October 19, 2021

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Domestic Renewal as a Foreign Policy Priority

16 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

College Park, MD

University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  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, to be joined by some of the students, university leaders, and public servants who help make this community such a dynamic place to learn, to teach, and to create.

Mr. President, I especially want to thank you, both for your kind words, for hosting us today, and for your leadership of this institution.  Leader Hoyer, it’s always an honor and a pleasure to be with you.  I know you’re a very proud alum of this university.  Thank you so much for taking the time to join us, as well as to my colleagues and friends, Senator Cardin, Senator Van Hollen.  Now, I’m flattered to think that I had something to do with you being out here this afternoon, but I know that’s not the case.  It’s this university, the University of Maryland.  I know your strong support across the board for this extraordinary institution and I’m glad to be able to share in that with you today.

And Sarah, a special thanks to you for a wonderful introduction.  Look, in the unlikely event that engineering somehow doesn’t work out, diplomacy, think about it.  We may want to bring you in.  Thank you so much.

The best part of today for me is getting to spend time with some of the extraordinary young people here at College Park.

As Secretary, I’m often focused on events that are taking place thousands of miles away.  The last lab that I actually toured was at the University of Copenhagen, so across an ocean.  But I wanted to come here today to the University of Maryland – 10 miles from the State Department – because, as has been noted, the innovation happening here and at thousands of colleges and universities across America is a huge source of our strength.

And 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.

I’ve got to tell you that maybe more than at any other time in my career – maybe in my lifetime – old distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away.  Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world 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 more than what our domestic renewal can deliver, particularly when it comes to the strength of our workforce, our economic dynamism, the quality of opportunity we offer our people, the resilience of our infrastructure, and the power of our innovation.

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

We’re falling behind where we once were in the world.  And our rivals, slowly but surely, are pulling close behind us.  In some areas, they’re already ahead of us.

And this matters.

It matters because if these trends continue, we’ll be less competitive in a more competitive 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.

Most of all, investing in our domestic renewal now will make our future more secure, more prosperous, more free.

So what I’d like to do today is talk about the foreign policy, the national security case for public investment at home, because it’s vital that we act.

And let’s start by stepping back for just a minute.

I think you all know this very, very well:  For a long time, America made big investments in ourselves.

We established universal elementary school.  We made investments in public secondary education.  Between 1910 and 1940, the percentage of American teens in high school went from 18 percent to 70 percent.  President Lincoln signed into law land-grant colleges, like the University of Maryland, so that more people could get higher education.  President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill so more service members and veterans could go to college and get job training, and more than 50 percent of its beneficiaries went on to start a business.

These and other programs weren’t perfect.  We know that.  They weren’t equitable.  Many people were left out because of their race or gender.  We’re still working to close those gaps today.  But these investments helped America’s economy leap ahead and made the United States workforce the wealthiest and best educated in the entire world.

Through the decades, we also invested in roads, in railways, in highways, in ports, airports, power grids, water systems – a vast public infrastructure that was the foundation for us becoming the strongest economy in the world, with a workforce and standard of living that set us apart.

But in recent decades, our public investment as a share of the economy has fallen more than 40 percent.  We’re still relying heavily on those earlier achievements – schools, roads, and innovations created a long time ago.

Meanwhile, other countries have doubled down.  For example, China is spending three times as much on infrastructure as we do every year.  And it’s not just China.  The United States now ranks 13th in the world in the total quality of our infrastructure, and if we don’t make major investments soon, it’ll be more than just 12 countries ahead of us.

We’re falling behind on innovation.  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.  It’s how we won the space race, mapped the human genome, built the internet.  Now we’re number nine.  China used to be number eight.  Now they’re number two.

Here at the Clark School, students are learning advanced manufacturing technologies, like this hyperloop pod for mag-lev high-speed train travel, created by the award-winning UMD Loop team, made up entirely of undergraduates.  I just got a tour of the Advanced Fabrication Lab and saw some of what you’re creating here with 3D printing.  We as a country should be doing much more to support this kind of work.  The bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, for example, which the Senate has approved, would boost federal funding for U.S.-based semiconductor manufacturing and provide $52 billion over five years for research initiatives.  Because research in fields like robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotech, and solar cells is racing ahead – and too often, we are not the ones out in front.  We’re missing out on the chance to build and lead the industries of the future.

Now, there’s no question that the free market can do a lot to spur investment.  The creativity, ingenuity, and dynamism of the American private sector is unmatched in the world.  It’s our greatest competitive advantage.  But there are some things that even the most vibrant private sector can’t do on its own.  Public investment is still vital.

Moreover, America’s entrepreneurs are able to do their pathbreaking work in part because of the foundation provided by public investment.  The work of the most brilliant scientists is rooted in publicly funded basic research.  Companies run on public utilities.  Public schools helped educate their workforce.

So public and private investment are both essential.  It’s not either/or.  It’s both/and.

Now, make no mistake – we are still the most powerful country and economy in the world.  We’re resilient and entrepreneurial; there’s a reason the world’s most successful companies are born here.  Our network of alliances and partnership with other countries is unmatched; our military is the most powerful fighting force on the planet.  And the American workforce is outstanding, and that includes all the people from other countries who move to the United States every year to work hard and build better lives for themselves, because this is still the place where the world’s strivers and dreamers want to be.

As President Biden says, it’s never a good bet to bet against America – never has been, never will be.

But we became the United States of America because past generations of Americans reinvented, renewed, and reinvested in our core sources of strength.  They used American ingenuity and determination to do it – and they didn’t just to prepare for the future, they created it.  They shaped it.

Now it’s our job to take up the baton and carry it forward for future generations.

I believe our domestic renewal is the most important thing we can do to advance our foreign policy for three reasons.

First, this is about our global competitiveness.

We’re competing for jobs.  We want the high-skilled, high-paying careers of the future to be created here, not somewhere else.

We’re competing for investment.  We want the investors, the companies, the countries to look at the United States and say, “That’s where we want to be.”  And they’re much more likely to say that when they know that everything about operating in America is top of the line, from the reliability of our broadband to the efficiency of our ports to how well-trained our workers are.

We’re competing for trade.  For too long, we thought we could trade more with the world while investing less here at home.  That didn’t work out for our economy, for our workers, or for our communities.  President Biden has made it clear that before making more trade deals, we must first make a generational investment in our own competitiveness.  Our domestic renewal comes first.  If we do that, we will compete in the 21st-century global economy from a position of strength.  We will keep faith with American workers; shape the terms of global trade; ensure that labor, environmental, and intellectual property standards are protected; and stand with our allies and partners when others seek to take advantage of them.

We’re also competing for the best and the brightest.  One of the most powerful, I say even magical things about the United States is that we have long been a destination for talented, driven people from everywhere on Earth.  No other country has that kind of pull on people’s imaginations and ambitions.  And that also goes for our universities.  There are thousands of top international students here at College Park getting a world-class education; we’re lucky they chose us.  We want always to be the place that represents opportunity, possibility, achievement.  Investing in our domestic renewal now means that we can continue to be that beacon to the world.

Second, our domestic renewal is a foreign policy priority because it empowers our diplomacy.  Take it from me, when you’re sitting at the table with foreign leaders, trying to persuade them to align with your point of view or join your coalition or stop doing something that you disagree with, it makes all the difference in the world to be operating from a position of national strength.  And that goes far beyond military might.  If your economy is growing, if your people are healthy, if the cultural life of your country is thriving, if your country is known to give people from all backgrounds access to opportunity, it all adds up to greater diplomatic strength.

Countries pay attention to these things.  And they pay attention if you aren’t strong in those ways, too.

This is particularly important now, because it’s no secret to any of us that the Chinese and Russian governments, among others, are making the argument in public and in private that the United States is in decline – so it’s better to cast your lot with their authoritarian visions for the world than with our democratic one.

We can and we do remind them that we continue to be an abundantly strong country by measure after measure.  When we met with Chinese officials in Anchorage in March, our first topic of discussion was what we’re achieving here at home – a robust economic recovery, a massive national program to fight COVID.  We wanted them to know that we will emerge from the pandemic stronger than before and better able to rally our friends and partners in the world to stand up against aggression, abuse, and coercion.

Nothing would put to rest faster their specious argument about America’s best days being behind us than if the United States made serious investments in our domestic renewal right now.  It’s a lot harder to say a country is in decline when you’re watching it become stronger, more effective, more united before your very eyes.

I can tell you, too, that from my own experience so far as Secretary of State, when I tell countries that America is back, they believe it because they’re seeing how much effort we’re putting into building our alliances and partnerships, and showing up again in the rooms where decisions are made and democratic principles are defended.  But they will believe it even more when we make major investments in our own renewal here at home.  And that will make my job of advancing our interests and values around the world easier because there’ll be no question that America is back.

I can also tell you that our friends around the world are also hoping that we’ll make these investments.  They want badly for us to succeed because they know that when we’re strong, they benefit too.

Third, our domestic renewal is about standing up for democracyand that is a foreign policy imperative.

Democracy is under threat around the world right now.  Authoritarianism and nationalism are on the rise.  And the United States is out there every day fighting the good fight for political freedom and human rights.  We’re making the argument that our system – the democratic system – is the better one.  But it’s one thing to say it; it’s another to show it.  By investing in our strength at home, we can show the world that democracies can do hard things and that we can do them without jailing dissidents, letting corruption run rampant, or violating fundamental freedoms.

The more we and all democracies can show the world that we can deliver – for our people, for each other – the more we can refute the lie that authoritarian countries love to tell – that our system is hopelessly polarized and paralyzed and that theirs is the better way to meet people’s fundamental needs and hopes.

Now, I’ve said the word “China” a few times today, and it’s true that when we talk about competitors, we often talk about China.  They’re a rising power.  And they’re full speed ahead when it comes to investing in infrastructure, growth, innovation.

But I’m not only talking about China here today.  Many countries are making major investments in their own domestic renewal right now.  For the United States to continue to lead and to successfully bring countries together in common cause for the good of all our people, we have to do the same.

Plus, ultimately, this isn’t really about anyone else.  This is about us and what we can do to make our lives and our future even brighter.

When President Biden gave me the honor of taking on the role of America’s chief diplomat, he made it crystal clear that I had one job above all others: to help deliver for the American people, to make your lives more secure, create opportunity for you and your families, and tackle the global crises that are increasingly shaping your lives.  My ability to do that – and the ability for everyone who holds this job after me to do that – will depend on the choices we make as a country now and in the months and years to come.

At our best, the American people share a spirit of boundless optimism and possibility.  People around the world are inspired by it; I hear that everywhere I go.  We need to bring that spirit to bear in this endeavor to renew our sources of domestic strength and invest in our future greatness.  That’s how we’ll lead the world in the industries of tomorrow and that’s how we’ll carry forward the eternal work of making the United States a more perfect union.

Thank so much for listening.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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