WASHINGTON – In the summer of 1980, Antony Blinken, then 18 and about to matriculate at Harvard, interned for the U.S. senator who brought to Congress the most mental bandwidth since Rep. James Madison. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., an empiricist in an arena – government – that often is inhospitable to such, said this: The social sciences do not tell us what to do, they tell us the consequences of what we are doing. It is in that empirical spirit that Secretary of State Blinken surveys a globe that has no time zone without a test for U.S. policy.
The most challenging, China, has by its behavior – repression ashore, aggression in the South China Sea – refuted what Blinken calls a “Washington consensus” to which he says he once subscribed but no longer does. It was that China, woven into global commerce in a way the primitive Soviet Union never was, would, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, be constrained, and perhaps liberalized, by a thousand threads of commitments.
In a 45-minute telephone conversation last week, Blinken noted that U.S.-China relations have adversarial, competitive and cooperative components, and all require the United States to confront China from a position of strength. He said that although current “indicators are not good” concerning China’s trajectory, it is well to remember the oft-told story of Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s answer when Henry Kissinger asked Zhou for his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution. It is, said Zhou, “too soon to say.” China’s archives show that Zhou was referring to the 1968 Paris riots, but Blinken’s citing of this story indicates an admirable penchant for the long view: It is too soon to give up on engagement with China. Besides, a U.S.-China “decoupling” is neither possible nor in either nation’s interest.
Blinken emphasizes that U.S. diplomacy cannot ignore China’s economic heft because many U.S. allies see economic opportunities in, and have dependencies on, China, even if they resent China’s coercive tactics. U.S. patience does not, however, imply passivity when it comes to enforcing the rules to which China purports to subscribe – commercial or otherwise. Blinken recalls that in 2013 when China declared, without legal basis, an “air defense identification zone” in international airspace, then-Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to Beijing to say that the United States would ignore the zone – and would (it did) send aircraft through it.
Meanwhile, there are allies to be cultivated. What has been said of Brazil – that it is the country of the future and always will be – might be said of India. It will, however, supplant China in this decade as the world’s most populous nation.
Blinken’s apprenticeship for his current position included six years (2002-2008) as Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when Biden was either chairman or ranking committee Democrat. Even then, Iran had begun a nuclear weapons program.
China was a peasant society when it became a nuclear power in 1964, and Pakistan had a per capita annual income of $470 when it became one in 1998. These facts lead some to believe that any sufficiently determined nation can join the nuclear club. Blinken, however, believes that U.S. policy can cut off Iran’s pathway to producing or acquiring nuclear weapons. He says that diplomacy did that through the 2015 deal with Iran.
The U.S. objective is to extend Iran’s “breakout” time – the time Tehran would require to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, should it choose to do so – thereby extending the U.S. “decision time.” Blinken prudently does not detail the menu of possible decisions. Although he did not suggest this, buying time might allow time for, if not the sort of abrupt regime change that came to the Soviet Union, then a mellowing of the regime in Tehran. There is perhaps a germane tale:
A king tells a convict, “I will sentence you to death, but not until two years pass, and not then if you teach my horse to talk.” The convict was cheerful because “in two years I might die naturally, or the king might die – or the horse might talk.”
Buying time, although frequently prudent, is, however, never a sufficient policy for our creedal nation. China is inflicting on millions of Uyghurs what Biden has termed genocide, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is apparently orchestrating the semipublic, slow-motion assassination of the dissident Alexei Navalny. Fortunately, Blinken is emphatically not one of those “who know too much to believe anything in particular and opt instead for accommodations of reasonableness and urbanity that drain our world position of moral purpose.” Those are Moynihan’s words.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.