The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its annual hearing on the FY2024 budget request from the Department of State on Wednesday. Several recurring themes emerged:
The Meeting: Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed concern about this week’s meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin and its impact on U.S. security interests, and the broader trends the meeting reflects. In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) described China as the greatest geopolitical challenge the United States faces, raising concerns that China is outpacing the United States in diplomacy, including with the ability to leverage resource advantages. Throughout the hearing, senators returned repeatedly to China, asking how the budget request would equip the government to respond to China-related concerns. Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) asked, among other things, what Xi would have been pushing for in the meeting with Russia.
In response, Secretary Antony Blinken emphasized the view that Russia is the “junior partner” in the relationship between the two nations, calling it a “marriage of convenience” and said he was “not sure if it’s conviction.” Among his observations: China wants an illiberal world order, while Blinken said he was not sure not sure whether Russia wanted a world order at all.
Three Republican Senators–John Barrasso (R-WY), Tim Scott (R-SC), and Hagerty (R-TN)–questioned Secretary Blinken on the Department of State’s activities to combat the trafficking of fentanyl into the United States. The senators pushed for an update on coordination with the government of Mexico on preventing fentanyl from coming across the U.S. southern border and on efforts to combat the inflow of synthetic opioids from China. Scott questioned whether the budget reflected a lasting commitment to addressing this challenge beyond technical assistance.
Blinken noted the quality technology available to detect fentanyl crossing the southern border–most of which passes through legal ports of entry–and reported on ongoing U.S. talks with Mexican authorities about deploying the technology on the Mexican side of the border. Blinken further highlighted the importance of synthetic opioid trafficking being included on the G20 agenda. The production of fentanyl precursors continues to pose challenges, he observed, and the U.S. seeks coordination with China in cracking down on this issue.
Alignment with Allies on Iran
Menendez was among several senators to press for answers on efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capabilities. In response to Menendez’s questions about whether European allies will join the United States and sign on to multilateral sanctions against Iran, Blinken signaled that such an alliance was growing increasingly likely. He said that factors including Iran’s rejection of European allies’ most recent efforts towards a nuclear agreement under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), provision of drones to Russia, and crackdown on protestors has “concentrated minds” on Iran.
Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) and others expressed concern about the recent deal in which China brokered normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia–a diplomatic development in which the United States was left out. Blinken noted that Iran and Saudi Arabia had been engaged in years-long talks to normalize diplomatic relations, and China only facilitated the end of that process. The United States remains an important player in the region’s diplomacy, Blinken noted, and the China development would not diminish U.S. involvement through the Abraham Accords. Blinken also commented on potential positives of the China-facilitated deal, including the prospect of Iran reducing support that has allowed the war in Yemen to continue.
Root Causes of Migration from Central America
Senators also pressed the Secretary of State on the root causes of migration from Central American countries. Among the issues raised: Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) questioned Blinken on Department of State efforts to address challenges like reliability of government partners and crackdowns on non-governmental organizations that implement U.S.-funded projects. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) cited the “three C’s” of issues facing Central America–cartels, corruption, and climate change–as driving migration to the United States.
In response, Blinken praised the push by Vice President Kamala Harris to generate private sector investments in the region to address such root causes. He also described a strategy of engaging with countries in the hemisphere who have strong relations with other countries that may be experiencing democratic backsliding to cultivate a multilateral approach to shoring up democracy in the region.
Addressing Global Challenges
The ongoing Ukraine-Russia war unsurprisingly featured prominently in the hearing, with many senators raising questions about Ukraine and Russia directly, as well as related issues like energy and food security, sanctions, and stability in neighboring countries like Belarus. Other questions related to ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Azerbaijan; rising Israeli repression against Palestinians; and global press freedom.
An overarching concern of the senators was the organizational capacity of the State Department to respond nimbly to such challenges. Blinken described specific line items in the budget request intended to address specific staff shortages, as well as more long-term efforts to increase overall diversity and retention. He also noted at several points the need for some flexibility in the budget, particularly in response to a question from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) about the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the need to be responsive to future emergency food insecurity challenges, which could worsen depending on global conditions.