Washington: Antony Blinken, tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as America’s 71st secretary of state, would carry the most valuable asset a diplomat can have when meeting other world leaders: the confidence of the U.S. president.
Biden and Blinken’s history of working together since the early 2000s means America’s allies and rivals will know that the person they are dealing with speaks for the president. That’s not always the case.
President Donald Trump famously told his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, via tweet to stop “wasting his time trying to negotiate” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a day after Tillerson spoke in Beijing about seeking talks with the regime. Five months later he was fired and Trump went on to meet with Kim.
And the brutal Democratic primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2007 to 2008 fostered doubts early on about whether the former first lady and New York senator had the full confidence of the new president when he took office and she became his top diplomat.
Blinken, if confirmed by the Senate, won’t face those hurdles.
“When he meets with world leaders, it will be incontrovertible that he will be speaking for a president for whom he’s worked over the course of many years,” said Robert Malley, president and chief executive officer of the International Crisis Group, who served in the Obama administration.
Biden praised Blinken on Tuesday for helping lead U.S. diplomatic efforts in the fight against Islamic State, managing alliances in Asia and addressing refugee issues during his time in the Obama administration. And he highlighted their close ties.
“Tony’s been one of my closest and most trusted advisers,” Biden said in introducing most of his national security team. “He will rebuild morale and trust in the State Department. And he starts off with the kind of relationships around the world that many of his predecessors have had to build over the years.”
But that also means Blinken, 58, will carry some of the baggage that comes with Biden’s almost five-decade history in politics, much of which was in the Senate, where he led the Foreign Relations Committee before serving as Obama’s vice president.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates infamously said in his 2014 book that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” During the 2020 campaign, Gates — who served as defense secretary to George W. Bush and Obama — apologized for that remark, calling it a “bad mistake.”
In Obama’s recently published memoir, he cited Blinken as being among a cadre of advisers who, along with United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, pushed for the U.S. to support opposition groups seeking to oust then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He also backed action against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi when protests were rocking his regime.
Both decisions were later questioned: In Egypt, Mubarak was replaced by Mohamed Mursi, who struggled in power for 13 months before being removed in a coup by current leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And with no organized opposition in position to take power, Qaddafi’s downfall sparked chaos in Libya that gave Islamic State terrorists an initial foothold in the oil-rich nation.
Blinken’s supporters say he’ll deftly navigate the vastly changed international landscape confronting the Biden administration just four years after Trump took office. That will include reviewing Trump’s November decision to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, part of the current president’s pledge to get the U.S. out of “endless wars.”
The Harvard graduate, who served as staff director for then-Senator Biden on the Foreign Relations Committee, will work with a team steeped in foreign policy. Among Biden’s nominees are Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser and former Secretary of State John Kerry as climate change czar.
“You have a team of national security officials with experience in bureaucracy as well as experience with the Hill,” said Suzanne Maloney, a member of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s team who’s now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
Biden said during the presidential campaign that one of his priorities will be to get on the phone with historic allies and begin repairing ties he believes were damaged by Trump’s “America First” policies. The president-elect’s critics say that’s the wrong approach, and Trump on Tuesday said “America First, we shouldn’t go away from that.”
Blinken pushed back in his remarks Tuesday.
“We can’t solve all the world’s problems alone,” Blinken said. “We need to be working with other countries, we need their cooperation, we need their partnership. America at its best still has a greater ability than any other country on Earth to bring others together to meet the challenges of our time.”
North Korea, Iran
Although Biden has said his priorities are getting the Covid-19 pandemic under control, dealing with questions around vaccine distribution and bolstering the U.S. economy, there are foreign policy problems that he won’t be able to put off for long.
While Trump touted his outreach to North Korea and said his diplomacy had averted a war in which “millions” would have perished, Kim’s regime continued to build its nuclear weapons program throughout the Trump presidency and could decide to put the new administration to an early test.
In addition, the U.S. and Russia have so far failed to extend the expiring New START nuclear treaty. The accord limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons, such as submarine-launched missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Blinken and Biden will also have to determine whether to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and how to balance the competing economic, technological and geopolitical conflicts the U.S. has with China, a relationship that has arguably changed more than any other since Blinken last worked in the White House.
“There’s no illusion that Blinken can go back to the Obama years on China,” said Maloney. “He’s dealing with an entirely new context for the U.S.-China relationship.”- Bloomberg