Biden to name longtime confidant Antony Blinken as secretary of state
WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden will name Antony Blinken, a veteran foreign policy official and longtime confidant, as his secretary of state, his campaign announced Monday,
Blinken, who held top-level national security and State Department positions during the Obama administration, has worked side-by-side with Biden on foreign policy issues for nearly two decades.
Biden has called Blinken a "superstar" and once said he could do "any job." By choosing Blinken for one of the most coveted jobs in the Cabinet, Biden is aiming to install an alter-ego at the helm of the State Department and signaling he will make foreign policy a priority of his presidency.
Biden will enter the White House with more foreign policy experience than any of his four immediate predecessors, from Donald Trump to Bill Clinton, stretching back nearly three decades. And the president-elect already knows many of the players on the world stage – whether from his two terms as vice president or his 30-plus years in the Senate.
Biden also plans to tap Jake Sullivan, who worked for both Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as his national security adviser, and he will nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield, another veteran of the Obama administration and a career diplomat, as his ambassador to the United Nations, his transition team announced on Monday.
All three would come to their positions with their own high-wattage connections around the world, and taken together, the appointments suggest that Biden wants to move quickly on his promise to put America "at the head of the table" and lead on global issues like climate change and COVID-19.
"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," Biden said in a statement announcing the new appointments.
"This is the crux of that team," the president-election said. "Their accomplishments in diplomacy are unmatched, but they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet the profound challenges of this new moment with old thinking and unchanged habits -- or without diversity of background and perspective."
Blinken's nomination in particular highlights the president-elect's desire to install a trusted adviser as America's top diplomat, someone who can anticipate the incoming president's views on a wide range of national security and foreign policy matters.
The 58-year-old Blinken was Biden's staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for six years, starting in 2002. When Biden became vice president, Blinken became his national security director – before President Barack Obama elevated him to higher positions, including the No. 2 job at the State Department.
Blinken "knows everything about the president-elect’s perspectives on national security and foreign policy," said Wendy Sherman, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration.
It's vital "for leaders around the world to know that the Secretary of State can pick up the phone and talk to the president anytime," Sherman said, and with Blinken, "there's just no question" he will have that access.
The move may disappoint some who wanted Biden to nominate Susan Rice, another longtime foreign policy hand and a Black woman, to lead the State Department. Biden has pledged to appoint a diverse Cabinet and tapping Rice would have sent an early signal of his commitment to fulfilling that pledge.
The American-born, Paris-raised Blinken is a safer pick when it comes to Senate confirmation. Rice would have faced a Republican grilling over her initial statements about the 2012 Benghazi attacks that left four Americans dead.
Blinken will be tasked with carrying out a sweeping set of policy promises Biden made during the campaign – from repairing America's frayed alliances to reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
"This is 'We're ready to go on day one, we have a mind meld,'" said Damon Wilson, executive vice president at the Atlantic Council, who met Blinken when they both worked in the Clinton administration. "He knows Biden, he knows the White House, he knows that role."
He and others describe Blinken as whip smart, unflappable and a consummate diplomat steeped in every foreign policy issue. And nice, too.
"He's extraordinary – a person of tremendous integrity, tremendous competence," Wilson said. "He's a strategist, but he is so decent. He's such a nice guy."
But critics say Blinken oversaw a series of disastrous foreign policy decisions from his perch in the Obama administration.
Biden once credited Blinken with overseeing the 2011 U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq, which became a flashpoint for the Obama administration amid a resurgence of violence and the rise of ISIS in that country. Republicans have also suggested that Blinken helped execute an immoral U.S. policy toward Syria, citing Obama's reluctance to get involved militarily as Bashar al-Assad murdered his own people.
"They feel abandoned, and they have every reason to feel abandoned," the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said during Blinken's 2014 confirmation hearing for the deputy secretary of state position.
Despite the previous GOP criticism, Sherman predicted that Blinken, as well as Thomas-Greenfield, will be able to win Senate confirmation, even if the chamber remains in Republicans hands.
"They will certainly be challenged and asked tough questions but will be confirmed with relative ease given their bipartisan profiles on the Hill," she said.
After the Obama administration, Blinken kept his Biden ties, becoming managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a policy institute the former vice president established in 2018. And Blinken served as a key adviser to Biden throughout the campaign.
Asked about Biden's foreign policy vision in a Sept. 15 podcast interview with CBS, Blinken said he could sum it up in three words: "leadership, cooperation and democracy."
Blinken argued that "the world just doesn't organize itself" and that America needs to take a leadership role.
"When we're not engaged, when we don't lead, then one or two things is likely to happen," Blinken said. "Either some other country tries to take our place – but probably not in a way that advances our interests or values – or no one does. And then you get chaos or a vacuum filled by bad things before it's filled by good things. Either way, that's bad for us."
Blinken is among the people Biden "trusts most" on foreign policy, said Rob Malley, who also worked in the Obama White House and has known Blinken since the early 1970s, when they were both young American boys growing up in Paris. The two even faced off during a high school debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Malley recalled, though he couldn't remember who won.
Malley, now president of the Crisis Group, and others say Blinken is easygoing and self-effacing despite a high-flying upbringing in New York and Paris. His mother ran a New York dance company, among other positions, and his father, co-founder of a venture capital firm, is a well-known arts patron and served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary in the 1990s.
Blinken's move to Paris came when he was nine, after his parents divorced and his mother married Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor who became an accomplished lawyer, representing Hollywood stars and corporate executives, and who also advised presidents on both sides of the Atlantic.
During his 2014 confirmation hearing to become then-Secretary of State John Kerry's deputy, Blinken said the move to France opened his eyes to the world and allowed him to see the United States through the eyes of others.
"I found myself enlisted at a very young age in playing junior diplomat, trying to explain the United States to my fellow students," he said, noting it was as the U.S. was grappling with the end of the Vietnam War, among other watershed events.
A lengthy Washington Post profile of Blinken said his life story "reads like a Jewish high-society screenplay" with a "supporting cast" that included the likes of John Lennon and Leonard Bernstein.
In Washington, Blinken has steadily risen through the foreign policy ranks. During his 2014 confirmation hearing, he said he was drawn to diplomatic work by his family's immigrant roots, but he cited in particular his stepfather's harrowing escape, as a young boy in a Nazi concentration camp, during a death march.
"He made a run for it and he found cover," Blinken recounted. Still in hiding a day later, Pisar heard a rumbling sound and peeked out to see an American tank. "The hatch opened up, he got down on his knees and he spoke the only three words in English that he knew ... 'God bless America'."
His stepfather was made an American citizen by an act of Congress, and he went on to serve in the John F. Kennedy administration, as well as advising two French presidents.
In Obama's second term, he snatched Blinken from Biden's staff to be his deputy national security adviser and in 2014, Obama nominated Blinken to the No. 2 post at the State Department.
"Tony has displayed extraordinary integrity, judgment, and inclusiveness as he has implemented America’s foreign policy priorities," Obama said after Blinken was confirmed by the Senate, mostly along party lines, to be deputy secretary of state.
Republicans criticized Blinken then for his stewardship of Obama's foreign policy, including the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, the move to end the war in Afghanistan and a faltering response to the bloodshed in Syria.
McCain called Blinken "not only unqualified but in fact, in my view, one of the worst selections ... that this president has chosen."
Blinken is married to Evan Ryan, who served as an assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs under Obama. She is now on the board of the Women's Foreign Policy Group, which says its mission is to advance women’s leadership in international affairs.