Sec. Blinken describes coalition-based diplomacy in inaugural lecture at 555 Penn auditorium

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers the first speech in the Brzezinski Lecture Series at SAIS’s new building at 555 Penn on Wednesday, September 13, 2023. Photo Courtesy Will Kirk. 

Inaugurating SAIS’s new auditorium at 555 Penn, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a sweeping 37-minute speech during which he declared the end of the post-Cold War order and described the Biden administration’s approach to diplomacy in an uncertain world. Blinken emphasized ongoing threats–particularly Russian aggression, rising authoritarianism, Chinese revisionism, food insecurity, and the rapid advancement of AI–prescribing to each a coalition-based solution that relies on both new and old partnerships. Blinken called this approach “diplomatic variable geometry.” 

The speech was the first installment in the Brzezinski Lecture series, named after former National Security Advisor and SAIS Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski. The forum invites thinkers to reflect on the making of statecraft and the issues affecting our time, says SAIS Dean Jim Steinberg. 

After a brief reflection on the founding and importance of SAIS as an institution, Blinken framed his approach to strategy by referencing Nitze and asking: “How do we get from where we are to where we want to be without getting struck by disaster along the way?”

For Blinken, that means moving from a world of instability and uncertainty to one of stability, peace, and mutual cooperation. Over the past thirty years, the United States has charted its course in the unipolar, post-Cold War order. It relied on open markets and military superiority to maintain relative stability. The challenges that arose during that time, like the war in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, and COVID-19, were tests to that order, Blinken said. Now, “what we are experiencing… is more than a test to the post cold war order. It’s the end of it.” 

The United States’ declining relative power requires it to strengthen old coalitions while forging new ones in order to tackle global challenges. To address each issue, the US is “assembling the group of partners that’s the right size and the right shape.” This is Blinken’s geometry. 

The math is focused on countering authoritarianism. Blinked evinced a sharp, anti-autocratic tone, decrying authoritarian competitors’ pursuit of “regime preservation and enrichment” and the ways in which they “control, coerce, and crush their people, their neighbors, and anyone else standing in the way of this all-consuming goal.” 

Many of the coalitions that Blinken outlined are accordingly built around geopolitical competition, especially with respect to Russia and China. He highlighted new energy and military partnerships with Japan and South Korea; the security partnership with India, Japan, and Australia called “the Quad;” and coordination with the G7 on regulating AI, supporting the Ukrainian economy, and advancing democracy.

Blinken also viewed global infrastructure development in competitive terms. Touting a positive response from President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the Lobito corridor, Blinken described options for investment as choices between those that China offers, which he says involve high debt and ambiguity, and those that the G-7 led coalition offers, which are more environmentally friendly and of higher quality. 

Blinken’s geometry also involves an increase in military spending and coordination. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of NATO and its expansion (“NATO’s doors remain open”) and highlighted new basing agreements with Asia-Pacific partners. He also trumpeted AUKUS, the US’s nuclear submarine partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom.

In stark contrast to the Cold War and post-Cold War political environments, nuclear diplomacy is notably absent from the United States’ list of diplomatic priorities. Despite Chinese efforts to rapidly grow its nuclear force and the upcoming expiration of New START–the last remaining nuclear weapons agreement following America’s exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019–Blinken made no mention of nuclear negotiations except for a commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb.

Blinken also did not comment on recent prisoner negotiations in Iran, American relations in Afghanistan, or diplomatic efforts to resolve ongoing disputes between Kosovo and Serbia.

Students had mixed reactions to the speech. One second-year student, who agreed to comment anonymously, said, “I think it was great for SAIS to bring him and I think it was a cool opportunity to see him, but I feel like the speech was very one-dimensional. I felt like he didn’t really address any of his critics,” the student said. She thinks that Gen. Mark Milley, who spoke at SAIS in March of this year, did a better job of grappling with faults.

Another student appreciated hearing about themes that would be discussed at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly, like AI and food security. He said, though, that he would have appreciated hearing more about diplomatic efforts in the East and South China Seas. 

At the end of his speech, Biden described the current moment as a fog of uncertainty, one in which we must “chart a path forward” while guided by “our principles, our partners,” and “our vision for where we want to go.” Blinken hopes that by doing so, we will come out the other side in a world where cooperation is center stage. However, in the midst of myriad threats and diminishing diplomacy with our adversaries, the fog grows denser, and “variable geometry” may be harder and harder to pull off.

Read the full text of the speech here

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