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

After reports first emerged on Sunday night that Antony Blinken would be secretary of state in the Biden administration, one particular 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 very 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 idwest, for example, Blinken is very much a born internationalist.

He went to school in Paris, where he learned to play the guitar and football (soccer), 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.

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. The foreign policy priorities in the first days of a Biden administration will be rejoining treaties and agreements that Donald Trump left.

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 worked on Biden’s failed presidential bid in 2008.

After Obama picked Biden as 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 Bin Laden.

President Barack Obama and vice president, 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 on the back.
President Barack Obama and vice-president, 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 on 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 also 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 check 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 and worked in the Clinton White House on the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Since Biden won the Democratic nomination, Blinken has led an outreach effort to the left of the party, narrowing at least some differences, on Saudi Arabia and climate goals for example. 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.”

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 her comment on Duss’s tweet, 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 like Covid, 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.”