The Ghost of Blinken Past
In 1987, Biden’s pick for secretary of state offered a warning. He should heed it today.
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.
“The Atlantic Alliance is showing serious cracks,” declared President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. “On a number of seemingly unrelated fronts, the United States and Western Europe are at each other’s throats … mounting protectionist sentiment has pushed the allies to the brink of economic warfare … Republicans and Democrats alike are tired of seeing the U.S. devote almost one half of its defense budget to NATO and receive little more than complaints in return … more generally, a new climate of isolationism is in the air—a belief that Europe is becoming less relevant, that American attention would be better devoted to the Pacific basin.”
The year: 1987. The president: Ronald Reagan. The dilemma: What to do about the new gas pipeline that Europe was building to Russia, one of America’s key foreign policy rivals. Blinken’s first book, Ally Versus Ally: America, Europe, and the Siberian Pipeline Crisis, was published by a then-unknown young writer in 1987. But the dilemma it explores bears remarkable similarities to the challenges the Biden administration is about to face when it takes office. In fact, looking at Blinken’s analysis of U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s provides some tantalizing clues as to how he plans to guide American diplomacy if he is confirmed as Biden’s secretary of state.
The “Siberian pipeline crisis” that formed the subject of Ally Versus Ally has been forgotten by all but specialists. During the mid-1980s, though, it was a source of angry debate in U.S.-European relations. Under the Reagan administration, the United States was tightening the screws on the Soviet Union—applying diplomatic pressure and cutting off commerce. Washington’s campaign was unpopular in Western Europe, where the consensus opinion was that the Soviets needed to be engaged, not defeated. Europeans saw Moscow and its Warsaw Pact satellites as valuable trading partners and wanted to import natural gas from the vast Siberian gas fields that Russia was just then beginning to develop.
To Europe, tapping those seemed like an obvious way for it to diversify its energy supplies. To Washington, the pipeline was a scheme that would end up funding the Soviet military machine. When Europe started laying pipe against U.S. objections, Washington the sanctioned European companies involved. European governments pushed ahead anyway. A foreign-policy disagreement was becoming a commercial crisis. And the alliance that had held the West together since World War II risked fracturing. It was “the beginning of the end of the Atlantic Alliance,” France’s foreign minister declared.
When French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO “brain dead” last year, he was far from the first French leader to call the Western alliance into question. Today’s transatlantic divisions have to the crisis of the late 1980s. Now, Germany is building a new gas pipeline from Russia—Nord Stream 2. Washington has again levied sanctions on companies involved, causing German politicians to accuse the United States of “neo-imperialism,” “blackmail,” and even “economic war.”
Then as now, the nuclear order in Europe was also in crisis, with the United States and Russia threatening to build up force levels in Europe. Such threats of escalation, too, intensified divisions between Washington and its European allies, many of which were skeptical of the utility of adding nukes on their territory. And just like today, the West feared that the center of gravity in international politics was shifting toward Asia; it was the period of “Japan as Number One,” as one influential book put it. This, too, seemed to bode poorly for the Atlantic Alliance.
In Ally Versus Ally, Blinken evinced little sympathy for the Reagan administration’s campaign of maximum pressure against the Soviet Union, though he also thought the Europeans’ hope that “expanded economic relations will produce positive change in the Kremlin’s foreign and domestic policies” was “wishful thinking.” However, he argued, U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union was less important than U.S. policy toward its European allies. The key geopolitical prize was not changes in Soviet behavior—which were difficult to predict or to shape—but alliance unity.
“By promoting a more harmonious alliance, rather than one divided over an issue as fundamental as East-West trade relations, the West will be in a better position to meet the challenges posed by its adversaries,” Blinken wrote. The reason was that the U.S. strategy of containing Soviet influence primarily depended on the durability of the transatlantic alliance. “If the Siberian pipeline crisis teaches us anything, it is that the Western alliance must look inward, and not simply outward, if it is to remain secure.” Alliance management generated less enthusiasm than strategy toward the Soviet Union, Blinken believed, but it was ultimately more important.
Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, Blinken will face a familiar set of challenges upon his arrival in Foggy Bottom in 2021. The United States and some European allies are divided not only over Russian gas pipelines but also by debates over strategy toward Iran and China. Biden’s desire to return to a nuclear deal with Iran will remove one major foreign policy irritant. On China—which is likely to remain as central to Biden’s foreign policy as it has been to Trump’s—the United States and Europe still have different perspectives when it comes to defining the challenge or devising a strategy to respond.
Blinken’s predecessor, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, devoted substantial diplomatic energy to encouraging skepticism of China in Europe, especially on Huawei and 5G. Pompeo scored some successes but also left many in Europe uncomfortable that they were being asked to take sides. If Blinken’s analysis of the 1980s is any guide, he’ll place less emphasis on pressuring allies and more on listening to their concerns. After four years of America First, Europe will be glad to get friendlier treatment from a secretary of state who has written an entire book on the importance of being nice to allies. The test of Blinken’s strategy, though, will be whether he can heal the alliances by making them work better, not simply by asking allies to do less.