Can Antony Blinken Update Liberal Foreign Policy for a World Gone Mad? – The Washington Post

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As he packed for a security conference in Munich in mid-February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken added an unexpected detour to Manhattan. The United Nations Security Council was meeting, and Blinken had word that Russian diplomats might use the occasion to plant excuses for attacking Ukraine. After painstaking months of crisscrossing the globe and working phone and video channels to share intelligence with allies and build a more-or-less united front, Blinken saw an opportunity to call out the Russian government on its intentions in the most high-profile forum to date.
“We saw the storm really, really coming,” Blinken, 60, told me in late July at his State Department office. “We called an audible. … We made a decision virtually overnight. ‘Let’s go to New York. Let’s go to the security council.’ ”
On Feb. 17, Blinken took his seat before the peacekeeping body, and, in strikingly precise terms, offered his version of the immediate future — “here’s what the world can expect to see unfold” — as if glimpsed in an especially apocalyptic crystal ball. He foretold fake provocations and forecast cyberattacks and missile strikes, followed by Russian tanks and infantry rolling into Ukraine. “The stakes go far beyond Ukraine,” Blinken said, as the Russian representative to the council shuffled papers and the Ukrainian diplomat twisted a pen cap. “This crisis directly affects every member of this council and every country in the world. Because the basic principles that sustain peace and security — principles that were enshrined in the wake of two world wars and a Cold War — are under threat.”
The stakes went beyond Ukraine in another way, too. This moment in the diplomatic spotlight for the Biden administration was a do-over after the debacle in Afghanistan last summer, when President Biden promised there would not be a Saigon-like helicopter evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul — about five weeks before there was a Saigon-like helicopter evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Blinken, at the time, gamely went on the Sunday news shows to spin the chaotic withdrawal as necessary and not without positive aspects.
The U.N. speech was also a do-over from the previous four years, when President Donald Trump yanked America from international agreements, questioned the need for NATO and personally insulted the heads of state of allies while fawning over authoritarians. Here was Blinken giving meaning to Biden’s claim at the start of his presidency that “America is back” on the world stage, ready to engage with allies again, to take collective action on global problems.
Regaining credibility wouldn’t be easy, though. America’s track record of blundering foreign policy outcomes is not limited to Afghanistan. In 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell made an equally dramatic visit to the security council to confidently present what turned out to be a false case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Blinken acknowledged that history in his own address: “Now, I am mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out,” he said. “But let me be clear: I am here today not to start a war but to prevent one.”
During his 2020 candidacy, Biden had argued that a decisive competition between democracy and autocracy would be a fundamental drama of the 21st century, citing China as a major challenger. America, he said, must reengage with allies to help lead and win that struggle. This us-vs.-them vision could sound a bit like a creaky Cold War throwback rather than an overarching frame for a forward-looking foreign policy. But a week after Blinken’s security council visit, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine just about as Blinken had outlined. The biggest war in Europe since 1945 demonstrated that the past may not be past, and the Biden administration’s foreign policy finally began to find its footing.
Biden and Blinken are attempting something larger than a post-Trump reset and restoration of the traditional liberal internationalist approach to foreign policy. They must confront a radically different context from the days when they both served under President Barack Obama: While still preeminent, America’s power abroad — relative to close rivals like China — is diminished. At home, its model as a functioning democracy is tarnished amid an insurrection investigation and paralyzing polarization. Existential crises like climate change and the threat of global pandemics overshadow geopolitical disputes and require leadership and collective responses. On top of it all, vast swaths of the American public question the value of international engagement in the first place, making us a less reliable partner. America may be back now — but for how long?
The Biden administration’s answer is rooted in a phrase coined by Blinken: the notion that “humility and confidence” should be the “flip sides of America’s leadership coin.” While liberal internationalists like Bill Clinton and Obama have always subscribed to the idea that America should confidently wield its power alongside respect for other nations’ values and interests, now humility is not just a diplomatic nicety; it’s a necessity, as we face challenges beyond America’s power to solve alone. In effect, Joe Biden and Tony Blinken have set out to reimagine American foreign policy — and, against all odds, to try to save the old liberal international order — by striking a new balance between these two very contradictory ideals.
Not being much of a beer drinker, apparently, Blinken opted for the smaller glass in a beer garden in Berlin. It was June 2021, just a few months into the Biden administration. Between high-level meetings on Libya and other matters, Blinken was doing a little personal diplomacy at a gathering of former German exchange students, seated next to his German counterpart at the time, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The German minister sounded positively giddy at this latest turn in the conduct of American foreign policy.
“I’ll just share a story with you, if I may, Tony,” said Maas, according to a State Department transcript of their encounter. “From the very first telephone conversation we had after Tony took the office of secretary of state … I still have to get used to the fact that I can speak to the American foreign secretary and always be of the same view.” Maas called Biden’s election the biggest “game changer” since he’d been in the field of foreign affairs, because “diplomacy is back” and the United States is “back on the international stage.”
When it was his turn to speak, Blinken traced his affection for Germany to when he played guitar in a high school band on spring break in a bar in Hamburg (“Maybe we thought we were going to be like the Beatles, when they spent time in Hamburg and then they got famous”) then detailed how a changed world required a new approach to foreign policy. “When you think about the problems that we have to deal with … there’s not a single one of those big things … that any one country can effectively deal with alone. … More than any time in my life, there is an imperative, a need, for countries to cooperate. … But it doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it.”
It was a succinct description of how Biden and Blinken were trying to reorient America’s posture in the world. Disagreements would persist, of course, but the way the Americans dealt with them signaled a new empathy for foreign partners’ points of view. For example, despite Blinken’s (and Biden’s) objections to the completion of a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany — a priority for Germany — Biden waived sanctions on the pipeline builders because the disagreement wasn’t worth the damage to relations with an ally. And yet, around the time of Blinken’s Berlin visit, American and German officials behind the scenes were discussing how to keep Russia from being able to exploit the pipeline during any future hostilities.
This cooperative approach would pay spectacular dividends eight months later, when Germany refused to certify the pipeline amid rising tensions just before Russia invaded Ukraine. “That was a testament to the very diligent work that had gone on behind the scenes and therefore yielded a very powerful messaging opportunity not only about the unity of the response to the Russians, but also about the value of this approach to foreign policy and to investing in the alliances and partnerships,” says Bill Russo, a deputy assistant secretary of state.
In addition to reinvigorating long-standing alliance networks, Blinken and the Biden foreign policy team also set about building new architectures for international cooperation in Asia and the Pacific Ocean region. “I give Tony pretty high marks as a secretary of state for adhering to my former boss [Reagan-era Secretary of State] George Shultz’s dictum that alliance management is like gardening,” says Eric Edelman, a onetime ambassador and defense official, now a senior fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. “You have to sort of be constantly attentive to allies.”
Yet just over seven weeks after the toasts to allied cooperation in Berlin, Blinken seemed to have forgotten how to garden. The United States found itself mired in the controversial exit from Afghanistan — despite the serious misgivings of allies over the rapid pace of withdrawal. “Whatever happened to ‘America is back’?” Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defense Committee in the British Parliament, said at the time. Added Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations: “We’re back to the transatlantic relationship of old, where the Americans dictate everything.”
Domestic analysts were withering. “They ignored all their major allies,” Ronald Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, told me. “That left a lot of people saying, you know, ‘Is there really a back to the old [foreign] policy, or is this an America First policy? Is this Trump with a smiley face?’ ”
State Department officials rebut the criticism that allies weren’t consulted, telling me that Blinken immediately relayed to Biden their concerns that the pace of withdrawal should be based on the Taliban meeting certain conditions. Biden agreed that Blinken should explore that course with the Taliban, but in the end the Taliban insisted on sticking to the deal struck with the Trump administration. The Biden team determined that if the American exit didn’t proceed, fighting would flare up again.
Nonetheless, the whole painful experience showed the dissonance within Biden-Blinken’s attempts to harmonize confidence and humility, to balance American self-interest and international cooperation. Ending the “forever war” in Afghanistan, a priority of Biden’s, was arguably a humble acknowledgment of the limits of America’s ability to fix the world. It was also a calculated assessment of what was best for America, regardless of what allies may have thought.
“While the withdrawal was incredibly important and necessary to further American national interests, the process of withdrawal was diplomatic malpractice,” says Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “People wondered whether or not America would ever be able to lead again.”
That the same foreign policy ethos has been successful in the Ukraine effort but ended so disappointingly in the Afghanistan case reflects the strain of navigating a world where America’s stature is in flux. It’s “a world in which you have less running room than the United States has had at any other time, probably, in our recent history,” says Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser under Obama. During the Obama administration, “there was still a kind of implicit understanding globally that the United States was the leader of an international system that, to differing extents, most countries deferred to.”
That deference, Rhodes notes, has waned “for a lot of reasons,” starting with “the damage that Donald Trump did to U.S. standing, as someone who … was basically against the United States playing that role in the world.” In addition, he continues, “You have a much more hostile bloc of countries led by China and Russia literally trying to attack like a virus the wiring of the international order. You also have a lot of other countries that are skeptical that the U.S. can be relied upon. Will we hold agreements that we negotiate? … Will our democracy survive? … There’s a limit to what even the best foreign policy could do about that. … It’s something that requires a longer-term rebuilding of American credibility.”
Within that new context, Biden and Blinken have gone back to the basics of revitalizing core alliances and relationships. But they can’t wind the clock back and pretend the previous four years didn’t happen. Parts of the world started to learn to do without America.
“America is back, diplomacy is back, we can come back to the table and everyone will want us back at the table — Ukraine is a great example — but we don’t necessarily get the daddy chair anymore,” says Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador now directing the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. As the United States reengages with old allies and creates new coalitions, it is “sitting at a round table instead of at the head of the table,” she says. “We are adjusting how we deal diplomatically for a world order post-Cold War … and also an American foreign policy post-Trump. We’re now maybe preeminent — but not determinative.”
Following America’s four-year near-absence from the table of nations, leadership roles have been redistributed on specific issues, says Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former senior State Department official and now CEO of the New America think tank. “On some issues, like climate, the [European Union] is the undisputed leader,” she says. “On a lot of issues that really matter to developing countries, the E.U. and China are leaders. This is a multipolar, multi-issue world where you have different orders on different issues. … When I’m talking to Brazilians and Indians … Africans and folks from the Middle East, countries are looking around, figuring out their interests and partnering with different countries, depending.”
Even so, American leadership “remains indispensable to NATO’s united response to a more dangerous and competitive world,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told me in an email. “Secretary Blinken has been playing a vital role at every stage, helping to build consensus among allies through his personal engagement, deep knowledge of the countries and issues he’s dealing with, as well as his sense of humor and empathy.”
Blinken recognizes the subtle but real change in the order of things. “There’s a greater premium than at any time that I’ve been doing this over 30 years to find ways to bring others along,” he told me. That’s why, he said, as America pursues its foreign policy interests and ideals within a frame of democracy-autocracy competition and amid global existential threats, those twin graces of confidence and humility are so important: “Humility precisely because there are profound and accelerating changes happening around the world. That means that the United States, even as powerful as we are, can’t simply decide outcomes as we want them. … But I’m equally convinced that — and I’ve seen this in action over the last 18 months — we continue to have a greater capacity than any country on Earth to mobilize others in positive collective action when we’re at our best. And so we’ve been trying — I’ve been trying — to put those two things together.”
He leaned forward in his chair as he spoke, having removed his suit coat earlier. His answers were long and organized, like his speeches, with elaborations spiraling out from a few key pillars of argument. A certain humility is also a way to acknowledge America’s struggles with its own democracy and turn them into a kind of strength, he continued. “We still confront our problems openly and transparently. This goes back to the notion that at the very foundation of the country is the quest for a more perfect union, and so the acknowledgment that we’re not perfect, never will be. But it’s in striving to get there that we make progress. But what continues to set us apart, despite the many challenges that we’re facing and some of the travails that we find at home, is we continue to do it all out in the open, transparently. We confront it. We don’t sweep things under the rug. We don’t try to pretend they don’t exist. Many other countries do.”
“And so for me, at least,” he added, “I found that … in conversations with others [in other countries] about our own challenges at home, I’m able to say to them, ‘We’re dealing with this and we’re doing it openly. The entire world sees it. Every citizen in our country sees it. You might be inspired by that, too.’ I find that to be … in an interesting way, leverage — to actually advance what we’re trying to advance — not a weakness.”
Still, there have been obvious cases when the full-throated touting of democratic values has seemed the opposite of humble, at best, and hypocritically self-defeating at worst. Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December 2021, when leaders of scores of democracies met virtually to recommit to democratic ideals, ended up raising more questions about who was or was not included (Pakistan and the Philippines, yes? Hungary and Turkey, no?) than concrete results — though the promised “year of action” for nations to achieve democratic improvements is still underway. In June, the Summit of the Americas hosted by the United States yielded an embarrassing mini-boycott by leaders of some Latin American countries, as well as harsh criticism from a few who attended. They objected to the exclusion of the autocratic leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. It was not so long ago that the Obama administration — in which, it bears repeating, Biden and Blinken both served — took an opposite path and began to reestablish relations with Cuba. Meanwhile, China is making friends and heavily investing in Latin America while not checking democracy papers at the door.
“Both the president and the secretary of state are fond of talking about the threat that China and Russia pose as fundamentally ideological, and therefore this is about democracy versus autocracy,” says Kori Schake, senior fellow and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “They seem not to realize how little purchase that rhetoric gets throughout most of Asia, for example. And so the conflict is between soaring rhetoric that they’re clearly attached to, and the necessities that their policies of containing China would indicate. So for example, how many times have they said they’re going to put human rights at the center of American foreign policy? How does that square with the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia?”
When I asked Blinken whether the emphasis on democracy risks subverting other goals the administration is simultaneously pursuing, he highlighted that the United States tries to promote democracy over, say, the Chinese model as a choice, not a command. “One of things that we’ve said to many countries is: We are not demanding that you choose or forcing you to choose. We are trying to offer a choice,” he said.
I noted that the rhetoric of choice is indeed a humbler form of democracy promotion than the more swaggering nation-building approach that previous administrations have practiced. As China pitches major investments around the world, Biden has been working with the largest industrialized democracies to offer alternatives to developing nations. Blinken continued, “If we’re able to show that there’s another way of accomplishing the same things — because there’s a huge thirst for infrastructure investments around the world — and people have a choice, and that choice is a better one, we have a pretty good idea of where they’ll wind up going.”
The Biden-Blinken approach “is very different than the kind of arrogant bestriding of the world that certainly Trump did, but I would say, George W. Bush and [Bill] Clinton, for that matter,” Slaughter argues. “But at the same time … this is where I think ‘confident humility’ and ‘leader of the free world, democracies against autocracies’ are very hard to reconcile. … Is your starting point great power politics and democracies versus autocracies, and then you layer other things on? Or is your starting point we are in a planetary era, we are pushing planetary boundaries in many ways, and we are going to destroy the world as we know it? … That [concern] ought to overshadow any national rivalries.”
Indeed, climate change provides another tension within the administration’s simultaneous practice of great power competition, whenever necessary, and cooperation, whenever possible. Blinken holds out hope that the United States can stand up to Chinese challenges while also enlisting Chinese solidarity in curbing global warming. It’s an ambitious gambit and not one that is likely to be completed in a single election cycle, says Jordan Tama, a professor at American University’s School of International Service. “They don’t want democracy versus authoritarianism … to be so dominant in terms of the focus of the government that there’s not attention to other important transnational challenges. They are trying to balance those things, but it is not an easy balance, because obviously the more time you spend on Russia, Ukraine or competition with China, the less bandwidth there is to be doing as much on, say, climate change or preparing for the next pandemic. … To what extent it’s possible to challenge China forcefully in some areas and gain Chinese cooperation in other areas is a huge, open question for the years to come.”
In May, Blinken put on an academic gown to address a new generation of foreign service graduates at Georgetown. He wanted to “start by kicking the elephant out of the room,” Blinken told them: “Yes, NYU got Taylor Swift as their commencement speaker.” He continued, “Now, my staff did not let me bring my guitar up here to dedicate a performance of ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ to President Putin. They said it would be ‘undiplomatic’ and also ‘cringe.’ … Since when is ‘cringe’ an adjective?”
Beyond an incurable fondness for dad jokes and a lifelong passion for jamming in amateur bands — check out his three original compositions on Spotify, user name Ablinken — Blinken breaks the mold for secretaries of state in a number of ways. He’s one of few to have toiled as a foreign policy staffer, speechwriter and adviser before evolving into a principal policymaker. He’s also unusual for serving while parenting small children. He and his wife, Evan Ryan, the head of White House Cabinet affairs, have a son and daughter under 5 years old. “Kids have a wonderful way of reminding you of what’s real,” Blinken says. “I was going to be on one of the Sunday shows and my wife said to our kids, ‘Daddy’s going to be on TV,’ and the response was, ‘We want to watch “Sesame Street”!’ ”
In Blinken’s case, biography and personality inform policy in a particularly clear way. He was an internationalist from birth. The son and nephew of ambassadors, he was born into an artistic home on Park Avenue in New York City. His mother remarried before he was 10, and they moved to Paris, where Blinken became fluent in French, went to high school and played in that band that road-tripped to Hamburg. He was influenced by his late stepfather, the international lawyer Samuel Pisar, who survived the Holocaust as a child.
Blinken told Pisar’s story at his confirmation hearing in January 2021. At the end of World War II, Pisar ran away from a death march. Hiding in the woods, he heard rumbling — an American tank. The hatch opened, and a Black GI appeared. Pisar fell to his knees and said the only words he knew in English: “God bless America.” “The GI lifted him into the tank, into freedom,” Blinken said. “That’s who we are. That’s what we represent to the world, however imperfectly, and what we can still be when we’re at our best.”
The story is at the moral center of Blinken’s view of the potential for America’s role in the world, according to his friends and colleagues. “Whether it’s sensitivity and empathy that flows from a family who had losses in the Holocaust, whether it’s just his goodness — it sounds corny, but the truth is, that’s his core,” says Miller, the Carnegie Endowment fellow. “Tony Blinken, if anything, is determined to find a better balance between values and interests for American foreign policy.”
Victoria Nuland, undersecretary for political affairs, says she saw Blinken apply these values to the work of strengthening allied resolve ahead of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “It’s Tony’s ability to walk into a room of like-minded [foreign partners] who are nonetheless at sixes and sevens about what to do, and to start by reminding them what’s important — including what’s important in human, moral, democratic terms: You don’t invade another country by force. You don’t spurn diplomacy when it’s on the table. You don’t commit the kind of human rights abuses that are happening now. And then to turn that into a what-do-we-do-about-it conversation.”
The other decisive influence on Blinken and therefore on today’s American foreign policy is his long and close relationship with Biden, who at 79 is nearly 20 years his senior. It’s an exception to the recent history of presidential-secretary pairings, most comparable to the strong bonds between George H.W. Bush and James Baker, or George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, foreign policy experts say.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell where Biden ends and Blinken begins. They’ve been holding a two-decade conversation about foreign policy since the early 2000s, when Blinken was Democratic staff director to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by then Sen. Biden. Later Blinken served as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser in the Obama administration, before taking on other roles outside Biden’s orbit, including deputy secretary of state for Obama. As one example of their mind-meld, in his public remarks Blinken has adopted a riff, almost word-for-word, from Biden’s foreign policy manifesto published in Foreign Affairs magazine during his 2020 candidacy, titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” The riff concerns the “one of two things” that happen when America doesn’t lead: either another country leads in a wrong direction, or chaos fills the leadership vacuum.
Whether this close identification between Biden and Blinken is good or bad for foreign policy is argued both ways around Washington. “What Tony brings to the job is the reality that every time he’s in the room with any foreign leader, they know this is someone who is immensely close to the president,” says Rhodes. “What he’s saying reflects what the president’s beliefs are and where the president is going. That’s a strength.”
Last year, Blinken met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who spoke for an hour while Blinken took notes, according to a senior State Department official. “At the end of that, Sissi said, ‘I’m sorry that this was so long, but you’re the next best thing to talking to President Biden.’ … Then Tony was able to … go back through, point for point, all the things that [Sissi] had said, hook his answers to Sissi’s way of thinking about something, in such a way that we were able to move things along and create that human connection that has enabled us to reestablish a working relationship.”
On the other hand, for all his closeness to Biden, Blinken lacks the independent stature of former secretaries like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell or George Shultz. Biden placed more than one former adviser on his foreign policy team, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who, like Blinken, once served as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser. It raises the question of whether anyone on the team can disagree with Biden, “who is absolutely convinced that he’s a foreign policy mastermind,” says Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The president did not staff his administration with his peers; he staffed his administration with his staff,” says Schake at the American Enterprise Institute. “So it’s probably not surprising that they are deferential to his preferences, or that they’re not able to change his mind on the fundamental things he believes.” Edelman, of the Miller Center, puts it this way: “Because of his long-standing relationship with Biden, which is in many ways a plus, it’s not clear how willing [Blinken] is to force issues with Biden and take issue with decisions that he thinks the president is making erroneously.”
Officials in the State Department and the White House take the opposite view: They say Blinken’s close relationship with Biden gives him license to advocate alternative courses of action. “He’s not worried that if he tells the president, ‘Sir, I disagree with you on this,’ or ‘I think we should think about another way,’ that somehow their entire relationship is hanging on it. … It’s a very open debate,” says department counselor Derek Chollet.
“Tony doesn’t always agree with the president, and the president doesn’t always agree with Tony,” says Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff. “What they share is a common set of values and a common perspective about the world as a whole. … Inside those frameworks, [Biden] often looks to Tony for advice on the specific application of it.”
It’s somehow fitting that Blinken, as the public face of Biden’s foreign policy, happens to have a personal style that matches the confidence and humility that he identified as an aspiration for America’s leadership abroad. “He is in some ways a modern manifestation of … walk softly and carry a big stick,” says Russo, a deputy assistant secretary of state. “Someone who is humble … but who is really one of those people for whom you should not confuse meekness for weakness.”
The confidence was on display last year in Anchorage when Blinken and Sullivan met with Chinese counterparts. After a top Chinese diplomat took shots at America on human rights and other issues — mentioning Black Lives Matter in particular — and the media was being ushered out, Blinken waved at reporters to stay as he fired back: “I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re reengaged with our allies and partners. I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government has taken.” He went on to boast of America’s capacity for addressing its shortcomings in a transparent way. “It’s never a good bet to bet against America,” he said.
More rare in the upper echelons of national power in Washington is his humble side, which those who know him say is not a facade. “What sets Tony apart in the cutthroat world of U.S. foreign policy and geopolitics is a consistent sense of humility … and a kind of dogged work ethic,” Rhodes says. “In my decades in this field, I don’t think I’ve met anybody who is so consistently decent.”
In a sense, Blinken is a walking embodiment of America’s attempted new style of engaging with the world. “The fact that Tony doesn’t lead with his own ego, I think, bodes well for our ability to adapt to not leading with a national ego,” Bodine says. “Tony could sit at a round table and be comfortable, represent the United States, but he doesn’t have the kind of ego that needs to be dominant. So he may be the ideal secretary of state for this era.”
In wintry Moscow, 1946, as the Cold War was getting underway, American diplomat George Kennan drafted his famous Long Telegram to the State Department. He identified the close connection between the health of democracy at home and foreign policy success abroad: “Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow.”
Biden and Blinken recognize that now is another decisive historical moment when America’s moral example at home (or lack thereof) may determine its success abroad. “More than at any other time in my career — maybe in my lifetime — distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away,” Blinken said in his first major speech as secretary of state, in which he laid out the administration’s foreign policy priorities. “Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely entwined.”
Blinken doesn’t do domestic policy; other Cabinet secretaries are tasked with fulfilling Biden’s promise to “build back better” at home. But he is trying to reengage with Americans at home almost as much as he is with allies abroad. Trump’s tenure highlighted just how alienated from the work of diplomacy many Americans have become. “For some time now,” Blinken said in that first speech, “Americans have been asking tough but fair questions about what we’re doing, how we’re leading — indeed, whether we should be leading at all.” Trying to answer those questions is Biden’s and Blinken’s way of reinforcing the building blocks of their foreign policy — the rallying of democracies, the revitalizing of alliances, the confronting of planetary threats — and doing it all with the kind of confidence that comes from humbly being able to work on America’s own imperfections.
Blinken’s work in this regard has quieter elements that make fewer headlines. He has launched initiatives to focus on the “disrupters” that affect people’s lives, such as abuse of technology, cyberthreats and supply chain problems — areas where new American expertise can also give a strategic edge against adversaries. “When American diplomacy is seen to be responsive to those concerns and then is able to marshal the right coalition of partners to provide practical solutions that actually have a direct impact on the lives of Americans, that creates an environment over time in which there can hopefully be more sustainability and support for American diplomacy and engagement in the world,” says Matan Chorev, principal deputy director of Blinken’s policy planning staff.
It will take time, but rebuilding a bipartisan faith in diplomacy is the only antidote to solving America’s credibility problem as a reliable partner in the wake of Trump’s policy whiplash. To that end, Blinken has ordered his colleagues to show up not just abroad, but also in America, to talk about diplomacy and demystify its aims and ends, to connect it to people’s lives. “We’re diplomats, and we’re going to focus more of our diplomacy here at home to make sure our policies reflect the needs, the aspirations, the values of the American people,” Blinken said in an address last fall on the “modernization” of American diplomacy.
Following his own directive, Blinken dropped by Guisados, a beloved neighborhood taco shop on the east side of Los Angeles, during a break in the Summit of the Americas in June. Being a “seafood and vegetarian guy,” he got the camarones and pescado tacos.
Seated at a table with a handful of community leaders, Blinken said of the summit, “The one community that’s not really there is the immigrant community here, coming from so many of the countries in our hemisphere.” He told the leaders he was inspired by the difference they were making “in the lives of people in your communities — and our community.” He added, “It’s all our community.”
On the surface, the scene was unremarkable. Just another VIP from Washington with a massive security detail who doffed his tie to ingratiate himself with la gente. Except this guy wasn’t a politician looking for votes. He was the nation’s top diplomat, trying to make a connection, just like he had in the beer garden in Berlin.
There was something confident about the maneuver, audacious even. But humility lay at the heart of the gesture, because Blinken knew his fancy work abroad would fail without refurbishment at home, in forgotten places like this.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.


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