President-elect Joe Biden on Monday chose longtime foreign policy hands known for their steadiness and traditional left-of-center views when he announced nominees to lead the State Department, serve as the ambassador to the United Nations and coordinate national security policy from the White House.
Antony Blinken, whom Biden tapped to serve as secretary of State, is a familiar face on Capitol Hill from his years as staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and multiple appearances testifying before lawmakers in his role as deputy secretary of State during the Obama administration. Blinken has been Biden’s closest foreign policy adviser going back to his years working in the Senate for Biden, as a national security adviser to the then-vice president and then on the 2020 presidential campaign.
Biden also announced that Jake Sullivan would serve as his national security adviser and that he will nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as ambassador to the United Nations. The president-elect said the U.N. ambassador would have a seat on the Cabinet, as did the Trump administration’s first U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley.
Blinken was closely involved with the Obama administration’s development and implementation of a host of Middle East policies dealing with Iran, the Islamic State terrorist group, and the Arab Spring democracy movements and uprisings of the past decade.
Initial reactions from Democratic lawmakers to his nomination reflected a strong sense of relief at looking forward to non-headline-grabbing, competent leadership at the State Department after years of divisive actions by President Donald Trump’s two secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo.
“Tony Blinken is an A+ choice to be our nation’s top diplomat,” Senate Foreign Relations member Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement. “I have confidence he will be a partner with the progressive community to make sure our ideas are included in the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda.”
Blinken’s nomination is also seen as a sending a reassuring signal to those countries that have felt bewildered by four years of Trump’s insults, erratic foreign policy moves and friendly relations with some of the world’s leading dictators and authoritarian leaders.
“No one better understands and conveys President-elect Biden’s vision for building back better our nation’s role in the world than Tony,” Senate Foreign Relations member Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a statement. “World leaders will know that when Tony speaks, he is speaking for the president. He is a capable, measured, thoughtful and inspiring leader, and our diplomats around the world will be encouraged to have his leadership at the State Department.”
Blinken’s prospects for getting confirmed if Republicans maintain control of the Senate in January are probably good, if the GOP lawmakers give traditional courtesy to a president’s national security team. Still, the last time Blinken’s nomination was before the Senate in 2014 to serve as Foggy Bottom’s No. 2 official, he received only two confirming votes from Republican senators: Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Both have since retired from the chamber.
Republicans are likely to focus on Blinken’s support for rejoining and bolstering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018.
“[Biden] would seek to build on the nuclear deal to make it longer and stronger if Iran returns to strict compliance,” Blinken said at an Aspen security forum event in August. “And then we would be in a position to use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies … to strengthen and lengthen it. But also, we’d be in a much better position to effectively push back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities because we would once again be united with our partners instead of isolated from them.”
Blinken has emphasized a holistic view for countering China’s growing military, diplomatic and economic influence around the world that begins with rebuilding trust with key American allies in Asia and Europe who felt alienated by Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
“We have to start to rebuild the foundational strengths of the United States, promoting innovation, reinvigorating alliances, in partnerships with other democratic nations,” he said. “And that in turn becomes the core for collective defense and high standards of international cooperation across the whole range of policy issues.”
Some progressive Democrats and populist Republicans may be unhappy with Blinken’s openness to returning to multinational talks for an expansive Pacific trade deal, though he has also cautioned that too much time may have gone by under Trump for that to happen.
“If we were going to reengage TPP, we’d have to renegotiate it,” Blinken said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which went into effect in 2018 with just 11 countries after Trump withdrew the United States from the pact. “But the problem is the world and the other original TPP partners have moved on, and they have worked an agreement with China. Many of the provisions that we negotiated into it were negotiated out. That’s usually problematic. I think the idea behind TPP is a good one. Its realization may have fallen short in some ways, but the idea behind it is a good one.”
Foreign policy team comes into focus
Sullivan holds similar views to Blinken on a range of foreign policy issues, and the two men already have a strong bond after years of working together in the Obama administration.
Sullivan succeeded Blinken as Biden’s national security adviser while he was vice president. At 43, Sullivan will be the youngest person in decades to hold the position of national security adviser. But he brings with him considerable experience, having served as the head of policy planning at the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary. He also was trusted in leading quiet early talks with Iranian officials that paved the way for more formal negotiations that resulted in the 2015 multinational accord.
Some Republicans are likely to seethe at Sullivan’s elevation to national security adviser given his close involvement in the negotiation of the Iran deal and his long association with Clinton, but there is little they can do, as his position does not require Senate confirmation.
Thomas-Greenfield is a former career diplomat, having served in the Foreign Service for 35 years. She held positions such as assistant secretary of State for African Affairs and ambassador to Liberia, and as director general of the Foreign Service she oversaw personnel policy for all of Foggy Bottom before retiring in 2017. Her nomination is seen as particularly reassuring to the diplomatic corps, which has seen a large talent exodus, particularly at the higher levels, during the Trump administration.
“She is a diplomatic powerhouse! Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield brings experience, gravitas, relationships and the most valuable of virtues — wisdom,” former Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., executive director of U.S. programs at the left-leaning Open Society Foundations, said in a tweet.
Her nomination to serve as assistant secretary of State was confirmed by the Senate by voice vote in 2013. She also held senior roles at State during the George W. Bush administration, including principal deputy assistant secretary of State for African Affairs and deputy assistant secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration.
“These nominees’ qualifications are exceptional, and their philosophy that the United States is strongest when we engage globally is in line with my own,” Senate Foreign Relations member Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in a statement. “I look forward to discussing Mr. Blinken and Ms. Thomas-Greenfield’s visions for the future of American diplomacy and reinvigorating the State Department at their confirmation hearings.”