WASHINGTON – Earlier this week, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined the committee virtually to question President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken. Video and audio of Senator Coons’ questioning available here.
Senator Coons asked the nominee questions about competing with China, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, democratic transitions in Africa, and the role of new tools for diplomacy and development such as the Development Finance Corporation and the Global Fragility Act. Senator Coons expressed his support for Tony Blinken and intends to vote to advance his nomination out of the Foreign Relations Committee.
During the hearing, Senator Coons also raised concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security. He expressed support for Blinken’s pledge to increase the diversity of the State Department workforce and he committed to working with the nominee to provide the State Department with the resources it needs to advance American interests and values around the world.
Full audio and video available here. A transcript is provided below.
Sen. Coons: Thank you, Chairman Risch, Ranking Member Menendez. Thank you so much for a chance to be with you, Tony, it’s great to be with you again. Thank you to you and your family, to Evan and John and Lila, for your willingness to serve once again. Given your previous experiences – Deputy Secretary of State, Deputy National Security Advisor, as the Staff Director of this important committee – you have excellent experience and credentials and, in your opening statement, you once again reinforced the ways in which your life experience, your values, reinforce all the ways in which you will be an excellent Secretary of State for this nation. I’m sorry not to be with you in person. I was here for the send-off celebration as the President-elect departed Delaware and headed towards Washington to begin the inauguration. But it has been exciting to me to have a chance to hear my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, raise challenging issues and to hear your engaged and thoughtful and forward-looking answers. We gather today at a moment when it is a real challenge for all of us, that the events of last Wednesday highlighted some of the deep divisions in our country and some of the challenges our democracy faces. I am hopeful that, after a national day of service yesterday celebrating Martin Luther King Day, after this evening’s national reflection on all the American lives that have been lost in this COVID pandemic, and after tomorrow’s inauguration, that we can begin the work of investing in our democracy, rebuilding our bipartisan consensus around some of the challenges facing us in the world, and to do that in partnership with you. Let me first start with something that has been the topic of many questions from colleagues: the U.S.-China relationship and how that, in many ways, will define this century. I very much look forward to working with the incoming chairman and ranking member of this committee, with you, Mr. Blinken, and with many of my colleagues in figuring out how we craft a durable, a sustainable, an effective and a bipartisan strategy with regards to China. You’ve made reference, Tony, to the techno-democracies and techno-autocracies of the world and the ways in which there is an intersection between concerns about digital privacy, digital promotion of democracy, intellectual property, and ways in which China’s bad behavior on the world stage with regards to IP is laying the groundwork for them to successfully export their model of digital authoritarianism. Do you think, in confronting China’s digital authoritarianism, we should make that a part of the agenda of our convening a global group of digital democracy – something like the D-10 that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed – or do you think we should pursue something with more weight, a regional structure like a digital free trade zone of democracies aligned, like the United States, in order to help keep emerging technologies free and available and open to the world?
Blinken: So, my sense is everything should be on the table, it may be something that requires multiple steps to get to the destination – in the first instance, bringing concerned countries together, the digital democracies together. An appropriate forum, I think, is the place to start, and I don’t want to minimize the challenge we have, we obviously have disagreements among democracies about a lot of profound questions about how technology is used so we’ve got some work to do just to get our own collective house in order. But I think you start there and then some of the more expansive ideas, Senator, that you alluded to is something that we might be able to get to and work toward.
Sen. Coons: I’d be excited to do that work with you. Senator Menendez, Senator Risch, a number of colleagues raised concerns about Iran and Iran’s aggressive pursuit, both regionally of influence, of their ballistic missile program and of their restarting their more robust enrichment program and the threat that poses to the region and to our security. I also just want to renew my commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to trying to pursue on some positive path towards a two-state solution. The Middle East as a region remains as unsettled and as unstable as it’s ever been. Although there was progress in some of the normalization aspects of the Abraham Accords that you have recognized, the administration will face real challenges in assessing Iran’s willingness to negotiate in good faith and the path forward. I look forward to working with you on this challenge and making sure that we build a framework with our core allies in Europe that can take into account these broader destabilizing actions by Iran. Let me ask, quickly, about two other things going on in the region that haven’t been addressed so far. Recently, outgoing Secretary Pompeo designated the Houthi movement in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization. Many humanitarian leaders, including the head of the World Food Programme and senators on both sides of the aisle, denounced that designation as something that may well create now a humanitarian crisis of greater scale. The President-elect has said he would end U.S. support for the war in Yemen and that U.S. support for humanitarian relief is critical. What steps do you think we can or should immediately take with regards to Yemen, how can the Senate help and how do you see this as a piece of that broader, regional puzzle of working through, pushing back on Iran’s projection of force through proxies while still reexamining some of our relationships in the region that have become more complicated by their human rights records?
Blinken: First, Senator, we need to be clear-eyed about the Houthis. They overthrew a government in Yemen, they engaged in a path of aggression through the country, they directed aggression toward Saudi Arabia, they’ve committed atrocities and human rights abuses, and that is a fact. What’s also a fact, though, is that the [inaudible] Houthi aggression has contributed to what is by most accounts the worst humanitarian situation that we’ve faced anywhere in the world. And, one aspect of that situation is that about 80% of the Yemeni population right now is in areas controlled by the Houthis, and whether we like it or not, we have to find ways to get assistance to them if we’re going to do anything about addressing this situation. So, my concern, deep concern about the designation that was made is that, at least on its surface, it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table, while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it. So, I think we would propose to review that immediately to make sure that what we are doing is not impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance even under these difficult circumstances. I recognize that some have talked about carve-outs for American providers of humanitarian assistance. The problem there is that, if the carve-outs don’t apply to everyone around the world, it’s not going to get the job done, because most of the humanitarian assistance provided to Yemen is not coming from the United States – it is coming from other countries. So, I think we’ve got a very specific and concrete problem that we need to address very quickly if we’re going to make sure we’re doing everything we can to alleviate the suffering of the people in Yemen.
Sen. Coons: Thank you for that answer. I need to move forward given the limitations of time. I was proud to have a chance to work with a number of colleagues on this committee in 2018 to help pass the BUILD Act that created the new Development Finance Corporation; in 2019, the Global Fragility Act, which has set a new process and framework for looking at fragile states borrowing from the lessons of Plan Colombia. One of the areas, as we both know, the President-elect has been passionate about is the Northern Triangle and finding ways to build a sustained, long term strategy that can secure stability in a region that has long known fragility. And, at the end of last year, we passed a bipartisan package that creates the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Fund to provide support for partnership between Palestinians and Israelis, to provide for economic ventures and opportunity. Are these three tools that you look forward to working with us on and that you will embrace in your leadership role as the Biden administration looks for new tools to use in advancing our broader objective?
Sen. Coons: And, can you help me understand how you view the challenge of combating fragility and putting prioritization in place between diplomacy, defense and development?
Blinken: So, first, Senator, I think the Fragility Act is a terrific foundation upon which to do this. I’ve had some conversations with the President-elect about exactly this and it is very much on his mind, that is, the risks that continue to be posed emanating from fragile states and the national security interest that we have as well as [inaudible] do what we can to help strengthen fragile states and prevent fragile states from becoming failed states. I think you put in place a very good foundation for thinking about that, and of course part of this is making sure that our development programs are fully and thoroughly integrated into our foreign policy – making sure that they are delivering and effective because we are conscious that we are using the taxpayer’s money in advancing them, but also making sure that we put these front and center, that they are not an afterthought, they are actually the first thought along with our diplomacy and our foreign policy.
Sen. Coons: Thanks. And I think the Development Finance Corporation provides a critical new tool as long as it is a Development Finance Corporation. A number of colleagues have referenced Russia and the tragic arrest of Navalny and the importance of advancing human rights and supporting the fight for democracy. Whether it’s in failed authoritarian states like Venezuela or it’s in Putin’s Russia or it’s elsewhere in the world, you know my long concern for Africa – there was just a deeply flawed election in Uganda where Museveni has again held onto power, in no small part by engaging in a blatant disregard for human rights. There are other countries of real concern: in Ethiopia, the violence in the Tigray region; in Sudan, on the other hand, where there’s been an encouraging transition to democracy recently. How do you plan to better support the fragile transition in Sudan while pushing back on those countries that are backsliding on their commitment to democracy like Uganda or, some would argue, Ethiopia?
Blinken: So, I think it starts with our very active engagement, not being AWOL when these problems emerge. Ethiopia – I share your deep concerns. We’ve seen a number of deeply, deeply concerning actions taken, including atrocities directed both at people in Tigray, directed at Eritrean refugees, in Ethiopia. We, I think, need to see much greater access to the region, accountability, an effort to put a dialogue in place so that the issues that cause the conflict can actually be discussed and litigated as opposed to dealt with through violence. We need to see restoration of communications. We need access for humanitarian assistance in the region. And, I worry as well that what started there has the potential to be destabilizing throughout the Horn of Africa. So, I would like to see American diplomacy fully engaged in trying to contend with this challenge. You said a number of other places where I share your concerns – about the elections in Uganda, concerns in Cameroon recently, particularly violence directed at the Anglophone population – so there’s a whole series of places where we have challenges where I think the United States can help make a difference, and that starts with being engaged.
Sen. Coons: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, thank you for your indulgence. If I can just, in closing, say I share your commitment to a diverse workforce in the State Department and to ensuring that the State Department has the resources it needs to do its job well. I could not agree more, Tony, with your statement that we have to connect foreign policy to the live-daily concerns of average working people across this country. You will be an excellent leader in doing so, and I very much look forward to supporting your nomination and to working with you. Thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Chairman.