Tech, Treaties, and Trump: an Interview with Former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken

 /  June 18, 2017, 5:41 p.m.


Tony Blinken served as President Obama’s Deputy Secretary of State from 2015 to 2017. He had also served as Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor from 2013 to 2015 and as National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2009 to 2013. Before the Obama administration, he spent six years (2002-2008) as Democratic Staff Director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, two years (1999-2001) as Special Advisor to President Bill Clinton and Senior Director for European Affairs, and four years (1994-1998) as Senior Director for Speechwriting and Strategic Planning. After spending his youth in France, Mr. Blinken graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and earned a law degree from Columbia Law School. He was a Spring 2017 Fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, and is currently a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and global affairs analyst for CNN.

The Gate: When you worked at the State Department, you tried to integrate the agency more with Silicon Valley. Can you talk a little bit about why you thought that was important, and why you pushed State to embrace these resources?

Tony Blinken: It began when I was still at the White House as Deputy National Security Advisor. I chaired the Deputy’s Committee, where we brought the number two’s of each of the different agencies together around every foreign policy problem we had to tackle and made recommendations to the President. One of the things that struck me in chairing so many of those meetings was that so much of what we were doing was at the intersection of foreign policy and technology, yet many of us leading the process did not have a background or education in scientific or technological disciplines. It struck me that I needed a scientist or technologist in the room to just tell me whether or not I needed a scientist or technologist in the room, to really identify an aspect of the problem that might have some kind of technological solution, and then to think through what that solution might be.

We started to do a much better job of integrating science and technology into foreign policy deliberations, and President Obama was very focused on that. When I got to the State Department during the last two years of the Obama administration, it struck me that the department was not as well-connected as it could be to the innovation community in the United States.

We had done a good job in bringing technologists in to think about how to make government more efficient and effective, but what we’d done less of was trying to partner with the innovation community in trying to solve foreign policy problems. How do you think about food security? Health security? Energy security? These are big things we were trying to do around the world: is there a technological aspect to the answer? If you’re trying to educate refugees, is there a solution there that brings to bear technology? If you’re trying to monitor an arms-control agreement or a ceasefire? That’s really what motivated us to start this innovation forum and to have regular workshops and hackathons with innovation communities out in California, at Stanford University in particular, and at MIT, New York, Washington. It was incredibly beneficial.

We now have a permanent State Department presence, an “embassy,” in Silicon Valley with a foreign service officer who’s stationed there to facilitate that day-in-day-out connectivity. We’ve also partnered with a class as Stanford University called “Hacking for Diplomacy,” where the State Department fed problems that we were trying to solve. Students would form teams over the course of the year and work on solving these problems. I sat in on the class back in November of last year, and it was amazing. You have people who are generationally different than we are, so they look at problems in a different way. They are also looking at the problems with more of a technological or scientific perspective, because they are engaged with those disciplines, and they are coming up with new ways of thinking about them. I think this intersection between science and technology and foreign policy is one of the most important, most interesting, and most energized intersections that we have got going. This, going forward, is going to be a field that will attract more and more really smart people.

Gate: Do you think this focus of bringing together technology and diplomacy will continue into the new administration?

Blinken: I don’t know. I hope so, but it’s hard to know. I would hope that the utility and necessity of doing it is such that it will continue. It’s a two-way street. Just as the foreign policy types really benefit from having these kinds of input and expertise, so, too, does someone in the scientific, technological, or innovation communities. First, we’ve found that there’s a thirst to be part of something larger than oneself, and we found a really receptive audience for partnering in the innovation communities. They like the idea of being part of public policy. Second, what those of us who are so-called experts in foreign policy or public policy bring to the table is helping to understand the politics of an issue. You might have the perfect laboratory solution to a problem, but it may not work in the real world. We can bring the real-world perspective to bear, just as the scientists and technologists may be able to bring the ideal answer to bear.

Gate: What do you think is the status and future of multilateral agreements such as NATO, especially under the current administration and with the current climate of Euroscepticism in Europe?

Blinken: Any administration comes in having said things or taken positions during a campaign and, when confronted with the reality of governing, change their tune. With regards to NATO, President Trump talked about it being obsolete and more of a burden than a benefit when on the campaign trail. Now that he’s in office, he seems to have recognized the utility and the vital nature of that alliance. Reality has an impact, and that’s positive. These alliances are not favors we do for other people. They are profoundly in our own interest.

In the case of NATO, or our alliances with Japan or Korea, other alliances that the president originally criticized but has seemed to have changed his mind about, they give us tremendous opportunity to be able to have a presence far from our shores without having to deploy a lot of forces and have a ready-made pad on which to touch down in a crisis. They create habits of cooperation with other militaries that can make us much more effective when we have to fight. Even more importantly, these alliances are great deterrents that prevent conflict in the first place. Adversaries know that if they take on one of us, they may have to take on all of us. Especially in the case of Russia and Europe, even as Russia makes mischief in countries like Georgia, Ukraine, or Moldova, none of which are NATO members, including mischief that includes Russian troops, that is probably a line it’s not going to cross with a member of NATO, because then it would have all of NATO responding.

It also does something else: these alliances create legitimacy. When we do have to take action, we are much better off having to do that with dozens of other flags all flying in the same direction. It further legitimizes and validates the action we take. In the case of Japan, the alliance actually saves us money, because the money that the Japanese put into supporting our forces is actually less than the money spent in keeping them at home in the United States. In all sorts of ways these are beneficial, and I think there’s a growing recognition of that from the administration.

Gate: As a former foreign policy speechwriter, how do you see President Trump’s willingness to talk and tweet off-the-cuff remarks about major foreign policy issues? Does this degrade our image in the world?

Blinken: The President has figured out a way to speak directly with a very large audience, particularly in the United States. As a political tool, it’s very powerful, as he’s already demonstrated, but it has real downsides. The downside is less in my mind the use of something like Twitter, though in my mind as many of these are complicated problems that are hard to capture in a couple of hundred characters, there’s a limit there.

What more worries me is the question of credibility. Unfortunately, in my judgement, the President has become a leading consumer and purveyor of false information, “fake news,” and conspiracy theories. That is very degrading of presidential credibility. Part of it is the use of bluster and bravado that can lead to other countries miscalculating. North Korea would come to mind. Much more than that is this distant relationship with the truth that seems to be a daily occurrence. There’s a long litany of mistruths about basic things and basic issues. That creates the danger that people simply don’t believe you at a certain point, and around the world that makes a huge difference.

When President Kennedy was trying to rally support during the Cuban Missile Crisis for the quarantine of Cuba, he sent emissaries around the world to key capitals to get that support. At that time our most prickly ally was France, and he sent Dean Acheson, who had been Secretary of State for Harry Truman, to speak to President de Gaulle. Acheson laid out the case for the quarantine, as Russia had deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba. He said to de Gaulle, “President Kennedy has authorized me to show you the spy plane imagery to prove this to you.” De Gaulle responded, putting up his hands, “No, no, that isn’t necessary, the word of the United States president is good enough for me.” It’s a little harder to imagine that happening now, and that is a very costly diminution of presidential credibility. It’s less the use of something like Twitter and more the way it’s used to advance things that simply aren’t true. That’s going to have an impact on our national security.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Ridgley Knapp

Ridgley Knapp is a third-year Political Science major interested in domestic policy and economic theory. This summer, he was an intern for Senator Richard Blumenthal in Washington, D.C. On campus, he is a member of varsity crew and the UC Democrats. He also sits on the Executive Board of College Democrats of Illinois. When he isn't working, he enjoys spending time with friends.


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