QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for taking this opportunity. We appreciate it.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Shaun. Good to be with you.
QUESTION: Thanks. I wanted to ask you – I understand you’re going to announce some assistance today for the Sahel, but I wanted to ask you more broadly about the Sahel strategy. This has been a few months since the French ended their military operation. The United States, of course, has security interests here as well. How do you see it? Do you see this as – very much as still a “security first” approach to the Sahel? Is it more comprehensive? How do you see that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It is and has to be comprehensive. The security piece is absolutely necessary, but it’s insufficient. And the fact that we’re here in Niger to me is – just underscores that. It’s one of the reasons that I wanted to come, because what you see Niger doing, including dealing with the problems of violent extremism and terrorism – but also security more generally, is taking this holistic approach, focused on development, focused on good governance, focused on building institutions, focused on giving people opportunity.
And if the – the fact that Niger, which is obviously one of the poorest countries on Earth, is doing this so effectively I think only underscores the importance of taking this comprehensive approach. There’s a lot more to be said about it. We were together looking, for example, at the rather remarkable program they have to demobilize and disarm and reintegrate people who have taken part in violent extremism or terrorism. And this also can be a model for countries in the region.
QUESTION: Sure, excellent. One of the issues, of course, that’s been raised quite a bit, including by you, has been the issue of the Wagner Group in neighboring countries in particular. How do you see its strength right now? Do you see it growing in-roads? One particular area of concern is Burkina Faso.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
QUESTION: There have been allegations that they’ve been involved there. Is that something that you see?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think we have a real concern about this, but not just us, many others, because everywhere Wagner goes, bad things tend to follow. First of all, where we’ve seen it act, it hasn’t improved security; on the contrary, we’ve actually seen things get worse. And the exploitation of resources, the corruption, the violence that it brings are a plague on people in the countries that have chosen to work with them. So, this is – I think, a shared concern.
At the same time, it comes back to the first question. If you have profound problems and insecurity, there has to be an answer to them. And if there is no answer to them, then groups like Wagner will try to plunge in and take advantage of that, which is why the work that we’re doing with countries like Niger and others to build a comprehensive approach to insecurity is so vital.
QUESTION: True. Again, to the security approach, of course, the U.S. has security and the French have security interests here. There’s the Base 101, of course.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
QUESTION: How important is that to the United States? And you were just at the African Union. How does that reconcile with the idea of African sovereignty?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, look, these partnerships that we have – it’s not something that we’re imposing on anyone. Countries choose to be partners or not, and in the case of Niger, we’ve had this partnership for a long time. It’s one that we deeply value and deeply appreciate. But it also goes to the benefit of Niger – it goes to the benefit of other countries, because information that we are able to develop as a result of our engagement and presence, that’s something that is useful to everyone. The work that we can do to combat terrorist groups, extremist groups, ultimately will be to the benefit of others.
And the other thing that I would underscore is this: If you look at the relationship that we have with Niger, as well as other countries in the region where we have security partnerships in the military and security realm, there’s so much else that’s happening. For example, just on the security side with a country like Niger, we are working hard to build capacity here which will benefit the country for years and years to come. But at the same time, most of our work is being done in helping the government develop the country. We’ve had a couple of very, very successful Millennium Challenge Corporation compacts, huge investments and partnerships in building out and strengthening, for example, the irrigation system in a country that is – where the economy is basically 80 percent agricultural. Building out your irrigation system; making sure that products can get to market; hundreds of kilometers of new roads; and vocational training and sharing skills and expertise – these are the kinds of things that are having a dramatic impact on people’s lives and helping the government here demonstrate that it can deliver real results.
And ultimately, something like that is the best response to a lot of security challenges to the extent that they’re coming from terrorist groups or extremist groups who have nothing to offer people. When governments can demonstrate that they have something to offer, then I think that’s ultimately how we’re going to be successful.
QUESTION: True. Let me just ask a couple questions in French if you don’t mind for our French audience.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: (In French.)
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) It’s been nearly six months since the French military operation in the Sahel. What do you think the results have been of this operation? Did the operation leave a security vacuum? And does this pose problems for the United States?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I think our policy approach and that of France is to invest and build the capacities of partners. I think that it’s an approach that will yield results in the end. We’ll work together. In this region there is certainly a democratic deficit as there has been a backward slide in some countries. It’s a common problem.
When there is this backward slide, extremist groups – terrorist groups – take advantage of it. So there’s real work to do. But on the level of security partnership, I think the best idea is effectively to build the capacity of our partners and provide what we can uniquely, for example military equipment for our partners, intelligence, et cetera.
We’re in the midst of building something relatively new. At the same time, I’ll go back to what I said a few minutes ago – we absolutely have to have a holistic, comprehensive approach in which security is absolutely necessary but is not enough. The importance of good governance, institutions, creation of opportunities for citizens in countries in the region – that’s the comprehensive approach to the security challenge that we need to tackle.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) If I can follow up on that. There is a large anti-French sentiment in a number of countries in this region, especially Mali. Why do you think this exists? Does this present problems for the United States? And does this help other powers such as Russia to come in?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I think that the challenge for all of us – whether it’s us, France, or our partners – is to show through the work we’re doing together that we’re getting results that benefit the people and respond to citizens’ desires and aspirations. Let me go back to the importance of a comprehensive approach which obviously starts with security but also in governance, development, and democracy. So I think that the approach all of us have now is much more comprehensive. When our work yields results, I think we’ll see that it’s the right approach.
QUESTION: Merci. With your indulgence, I’ll change to a different topic —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Go ahead.
QUESTION: — in the world, something that’s quite in the news: Israel, the judicial reforms. The Israeli president has spoken of – even of a civil war internally over this. How do you view it? What role could the United States play in terms of giving advice? And do you see this as contrary to democracy, the direction that the reforms are going?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, it’s not – it’s not for me or us to opine on any of the details of reforms that are being discussed – debated in a very vibrant democracy that is Israel. And when I was there about a month ago – and this was already the subject of the day – I think the one thing that we know from our own experiences as democracies is that when you’re looking to make big changes, major reforms in your laws, your institutions, consensus is maybe the most important thing in making sure that you have something that’s not only accepted but that it also will last, is durable. So the only, I think, wisdom – to the extent it’s wisdom that I can share – and I’ve spoken to this; more important, President Biden has spoken to this – is finding that consensus is the best path forward.
QUESTION: Sure. One more question in a different part of the world: China. Guatemala just recently said that it’s going to establish relations with China. Is this important to the United States? Is this a setback in any sense? To what extent does the United States care about countries stopping to recognize Taiwan? Or is it inevitable given China’s power that this is going to happen?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Countries have to make their own sovereign decisions about their foreign policies, their international relationships. It – and so we leave – we leave that to them. Our own policies, our own approach has been very consistent. We haven’t changed when it comes to the “one China” policy, and everything that flows from that. We, over many years and many administrations, of course, have supported people on Taiwan. We have a Taiwan Relations Act that we adhere to, as well. And I think it’s in the interests of people to be able to engage in the world. Taiwan has a lot to offer, including for example, in international institutions – where remarkably talented people have tremendous experience and expertise. And of course, countries have to decide for themselves whether and how they want to benefit from that.
QUESTION: Sure. Could I just do one more?