In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discusses the simmering dispute with Germany over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, provocations from Moscow, the trade dispute with Beijing and America’s role in the fight against autocrats.
Interview Conducted By René Pfister
Antony Blinken, 59, is one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s closest confidants. He first worked for Biden as a Senate staffer and then rose to become deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state in Barack Obama’s administration. Blinken is considered a proponent of an active U.S. foreign policy and believes his country has a mandate to strengthen multilateral organizations and defend democracies against authoritarian regimes like Russia or China.
The dispute over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline currently being built between Russia and Germany overshadowed his visit to Berlin this week. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, Blinken makes it clear that sanctions relating to the project aren’t off the table yet.
DER SPIEGEL: Secretary Blinken, many German and European politicians appreciate the fact that the U.S. is returning to the world stage, but there is also great concern that Donald Trump or a similar populist will take over the White House in 2025. Do you share the concern that U.S. democracy is still in a fragile condition and that Europe should, therefore, try to stand on its own two feet?
Blinken: I think we all have to deal with the here and now and the challenges – both the problems and opportunities – that our citizens are facing together around the world. And what I have seen in just the last few months as we have been working closely with Germany, with other allies and partners, is that we are producing meaningful results for our own people and for people around the world. Ultimately, that’s what matters. If we continue to do that, if we demonstrate that our democracies can deliver effectively for people, then I think the approach that we’re taking will be sustained. Our obligation is to actually deliver results.SPIEGEL International
What we’ve seen, working together – at the G-7, the NATO summit and the U.S.‑EU summit – is exactly that. At the G-7, with our commitments together to deliver a billion doses of the COVID vaccine, with more on top of that; the commitment to stop financing coal‑fired plants so that we can really get at climate change – it’s the single biggest source of emissions; the program to, as we call it, “Build Back Better” for the world, investments we’re making together in infrastructure, in low‑ and mid‑income countries, with a race to the top in terms of the standards of investment; the work that we did at the U.S.‑EU summit to end or at least put on pause trade disputes that had been lingering for years, in the case of Airbus and Boeing for 17 years; the steel tariffs; working together on trade and technology, setting standards, setting norms. All of these things are concrete manifestations of the proposition that we not only can, but have to work together to deal with the challenges that are actually having an impact on the lives of our people.
Again, if we do that, if we show success, I think people will sustain that approach to policy and to international collaboration.
DER SPIEGEL: The most difficult issue between Berlin and Washington at the moment is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. President Biden has made it clear that he opposes the project, yet his administration has waived sanctions against Nord Stream’s operating company as well as its CEO. Why?
Blinken: First, as you know, construction on the pipeline began in 2018. By the time we took office in January of this year, the physical construction of the pipeline was more than 90 percent complete. We went ahead and sanctioned more entities under our law than had ever been sanctioned before, but the reality of the physical completion of the pipeline was such that we looked to see, can we make something out of a very bad hand that we inherited? Because, yes, President Biden has long said that the pipeline is a bad idea, that it will potentially be a tool of Russian economic coercion and strategic coercion, a tool that can be used not only against Ukraine but indeed Europe as a whole to the extent it increases dependence on Russian gas. But the question before us is what to actually do to mitigate or prevent the damage that the pipeline could do if used in the wrong way by President Putin and by Russia, and that’s exactly the conversation we’re now engaged in with Germany. It is going to be very important to show by concrete actions that we will agree together – and potentially with others – that we can prevent or mitigate damage that can be done by the pipeline.
DER SPIEGEL: You are paying a big political price domestically for not imposing sanctions on Nord Stream 2. What does the U.S. government expect from the German government in return?
Blinken: We are in very active discussions with the German government right now, looking at a series of possible steps, actions and measures that we can take to make sure that the pipeline is not used for negative purposes, as a tool of coercion or blackmail, and that the interests of countries like Ukraine are protected, both economically and strategically. There are a series of very practical things that we are talking about, and my expectation is that we will agree on important measures that, again, can mitigate any damage that could be done.
The sanctions that we waived, those waivers can be rescinded. We have to report again to our Congress in about a month’s time. So I hope and expect that we will show real results from these conversations.
DER SPIEGEL: If you look at the Ukraine crisis, it is very clear that the Normandy Format talks, which include France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, have brought little to no progress at all. Was it a mistake on the part of former U.S. President Barack Obama to basically leave the conflict to the Europeans?
Blinken: The U.S. was very engaged in Ukraine in 2015 and 2016. We respected the proposition that the Normandy Format would be the central vehicle for trying to advance the Minsk process – the agreements that were reached, which unfortunately have largely not been implemented by Russia over many years – and that this was the best way forward. But we were working as well to try to advance that process. President Biden discussed this with President Putin and, of course, he has discussed it with Chancellor Merkel, with President Macron and others. And what we have said is: Look, if Russia is serious about implementing Minsk and we can be helpful, we are fully prepared to do that, but it really starts with the basic question of whether Russia is serious about it or not or whether it prefers this frozen conflict where it can turn up the heat whenever it feels like it, as it did recently by amassing the largest number of troops on Ukraine’s border since 2014. The real test is whether Russia is serious or not.
Irrespective of that, we are committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty, its territorial integrity, its independence and to making sure that it has the means to defend itself from Russian aggression as well as supporting its efforts to deal with the internal aggression posed by corruption and other democratic deficiencies. So, we are there for Ukraine.
My hope would be that Russia would actually be serious about the Minsk process. In that case, I think Normandy can continue to play a central role. We are also prepared to be engaged and to try to move it forward. But the question is really with Moscow.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you considering naming a special envoy for Ukraine?
Blinken: We will look to see how we can best be helpful if there is actually work to be done and whether that is through an envoy, whether that is through the very experienced and very senior team that we are putting together, including people who have deep experience with Ukraine. For example, one of our most senior officials – Victoria Nuland, our under secretary of state for political affairs – is someone who has deep experience in Ukraine. Our incoming assistant secretary of state for Europe, when approved by Congress, is also someone with deep experience. So, how we do it matters less than whether there is an opportunity to really help move something forward and do it in very close collaboration with Germany, with France, with our partners.
DER SPIEGEL: Just before Joe Biden took office, the EU and China agreed on a trade deal that should create new investment opportunities for European companies in China. Did you consider to be an unfriendly gesture on the part of the EU?
Blinken: Look, we are not on trying to contain China or holding China back. We are focused on trying to hold up the free and open rules-based international system that the U.S. and Germany have helped build together and have invested so much in over so many decades. If different aspects of that free and open rules-based system are being challenged by anyone, whether it is China or any other country, then we think it is important to stand up and defend what we built because it has delivered very important results for all of our citizens and can continue to do so. That is the basic approach.
We also recognize that we all have very complicated relationships with China that cannot be summed up in one word or, as we like to say, on a bumper sticker. There are adversarial aspects, competitive ones, cooperative ones, but whether it is any of those three, our proposition is that we are much better off engaging China together. We are going to be much more effective in any of those areas if we are doing it together. That is what we are looking toward.
We want to make sure in any of our engagements with China that we are upholding the basic norms and standards that bring us together, that if we are in a race, it is a race to the top, not a race to the bottom. That goes for the commercial relationship. That goes for the relationship on political and diplomatic issues and so on.
When it comes to something like the agreement that was reached – no, the question is not a hostile action. We just want to make sure that we all have in mind some of the potential challenges that China poses; for example, when it comes to information technology that is so significant in all our lives. Unfortunately, if you are doing business with a so‑called “private company” from China, there is actually no distinction between private and the government. The government has the ability to control and to elicit information from any of these companies. And, unfortunately, right now, when it comes to norms and standards of human rights, of privacy, of intellectual property, the government in Beijing does not meet the standards that we have all set. I think we have to be careful. That is all that we are saying.
I think we are seeing – especially if you look at the last two weeks – a convergence of views on the best ways to engage China. The last time the G-7 leaders met in 2018, China was not even mentioned in the communiqué. In this case, the leaders agreed to important things when it comes to dealing with China. A similar thing happened at NATO just a couple of days later. The last time NATO wrote a Strategic Concept back in 2010, China was not mentioned. Now, there is focus on China in NATO as well. And when we got to the U.S.‑EU summit, agreed to establish a trade and technology council between the United States and the EU that is going to make sure that when it comes to trade and technology, we are working together on the norms, on the standards, on the rules in ways that reflect our values. We reestablished the U.S.‑EU dialogue on China that had been dormant.
So, what I am increasingly seeing is a shared viewpoint, but one that recognizes the complexity of the relationships, the fact that they are consequential for all of us, and we are not asking people to choose between the United States and China. We are simply saying we have a common set of values and interests that have helped shape the international system for almost eight decades, and we need to continue to stand for freedom and for openness when it comes to that system and to do it together.
DER SPIEGEL: As of a few days ago, American citizens are allowed to travel to Europe, but the travel ban for people who want to travel to the U.S. is still in place. Can you give us a timeline for when the ban will be lifted? And why aren’t Europeans who have been vaccinated allowed to travel to the U.S.?
Blinken: We are following the science and the recommendations of our health authorities, principally the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That is where we are looking for the best information possible upon which to make policy decisions. We are very anxious to have travel resume as robustly, as completely, as possible. We have a working group with the European Union right now on this. I can’t put a date on it. I can tell you we are working very, very actively on it because we would like nothing better than to see travel pick up. We have to all be deliberate about it and, again, make these decisions based on our best assessment of the science, our best assessment of health conditions. That is what we are doing, but we are doing it with the EU.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Secretary, we thank you for this interview.