WASHINGTON – Antony J. Blinken, a defender of global alliances and one of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s closest foreign policy advisers, is expected to be nominated for secretary of state, a job in which he will try to coalesce skeptical international partners into a new competition with China, according to people close to the process
Blinken, 58, a former deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama, began his career at the State Department during the Bill Clinton administration. His extensive foreign policy credentials are expected to help calm U.S. diplomats and global leaders alike after four years of the Donald Trump administration’s ricocheting strategies and nationalist swaggering.
Biden is also expected to name another close aide, Jake Sullivan, as national security adviser, according to a person familiar with the process. Sullivan, 43, served as the head of policy planning at the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s stint as secretary of state and became her closest strategic adviser. When Blinken became deputy secretary of state in Obama’s second term, Sullivan succeeded him as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser.
Together, Blinken and Sullivan, good friends with a common worldview, have become Biden’s brain trust and often his voice on foreign policy matters. And they led the attack on Trump’s use of “America First” as a guiding principle, saying it only isolated the United States and created opportunities and vacuums for its adversaries to fill.
Biden plans to announce their nominations even as Trump continues his ineffectual push to overturn the election. A growing number of Republicans are calling on Trump to concede and begin the official transition process.
Blinken has been at Biden’s side for nearly 20 years, including as his top aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as his national security adviser when he was vice president. In that role, Blinken helped develop the U.S. response to political upheaval and instability across the Middle East, with mixed results in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya.
But chief among his new priorities will be to re-establish the United States as a trusted ally that is ready to rejoin global agreements and institutions — including the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organization — that were jettisoned by Trump. The nominations of Blinken and Sullivan were reported earlier by Bloomberg News.
“Simply put, the big problems that we face as a country and as a planet, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s the spread of bad weapons — to state the obvious, none of these have unilateral solutions,” Blinken said at a forum at the Hudson Institute in July. “Even a country as powerful as the United States can’t handle them alone.”
Working with other countries, Blinken said at the forum, could have the added benefit of confronting another top diplomatic challenge: competing with China by choosing multilateral efforts to advance trade, technology investments and human rights — instead of forcing individual nations to choose between the two superpowers’ economies.
That is likely to mean diplomatic time spent forging stronger ties with India and across the Indo-Pacific region, where China and 14 nations, including Japan, recently signed one of the world’s largest free trade agreements. It could also bring an effort to deepen engagement across Africa, where China has made inroads with technology and infrastructure investments, and recognize Europe as a partner of “first resort, not last resort, when it comes to contending with the challenges we face,” Blinken said at the forum.
In public statements and interviews in recent weeks, he has made no secret of other aspects of Biden’s — and his own — agenda for the first weeks of the new presidency.
He will have about 15 days after inauguration to extend for five years the last major arms control agreement with Russia, a step Trump initially refused to take because he insisted China be brought into the treaty as well. “Certainly we will want to engage China on arms control issues,” Blinken said recently, “but we can pursue strategic stability by extending the New START arms limitation agreement and seek to build on it” later.
Blinken has turned more hawkish on Russia as the extent of its interference in the 2016 election and throughout Europe has become clearer. In a recent interview, he suggested using Russia’s discomfort with its reliance on China, especially in technology, for leverage.
“There’s a flip side” to dealing with Moscow, Blinken said. President Vladimir Putin, he noted, is “looking to relieve Russia’s growing dependence on China,” which has left him in “not a very comfortable position.”
In taking the White House’s top national security job, Sullivan will be the youngest person to hold that position since the Dwight Eisenhower administration, which began in 1953. Sullivan made his name in the Obama administration, finding admirers even among conservative Republicans in Congress while playing a key role in the negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
A Minnesota native and Yale Law School graduate, Sullivan in recent months has helped spearhead a project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reconceiving U.S. foreign policy around the needs of the American middle class.
In recent years, Sullivan has taught at Yale Law School and Dartmouth, and moved to New Hampshire with his wife, Margaret Goodlander. Goodlander was an aide to Sen. John McCain, and then a law clerk to Judge Merrick B. Garland and Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
Blinken, described by some as a centrist with a streak of interventionism, has also sought to lessen refugee crises and migration. On the last day of the Obama administration, the State Department set a cap of 110,000 refugees who would be allowed to resettle in the U.S. in the 2017 fiscal year. That number has since dwindled to 15,000 in the 2021 fiscal year.
He has said he will look to further assist Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the Northern Triangle countries of Central America — to persuade migrants that they will be safer and better off remaining home.
That is all likely to leave less time and resources for the Middle East, Blinken has said, although that was the policy area that consumed him in the years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
He helped craft Biden’s proposal in the Senate to create three autonomous regions in Iraq, partitioned by ethnic or sectarian identity, which was widely rejected, including by the country’s prime minister at the time. During the Obama administration, Blinken was a key player in diplomatic efforts to harness more than 60 countries to counter the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
In contrast to some of his pricklier colleagues in the Obama administration, Blinken chatted with journalists in Baghdad in 2012 for insights beyond what soldiers, diplomats and intelligence officers hemmed inside the embassy compound could provide.
Before taking a job at the State Department’s bureau for European policy in 1993, Blinken had aspired to be a journalist or film producer. He honed his media skills by becoming a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton and later oversaw European and Canadian policy on the White House National Security Council.
Blinken grew up in New York and in Paris, graduating from Harvard University and Columbia Law School. The son of an ambassador to Hungary during the Clinton administration and the stepson of a Holocaust survivor, Blinken has often spoken of the moral example the United States sets for the rest of the world.
“In times of crisis or calamity, it is the United States that the world turns to first and always,” Blinken said at a speech at the Center for a New American Security in 2015.
“We are not the leader of first choice because we’re always right or because we’re universally liked or because we can dictate outcomes,” he said. “It’s because we strive to the best of our ability to align our actions with our principles, and because American leadership has a unique ability to mobilize others and to make a difference.”
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