Blinken becomes the chief U.S. diplomat as the U.S. faces tests on multiple fronts, including: a pandemic that has killed 2.1 million people worldwide and ravaged economies; a rising and increasingly aggressive China; a Middle East riven by tensions between Iran and its neighbors; and an increasing exhaustion among Americans with the war in Afghanistan. He has pledged to make “humility and confidence” the twin cornerstones of his approach to the job, a reflection of the Biden team’s view of how America should conduct itself in a world where Washington, D.C., is not the only power center.
The 58-year-old’s Senate confirmation hearing went relatively smoothly, with Republicans expressing delight at times at how often Blinken agreed with them.
For instance, Blinken said former President Donald Trump was right to take a tougher stance on China, although he disagreed with some of the tactics used by the previous administration. He also indicated that he would support keeping some terrorism-related sanctions on the Islamist-led government in Iran, despite the Biden administration’s goal of rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump quit in 2018.
Still, some Republicans voted against Blinken. They included Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who complained ahead of Tuesday’s vote about Blinken’s past support for U.S. military interventions in places like Libya. He argued that Blinken hasn’t learned the lessons from the chaos that has followed such interventions.
“My opposition of Mr. Blinken to be secretary of State is not so much because I oppose the administration. It’s because I oppose the bipartisan consensus for war,” Paul said.
Blinken earned plenty of praise ahead of the Senate vote, too. The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, said Blinken was “thoughtful” and “able to grapple with the most complex challenging issues facing our country, and committed to engaging Congress.”
Blinken has long stressed the importance of the United States working with international allies to advance its interests, including standing up to Beijing. He’s fiercely criticized Trump and the former president’s aides for pursuing more unilateral approaches toward diplomacy.
At the same time, Blinken has argued that America should be open to cooperating with adversaries like China and Russia, especially on transnational challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
Under Blinken, the State Department is expected to help rebuild the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which Trump nearly dismantled as he radically restricted the number of refugees admitted each year.
Blinken is well known in Foggy Bottom, where he served as John Kerry’s deputy from 2015 to 2017. That familiarity may help him address the State Department’s sagging morale: Foreign Service officers and other officials often felt marginalized under Trump, who generally ignored their advice and accused them of being members of a “deep state” bent on thwarting his policies.
Trump’s first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, frequently sidelined career officials and concentrated decision-making in the hands of a few top aides.
Trump’s second secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, improved morale when he first took over, but soon lost the confidence of many veteran diplomats. His refusal to stand up for Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine caught up in Trump’s first impeachment trial, was a particular sore point.
Department employees say they will be watching closely how many in their ranks will be elevated to top positions at the State Department and the National Security Council under Biden and Blinken.
So far, many of the top jobs have gone to outside political appointees or former career officials who left government before or under Trump. But many key roles remain unfilled, including a number of assistant secretary of State positions that could go to current career officials.
Blinken has diplomacy in his blood. His father, Donald Blinken, is a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, and his uncle, Alan Blinken, served as U.S. ambassador to Belgium.
Blinken was also deeply influenced by his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, an international lawyer who survived the Holocaust and later championed the idea of increasing trade connections as a means of achieving peace between rival powers.