Who is Tony Blinken?

Joe Biden

The person a US president taps to assume the coveted role of secretary of state, the nation's top diplomat, says a lot about that president's foreign policy ambitions and global vision.

Indeed, the selection of Henry Kissinger (Nixon and Ford), James Baker (George H.W. Bush), Hillary Clinton (Obama) and Rex Tillerson (Trump) to head the State Department, provided an early window into the foreign policy priorities — or lack thereof — of their respective bosses.


President-elect Joe Biden has now tapped his longtime adviser Antony (Tony) Blinken to head the US State Department, a sprawling bureaucracy with some 70,000 employees. The nomination of Blinken — an aide Biden has referred to as his "go-to-guy" — suggests that the president-elect has an ambitious foreign policy agenda that he wants to be driven only by a person he knows well and trusts.

What do we know about Tony Blinken and how he might shape US foreign policy?

Global alliances are key. Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state under president Obama, has long maintained the importance of strong global alliances. It is through revitalizing relationships strained during the Trump years, he has said, that the United States can reassert leadership on the world stage and better position itself to meet a host of pressing challenges: "Even a country as powerful as the United States can't handle them alone," he said this past July.

Indeed, this offers insight into how Biden might tackle key foreign policy issues like China's increasingly assertive policies in Asia and beyond. But Blinken has also argued that traditional alliances need to be redesigned in order to better tackle issues like global health, cybersecurity, and climate change: "Why shouldn't Germany and France work with India and Japan on strategic issues?" he says.

Rebuilding the State Department itself. Under President Trump, who mistrusts non-partisan civil servants, the State Department — which oversees an annual budget of $54 billion (2019) — has fallen on hard times. Career foreign service personnel reported that morale hit rock bottom in recent years amid sharp budget cuts, hiring freezes, and the politicization of the agency. (In 2017, the Atlantic reported that "the normal day-to-day operations at the department had stopped, leaving employees with little to do and anxious about the future.")

Blinken will surely prioritize the refilling of senior State Department positions that have remained vacant under Rex Tillerson (2017-2018) and Mike Pompeo (2018-present), President Trump's secretaries of state. He may even rehire career diplomats who were fired after threatening to expose Trump administration misdeeds, a process that Foreign Policy says led to "the State Department hemorrhaging its own talent."

Blinken the centrist. As deputy secretary of state under President Obama, Blinken was instrumental in laying out America's Middle East policy during the tumultuous years of the "Arab Spring." As civil war gripped Syria — and later Libya — Blinken advocated a more interventionist position, breaking with Obama — and even Biden at times — who favored a more restrained approach.

Indeed, during his years in the Obama orbit, and more recently, Blinken has made no secret of his belief that America should sometimes intervene in foreign conflicts to safeguard human rights. (He has described US retrenchment in recent years as the "progressive cousin" of Trump's "America First" foreign policy.) Blinken attributes his support for humanitarian intervention to his experience as stepson of a Polish-born Jew and Holocaust survivor.

Bottom line: If President Trump's administration aimed to topple the global order and deprioritize America's relations with traditional allies, Biden's choice of Blinken to head the State Department shows that his administration plans to do the exact opposition: deepen engagement with allies and bury the "America first" mantra as quickly and fully as possible.

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Iran has vowed to avenge Sunday's attack on its Natanz nuclear facility. Tehran blames Israel, which — as in the past — has neither confirmed nor denied it was responsible. And all this happens just days after indirect talks on US plans to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed in Vienna. What the Iranians do now will determine the immediate future of those negotiations, a Biden administration priority.

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics this week on World In 60: J&J vaccine woes, Blinken warns China, Fukushima water and a large rabbit.

How will the pause of Johnson & Johnson vaccine affect the overall pandemic fight in the United States?

Yeah. Right at it, right? Well, we heard that the FDA has suspended vaccines from J&J because of blood clots. They found six in seven million cases. It's kind of like the suspension of AstraZeneca in Europe. It's likely only going to last for a few days. It's a very small percentage of the total number of vaccines that are being jabbed right now into the arms of Americans. It's not going to really slow America's ability to get everyone vaccinated, but it is going to create more vaccine hesitancy. People at the margins will say, "Is this safe? They said it was fine. Now they're saying it's not okay." I understand why there's enormous caution on the part of the FDA, but I wish, wish, wish the communications had been a little softer around all of this. Also will be a problem in terms of export, as J&J is going to be a piece of that. And again, others around the world will say, "Well, if I don't get Moderna, if I don't get Pfizer, I'm not sure I want to take it at all." So all of this is negative news, though I would still say the United States this year is looking really, really good among major economies in dealing with pandemic.

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750 million: While struggling with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world right now, India has approved Russia's Sputnik V COVID vaccine. Moscow has a deal in place to produce 750 million doses of the shot in India.

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In recent weeks, both Pfizer and Moderna have announced early phases of vaccine trials in children, and Johnson & Johnson also plans to start soon. If you know a kid who wants to learn about vaccines, how they work, why we need them, this story is just what the doctor ordered.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Welcome to your week and I've got your Quick Take and thought I would talk a little bit about where we are with Iran. One of the Biden administration's promises upon election was to get the Americans back into the JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal. As of last week, negotiations are formally restarted, and pretty quickly, in Vienna, they're not direct. The Americans and Iranians are both there, but they're being intermediated by the Europeans because they're not yet ready to show that they can talk directly to each other. That's Iran being cautious in the run-up to their presidential election coming this summer. But the movement is there. So far the talk has largely been about sequencing the Iranian government, saying that all of the sanctions need to be removed before they're willing to go back into the deal, because the Americans after all, unilaterally withdrew from a deal that the Iranians were indeed adhering to, and the inspections did confirm that.

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Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.

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Andean aftermath: Two big weekend elections in South America produced two stunning results. In Ecuador's presidential runoff, the center-right former banker Guillermo Lasso upset early frontrunner Andrés Arauz, a leftist handpicked by former president Rafael Correa. Lasso will take power amid the social and economic devastation of the pandemic and will have to reckon with the rising political power of Ecuador's indigenous population: the Pachakutik party, which focuses on environmental issues and indigenous rights, is now the second-largest party in parliament. Meanwhile, in a big surprise next door in Perú, far-left union leader Pedro Castillo tallied up the most votes in the first round of that country's highly fragmented presidential election. As of Monday evening it's not clear whom he'll face in the June runoff, but three figures are in the running as votes are counted: prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, rightwing businessman Rafael López Aliaga, and conservative Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the country's imprisoned former strongman. Meanwhile, in the congressional ballot, at least 10 parties reached the threshold to win seats, but there is no clear majority or obvious coalition in sight.

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