Antony Blinken, a longtime aide to President-elect Joe Biden, will be secretary of state, the Biden transition announced on Monday.
Blinken’s appointment signals the geopolitical course Biden intends to chart in office: a restoration of liberal multilateralism, recentering traditional U.S. allies whom President Donald Trump placed on the margins. The task before Blinken and the Biden foreign policy team is reminiscent of the one shouldered by Hillary Clinton in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, where Clinton sought to assure foreign allies that Obama would break from George W. Bush’s bellicose unilateralism.
Assistance will come from a team that Blinken knows well. Biden’s transition unveiled the other senior leaders of the next administration’s national security and foreign policy leadership on Monday. They include Avril Haines, a deputy CIA director and deputy national security adviser who was considered Obama’s left-most counterterrorism aide, for director of national intelligence; Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, who followed Blinken as then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser; and United Nations ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state under Blinken at Foggy Bottom.
John Kerry, Biden’s longtime friend and ally, will also return to government next year. Kerry, Obama’s final secretary of state, will take a new role as Biden’s special envoy for combating climate change. And Alejandro Mayorkas, an immigrant who was deputy secretary for homeland security under Obama, will now be DHS secretary. Mayorkas led DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division and drew heat in that capacity after the agency’s inspector general found that he intervened in matters benefitting companies affiliated with high-profile political allies, including former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Tony Rodham, the brother of Hillary Clinton. Mayorkas vehemently denied any wrongdoing in the matter and was not sanctioned over the IG’s findings.
“I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity, and values. This is the crux of that team,” Biden said in a release announcing his choices.
However, Biden has yet to announce other crucial national-security roles, most importantly his selections for the Pentagon and CIA.
Blinken’s appointment comes as no great surprise. He has been at Biden’s side for a generation’s worth of foreign policy: as a senior aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as vice-presidential national-security adviser, as deputy secretary of state in Obama’s second term, and finally as principal foreign-policy adviser on Biden’s campaign. There will be no doubt in foreign capitals that Blinken speaks for Biden, the traditional pitfall for a secretary of state, as Colin Powell learned during the Bush administration.
If there was any surprise in Biden’s first wave of foreign policy personnel choices, it might have been Sullivan, whom several people close to the campaign said was also interested in a domestic-policy job.
Like Biden, Blinken is a committed multilateralist experienced in navigating congressional maneuvering over foreign policy, as demonstrated in his role narrowly selling the Congress on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. During the campaign, Blinken outlined priorities for a Biden presidency, such as a return to the deal and to concerted action on climate change, both of which require marshaling geopolitical coalitions. He’s also described rallying allies to counterbalance an assertive China on its economic and military ambitions while working alongside Beijing.
“I think you’d see a Biden administration having reestablished a relative strength in the relationship, then be able to engage China and work with China, in areas where our interests clearly overlap, whether it is again contending with climate change, dealing with global health and pandemics, dealing with the spread of dangerous weapons,” Blinken said in July. “We’re much better off though, finding ways to cooperate when we’re acting from a position of strength than from a position of weakness.”
Questions remain about how Biden’s restorationist impulses will manifest in a world that looks substantially different than it did before Trump’s presidency, as it follows a generation-long decline in American power through a potency-sapping war on terror; an explosion in international oligarchy born of a sharp spike in wealth hoarding by the globe’s richest; and the end of America’s unipolar moment as the Chinese economy is expected to surpass the U.S.’ during Biden’s tenure. As well, Blinken and Biden’s moves to reenter the Iran deal will face extraordinary headwinds from the traditional U.S. allies they seek to cultivate, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
As well, progressives have additional questions about Blinken’s corporate connections. Along with Michele Flournoy, who is widely expected to become Biden’s first defense secretary, Blinken ran the corporate consulting firm WestExec Advisors. Fast Company reported in 2017 that Blinken has advised the tech giants Google and Facebook, which have proven to be disinformation vectors.
Similar concerns from progressives surfaced this summer about Haines, owing to her work for the Trump-aligned datamining firm Palantir; her advocacy of CIA director Gina Haspel, implicated in CIA torture; and Haines’ own role in pushing back against declassifications of the 2014 Senate torture report and exonerating CIA officials who spied on Senate investigators. At the same time, Haines consistently advocated for restricting drone strikes at the White House, though progressives have also noted she did not argue for their abolition.
Advisers to Biden’s leftward primary rivals have described Blinken as open to their perspectives and have reacted positively to the prospect of his appointment.
“Rebuilding American diplomacy is a hugely important task for the next administration, so having someone who has the president’s total trust, as Tony does with Biden, is critical for being our country’s top diplomat,” said Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy adviser. “Tony and his team made a point to engage regularly and seriously with progressives during the campaign, identifying some points of difference but also of strong consensus. I think having a secretary of state who can build on that consensus while still listening and engaging on the points of difference, as I think Tony would, will be an important asset.”
Additional reporting from Lachlan Markay