Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, is appearing Tuesday afternoon before a Senate panel to begin his confirmation process. He’s vowing to restore American leadership on the world stage and work for the “greater good.”
“Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership coin,” he will tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to his prepared testimony. “Humility because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad … But we’ll also act with confidence that America at its best still has a greater ability than any country on earth to mobilize others for the greater good.”
Blinken has the resume of a diplomat. A Harvard University and Columbia Law School graduate who went to high school in Paris and speaks French, he served as deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration. He was national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden, and was the Democratic staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was its chairman. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, he served on the National Security Council.
Blinken cofounded WestExec Advisors, a consulting firm, after Donald Trump became president.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy says Blinken’s work to help restore America’s credibility and rebuild alliances will be harder in the wake of the Capitol Hill insurrection.
“The mountain that he was going to have to climb to restore America’s credibility was a 14,000-footer. It just became a 15,000-footer,” Murphy told the Atlantic Council on Friday. Murphy says he’s been reaching out to Republicans on Blinken’s behalf to pave the way for quick confirmation.
On its first day in office, the Biden administration plans to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, restore America’s leading role in the World Health Organization and reverse Trump’s executive order banning travel from some predominantly Muslim countries.
Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls these issues “low-hanging fruit” compared to other challenges Blinken will face. Strained relationships with key allies and rising threats from Iran, North Korea, Russia and China are among the issues senators will press him on during Tuesday’s confirmation hearing.
“You know, looking out at this world, I divide it into migraine headaches on one hand and root canals on the other,” Miller tells NPR, citing challenges including the coronavirus pandemic, threats from Iran and North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile arsenal. “It’s a world where American power and influence is now challenged routinely by China and Russia, by smaller powers like Iran and North Korea, and where the notion that we are the indispensable power has kind of gone the way of the dodo.”
It doesn’t mean the U.S. can’t lead, but it’s going to be a lot harder, says Miller, who has advised six secretaries of state.
This is especially true when it comes to China, says Michael Green, a former Bush administration official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Trump administration is leaving some initiatives that the Biden administration will probably continue, he says. But it is also leaving problems.
“The withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership means that the United States is now involved in none of the major economic negotiations in Asia,” he says. “Trump and his leadership skipped most of the diplomacy in Southeast Asia, and that’s where China is starting to expand its influence … And Trump put a lot of tariffs and pressure on U.S. allies that really rattled them.”
Biden, he says, will have to restore confidence among allies and get the U.S. back in the diplomatic game.
The president-elect is bringing in some diplomatic heavyweights to help. He’s tapped Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state, to oversee White House Asia policy. Former Secretary of State John Kerry will take a lead in climate diplomacy.
“There are some traditional foreign policy experts who think this is a really bad idea to have too many chefs in the kitchen,” says Green. But “given all the challenges he faces,” he doesn’t see how Biden can avoid it.
In his confirmation hearing testimony, Blinken describes his own American story, saying his grandfather, Maurice Blinken, found refuge in America after fleeing pogroms in Russia.
His late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, escaped a death march and was rescued by Sgt. Bill Ellington, a Black GI.
Blinken says in his testimony that Pisar “fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: God Bless America. The GI lifted him into the tank, into America, into freedom. That’s who we are. That’s what we represent to the world, however imperfectly, and what we can still be at our best.”