Biden’s Secretary of State Pick Bodes Return to Normalcy for Weary Diplomats
Diplomats express relief over Blinken’s expected nomination after four years of bruising political battles and mismanagement under Trump.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to pick Antony Blinken, one of his closest policy aides and confidants, to be secretary of state, according to people familiar with the matter. A former State Department No. 2 and longtime advisor to the former Delaware senator, Blinken has decades of foreign-policy experience dating back to the Clinton administration and signals the return of the foreign-policy establishment to power after the disruption of the Trump era.
Blinken has advised Biden for nearly two decades, first as staff director at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chairman, and later as national security advisor to the vice president. He served as deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017, when he played a pivotal role in the Obama administration’s Syria policy and the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea.
Blinken is seen by many in Democratic foreign-policy circles as a centrist, and his expected nomination to the country’s top diplomatic posts dashes hopes in the left wing of the Democratic Party that Biden would tap a more progressive candidate, such as Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy.
Additionally, people familiar with the Biden transition team’s plans say that the president-elect is expected to select Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a seasoned and well-respected former career diplomat, as his ambassador to the United Nations. Foreign Policy previously reported she was expected to be chosen for a senior role in the administration. Jake Sullivan, another campaign advisor and Obama administration veteran, is expected to be named as Biden’s national security advisor, as the Washington Post reports. Sullivan served in the same role for Biden when he was vice president before becoming a major player on Obama’s Iran policy at the State Department, holding secret meetings in Oman that laid the groundwork for the 2015 nuclear deal.
In Foggy Bottom, news of Blinken’s expected nomination was met with relief, after four years of career diplomats being treated with distrust and disdain by President Donald Trump’s inner circle, particularly after Trump’s bruising impeachment trial. “Blinken’s appointment will be a salve to a wounded State Department and will reassure U.S. allies, who know him well,” said one former diplomat.
Some foreign-policy experts close to the campaign see Blinken’s expected nomination as an indication that the Biden team isn’t hopeful about Democrats taking control of the Senate after a January runoff for two seats in Georgia. Senior Republican lawmakers have signaled they would confirm centrist nominees, but not further-left progressive nominees, if they retained control in the Senate. Those experts also said that another top contender for the secretary of state position, Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, would have faced significant hurdles getting confirmed in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Even though Blinken is seen as a centrist, he held regular calls with progressive groups during the campaign and is seen as flexible by advocates on major priorities for the left, including supporting efforts to bring the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end, reforming the War Powers Resolution, restoring the refugee resettlement program curtailed by Trump, and cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Blinken’s nomination could also signal a return to prominence for what traditionally was a main driver of U.S. foreign policy. During the Obama administration—and Trump’s single term—some diplomats said that the White House and National Security Council had overshadowed the State Department, leaving it with less clout and influence in making foreign policy. Especially given Blinken’s close relationship with Biden, the pick is seen as a shot in the arm for the State Department.
“His relationship with the president matters a lot,” said one diplomatic source, noting it “could be a positive sign of the relative role of State vs. the NSC.”
The son of a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Clinton administration, Blinken worked his way up from roles in President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council to staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to deputy secretary of state under Secretary of State John Kerry.
During the campaign, Blinken had repeatedly vowed that, once elected, Biden would repair U.S. relations with its closest allies after four years of tension under Trump and restore U.S. stature in international institutions. He has consistently defended Biden’s foreign-policy stances, including controversial ones such as the proposed federalization of Iraq and reluctance to put more boots on the ground in Afghanistan during the Obama administration. While serving as deputy secretary of state, Blinken pushed back against plans in the early stages of the Syrian civil war to hold the Bashar al-Assad regime accountable for crimes against Syrian civilians, lest it derail the political process for peace talks between the warring sides.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer