Secretary Swell on a Pissed-off Planet
New York magazine|March 29 - April 11, 2021
Groomed on Park Avenue nd in the 16th Arrondissement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confronts a world that just might be post-diplomacy.
By Gabriel Debenedetti

The Hotel Captain cook in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, commemorates the 18th-century explorer who circumnavigated the globe twice, “discovering” vast swaths of it for British imperialists before being stabbed to death while attempting to kidnap a Hawaiian chief. It is a somewhat inauspicious place to consider the state of the western-led, rules-based international order, but it’s also roughly equidistant from Beijing and Washington, D.C. And just before the first day of spring, as the temperature outside dipped below zero, the Captain Cook’s ballroom became the center of the geopolitical realm.

Inside, the U.S. and China were conducting their first major encounter of the Biden era. America’s new secretary of State, Antony Blinken, started the meeting innocuously enough, but included some swipes at China’s pattern of cyberattacks, human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, and undermining of democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Beijing’s top diplomats, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, were given two minutes each to respond. Instead, they exploded protocol with a 20-minute diatribe about their hosts’ lack of standing to lecture anyone on anything. “We do not believe in invading through the use of force, or to topple other regimes through various means, or to massacre the people of other countries,” Yang said through a translator, before observing that “many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States” and invoking Black Lives Matter.

Blinken, who is 58, stared at Yang from across the room and began taking notes. Under a tamed sweep of wavy, graying hair, he wore a black face mask that obscured any trace of a reaction—not that the lifelong globe-trotter would have betrayed one anyway. Yang continued, “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the ‘universal values’ advocated by the United States, or that the opinion of the United States, could represent international public opinion. And those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”

Blinken knew his opening remarks would elicit some kind of reaction, but Yang’s nearly bellicose response—“Between our two countries, we’ve had confrontation in the past, and the result did not serve the United States well”—was more provocation than the American side had expected. As aides ushered a small gaggle of journalists out the door as scheduled, Blinken decided he didn’t want the Chinese to have the last word. “Hold on one second, please! Hold on,” he said, reaching out an arm, and began a monologue of his own.

“A hallmark of our leadership, of our engagement in the world, is our alliances and our partnerships that have been built on a totally voluntary basis,” Blinken said. “And it is something that President Biden is committed to reinvigorating. And there’s one more hallmark of our leadership here at home, and that’s a constant quest to, as we say, form a more perfect union. And that quest, by definition, acknowledges our imperfections, acknowledges that we’re not perfect. We make mistakes, we have reversals, we take steps back. But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges openly, publicly, transparently, not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, not trying to sweep them under a rug. And sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s ugly, but each and every time, we have come out stronger, better, more united as a country.”

The civics lecture—which came amid a wave of American and allied sanctions on Chinese officials—was a high-minded throwback, unlike anything to come out of an American diplomat’s mouth in four years. And the Chinese, who spent those years in daily, often disorienting combat with Blinken’s predecessors, weren’t buying it. “My bad. When I entered this room, I should have reminded the U.S. side of paying attention to its tone in our respective opening remarks, but I didn’t,” Yang shot back, ignoring a halfplea, half-warning from Blinken’s colleague, the national security adviser Jake Sullivan, to keep things constructive. “I think we thought too well of the United States.”

One question hanging in the air was whether Blinken, in his own way, might also think too well of his country. He has been advising Joe Biden on foreign policy for nearly two decades, and if there is a Biden doctrine, it could be summarized as like Barack Obama’s but slightly more idealistic: that America should lead the liberal world order, relying heavily on alliances and the symbolic potency of a functioning democracy at home, matched with a credible, but preferably seldom used, threat of force. If the U.S. steps back, Blinken often says, some other country—probably China—will fill the vacuum. To avoid that, both Blinken and Biden like to cite the aspirational Clinton-era axiom that America must “lead with the power of our example, not the example of our power.” The problem is that the world found the example of Trump’s presidency plenty powerful, from treaty trashing to denying election results to storming the Capitol. Even as allies have expressed nearly delirious relief over Biden’s election, representatives from less sympathetic countries have needled the new administration about America’s credibility as an advocate for democracy—sometimes in the press, and sometimes, via video calls, directly to Blinken’s face.

Persuading the rest of the world to adopt his lofty view of America, despite all its smoldering contradictions, is item No. 1 on the secretary’s agenda, which is overflowing with crises. On top of the planet’s pandemic, economic, and climate emergencies, he has had to deal with a coup in Myanmar, the extension of a U.S.-Russian arms treaty, and a North Korean ballistic-missile test. He has handled the fallout from Biden’s agreeing with an interviewer that Vladimir Putin is a “killer” and Putin’s responding with what seemed to be a veiled threat (“I wish him good health”). He has considered whether and how to reengage with Iran over its nuclear program and pondered the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, back home, Blinken must rebuild the State Department’s staff, both numerically and emotionally, after four years of Trump’s efforts to hollow out the agency.

Blinken’s predecessors acknowledge that the world he’s inheriting is in exceptionally bad shape—including Hillary Clinton, who knows something about starting at rock bottom, having taken over State in the wake of a global financial meltdown and eight years of Bushinflicted reputational trauma. “Probably it’s fair to say it’s even worse now,” Clinton told me. (And that was a few hours before the fracas in Alaska.) “The effects of the pandemic on the economy and on America’s ability to serve as a model of the world have been pretty stark, and the damage that the former president did to our standing in the world—literally empowering authoritarians, challenging and deriding our friends and allies—means that the skepticism that I encountered when I started reaching out in 2009 is even deeper and wider for Secretary Blinken now.”

Two months into Biden’s term, with Democrats cautiously giddy over his domestic accomplishments, the outlook is far shakier when it comes to the rest of the globe, where many of the policy questions may be intractable—if for no other reason than that no matter how well Blinken performs, there’s little he can do to convince the world that the country won’t one day relapse into another “America First”–style administration.

“Many Europeans are discreetly saying, ‘Well, four years from now, President Trump could be back in the office,’ ” said David O’Sullivan, an Irish diplomat who served as the E.U. ambassador to the U.S. between 2014 and 2019. “It’s the volatility of domestic politics. While it was a relatively handsome victory for President Biden, the fact is that the Republicans didn’t do too badly, and they haven’t gone away. Maybe people don’t want to talk too much about it because the new administration has barely got their feet under the new desk, but in the back of people’s minds, there is this worry. So how deeply do you rebuild the alliance, understanding that in four years it could all be torn up? The contrary view, of course—my view—is this is an opportunity to be seized because you may never see again such a Europe-knowledgeable and Europe-sensitive team in a U.S. administration.”

That’s the sunnier take on foreign policy under Biden. His choice of the impeccably credentialed Blinken, who is not just familiar to but genuinely well liked in both foreign capitals and Washington’s foreign-policy firmament, may be the world’s best shot at reestablishing a stable, American-led liberal consensus. Japanese and Korean officials were delighted to host Blinken’s symbolically important first trip abroad (he had flown to Anchorage from Seoul); his second was to Brussels, where nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg called him “dear Tony” and gushed, “It’s really great to be here together with you for many reasons, but your knowledge, your experience, your background, and your personal commitment to nato makes you really a secretary which is very much welcomed here at nato.” Even some top GOP figures seem content with Blinken and his team—and on the most sensitive of issues, no less: “After talking with them about China, I think our views are very congruent,” Jim Risch of Idaho, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me recently.

It’s a different story with America’s adversaries, several of whom are eager to test the new administration. “Sophisticated diplomats on the other side know exactly how to rub it in and take advantage of the terrible events that we have seen,” Clinton said. “It’s very difficult to be advocating for democracy when the whole world has seen our democracy literally under attack.”

Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia, told me, “Donald Trump is gone, but there’s a lot of leaders left who want to ‘Make (Insert Country) Great Again.’ Xi Jinping’s one. Modi is another. Putin is obviously another. Erdogan is another. It’s quite a long list.” No matter how popular Blinken and Biden are personally, no diplomat on earth looks at America the same way after Trump. “Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that they’re dealing with safer and more consistent, more predictable, more traditional people,” Turnbull said of the international response to Biden’s election. “But Trump and the forces that he channeled have not gone away. What you’ve got is essentially an assault of populist authoritarianism. I’m always reluctant to call it fascism, but, you know, it looks and feels a lot like that. When the assault on the Capitol is happening, and there were people saying, ‘This is not America, this is not us, this is not who we are’—well, is that right? That mob, and that huge percentage of Americans who were persuaded by Trump and his amplifiers in the right-wing media that Biden had stolen the election, they looked in every other respect like thoroughly normal Americans with regular jobs, including professionals: doctors, lawyers, police officers, teachers.”

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