In Tony Blinken, Joe Biden has said he has a “superstar.”
The president-elect’s pick to be secretary of state is not a household name. But his years of experience in Washington’s foreign policy circles and near-two decades of working closely with Biden have brought bipartisan praise for his forthcoming nomination.
Biden will appear alongside Blinken and other key members of his national security cabinet Tuesday, as he continues to try to project calm competence during a rocky transition log-jammed by President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede.
In selecting Blinken, a close confidante who served as the State Department’s number two under President Barack Obama, Biden said he is looking for a team to hit the ground running. That’s contingent on Blinken clearing Senate confirmation, where Republicans may put up a fight, while some progressives who view him as a centrist, status-quo figure oppose the selection, too.
If he is sworn in as the 71st secretary of state, Blinken has a long list of foreign policy challenges that his boss wants to tackle. But several former State Department officials say he has the key ingredients to be successful as the top U.S. diplomat — a deep trust and tight bond with the president, an understanding of the agency and its byzantine structure, and the support of its rank and file.
“He is a superb choice. He is an accomplished and experienced foreign policy expert,” said Colin Powell, President George W. Bush’s secretary of state who endorsed Biden in the 2020 campaign. “I know him well. He is a balanced diplomat with a superb reputation and will represent the United States with skill and professionalism.”
Blinken, 58, has been a loyal foreign policy aide to Biden since he served as Democratic staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while Biden was the chair. He went with Biden to the White House as his national security adviser, before serving as Obama’s deputy national security adviser and then deputy secretary of state.
His experience as the second highest-ranking U.S. diplomat makes him a known quantity in foreign capitals, especially for his work building the international coalition to defeat the Islamic State and pressing for international sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle for the illegal occupation of Crimea. It could also make him a Republican target, with senators looking to sink his nomination by tying him to Obama-era policies like the Iran nuclear deal.
“The first step is actually revitalizing these alliances, revitalizing these partnerships, reasserting that America values them and that we want to be engaged in them or with them to work together to tackle these hard problems,” he told the Hudson Institute in July.
Fluent in French and known for his guitar skills, the Harvard College and Columbia Law School graduate spent his teenage years living with his mother Judith Pisar and stepfather Samuel Pisar in Paris after Judith and his father Donald Blinken divorced. The elder Blinken is a wealthy financier who served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Hungary, while his uncle Alan served as ambassador to Belgium.
His mother is a well-known patron of the arts and his stepfather is a famed lawyer and author, who survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, but lost his family. It’s an experience that left a deep impression on a young Blinken, according to Pisar.
“It gave him another dimension, another look at the world and what can happen here,” Pisar told The Washington Post in 2013, two years before his death in 2015. “When he has to worry today about poison gas in Syria, he almost inevitably thinks about the gas with which my entire family was eliminated.”
That compassion has become a calling card, according to Blinken’s supporters, who describe him as kind and thoughtful — qualities on display during a segment with Sesame Street’s Grover about refugees that was filmed in September 2016, but went viral again after news of his selection broke Sunday night.
“Can you imagine how difficult it would be to have to leave your home?” Blinken asked Grover, who said he never wanted to leave Sesame Street. “Sadly, refugees have to leave everything behind.”
“Even though they come from many different places, they’re just like you and me,” Blinken added in the video. “We all have something to learn and gain from one another, even when it doesn’t seem at first like we have much in common.”
Supporters hope that means Blinken will take a tougher stance on human rights, especially against China for its assault on Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities or Hong Kong and its democracy — something Trump refused to do, even as Pompeo made China a frequent target of his withering criticism.
That empathy also seems to be behind Blinken’s push for U.S. interventions during the Obama years, including supporting U.S. airstrikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya and greater American involvement in Syria’s long, bloody war — two instances where he was on the opposite end of the argument as his boss Biden.
But it’s those very policies that have now engendered opposition from some liberal groups, as well as the isolationist streak of Republicans that backed Trump and his call to “end endless wars” and stop America’s role as the “world’s policeman.”
“Blinken has agreed with some of the biggest foreign policy mistakes that Biden and Obama made, and he has tended to be more of an interventionist than both of them,” wrote Daniel Larison, senior editor of The American Conservative — while Cindy Wiesner, executive director of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, said he “reflects the status quo of the Obama era: pro-war, pro-US intervention, and pro-military agenda.”
There is one other quality that supporters say will make Blinken a distinctive voice: He’s a new father to two young children with his wife Evan Ryan, a former assistant secretary of state.
“It will be inspiring for working parents everywhere to see America’s top diplomat in action as he also helps raise two toddlers,” tweeted his former colleague Samantha Power, Obama’s U.N. ambassador. “Thanks to Tony & the incomparable Evan Ryan for their family sacrifice.”
This report was featured in the Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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