Blinken pledges 'humility and confidence' as secretary of State

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Natasha Bertrand
·5 min read
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Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken outlined his vision for a revitalized foreign service and diplomatic corps before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, breaking with outgoing President Donald Trump’s “America First” mantra and promising to re-engage with global partners in pursuit of “the greater good.”

Over more than three hours during his confirmation hearing, Blinken answered senators’ questions about how he would approach the most pressing national security and foreign policy issues facing the U.S. today — primarily the threats posed by China, Russia and Iran, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. He pledged to remain apolitical and said the State Department under his leadership would be “a nonpartisan institution.”

The hearing was cordial, and several Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, signaled their support for President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee and acknowledged his experience and qualifications for the role.

How to compete with China and deter Chinese aggression both on the ground and in cyberspace was a major theme of the hearing, and Blinken said he believed that Trump largely “got it right” in taking a tougher approach toward Beijing, though he disagreed with the outgoing president’s specific policies.

He also said that addressing the challenge posed by Russia “across a series of fronts” was urgent and would be “very high on the agenda” for the incoming administration, and expressed support for the Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny, who was detained on Monday upon his return to Russia from Germany. Navalny had been abroad receiving treatment following an assassinaion attempt by Russian security services five months ago.

“Navalny is a voice for millions and millions of Russians and their voice needs to be heard,” Blinken said, adding that the Kremlin’s “attempts to silence that voice by silencing Mr. Navalny is something we strongly condemn.”

In his opening statement, Blinken, 58, recounted his late stepfather’s escape from a concentration camp during the Holocaust and subsequent rescue by an American G.I. — a testament, Blinken has often said, to how America can and should lead “not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

Blinken served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and was the Democratic staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chair — a fact he mentioned in his opening remarks. He later served as deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of State in the Obama administration.

Drawing an implicit contrast with the foreign policy of the Trump era, which saw key allies alienated as the president repeatedly expressed admiration for U.S. adversaries and strongmen, Blinken cited the United States’ “core alliances” as the best way “to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran, and North Korea and to stand up for democracy and human rights.”

“Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership coin,” he said. “Humility because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad. And humility because most of the world’s problems are not about us, even as they affect us. Not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone — even one as powerful as the U.S.”

Blinken, who has good relationships on both sides of the aisle, has not encountered much partisan resistance to his nomination, and the hearing itself was a fairly drama-free affair. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who interviewed Blinken during the election as part of his investigation into Biden’s son Hunter, did not mention the younger Biden at all during his questioning of Blinken, instead asking for his thoughts on the normalization of relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states and whether European countries should pay more for NATO. (Blinken said he supported both policies.)

A group of former foreign policy and national security officials — all Republicans who said they did not endorse Biden for president — have urged the Republican chair, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, to confirm Blinken swiftly in a letter obtained by POLITICO.

“As Republicans, we certainly understand the temptation of some in your conference to accord President Biden’s nominees for high office the same treatment that was routinely accorded to President Trump’s nominees,” reads the letter, signed by more than two dozen Republican former officials including Steve Hadley, the former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, and Kurt Volker, former Ukraine special envoy under Trump.

“The ‘resistance’ culture is a corrosive one, however, and we urge the Senate not to succumb to it, particularly when the president puts forward a highly qualified nominee like Mr. Blinken, who we know is committed to working across the aisle to advance American values and interests.”

While at the State Department under Obama, Blinken played an important role in crafting the Iran nuclear deal. The plan was met with withering criticism by Senate Republicans, and Blinken was questioned about the incoming administration’s plans to rejoin the agreement.

“President-elect Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not be permitted to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken said. He added that the Iran deal was “succeeding on its own terms,” and said that the U.S. would reenter negotiations if Iran came back into compliance with the deal.

“Having said that,” he added, “I think we are a long way from there.”