Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state, has worked with the former vice president for so long that one former State Department official said that “it’s difficult to know where one person’s policy vision ends and the other’s begins.”
In Blinken, Biden is tapping someone with a commitment to international cooperation, refugee issues and humanitarian work that is rooted in his personal history – along with enough playfulness to pair up with Sesame Street’s Grover to make a video about welcoming refugees.
A father of two toddlers who has his own band – called Ablinken – the longtime Biden aide was widely praised as an ideal choice both to repair damage to US alliances and help fashion policies for a slew of challenges that are bigger than any one country can solve. Foggy Bottom observers hailed Blinken’s deep knowledge of all corners of Washington’s foreign policy institutions and his rapport with the President-elect.
“Mr. President-elect, working for you, having you as a mentor and friend, has been the greatest privilege of my professional life,” Blinken said Tuesday at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, where Biden presented his national security team. Blinken continued, outlining the Biden team’s vision.
“As the President-elect said, 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.”
The 58-year-old Blinken’s early years steeped him in both an international outlook and Democratic politics. He grew up in New York City and Paris, where he and his mother moved with his stepfather, a survivor of Nazi camps during the Holocaust. The former French ambassador to the US, Gerard Araud, praised Blinken on Monday for being “perfectly bilingual.”
After bitter and divisive years in Washington and at the State Department under President Donald Trump’s administration, many current and former foreign service officers made a point of describing him with a word rarely heard in the capital: “nice.”
“Tony is super nice, super smart and strategic, a good leader, and someone who will clearly have the President’s confidence,” said one current diplomat, one of many employees at the State Department who have felt buffeted by the last four years. “He’s not a nerd who can’t function in the bureaucracy - he’s an operator, but a nice one. Can’t ask for anything better. I personally just really like him and think his calm, non-political, experienced approach to everything will be very effective in repairing the damage.”
Lewis Lukens, a former career diplomat who served as US ambassador to Senegal and to Guinea-Bissau, said that “it sends a really positive message that the President(-elect) is, you know, sending someone who he’s very close to, but also someone who understands and respects the institution.”
“The most important things are: he understands the State Department, he knows the building, people there respect him and they like him,” Lukens added. “And he’s super close to the President(-elect), so when he’s out there on the global stage, there’ll be no question of distance between him and the president on any policy issues. He will speak with the authority of someone who is very, very tight with the President.”
Other current foreign service officers, who were not authorized to speak on the record, welcomed the news, calling Blinken professional, smart, steady and thoughtful.
“He goes into everything so very well prepared. He is a thorough and a consummate professional,” said a second current diplomat who has worked with him in the past.
“Most importantly, he’s just a civil, steady hand that we need to right the ship,” said a third current US diplomat.
“The grownups are back,” said a current senior US diplomat.
Blinken said on Twitter Monday that “the messages from friends and colleagues that I’ve received over the past 15 hours have been humbling. Honored to announce, officially, that I have been nominated to serve as Secretary of State. If confirmed, this is a mission I will take on with my full heart.”
Forging ties with Biden
Blinken attended Harvard University before getting a law degree at Columbia University. After a little work in journalism, he set a course for foreign policy, eventually holding several senior positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations over three decades.
His father, one of the founders of the New York investment bank E.M. Warburg Pincus & Company, served as then-President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Hungary from 1994 to 1998. And Blinken worked with his father to raise funds for Michael Dukakis’ failed 1988 bid for the presidency.
Blinken served as a member of Clinton’s National Security Council staff from 1994 until 2001, and then moved on to be the Democratic staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he first forged his relationship with Biden, from 2002 to 2008.
During President Barack Obama’s first term, Blinken served as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and then moved on to become an assistant to the President and his principal deputy national security advisor. Blinken also chaired the administration’s main forum for deciding foreign policy, helping shape policies on the Iran nuclear program and Afghanistan.
After he won a second term, Obama nominated Blinken to become the deputy secretary of state, the nation’s number two diplomat, a perch from which he helped determine the administration’s approach to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the global refugee crisis, the rise of ISIS and the war in Syria, as well as the administration’s attempt to recalibrate its relationship with Asia and China.
In interviews, Blinken has spoken about the sense of responsibility he feels about policy in Syria, saying all those who worked on it have “to acknowledge that we failed, not for want of trying, but we failed” to prevent “horrific loss of life” and massive displacement.
“It’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days,” Blinken told CBS in May. He said “a bad situation” in Syria was “made even worse” by Trump administration policies, including a troop withdrawal and the abandonment of US Kurdish allies. The way to deal with this, he said, was to work with allies, mobilizing others to respond and using the leverage of alliances to create change.
Michael McKinley, a former career diplomat who resigned amid the Ukraine controversy when he was a senior adviser to current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said that Blinken’s long experience in the US foreign policy trenches and the relationships he has developed internationally will help rebuild alliances that will be needed for that kind of work.
“The incoming Biden administration has already signaled the importance of moving quickly to build back our relationships with our key global allies and partners, to strengthen our security alliances in Asia and Europe, and of addressing important outstanding trade issues that impact our national prosperity,” he said. “I think you are going to witness a very proactive and effective approach to rebuilding our relationships with the outside world.”