Antony Blinken: Biden's secretary of state nominee is sharp break with Trump era

A born internationalist, Blinken will seek to soothe the frayed nerves of western allies

After reports first emerged on Sunday night that Antony Blinken would be secretary of state in the Biden administration, one interview from his past began circulating on social media.

It was a September 2016 conversation with Grover, a character from Sesame Street, on the subject of refugees, directed at American children who might have new classmates from faraway countries. “We all have something to learn and gain from one another even when it doesn’t seem at first like we have much in common,” Blinken told the fuzzy blue puppet.

After four years of an administration that has separated migrant children from their parents and kept them in cages, Blinken’s arrival at the state department will mark a dramatic change, to say the least.

While Mike Pompeo has remained a domestic politician throughout his tenure as secretary of state, giving the lion’s share of his interviews to conservative radio stations in the midwest, for example, Blinken is very much a born internationalist.

He went to school in Paris, where he learned to play the guitar (he played Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall at graduation) and football, and harboured dreams of becoming a film-maker. Before entering the White House under Barack Obama, he used to play in a weekly soccer game with US officials, foreign diplomats and journalists, and he has two singles – love songs titled Lip Service and Patience – uploaded on Spotify.

Rob Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group, who was at school with Blinken in France, said: “He was an American in Paris, with a sense of what it meant to be an American with US culture and values at a time when there was a lot of anti-Americanism around. But he also saw what it was to be a French person looking at America.”

All those contacts and the urbane bilingual charm will be targeted at soothing the frayed nerves of western allies, reassuring them that the US is back as a conventional team player. Where Pompeo has been abrasive, Blinken is soft-spoken with a reputation for self-deprecatory humour. Those traits will be handy in the initial effort to rebuild relationships. The foreign policy priorities in the first days of a Biden administration will be rejoining treaties and agreements that Donald Trump left.

Blinken’s background is a very much a European one and he has described Brexit as “a total mess”.

“This is not just the dog that caught the car, this is the dog that caught the car and the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog,” he said on a podcast in late October.

There is little doubt that Blinken will be on the same page as Joe Biden. He has been at the president-elect’s side for nearly two decades. After working in Bill Clinton’s national security council, he became Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser in the Senate in 2002, as staff director on the foreign relations committee, and he worked on Biden’s failed presidential bid in 2008.

After Obama picked Biden for vice-president, Blinken returned to the White House as his national security adviser. His face can be seen at the back of the room in the famous photograph of Obama officials monitoring the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

The White House situation room during the Bin Laden mission
Barack Obama and Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the situation room of the White House on 1 May 2011. Antony Blinken can be seen fourth from left at the back. Photograph: Pete Souza/AP

In the last two years of the Obama administration, Blinken served as deputy secretary of state. His return in the top job then is the embodiment of continuity. But in recent interviews he has acknowledged the mistakes and regrets of the Obama era.

On the decision not to intervene in any significant way in Syria (a decision Blinken opposed), he told CBS News: “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement … something I will take with me for the rest of my days.”

He signed an open letter with other former Obama officials in 2018 acknowledging that the initial support they gave to the Saudi war in Yemen had not succeeded in limiting or ending the war and had mutated into a blank cheque under the Trump administration, resulting in devastating civilian casualties. A Biden administration is expected to cut off military involvement in the conflict.

Those who know Blinken well insist that his commitment to human rights is genuine and rooted in experience. He is the stepson of a Holocaust survivor, Samuel Pisar, who lived through Auschwitz and Dachau and other camps and who went on to become a lawyer, writer and adviser to John F Kennedy. Blinken also worked in the Clinton White House on the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

“He is somebody within the Obama administration and the Biden team who really understands the role that promoting and protecting human rights can play as advantageous to US policy,” said Rob Berschinski, who worked alongside Blinken as deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour.

Since Biden won the Democratic nomination, Blinken has led an outreach effort to the left of the party, narrowing at least some differences, for example on Saudi Arabia and climate goals. News of his expected nomination was quickly welcomed by Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’ chief foreign policy adviser.

“This is a good choice. Tony has the strong confidence of the president-elect and the knowledge and experience for the important work of rebuilding US diplomacy,” Duss wrote on Twitter. “It will also be a new and great thing to have a top diplomat who has regularly engaged with progressive grassroots.”

Antony Blinken in Seoul in January 2016
Antony Blinken (left) talks with South Korea’s foreign minister Yun Byung-se at the defence ministry in Seoul in January 2016. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

But there were also rumblings on Sunday night of future tensions along old faultlines in US foreign policy. Blinken has been adamant about the Biden administration’s commitment to Israel’s security and said military support would not be made dependent on Israel’s policy decisions.

In a comment on Duss’s tweet, the Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, an advocate of Palestinian rights, said: “Just make sure he doesn’t try to silence me and suppress my first amendment right to speak out against Netanyahu’s racist and inhumane policies.”

The policy struggles will eventually rise to the fore but Blinken – who at 58 arrives at the state department as the father of two young children – is likely to begin with an extended honeymoon simply by not being Pompeo and having the stated desire to lead the US back towards leadership on the world stage on global issues such as Covid, the climate and non-proliferation.

He told the Intelligence Matters podcast in September: “We’d actually show up again, day in, day out. But to engage the world, not as it was in 2009 or even in 2017 when we left it, but as it is and as we anticipate it will become: rising powers, new actors super-empowered by technology and information, who we have to bring along if we’re going to make progress.”


Julian Borger in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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