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Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes of Pod Save the World

Human RightsSecretary Antony J. Blinken with Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes of Pod Save the World

QUESTION:  Today we are thrilled to have the U.S. Secretary of State, our friend, Tony Blinken, on the show.  He is fresh off visits to Ukraine, to India —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, fresh, I’m not so sure.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Not so sure about fresh.  India for the G20, Vietnam.  Tony, great to see you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Tommy, Ben, great to be with you.  Thanks for having me.

QUESTION:  So Tony, I wanted to kick this off.  I know you’re – the day this airs, there will be a speech that you’re giving.  And I know it’s in part intended to kind of step back and give a look – broader look at the Biden administration’s foreign policy.  But the way I wanted to ask this question is essentially, even people following this closely, they see the war in Ukraine, they see a lot of hot spots that flare up that you have to rush to and deal with.  Even people that listen to this podcast, follow things pretty closely, are probably having trouble trying to make sense of like what is this moment that we’re in.

And you’ve been in multiple administrations – Clinton administration after the end of the Cold War, the Obama administration after the financial crisis.  This is obviously a different kind of moment.  What would you say to people who are trying to make sense of this, of like – what is this kind of – what is the moment that we’re in geopolitically and how is your job different today than it would have been in the Obama administration or the Clinton administration?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So Ben, I think as we’re looking at it, we really see this moment as an inflection point, by which I mean this:  We’ve all been living through, working through what was called the post-Cold War era.  And as we see it, that era has come to an end and there’s an intense competition on to shape what comes next.  And we’re seeing that in a couple of ways.

We’re seeing that with this renewed but also in many ways new great power rivalry and competition.  We’re also seeing it, though, with a whole host of profound transnational challenges that are putting new and extraordinary demands on governments and international organizations much more so than ever before, whether it’s climate, whether it’s mass migration, whether it’s the food insecurity that we’re seeing, energy challenges, emerging technologies.

And for a variety of reasons, we’ve come to a moment where so many of the benefits that we thought would accrue from the end of the Cold War – benefits which in many ways we saw but not to the extent and not with the durability that we hoped – we’re seeing that in many ways being questioned and come to an end.  And we are engaged heavily in how we shape the next period of time in a way that reflects what we want to achieve, which is, broadly speaking, a world that’s free, that’s open, that’s secure, that’s prosperous, that’s connected.

And the importance of an inflection point moment – and I’ll stop with that – is that almost by definition, you get to one of those moments – and they come around every six or seven generations – the decisions that we make now, the way we organize ourselves at home, the way we organize ourselves in the world, are likely to shape what things look like not just for the next few years, but for the next decades.  We believe we’re at that kind of moment.

QUESTION:  Tony, one of the big sort of inbox issues is – for you guys lately has been Ukraine, and you just got back from your third trip, I believe, since the war started.  It’s been raging for a year and a half.  The U.S. has provided an enormous amount of assistance to Ukraine.  I think I read today that the number has topped a hundred billion.  Ben and I watched the Republican primary foreign policy debates very closely and the arguments are generally against U.S. support for Ukraine and they’re very simple and they’re very clear, right?  It’s like we should be spending that money here, we should be securing our border here, the risk of escalation with Russia is constant if not growing.

I even hear supporters of the U.S. – the war effort in Ukraine saying our message is more complicated, we don’t know what success looks like, we don’t know what the endgame is, we’re worried about the counteroffensive maybe stalling or struggling, we’re worried about there not being sort of public peace talks.  And I was just wondering if you could help the listeners understand, like, what our core objectives are in Ukraine and what success looks like so they can try to figure out what an endgame might be.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah.  So Tommy, I think first, it’s important to step back and look at the stakes of Ukraine for us, and indeed, for folks around the world.

Look, first, I think most Americans just inherently don’t like to see one big country bully another.  It’s something that we generally object to and, where we can, want to do something about.  So when we see the brutalization of Ukraine by Russia, when we see what’s being done on a daily basis to bomb not only its cities but to bomb its people, its infrastructure, when we see some of the atrocities that have been committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, that’s something that gets people, rightly, concerned and upset.

But fundamentally, there’s something even larger at stake, which is this is not only an aggression against Ukraine, it’s an aggression against some very basic principles that we labored long and hard to try to establish after two world wars to try to ensure that it would be less likely that we have another world war and certainly less likely that we’d have conflict, and that we’d have a greater chance at building peace and stability.  A lot of this is enshrined in the United Nations Charter and other places, and it basically says one country doesn’t have the right to go in, change the borders with another by force, try to take it over, try to do what Russia did, which was to erase Ukraine’s identity, erase it from the map, subsume it into Russia.

Because if we allow that to go unchecked, if we allow that to go forward with impunity, then it opens a Pandora’s box.  It’s open season.  Every would-be aggressor around the world will say, “Well, if Russia can get away with it, so can we.”  And Russia itself – the idea that it would stop at simply trying to take over Ukraine, it would stop there, I think is very misguided.  So not doing something about this is a recipe for a world of conflict that we know from history draws the United States in, in ways that cost a lot more toil and treasure and blood than we’re seeing now.  So I think that’s the big piece that’s so important.

The other big piece is this:  This is not just the United States standing with and standing up for Ukraine.  It’s dozens of countries around the world.  And we’ve built different coalitions to deal with different aspects of this – the military piece, the economic and reconstruction piece, the energy piece, the humanitarian piece.  And you’re seeing countries from around the world coming in and standing with Ukraine.

The ultimate objective, really, Tommy, is two-fold.  First, of course, is to deny Russia any kind of strategic success in Ukraine, because if we don’t then, as I said, it’s open invitation for aggressors everywhere.  And already it’s really important to note that Russia has failed in what it was trying to accomplish, because its goal, as I said, was to erase Ukraine from the map, to end its identity as an independent country, to subsume it into Russia.  That’s already failed.  Where exactly it settles, exactly where the lines are drawn – that’s fundamentally up to the Ukrainians.

And we want to stand with them to maximize their ability to take back the remaining territory that Russia seized.  Russia still controls about 17 percent of Ukraine.  But not only that, to ensure that Ukraine not only survives but also thrives.  And that gets into supporting it economically and supporting its democratic emergence.  But the objective is to make sure that Ukraine can stand on its own feet.  This is not a recipe for some kind of indefinite support by the entire world to keep Ukraine going.  It’s getting Ukraine to a point where militarily, economically, democratically it can stand strongly on its own.

QUESTION:  It seems clear that Putin is struggling to get the resources necessary to conduct this war.  He is reportedly meeting with Kim Jong-un today in Russia.  A lot of analysts though are saying – are looking at this meeting and saying this is a significant and worrisome evolution of the Russia-North Korea relationship, because North Korea finally has something that Putin actually wants, in this case artillery shells.  He can use that as leverage to extract something that might worry us a lot like military technology to launch missiles, spy satellites, nuclear technologies.  It’s notable that Kim is accompanied by two aides that I believe manage like the satellite program and manage their acquisition of nuclear-capable submarines, for example.  How worried are you about this deepening partnership between Russia and North Korea and the potential for North Korea to get these more modern weapons, or sort of like nuclear infrastructure?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think this says two things to us.  First, it says that Russia’s increasingly desperate – desperate because of the effectiveness of the Ukrainians in pushing them back; desperate because the sanctions and export controls that so many countries have imposed on Russia are denying it the technology that it needs to replace and even modernize its military and its weaponry, so it’s looking wherever it can.  And of course, right now it’s looking primarily to North Korea and to Iran.  On one level, that’s kind of a Star Wars bar scene of countries.  So I think it does speak to Russia’s desperation.

On the other hand, it’s also true that we don’t want to see Russia be in a position where it can strengthen the capabilities it’s bringing to dealing with the aggression on Ukraine, and we also don’t want to see North Korea benefitting from whatever technologies it might get from Russia, and same with Iran where there’s also a two-way street relationship that’s developing.  We’re working with other countries; we’re taking our own actions to try to disrupt as much of that as we possibly can.  Of course, the relationship between Russia and North Korea that’s moving forward now is in violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions.  We’re looking to make sure that we, as necessary, can impose costs and consequences.  But I also think it’s having the effect of further isolating these countries from the rest of the world.

QUESTION:  So one question following on both – this inflection point you mentioned in Ukraine, you were recently in India for the G20.  And it was interesting because that came shortly after, for India, the BRICS Summit that got a lot of attention in South Africa.  And so we see kind of India comfortable at the BRICS Summit, comfortable in Washington, the state visit.  But I want to ask more generally about the Global South and countries like India and countries in places like Southeast Asia and in Africa that have been much more reticent to kind of embrace the Ukrainian side of this war in the same way that, say, our European allies have.

Is there a risk?  Because it feels like here in the United States and in Europe and some of our Asian allies – okay, the Ukraine war is an inflection point.  The Ukraine war itself is kind of representative of the inflection point that you talk about.  But it does feel like, almost a couple of years into this war, that’s not a view that is shared in the Global South, and that if anything there might even be a risk that our focus on Ukraine is not where their heads are at.  They’re thinking about climate change or they’re thinking about development or they’re thinking about emerging technologies.

How do you balance this risk between wanting to get a statement at the G20 expressing support for Ukraine, versus maybe not meeting these countries where they are, in which they’re like, “You know what?  I don’t like the fact that there’s this war, but I don’t really want to get involved in it.  And why aren’t you talking to us about what we care about?” What would you say to that kind of line of critique that we hear a lot from some elements of the Global South?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Sure, I – Ben, I think two things.  First, if you look at what we’ve been able to do over the last year and a half with regard to the rest of the world and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, on multiple occasions we’ve had more than 140 countries at the United Nations clearly stand up for territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty, and against the Russian aggression.  That includes many – most of the countries in the so-called Global South, because I think they understand that the principles I was talking about earlier are principles that matter to them, too.  And so again, we’ve seen them stand up similarly with some of the support that we’ve helped to build for Ukraine.

As I said, it’s not just the military piece.  It’s the economic and reconstruction piece, its energy, its humanitarian.  A number of these countries have taken part in pieces of this, which goes to the kinds of varied coalition’s that we’re building on any given issue, what I like to call variable geometry, because what we’re doing is we’re putting together, for very fit-for-purpose reasons, different collections of countries, different sizes, different shapes of coalitions to address specific problems.

That’s one piece, but the other piece is exactly what you said.  We have to and we are demonstrating that we’re focused on the issues that matter most to them, and that we are the answer to many of the problems that they’re facing.  And Russia in this particular case is a big part of the problem.  Food security, to take one example – the combination of – over the last few years – of climate change, of COVID, and of conflict, and particularly now the Russian aggression against Ukraine has had devastating consequences for countries particularly in the Global South when it comes to food insecurity.

The breadbasket of the world, Ukraine – Russia preventing Ukraine from exporting its grain and its wheat.  An initiative by the United Nations to allow that to happen, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which, when it was in effect, allowed 30 million tons of grain to get out of Ukraine, the equivalent of 18 billion loaves of bread.  The Russians recently tore that up.  Who does that hurt the most?  The very countries in the developing world that desperately need it.  Even countries that weren’t direct recipients of Ukrainian grain are affected by the fact that prices go up when grain is kept off the market.

We’ve put together a coalition of countries around the world to deal effectively with food insecurity, both emergency assistance where we’re the number-one provider around the world, as well as long-term support, to help these countries build their sustainable productive capacity so that they’re not the prisoners of a country like Russia weaponizing food.  I can go across the board on the things that countries are actually looking for and want.  Infrastructure – a huge demand for infrastructure around the world.  Well, thanks to what President Biden’s done, starting with the G7 and now expanded to the G20, we have a very significant program of infrastructure investment that is bringing countries together to catalyze private sector investment to respond to these needs.  But to do it as a race to the top, not a race to the bottom that these countries have experienced when they’ve had other significant supporters of infrastructure do it in a way that builds to shoddy standards, that doesn’t pay attention to the environment or the rights and needs of workers, and that puts a huge amount of debt on countries that they can’t afford.

We’re in the process of reforming the international financial system so that countries have greater access to capital, so that they have ways of getting debt relief that they can make more manageable the needs that they have.  And of course working to make sure we have a Security Council at the United Nations that’s better reflective of the world of today, not the world that existed when the Security Council was formed.

So in these and so many other ways, we’ve been demonstrating that yes, we’re focused on the agenda that most countries around the world want us to focus on, and in this moment a country like Russia is the main disruptor of that agenda.

QUESTION:  And is – one more thing on this.  Are you – it’s interesting that the G20 just happened, before that the BRICS summit.  We’ve obviously had a G7, which you guys have referred to.  I think an interesting, good bumper sticker: the steering committee of the free world.  But we’re also – the UN meetings are coming up.  And it – these are my words, not yours.  It feels like the UN is far less capable of being a place of collective action, I mean, for the obvious reason that Russia is not going to let anything get through the Security Council on anything that we care about, for instance.

Is there a worry that yes, you’re building these coalitions, and good, strong coalitions of likeminded countries on different issues – like you said, variable geometry, which I did not do well in geometry – (laughter) – at school.  But I get your meaning, like you have Quads and orientations in Asia; you had the trilat with Korea and Japan at Camp David; the G7.  But then China is building its own blocs.  Are you worried a bit that part of what’s happening is the world is sorting out into kind of competing blocs, and rather than having that system that coordinates collective action that there’s a system being built that is really an us-versus-them system, even if that’s not the intention of the United States, that that may be the effect of what’s happening in this – at this moment?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, there’s no doubt that the international system, the UN system, is challenged in many ways.  But that’s not a reason to give up on it.  It’s a question – it’s actually a reason to double down, lean in, and seek to make it more effective and, again, more reflective of the world, as you might put it, as it is, not as it once was.  And that’s what —

QUESTION:  Good point there, Tony.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, I’m trying.

QUESTION:  I appreciate that.  Seamless.

QUESTION:  Yeah, I can – seamless,  yeah.


QUESTION:  Yeah.  (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  But – and that’s not purely out of altruism.  It’s because it’s in our interest to do it.  The fact of the matter is virtually none of the problems that we have to face around the world and that are having an effect on the lives of our fellow citizens are problems that we can effectively address alone, as strong and powerful as we are.  We benefit profoundly from having these alliances, these partnerships, these coalitions, and an effective international system that can pick up some of the burden.  Because if not, then either we’re going to be stuck doing it alone at much greater cost or no one does it, and then you’re going to have a vacuum that is just filled by bad things before it’s filled with good things.

So we have an interest in making sure that the UN can operate effectively through its programs; for example, on food security, on maternal health, on climate, you name it.  And to some extent, even if you have relative paralysis at the Security Council for the reasons you said, that doesn’t mean that these different programs aren’t functioning and having a positive impact, again, in ways that, if they weren’t around, we’d have to pick up the slack.  So we’re working on that.

Look, I’d like to see a Security Council that functions, but that is very challenging at a time when you have the antagonisms that we have with Russia and the competition that we have with China.

But we’re also seeing this, Ben, and this is what I’m finding as I travel around the world:  There’s a demand signal from countries around the world that we, the United States, lead responsibly.  And that means dealing with what you were talking about a few minutes ago, which is focusing on the things that matter to them, and also trying to find ways to move forward and try to make the UN and other international institutions more effective.  And if and as we do that, or at least as we’re seen and caught trying, that actually benefits us in our leadership around the world.

QUESTION:  Tony, last question for you; thank you again for your time.  There have been a bunch of news reports about a possible U.S.-brokered normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.  Now, I know you wouldn’t ever comment on a deal that’s not finalized, nor would you get ahead of President Biden to be able to announce –

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s correct.

QUESTION:  But I was hoping you might help us understand why the administration thinks now is the moment where it might be advantageous to cut a deal with the Saudis and the Israelis.  Because in Israel, there have been months of protests over changes to the judiciary.  People like Ehud Barak said that these changes could turn Israel into, quote, “a de factor dictatorship,” where there’s questions about the future of Israel’s democracy.  Over in Saudi Arabia, it obviously, of course, already is a dictatorship.  The crown prince has an ever-worsening human rights record.  The most recent iteration of that was reports that border guards were shooting at Ethiopian migrants.  As part of a policy, MBS has a tendency to undercut U.S. interests.

I mean, cards on the table, obviously – in case it’s not obvious already – I’m not a big fan of Bibi or MBS, but I’m wondering sort of like why help these two leaders out now?  It seems like a big political win for two folks who fight against President Biden’s political wins on a regular basis.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, Tommy, this and most things that we do are not about individual leaders or individual governments; they’re about the substance of the issue and whether we can, in whatever we’re doing, advance a world that’s a little bit more peaceful, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more full of opportunity.  And there’s no question in my mind that if we could help achieve normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would move the world in that direction.  We’ve had extraordinary turmoil in that part of the world going back to at least 1979 – decades of turmoil.

Moving away from that, having more moderating and integrating dynamics carry things forward, I think would be a profound change and a profound change for the good – and a change that would, again, not be tied to any specific government but to the fundamental interests of the countries involved.

Now, this is really hard to do.  And there’s a lot that goes into it.  And unclear whether we get there.  But there’s no doubt in my mind that if we could, it would be good for us, good for the countries in question, good for the region, and indeed good for the world beyond.  If you have the leading Muslim country in the world, Islamic country in the world, making peace with Israel, that’s going to have benefits that travel well beyond the region.

Now, one very important piece to this.  Normalization – any of the efforts that are going on to improve relations between Israel and its neighbors – are not, cannot be a substitute for Israel and the Palestinians resolving their differences and having a much better future for Palestinians.  And in our judgment, of course, that must – needs to involve a two-state solution.  So it’s also clear from what we hear from the Saudis that if this process is to move forward, the Palestinian piece is going to be very important, too.

QUESTION:  Yeah, I mean, that is the big question, right?  Because the previous Abraham Accord normalization deals have said to the Palestinians, kind of, “You get bread crumbs, if not, and if nothing at all.”  And I was just in Morocco, where I was recalling how Jared Kushner handed over control of an entire disputed region to the Moroccan Government as part of the Abraham Accord deals.  And I was just trying to figure out to what extent the normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel is viewed as something that would aid a Middle East peace process or efforts to get a Palestinian state.  But it seemed to be – been on ice for a while.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, look, that’s clearly something that’s important to the Saudis in doing any kind of deal.  It would be important to us, too.  But I think every country involved, if this is to move forward, will clearly find significant tangible benefit in it – in the near term, but again this is even more about putting in place a foundation for a much different future, one that is more peaceful, that is more secure, that is more prosperous in moderating so many of these different problems and passions that have led to turmoil over the last decades, and through the process of integration that is going to deliver much more tangible benefits to people in all of these countries and throughout the region.  That’s the goal.

Now, again, whether we can get there, the jury’s out.  Because the practical substance of this is challenging, it’s hard, but we’re working on it, and I think the labor is well worth the fruit that could be produced.

QUESTION:  Excellent.  Well, listen, Tony, thank you so much for doing the show, and thanks for all the hard work, and God, I hope you get some sleep, man.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thanks for everything.  Thanks for everything you’re doing.  We can see you out there working hard.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  As always, great to be with you guys.  Thanks for having me on.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity.

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