Making his formal arrival at America’s oldest Cabinet agency, Blinken greeted a carefully chosen sample of State Department employees with a message meant to convey solidarity and an understanding of the unparalleled difficulties facing his team — at home in the US, within the State Department itself and abroad. His main message to the crowd: I am one of you, so I understand what you do, I am ready to lead you all in a moment of unprecedented challenges, and I will work to revive the department.
Blinken directly addressed the demolition of morale in the building during former Secretary Mike Pompeo’s tenure. And he pledged to meet the challenges of the world as it is, not as it was, nodding to both the Covid-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the deadly siege on the US Capitol — both topics that Pompeo largely avoided discussing in his final months at the Department.
“I know that the State Department I’m walking into today is not the same one I left four years ago,” referencing his time as deputy secretary of state. “A lot has changed. The world has changed. The Department has changed.”
Those changes will present serious challenges for the new secretary, all of which will be turbocharged by Democrats now in control of Congress and eager to see their long ignored priorities acted upon.
On the world stage, the US faces the immediate task of negotiating an extension to the last remaining nuclear arms treaty with Russia, even as it deals with Moscow’s suspected cyber hack of US government agencies and businesses, and its continued work to undermine democracy in the US and Europe.
Blinken will be part of a Biden administration team that will work on returning the US to some version of the Iran nuclear deal, an undertaking that will be as tough to negotiate with Iran as it will be with Congress. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to simmer and Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran-backed rebels in Yemen has created a humanitarian disaster causing widespread starvation.
Even as Vice President Kamala Harris swore Blinken in, his hand resting on a small pocket-sized copy of the Constitution as he stood in her ceremonial office Wednesday, lawmakers sent the newly minted secretary a letter demanding he scrutinize and overhaul the US-Saudi relationship, freezing arms deliveries, addressing the Kingdom’s treatment of Americans held there, addressing “fundamental human rights” and the “catastrophe in Yemen.”
In Asia, North Korea’s despotic leader has an even larger nuclear arsenal than he had four years ago. And China’s increasingly assertive role on the world stage as a near-peer competitor — one that often operates outside established rules and seeks to undermine US global leadership — requires Blinken to help craft a long-term strategy that also enables Washington to cooperate with Beijing where necessary.
Meanwhile, traditional US allies are wary after four years of unpredictable and sometimes abusive treatment by the former president.
Blinken addressed some of the global challenges ahead in his first news conference with reporters Wednesday afternoon.
The secretary said the Biden administration is reviewing Russia’s jailing of opposition activist Alexey Navalny and “actions that are of deep concern to us, whether it is the treatment of Mr. Navalny and particularly the apparent use of a chemical weapon in an attempt to assassinate him.”
He reiterated his comments from his Senate confirmation hearing that “it remains striking to me how concerned, and maybe even scared, the Russian government seems to be of one man, Mr. Navalny.”
Blinken also said the administration is looking “very urgently” at the SolarWinds hack of dozens of US government agencies and businesses that is attributed to Russia, as well as reports that Moscow had put bounties on American forces in Afghanistan, “and of course, we’re looking at these questions of election interference.”
On China, Blinken said his “judgment remains that genocide was committed against the Uighurs. And that hasn’t changed.”
Biden and his team have been explicit about wanting US foreign policy to improve the lives of Americans, and Blinken acknowledged the extraordinary set of crises at home, where the surging pandemic continues to kill Americans, the economy is struggling and people are absorbing disturbing details about the attempted insurrection encouraged by the former president.
“We need only look around to see that. I’m speaking … to a nearly empty lobby. The people who are here are wearing masks. To date, the pandemic has claimed the lives of five State Department American employees and 42 locally employed staff around the world. Many more have gotten sick,” he said when he greeted staff. “And outside our doors, our government buildings are surrounded by new barricades.”
‘We’ve never been in a moment quite like this’
“We’ve never been in a moment quite like this before. The President is committed to getting us through it as quickly as possible, so that soon, we can all gather in person again, travel freely again, and have confidence that the foundations of our democracy are strong,” Blinken said.
The newly minted top US diplomat pledged to listen and to maintain transparent communication with his workforce, a nod to the dissenting views that were often ignored during Pompeo’s tenure. He committed to building a diverse workforce. He also offered praise to the diplomats and career officials who were denigrated under the Trump administration.
Blinken said when he first arrived at the department 28 years ago, “it didn’t not take me long to figure out one thing, and that’s how much talent and expertise that resides in this building is so important and so important to listen to the women and men of the State Department when thinking about America’s place in the world and our foreign policy,” he said.
“Your knowledge, your experience, your generosity was the springboard that landed me here today,” Blinken said.
The new secretary will have to contend with wariness and perhaps even some skepticism about whether he will make good on his declarations of respect for career staff. Some current and former diplomats point to the fact that none of the top appointments made so far include career staff and instead, political appointees or former diplomats who left the State Department are being brought back.
“You do not have at State anyone who is current career” in the top ranks of Blinken’s leadership team, said Brett Bruen, a former diplomat and now president at Global Situation Room. Bruen argues the last four years have been so disruptive that Blinken needs to include leaders who lived through it at the department. “Those who have been named have managed to morph into political creatures. It’s great that they have had careers in diplomacy, but in many cases, it’s not relevant to today.”
State Department officials say more appointments are coming that will include career staff. On Wednesday, Blinken made a concerted effort to convey appreciation for his nearly 70,000-strong workforce.
‘On your team’
“To all the State Department personnel worldwide and to the women and men of USAID, whose work exemplifies America as its best — I want you to know how proud of every single one of you and how I am to be on your team,” Blinken said. “Whether you’re diplomats or development workers, members of the foreign service or the civil service, locally employed staff, contractors — you do hard things very, very well.”
“These jobs demand sacrifice, and they can be dangerous. The names engraved on the walls here in our lobby remind us of that,” he said, referencing the names of fallen diplomats. “We honor them by coming to work every day and doing our absolute best for the American people and for each other.”
Blinken added, “I cannot promise that you will support every choice I make as your secretary. But I can promise an open door and an open mind.”
“I will be forthright with you, because transparency makes us stronger,” he said. “I will seek out dissenting views and listen to the experts, because that’s how the best decisions are made. And I will insist that you speak and speak up without fear or favor. And I will have your back.”
Pompeo committed to restoring the swagger of the department during his first remarks to staff, whereas Blinken placed emphasis on his commitment uphold American values, and suggested they had been ignored under the previous administration.
“America’s values are noble and powerful — and we will recommit to them,” he said, pledging to pursue “a foreign policy that delivers real benefits to American families, protects their safety, advances their opportunities, honors their values, and leaves their children and grandchildren a healthier and more peaceful world.”
Blinken also celebrated the history of nonpartisanship by career diplomats and secretaries of state — a tradition that Pompeo upended.
“All we ask is that you serve the US, the Constitution, and the President to the best of your ability,” Blinken said.
Blinken called Wednesday a “homecoming,” citing his first job in the building nearly three decades ago, his experience as deputy secretary, his wife’s experience at a top official in the building.
Blinken was introduced by Daniel Smith, a career diplomat who served as acting secretary of state and led the transition efforts at the department.
“The department’s been in excellent hands with you,” Blinken told him.
According to spokesperson Ned Price, Blinken was greeted outdoors “by approximately 30 of the women and men representing a small cross-section of the larger workforce” prior to his remarks.
“Among those taking part will be representatives of the Department’s employee affinity groups as well as members of the workforce from different bureaus and career tracks. Participants will also be in different stages of their careers — some very senior and some relatively junior — and will represent many of the functions that are so critical to our operations, whether that’s custodial support or policymaking,” Price said.