Antony Blinken: The New Face of U.S. Diplomacy

Since January 2017, the world has suffered a State Department that treated foreign policy more like a yo-yo than a strategy. Whilst he was a candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly mulled pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate AccordsIran nuclear deal, and even NATO. As President, he went two for three on those agreements, putting peace in the Middle East and America’s commitment to fighting climate change into jeopardy as a result.

At Foggy Bottom – a colloquialism originating from the State Department’s headquarters in Washington’s north-west quadrant – things were little better. From Rex Tillerson reportedly calling Trump a “f****** moron” to Mike Pompeo allegedly ordering staffers to walk his dog, these have not been easy years for America’s allies, or even State Department officials for that matter.

For this reason, as well as the unprecedented health and economic crisis demanding Joe Biden’s attention remain on domestic issues, the new president’s pick for Secretary of State is a consequential one. However, instead of opting for a nationally-recognised figure (such as former National Security Adviser Susan Rice) or a combat-ready Senate colleague (either Delaware’s Chris Coons or Connecticut’s Chris Murphy would have worked here), Biden chose Antony Blinken, a former Deputy Secretary of State and career diplomat.

Blinken’s selection – and subsequent bipartisan confirmation – reinforces the governing logic of the Biden administration: experience, far more than passion, paves the way to success. And Blinken has plenty of experience. The son of a Clinton-era Ambassador to Hungary, he served on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 2001, and was Biden’s NSA from 2009 to 2013. As noted above, Blinken served out the rest of the Obama Administration as John Kerry’s deputy at Foggy Bottom.

Not least amongst Blinken’s numerous tasks is rebuilding America’s relationship with Europe, a task made a little easier by his biography. The grandson of Jewish refugees, and the stepson of a Polish Holocaust survivor, Blinken knows the stakes of rising populism, nationalism, and isolationism better than most. He speaks fluent French, and was educated at the École Jeannine Manuel in Paris. He even seems to prefer European football to its American counterpart.

Blinken’s selection also reinforces another trend in his boss’ governing strategy: that of maintaining party unity. Although Blinken is no progressive, neither is he the kind of moderate Democrat that progressives like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won’t be able to get along with. Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager, described him as a “solid choice” for Secretary of State, and Blinken received unanimous support from left-leaning Democrats in his confirmation hearings.

That’s not to say Blinken’s record is spotless, however; whilst staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he pressed then-Senator Biden to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. During Iraq’s occupation, he was an early advocate of Biden’s plan to divide the country into three regions along sectarian lines, a plan that was roundly rejected both in the U.S. and by Iraqi authorities. He remains tough on foreign policy: he maintains that, despite myriad mistakes in other areas, the Trump administration “was right in taking a tougher approach to China”, although criticised the way in which his predecessors followed that approach.

In short, Blinken mirrors his boss’ vision of American leadership; a focus on alliance diplomacy, backed up by a tough – though not jingoistic – military stance and strong personal relationships. Like Biden, he is rooted in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and is a strong believer in the power of institutions. But what does all this mean for the next four years of U.S. foreign policy?

In all likelihood, expect a public recommitment to the core institutions of the post-war international settlement, NATO first among these. When it comes to China, Blinken will reign in the bombast and trade policies that characterised his predecessors’ terms, but likely not the pivot from co-operation to competition. A stronger line will likely be taken against Russia, both in Eastern Europe and further afield. There has already been some movement towards an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, so watch out for similar moves against other human rights abusers. Blinken may even try to resurrect the Iran nuclear agreement, albeit with heavy revisions that update the agreement for the 2020s.

He is not likely to be radical; it’s unlikely the U.S. will suddenly declare war on North Korea, or drop out of the WHO (again). But after four years of rollercoaster diplomacy, the international community may be very pleased to have a career diplomat with a clear lack of flair taking their calls to Washington.

By Conor Hilliard

Conor is a third year History and International Relations student and working group member of the Defence and Diplomacy Policy Centre at King’s Think Tank. His academic interests include British diplomatic history, Irish nationalism and peacekeeping studies.

The featured image (top) is from Flickr by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. It is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Bibliography

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