language coming out of Moscow that suggested that he would look to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. So that was a concern. But what we did in that case was to not only message him very directly—I was engaged with my counterpart, Mr. Lavrov; others were engaged with theirs—but we urged and, I think, successfully, other countries that might have a little bit more influence with Russia these days, like China, but also other countries, like India, to engage him directly about their absolute opposition to any use of nuclear weapons. And we know that they conveyed those messages. And I think that had some effect. It’s something we always have to look at, but again, the track record to date suggests that the escalation that some feared has, at least to now, not happened.

Goldberg: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned China. Let me pivot to Asia for a moment, if I may, and ask you this: Do you think that the U.S. and its allies will have more success convincing China to limit its involvement in this conflict, meaning not supply arms to Russia, than the West had in trying to convince Russia not to invade or reinvade Ukraine in the first place? We’re at a very sensitive moment, obviously, in your campaign to keep the Chinese out.

Blinken: Jeff, I certainly hope so and ultimately believe so, but the proof will be in the pudding.

Goldberg: Why do you believe so?

Blinken: I’ll tell you why, but let me give you the background to this first, because it really goes back to the beginning of the aggression. You’ll remember that just weeks before the aggression took place, President Xi Jinping and Putin had a summit meeting in which they talked about a partnership with “no limits.” Well, a phrase like that is of concern. And a couple of weeks into the aggression, President Biden was on a videoconference with President Xi and said to him very directly, very clearly, that any Chinese military support for Russia in this conflict—or, for that matter, the systematic evasion of sanctions—would be a serious problem for the relationship between the United States and China. And on subsequent occasions over the months, the president has repeated that message, and others of us have done the same thing.

What we’ve seen to date is China basically holding that line, which is to say there has been some nonlethal dual-use-type support coming from “Chinese companies” that almost certainly was approved by the state, because there’s really no difference. But there has not been lethal military support, and similarly, we haven’t seen to date systematic sanctions—but we also have picked up information over the last couple of months that strongly indicates that China is now considering doing that. And that was one of the reasons that, in the meeting that I had with the senior Chinese foreign-policy official Wang Yi, in Munich, I again directly told him this concern, what we were seeing, and reminded him of the many conversations between President Biden and President Xi, and reminded him that this would be a serious problem in the relationship.

I’m hopeful, but in a very clear-eyed way, that China will get that message, because it’s not only coming from us; it’s coming from many other countries who do not want to see China aiding and abetting, in a material way, Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. And so, to the extent China is trying to engage in a charm offensive these days to reengage with other countries as it comes out of COVID, I don’t think it wants to be in the business of further alienating them by providing lethal support to Russia. The jury’s out. We’re watching it very, very carefully. We’ll see how they react.

Goldberg: Does the Ukraine reinvasion over the last year make it more likely or less likely that China will do something precipitous against Taiwan in the future?

Blinken: One of the reasons, I think, that other countries far beyond Europe joined this effort is because they understood the consequences, the repercussions, the implications for issues well beyond Europe. And so, for example, Japan has been one of our staunchest partners in this effort from day one. South Korea and others. And there’s, of course, the fundamental principle here that if aggression is allowed to go forward with impunity, it could open a Pandora’s box where other would-be aggressors conclude that they can take matters into their own hands and get away with it.

So I think the fact that so many countries have come together in the way they’ve come together has to be something that China factors into its own thinking about Taiwan, including, at some point in the future, any potential use of force. And not just of the support to Ukraine itself, but, of course, the sanctions, the export controls that have been imposed on Russia and that are doing serious damage—damage, by the way, that’s going to accumulate, not decrease, in ways that we can get into. So I think that that’s something that China has to factor into its thinking about the future. I think it has to factor into its thinking the huge reputational cost that Russia has incurred. Now, how all of that nets out, I can’t tell you.

But there’s something else that’s really important, and I know we may want to get on to this later if we have time. But one of the reasons that the world is so concerned about a crisis across the Taiwan Strait is because this is not an internal matter, as China would have it, based on its sovereignty. It’s a matter of concern to quite literally the entire world. Fifty percent of the commercial container traffic goes through that strait every day. A big majority of the semiconductors that the world needs for anything from our smartphones or dishwashers or automobiles are produced in Taiwan. If there were a crisis in Taiwan as a result of China’s aggression in some fashion, that would have, I think, disastrous consequences for the world economy and for countries around the world. And that’s the message that Beijing is hearing.

Goldberg: Very large question for you: Are we in a new cold war?

Blinken: I really resist labeling things, including using labels like the Cold War that are in some ways easy to pull out and give people a frame of reference. But I don't think it reflects the current reality in a few ways. First, when it comes to China, of course, we are in so many ways so much more integrated than we were with the Soviet Union. And not just us—countries around the world. And we also continue to have some fundamental interests in common, although eliciting Chinese cooperation on them is challenging—everything from climate to global health to counternarcotics to the macro economy.

But of course, we are in a fundamental competition, and it’s a competition really to shape what comes next, what comes after the post–Cold War era, which is over. And China’s vision for a world order is fundamentally different from ours: Ours is based on the ideal of having a liberal world order; China’s is an illiberal one. They need an order. They want an order. But it’s profoundly illiberal, not liberal. But at the same time, the complexity of the world is such that we’re not dividing it into ideological blocs. There are many countries in the world that have different systems, different ideologies, different approaches, that nonetheless want what we infamously call a “rules-based order,” an order that functions on the premise of international law. And there’s a good reason for that: These very same countries came together after two world wars to try to put in place understandings, rules, norms, standards, common understandings, to try to make sure that a third world war wouldn’t emerge. And the countries that came together in the UN Charter or, for that matter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights weren’t just the Western countries; it was countries from all sorts of different ideologies, backgrounds and perspectives—including, by the way, China, including countries that, again, are not democracies as we would call them.

So I think our challenge now is to make sure that all countries—that believe that we have to have an international system that functions on some basic rules and understandings and hopefully themselves will make the full transition to democracy, but nonetheless already believe in the need for rules—stand together and help put those rules in place, update them as necessary, update the international organizations where many of those rules are decided and applied, and come together in that way. That’s fundamentally what this is about.

Goldberg: I want to push back a little bit on this Cold War answer, at least in the Russian context, because it seems, to me at least, as if the United States and Russia are not merely in a cold war reminiscent of the old Cold War. This period seems to be reminiscent of the most tense periods of the Cold War of the late 1940s to 1990 or so. Talk about the state of Russian-U.S. relations and put this in context historically for us.

Blinken: Jeff, in a funny way, you’re right. It may even be in one sense worse. For example, take the news this week that Russia is suspending participation in the new START agreement. It’s the one remaining arms-control agreement that’s clearly to the benefit of both countries but also to the world. It’s a profoundly irresponsible action, and one that I think the world sees as yet another deeply negative step. And even during the Cold War, by the time we got around to forging these arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union, we both abided by them, even in some of the worst moments.

But having said that, this conflict between many countries and Russia over Ukraine is not about ideology, as the Cold War was. It isn’t communism versus the free world. It is about an imperialist power that is seeking to aggress another country and to aggress the principles at the heart of the UN Charter that are there to try to keep the peace around the world, and many countries standing up against it. So in that sense, I don’t see it as a cold war. I see it as a large part of the world united in standing up against aggression, and standing up against aggression because it not only poses a threat to Ukraine and its people, but to peace and security around the world, to the extent that other would-be aggressors get the wrong message from what Russia’s doing.

Goldberg: Let’s stay on the subject of the alliance. There are obviously many, many countries in the alliance that you’ve helped to construct. And quite obviously, NATO is reinvigorated by what is happening. However, you see a lot of countries—many, many countries, including U.S. allies, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, even Israel—staying on the sidelines or not engaging to the level that certainly Ukraine would love them to engage in. And then you have a whole basket of countries, including some surprising ones—South Africa, for instance, but also India and so on—that are behaving in ways reminiscent of the old nonaligned bloc during the actual Cold War. And I’m wondering whether you’re surprised by the extent to which many countries are staying on the sidelines and seeing which way the wind blows—and what you’re doing about it.

Blinken: I think you have to disaggregate and pull some of these threads apart, because first, what are we seeing? In the body that brings together the entire world—the United Nations General Assembly—on two occasions, 141 and then 143 members voted, stood up, and spoke out against the Russian aggression. And that’s two-thirds of the world’s countries or more. So I think that speaks very powerfully to public-square opinion around the world on what Russia is doing in Ukraine. Second, if you look at it, there are different baskets of support for Ukraine: military support to help them defend themselves and take back their territory, but also economic support, humanitarian support, support for their electricity grid that’s being systematically targeted by Russia, support for the refugees who have fled out of Ukraine in the face of the onslaught. And what you see is different countries participating in different ways—some in all of those baskets, some in one or two. But all of that is good.

And then, finally, there are countries that have long-standing, decades-long relationships with Russia, with the Soviet Union before, that are challenging to break off in one fell swoop. It’s not flipping a light switch; it’s moving an aircraft carrier. India, for decades, had Russia providing military equipment to it and its defenses. But what we’ve seen over the last few years is a trajectory away from relying on Russia and moving into partnership with us and with other countries, France and so forth. But you can’t do that again by flipping the switch. South Africa has, again, a long-standing relationship going back to the apartheid years, where the Soviet Union was supportive of the freedom forces in South Africa. More than unfortunately, the United States was much too sympathetic to the apartheid regime.

So that history also doesn’t get erased overnight. It’s a process. But I think you see that process moving with those kinds of countries as well as with the support that many are providing in different baskets. One last thing: Some countries are doing this quietly, not advertising. That’s okay, as long as it gets there.

Goldberg: You’re well aware that it’s much harder to build a coherent foreign policy when American politics is incoherent. And we’re in a moment now when parts of the Republican Party, at least, are more isolationist in orientation than they certainly were during the Cold War. I’m wondering how that affects your ability to sustain what could be a very, very long and costly campaign to keep Ukraine fighting effectively and then to help Ukraine protect itself for years to come.

Blinken: Jeff, I just came back from Munich, the security conference there, which is a big gathering moment for many of us involved in these issues. But I was not the only American there. Obviously, the vice president was there leading our delegation. But so, too, was what I believe was the largest bipartisan, bicameral congressional delegation that Munich has ever hosted. And before we went to Munich, I sat down with leader Mitch McConnell and other leading Republicans who were off to Munich. I talked to Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who also brought a number of members with him. And in my conversations with leading Republicans who are leading their party in both the Senate and the House, I find the support to be very strong and ongoing for Ukraine.

The fact that this strong bipartisan congressional delegation was in Munich spoke very powerfully to the Europeans who were there and to the Ukrainians who were there, because it is indicative of the ongoing support, the fact that the center is holding. Now, of course, you hear voices that are questioning the support for Ukraine, and they’re there. But I think that the best way to answer them is to continue to show success, continue to help the Ukrainians show success. And also, there is an important issue that we’re very focused on and which I respect from some who raised questions or who are critical, and that is the need to make sure that the incredible generosity of American taxpayers is being used the way it’s intended, that the money that funds the weapons being provided is not in any way misused or diverted. And we are very focused on that. I think the steps President Zelensky has taken in recent weeks to crack down on corruption in some of his ministries, including by firing people, is very welcome, because it demonstrates Ukraine is committed to that too.

Goldberg: Let me ask you one last question—I would do this all day, but I’m afraid for your vocal cords. The last question is the biggest of all: What does victory look like to you?

Blinken: On one level, there’s already been a victory in the sense that Putin’s first objective, his primary objective, was to erase Ukraine from the map, to end its identity as an independent country, to absorb it into Russia. That has not happened; that clearly will not happen. So in that sense, in terms of Putin’s fundamental objective, he’s already failed. It’s also important that there be an end to the fighting, but in ways that are both just and durable. By just, I mean an outcome that reflects the basic principles of the UN Charter when it comes to things like territorial integrity and sovereignty. Durable, in a sense that when this ends, the way it ends is found in a way that makes it much less likely, if not impossible, that Russia will simply repeat the exercise a year or five years later. So the actual contours of that, exactly where the lines are drawn, when they’re drawn—that really is fundamentally up to the Ukrainians. But we have a shared interest in making sure that we can confidently say that the result is a just and durable one.

Goldberg: Is it victory, though, if Russia remains in any part of Ukraine, including those parts it seized in 2014?

Blinken: The success that’s already been achieved in ensuring that Ukraine remains an independent sovereign country, that’s fundamental, and that’s already there. But it’s really, I think, vitally important that exactly where this settles, as I said, is basically just and durable. That’s up to Ukrainians to decide. They may decide that they rightly believe that one way or another, every part of Ukraine needs to be made whole. “One way or another” could be by continuing the fight on the ground. “One way or another” could include negotiations at some point over what remains. All of that is basically up to them. And our job is to make sure that, for example, if it does come to a negotiation, they’re in the strongest possible position from which to negotiate, which is why we are maximizing the efforts that we’re making now to help them regain territory that was taken from them, whether it’s since February or since 2014.

Goldberg: Let me throw one more bonus question on you. It’s a very important anniversary. It’s not a question about what surprises you, but what have you learned as an American about the nature of history? I don’t want to misinterpret Frank Fukuyama, who didn’t actually say what people think he said. But there is this idea that—and when you were involved in diplomacy in the 1990s, big issues were Middle East peace, Bosnia, the Balkans, but now we’re talking the U.S., Russia, and China. We’re talking about enormous systems colliding with each other in ways that are at least reminiscent of a bipolar, tripolar world of the second half of the 20th century. What is the biggest lesson for you about history and authoritarianism today?

Blinken: The first thing that comes to mind, Jeff, is that those who forget history are condemned to retweet it. So I think we do have to be guided by history but not imprisoned by it. And I mean this by that: First, history suggests—if you look at modern Russian history—that unfortunately, there is a thread that runs throughout it. Go back to George Kennan’s long cable. That’s all there. In fact, if you read Kennan today, if you read the passages from that cable today from 1947, you could literally insert Russia and Putin for what he says about the then–Soviet Union. So I think it’s wise not to forget that even though, of course, we went through a very hopeful period where our entire focus was on trying to integrate Russia into the international community—and I think that was a well-placed hope, but obviously did not factor in, in some ways—some of these enduring threads in Russian history now come back to the fore.

Second, history also suggests that when a power is rising as China is, that can produce significant friction in the international system. And we’ve seen that particularly in recent years, as China has become both more repressive at home and more aggressive in its region and around the world in a variety of ways—not just militarily, but economically, diplomatically, etc. So that’s an important lesson of history. And in part, it explains the moment we’re in of renewed superpower competition. But we also can’t be imprisoned by it, because we have in other ways a vastly different and vastly more complicated world where the challenges that people are facing in their daily lives come in part from big transnational challenges like climate change, like global health, like food insecurity. We cannot, and we are not, ignoring those, because these are things that actually have a direct impact on people’s lives all over the world, including, of course, our own citizens. And they are interconnected with the superpower competition, because that competition in one way or another can actually exacerbate those problems by the actions, in this case, of Russia or China—or hopefully can help address them, including, one would hope, if China sees self-interest in doing that. There’s only so much that we control.

We can’t fundamentally control the decisions that Putin makes or that China makes, but we can shape the environment in which those decisions will be made. One of the ways we’re doing that is by making historic investments in ourselves. If you look at the trifecta of the Infrastructure Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, with its focus on climate, you put these things together, and that is showing to the world that the United States is dead serious about its competitiveness. It’s dead serious about making ourselves as strong as possible to deal with the issues that our people need us to deal with and that the world needs us to deal with. And as a result, we are getting the second side of the coin that’s so important in being successful in the world, which is greater alignment with allies and partners in dealing with global challenges, whether it’s competition from Russia or China, or whether it’s these transnational issues. There is more convergence now over the last couple of years with our partners in Europe but also in Asia than I’ve seen any time in the last 30 years. For me, that tells us that America’s place in the world and ability to confront these challenges is much stronger than it’s been. And you see that coming together both in dealing with Russia and dealing with China.