Antony Blinken’s confirmation on January 26 as the 71st Secretary of State by the full Senate was almost a non-event resulting in a 78-22 vote tally. The lack of strong Republican resistance was largely due to the Georgia senatorial run-off election results earlier this month giving the Democrats effective control of key Senate decisions as well as smoothing the confirmation process for Biden Administration nominees. 

Other key State Department personnel in the Blinken team are yet to be confirmed, but nominations are being announced steadily and working through the Senate confirmation system; a number have previously served in the Obama-era State Department like Blinken. 

No stranger to his diplomatic interlocutors

Shortly after being sworn in late on January 26, the new Secretary of State completed his first set of calls to key foreign minister counterparts in neighbors and allied countries: Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea.  As one can imagine, these calls have been ongoing steadily throughout the week and foreign analysts everywhere are having a field day analyzing the precise order in which calls are being logged, seeking to divine some deeper meaning about each country’s geopolitical significance to the Biden Administration than just a staff-generated call sheet based on foreign leaders’ availability; and of course, to capitalize at home on receiving the Blinken outreach.

No stranger to State Department staff

The format was changed somewhat due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the usual meet and greet with State Department employees took place on January 27 at the Department’s gargantuan C-street entrance, with limited attendance this year as fewer than 50 staffers were allowed as opposed to several thousand in other years. The almost standard pattern of cheering employee crowds for the incoming leader was visible, although sharply reduced, as in practically every leadership turnover a substantial number of disgruntled employees see the arrival of the latest Secretary as a form of salvation.  In this case, however, there was a bit of a homecoming ring for the former Deputy Secretary. 

With the darkness and uncertainty of the Trump-Biden transition period finally over, most State Department staffers were relieved to see an energetic but deeply distrusted Secretary, Mike Pompeo, depart the building for the last time just before inauguration day, much in the same way they saw the Trump Administration’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, depart along with his unrealized, but costly, consultant-produced plans for a corporate-style reinvention and downsizing of the State Department.

Goodbye “America First”

In addressing the State staff, Blinken described the hard road he saw ahead with the world closely watching how President Biden’s team would pursue foreign policy after four years of former President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine.

Blinken said that after the Trump years, the United States would be engaging again with allies on a reciprocal, rather than a purely transactional, basis.  The term “transactional” has taken on an extremely pejorative meaning in U.S. politics over the Trump years, implying everything was being done “Trump-style” to close a single deal, with little value given to the long-term development of relationships. 

On the theme of the US global role, Blinken said, “America’s leadership is needed around the world, and we will provide it, because the world is far more likely to solve problems and meet challenges when the United States is there.” On a hopeful note, Blinken said, “America at its best still has a greater capacity than any other country on earth to mobilize others for the greater good.”

Blinken is a veteran diplomat who is widely respected in foreign policy circles. He takes over a State Department that saw 1,000 employees leave during the Trump presidency due to the ex-president’s bullying, undiplomatic approach; who were frustrated by the mismanagement of Tillerson and alienated by the politics of Pompeo, a staunch Trump loyalist. EPA-EFE//GRAEME JENNINGS

On the issue of morale at the State Department, Blinken said, “We need a strong Department for the United States to be strong in the world.”  He also planned to “invest significantly in building a diverse and inclusive State Department,” and explained that a crucial priority for him as Secretary of State is rebuilding morale and trust, something practically every incoming Secretary highlights on Day One but few accomplish.  Referring to complaints about closed decision making at senior levels, Blinken said he would hear out dissenting views and listen to experts “because that’s how the best decisions are made.”

Although Blinken has impeccable political credentials, there is some confusion about Blinken’s track record as a diplomat.  Blinken is not a career Foreign Service Officer although he has served at State at multiple levels as a political appointee, most recently as Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama Administration.  Instead of transferring to different embassies as a career diplomat, Blinken has instead served on Capitol Hill, at the National Security Council and worked at a Washington think tank, all in senior positions normally reserved for political-level appointees.

Media approach

Secretary Blinken has promised to resume the State Department’s daily press briefings.  On top of that, in his first days in office, the volume of State’s media announcements covering Secretary Blinken’s telephone outreach to his global counterparts continues at extremely high levels.

After the initial wave, it remains to be seen if the new Secretary will allow continued use of the State Department’s Public Affairs media mechanisms as Pompeo did in his final year, harnessing it to record his personal diplomatic accomplishments with a steadily increasing flood of press announcements that became almost hourly at the end of his term. Many of those notes served to give Pompeo credit for routine matters that barely deserved public mention, let alone global circulation.


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