Blinken Is Good Enough
What it takes to make a truly great secretary of state—and why the United States may not need one now.
This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.
The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, a recent book from journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, isn’t just a terrific read; it couldn’t be more relevant or timely. The book portrays a time—and a Washington—when political compromise and deal-making between Republicans and Democrats was not just possible, but desirable. Against that background, it also tells the story of a great secretary of state presiding over the last time the United States was respected, admired, and even feared in the world.
That world is gone. Whether it can come back—whether a Baker or a Henry Kissinger like-figure will ever walk the corridors of Foggy Bottom—is unlikely. But the answer may not matter, or at least not matter as much as many people think. As President-elect Joe Biden and Antony Blinken, his pick for secretary of state, gear up to operate in the cruel and unforgiving world they’ll inherit, it is worth reminding oneself what makes a great secretary of state, and perhaps why—paradoxically and fortuitously—these challenging times may not require a Baker or a Kissinger to do great things. Instead, a chief diplomat who is talented and committed to helping America get its diplomatic groove back may be all the country needs.
The abysmal tenure of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has cast in bold relief the gap between the best and the worst. In the past half century, two secretaries of state stand at the top. Three essential elements defined their excellence.
First, both Kissinger and Baker not only had the respect and confidence of their presidents; their bosses knew foreign policy and could direct and validate strategy and command respect themselves. Baker’s lifelong friendship with President George H.W. Bush was closer than any pairing in history. Indeed, when one of us interviewed the late president in 2006, he made clear that choosing Baker, whom he described as a “tough trader,” was like a “gimme” in golf—the right decision that was just taken for granted. Kissinger’s relationship with President Richard Nixon was more complex and competitive. But he gave Kissinger enormous authority; indeed, in the wake of Watergate, especially during the post-1973 era of Middle East shuttle diplomacy, Kissinger was effectively running U.S. foreign policy with Nixon’s blessing. That ensured that the United States was not seen as weakened by domestic scandal. For America’s allies and adversaries alike, it takes about five minutes to figure out if there’s daylight between the president and the secretary of state—that is, whether the secretary of state is speaking authoritatively for the president. If there is even a glimmer, one might as well hang a “closed for the season” sign at Foggy Bottom.
Second, the nation’s top diplomat needs to have the mindset and skillset of a negotiator. Kissinger and Baker saw how the pieces fit together and had an intuitive sense of how to cajole, persuade, and flatter. They were both adept at understanding the positions of their negotiating partners and grasping their political needs, vulnerabilities, and the vital interests of their countries; equally important, they realized that negotiations succeed when both sides were convinced they’d won. Effective secretaries of state cannot be ideologues whose view of a negotiation is “my way or else.”
Once Kissinger and Baker sensed that a deal was possible, their tenacity in going after it became the stuff of legend. Baker made nine trips to put together the Madrid Peace Conference; Kissinger conducted 30-plus days of shuttle talks to conclude the 1974 Israeli-Syrian Agreement on Disengagement. They also understood when to walk away, as Baker demonstrated when he slammed his notebook shut and threatened to leave in the middle of a meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad; or in 1975, when Kissinger threatened to reassess relations with Israel to wheedle Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to an agreement.
Third, and there’s no other way to say it, Kissinger and Baker were also lucky. No matter how formidable their diplomatic skills, without some major crisis or opportunity they could not have succeeded. Call it fortune. Egypt’s attack on Israel in 1973 offered Kissinger his Middle East moment; Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 provided Bush and Baker with their opportunity to organize the Madrid Summit to advance the cause of Middle East peace. The collapse of the former Soviet Union that same year facilitated Baker’s success in managing German reunification without a crisis. The point is, though, when their moments came, they knew how to exploit the opportunity.
When the two of us worked in the State Department’s Policy Planning Office for George P. Shultz, who also belongs in the top ranks of secretaries of state, he would often liken his role to “tending the diplomatic garden.” He used this metaphor to describe the tireless and sometimes thankless (or fruitless) effort to cultivate productive relationships with foreign countries to advance U.S. interests. Like Kissinger and Baker, Shultz understood that effective diplomacy depends on forging trust, building up negotiating capital with foreign leaders, knowing when and how to use leverage, and understanding how culture, history, geography, ideology, and national narratives drive leaders’ ambitions.
As he prepares to join the Biden administration, Blinken will need to tend a lot of gardens simultaneously to achieve job number one: keeping the United States out of trouble abroad so that the new president can focus all his time, energy, and political capital on fixing America’s problems at home. For this overriding mission, the new secretary of state does not need to be a brilliant strategist or conceptualizer—or have the stature, gravitas, or charisma of a Kissinger or a Baker. He needs to be highly competent, understand the deliberative process, have the experience to navigate Washington and the world, and reflect the president’s deep commitment to restoring America’s standing abroad.
The good news on that front is that Blinken possesses many of those qualities—as well as traits his predecessor, Pompeo, lacked. He’s got a pragmatic and prudent streak and good interpersonal and consensus-building skills. Those will help him keep problems off Biden’s plate and avoid the pitfall of issuing diktats to the other side and then refusing to negotiate and compromise when your counterpart, understandably, refuses to submit to your ultimatums. In other words, Blinken will not be an “our way or the highway” negotiator like Pompeo was—and he will know when the perfect outcome should not be the enemy of a good enough one.
It might appear like bad news for Blinken, though, that a tour of the horizon suggests precious few opportunities for heroic diplomacy and transformational outcomes. The problems that divide the United States from China and Russia are too deep seated to be resolved through quick resets or grand bargains. They can only be managed through a framework, as scholar Robert Manning recently argued in these pages, of “competitive coexistence” to avoid the worst outcomes that would distract from Biden’s domestic priorities. Making progress on global warming and pandemic response will require deft diplomatic footwork, but former Secretary of State John Kerry, the new climate czar, will own the climate change portfolio and other agencies will play the leading role in improving international cooperation on global health. A quick breakthrough in U.S.-North Korean relations is highly unlikely; at best, he can hope to start the process of building mutual trust to lay a longer-term foundation for agreements on arms control and measures to enhance security on the Korean Peninsula.
So what does that leave for Blinken? The State Department has been hollowed out and morale has tanked. As a former deputy secretary of state, he is the right person to begin the monumental task of rebuilding and reforming the institution. He will need to hit the road right way to begin mending diplomatic fences and he will be bombarded with requests to travel. But rather than go on a globe-girdling listening tour to show that “America is back,” he should focus his trips on the most significant relationships in Europe and the Asia Pacific that need care while delegating other foreign travels to subordinates. The new secretary of state will almost certainly achieve considerable success on the important goal of rebuilding and maintaining America’s alliance relationships and refurbishing trust in the United States and its image abroad, through such actions as rejoining Paris Accord and the World Health Organization, and deepening ties with our NATO allies, Japan, and South Korea.
Truly consequential secretaries of state, of course, take ownership of significant foreign-policy issues and make them better. Reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran, while extremely complicated and politically fraught, may offer such an opportunity: There is an existing framework that can provide a basis for a new nuclear deal. The sanctions the United States and others have imposed on Iran provide some negotiating leverage if there are follow-on negotiations on other issues. And there will be a deep bench of experience and expertise to help Blinken navigate the treacherous shoals of a multi-dimensional game of diplomatic and geopolitical chess that will be played out in delicate negotiations between the administration, congress, European allies, China and Russia, and the United States’ Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati partners.
The risks are quite high but so are the rewards: A failure to reach agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is the one issue that could blow up, literally and figuratively, in the administration’s face, and cause serious collateral damage to the president’s domestic agenda early in his tenure. Given the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, trying to reach another is likely a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished undertaking. But after all, what are great or good secretaries of state for?
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2