BONNIE GREER on the breath of fresh air that Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state represents.
President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, speaks French. This is not unusual for many who join the foreign service of the United States.
Former senator and presidential candidate, John Kerry – Barack Obama’s foreign secretary – also does. In fact, his ability to do so was mocked when he ran for the White House. He is considered by the French to speak their language with a strong accent, but quite well with few mistakes. He learned it at an elite boarding school in Switzerland.
Blinken has another story. His mother remarried to a prominent French lawyer and Holocaust survivor and he moved with her to Paris at the age of five. While there, he attended the elite, bilingual École Jeannine Manuel, which now has a London branch near the British Museum in Bedford Square. Others who have, or have kids, enrolled there include Nicolas Sarkozy, Jane Birkin, and the royal family of Monaco.
Blinken is said to speak French impeccably. And more than that: he is a Francophile with the emphasis on the phile. His credentials are also impeccable: member of the National Security Council; special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Canadian affairs; staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs; deputy assistant to the president and national security advisor to the president; deputy secretary of state.
Blinken was in the ‘situation room’ when Osama Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals. He was foreign policy advisor for Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign and is one the president-elect’s close friends. He is a 100% Washington insider, the kind of guy Biden would know, the former vice president himself being a player in DC for over half a century.
Tony Blinken is an internationalist through and through with a penchant for intervention. He was important in formulating the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. He backed sanctions against the country with a focus on Putin’s inner circle and extending out to the population at large. Putin, for one, will not welcome his appointment.
Blinken was also vocal on the side of Israel during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. He supported the Syrian intervention of 2011 and the supply of weapons to the country. He came out in support of Turkey during the coup attempt of 2016. His explanation was that Turkey was a member of NATO. And to him, NATO matters. This a complete 360 from Trump who sees the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation pretty much as a mob boss might look at a rival shakedown outfit: on the make; on the take; and in need of taking out.
Blinken is concerned about el-Sisi in Egypt. The Trump China policy, to him, is dead wrong because more emphasis should be on Taiwan. As an internationalist, too, it is expected that he will respect and champion the ‘special relationship’. Just as Biden will.
But on the Pod Save The World podcast in 2019 Blinken described Brexit in not flattering terms, calling it – or, at least, then PM Theresa May’s handling of it – as “a total mess”, adding: “This is not just the dog that caught the car, this is the dog that caught the car and the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog.”
In an interview in July, in answer to a question about the role of the US in international organisations , he stated: “When we walk away from, when we spend most of our time taking a two by four to them, it’s not really a surprise that they don’t prove to be effective vehicles for dealing with really, really hard problems. I think revaluing these alliances starting with NATO is going to be very, very important to a Biden administration.
“Similarly, with the EU, president Trump has treated as an adversary, when in fact, it can and should be, a vital partner for the United States… The first step is actually revitalising these alliances, revitalising 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.”
The American ambassador to the UK will be changing too. It can be pretty much counted on that the incomer will be a multilateralist and internationalist as well. Nationalism will be out. Hands across the water in. The State Department, hollowed out under Trump in his zeal to destroy what he called the “Deep State” and to “drain the swamp” will re-fill again with people who like partnerships; nations coming together in alliances. And probably the French language.
French was, until recently, the language of diplomacy and a language that Americans in foreign service, in my experience, used to learn as standard. It will never have its primacy again: Spanish; Arabic; Chinese and other languages will surge in their use. But French will never quite go away.
Antony Blinken is exceptionally qualified and is an example of the people Biden has chosen who can hit the ground running on day one. The stigma against experts is over. Amateur hour and politicians-off-the -telly will, in time, look like a crazy footnote in history. People who know what they are doing are back. And not before time.