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What Blinken should've said about domestic renewal and US foreign policy

The secretary of state's speech promoting Biden's infrastructure plan could have been more internationalist given a grim new UN report on climate change.

Analysis | Global Crises

Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report calling for an immediate, drastic shift away from fossil fuels if the world is to avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change.

Later that same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a speech at the University of Maryland, College Park advocating for the passage of an historic $1 trillion infrastructure package which today passed the Senate, and will now head to the House.

That speech took a decidedly nationalist tone: Blinken lamented that the United States is “falling behind where we once were in the world” to countries like China. 

Dramatic public investments are needed to outcompete everyone else on jobs, trade, and attracting human and financial capital, he said. They are essential to ensure that America operates on the world stage “from a position of national strength,” and to demonstrate that democracy will not lose any race with autocracy. 

Investing “in our future greatness” is an imperative, he continued, but “make no mistake – we are still the most powerful country and economy in the world.”

This tone felt dramatically out of step with the moment, at times even opposed to the internationalist ethos that erupted on social media in response to the IPCC’s revelations. 

Despite the fact that the infrastructure bill itself contains tens of billions of dollars for climate resiliency initiatives and other related measures, Blinken’s speech did not mention “climate change” once; the word “planet” was only used to say that “our military is the most powerful fighting force on the planet.” By comparison, Blinken said “strong” and “strongest” seven times.

Nor did it feel like good politics: America the superpower inherently lends itself better to primacist arguments, and the Biden administration’s seeming inability to reject and move beyond this framing betrays that they are still on the ideological defensive. The historic transformations they say they seek, particularly on climate change, can only be sustained through offense, by setting and fiercely advocating for a vision on their own terms.

So, I decided to reimagine parts of Blinken’s speech for him, while keeping much of its overall language and structure. His remarks would have been far more convincing had they ran something like this:

“Well, good afternoon everyone. It is wonderful to be here at the University of Maryland, College Park, one of our country’s outstanding public research universities.

As Secretary, I’m often focused on events that are taking place thousands of miles away. But I wanted to come here today to the University of Maryland — 10 miles from the State Department — because the innovation happening here and at thousands of colleges and universities across America is a huge source of our strength.

Now, if I had been serving as secretary in another era, I might have pointed to this and said something like: ‘whether America protects and invests in our strength at home is going to determine whether we remain strong in the world and deliver results for the American people.’

But I’ve got to tell you that maybe more than at any other time in my career ­— maybe in my lifetime — old linkages between national strength and national prosperity have simply fallen away. Our security and health and that of the world around us are completely entwined.

And that’s why I’m here today, because there’s nothing we can do that will enhance our global standing and influence less than focusing solely on domestic renewal for the sake of our own power and competitiveness; the problems we face at home must be inextricably linked to the global threats facing us all, particularly when it comes to climate change, pandemics, structural inequality, arms races, and technological disruption.

And I’m here to tell you that we could be doing much better. That is the hard truth.

In another era, I would’ve come up here and said that ‘we’re falling behind where we once were in the world.’ I would’ve pointed to countries like China and said that ‘our rivals, slowly but surely, are pulling close behind us [and] in some areas, they’re already ahead of us.’

I would’ve proudly talked about how ‘thirty years ago, we ranked number one in the world in terms of how much we invested as a share of our economy in research and development.’ And I would’ve lamented that we’re now number nine while China is number two, and argued that this is not ‘how we won the space race, mapped the human genome, built the internet.’

But not today. Because ‘winning’ and being on top doesn’t really matter in this current moment.

One reason it doesn’t matter is because many of these trends are an inevitable product of the world America helped build. We did not fight and sacrifice in two hot wars and another cold one merely to create a world that would serve and uphold our dominance, but rather one that would allow other countries to catch up and join our ranks.

Now, authoritarian countries like China, and others struggling with democracy like India, are increasingly challenging our position and will only continue to do so in the decades ahead.

And — take a breath with me here — that is okay. We long knew this day would come, and are prepared to stand up and fight for our values and beliefs without succumbing to a fear that would lead us to try to prevent one half of the world from having a seat at the table.

But it especially doesn’t matter because none of the problems that pose the greatest threat to our security, prosperity, and influence in the world today can be solved by placing America back on top — and an obsession with turning back the clock will only serve as a distraction.

If current global trends, particularly related to climate change, are allowed to continue, we’ll be less secure in a more unstable world.

The weight of our diplomacy and our ability to advance the interests and values of the American people will suffer.

And the democratic model and way of life will be less able to withstand a fierce challenge from authoritarian governments, who will point to our failure to act and obsession with national strength in the face of international tragedy as evidence of our inwardness and indifference.

Still, I came here today to speak not about a global climate agenda or new institutions to tackle pandemics, but a historic opportunity to invest in our infrastructure, innovative capacity, and workforce.

But the truth is, the forces that led to decades of chronic underinvestment and injustice here at home are the same ones that led to decades of neglect for the health and wellbeing of our planet.

We must view these problems as two sides of the same coin; our domestic renewal will fail if it is not connected to a redefinition of America’s role on the world stage, one that rejects dominance and embraces instead a renewed commitment to tackling the global challenges we all face.

We need to bring this internationalist spirit to bear in this endeavor to renew our sources of domestic strength, and invest not merely for our ‘own future greatness,’ but also that of the global community we rely on. That’s how we’ll lead the world on the challenges of today as well as tomorrow, and that’s how we’ll carry forward the eternal work of making the United States a more perfect union.

Thanks so much for listening.” 

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivers remarks on Domestic Renewal as a Foreign Policy Priority, at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, in College Park, MD, on August 9, 2021. [State Department Photo by Freddie Everett]
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