Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman (@DavidAndelman), a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, and executive director of The Red Lines Project, is the author of the forthcoming “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Could Still Happen” and host of its Evergreen podcast. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President-elect Joe Biden has allowed the world, or at least the rational, democratic (with a small d) part of it, to breathe a sigh of relief. With the designation of Antony Blinken as Secretary of State and Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser, suddenly it seems that order and rationality are on the cusp of being restored to American diplomacy.
Biden’s other brilliant moves? Adding John Kerry as special envoy for the environment and Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence. As it happens, Haines was also an advocate for Gina Haspel as Director of the CIA under President Donald Trump. If Biden keeps Haspel – the first woman and one of the rare occupants of that job to came up through the ranks – it would be a clear demonstration of his determination to return the agency to its non-partisan, apolitical essence
Most of these appointments are long anticipated choices that could go a long way toward assuaging fears that have only deepened in the last four fraught years of diplomacy-by-tweet – and which Trump has further intensified since his election defeat in a misguided effort to assure that his ill-considered toxicity will linger long after he leaves office.
Though reversing many of these moves – from denigrating much of the NATO alliance to advising the President on pulling troops out of hotspots like Afghanistan and Iraq – will be among Blinken’s earliest and most critical challenges, none is more essential than restoring a feeling that America can, once again, be a pillar of constancy in the world.
Blinken already has a long and distinguished resume, which proves he is up to the task. From Democratic staff director to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s to Deputy Secretary of State under the Obama administration, he assimilated a view best described by Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, one of his colleagues during the Biden-Harris campaign, as “power by example vs. example by power.” This, she explained in an email to me, is a deeply held feeling that America does not need to flex its muscles to demonstrate leadership.
Blinken has also been known to cite the fabled 8,000-word “long telegram” that the great American diplomatic thinker George Kennan, then chargé d’affairs in Moscow, sent back to the State Department in 1946. The central observation: “At [the] bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Clearly in the declining days of the Trump administration that could describe America’s allies as well as many of its enemies – unsettled and unnerved by four years of lurches that marked Trump’s foreign policy as it ping-ponged from one self-imposed crisis to another.
As tone deaf as his two predecessors, Rex Tillerson and especially Mike Pompeo, were to the nuances of global affairs, Blinken will bring perfect pitch. It will be left to him to carry out the bulk of Biden’s principal early priorities – restoring American membership in the World Health Organization, the COP-21 Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and the Open Skies Agreement, but above all restoring America’s leadership role in the NATO alliance where the value of its members can be demonstrated by unity of purpose rather than simply commitment of dollars or euros.
There are many other priorities as well, which will include reversing the most ham-fisted of Trump-era blunders, especially a host of ill-conceived and poorly administered red lines around the globe. North Korea continues to build its nuclear arsenal and capacity to deliver a weapon to American targets. The Taliban are on the cusp of resuming control in Afghanistan as Trump announces plans for a precipitate US troop withdrawal – and just as Iranian militias are building up their reach in Iraq and Syria. Many terrorist groups that were expelled from the Middle East have pitched up to find new homes across Africa, just as Trump vowed to withdraw American forces from a continent where he had little interest and whose strategic value he barely understood.
Finally, China has built an all but unassailable position in the South China Sea. But that is only a corner of the ambitions of its leader Xi Jinping, whom Trump has shown little ability to check. China’s principal goal is to become a true global superpower, a nation that the world will need to respect and court. So, an early Biden-Blinken priority must be to move America back into the leadership position in Asia – one that China assumed with the recent signing of a 14-nation trade pact from which it had been frozen out under President Barack Obama. With Trump withdrawing America from the TPP, a slightly different pan-Asian trade partnership, the door was open to China to fill the vacuum.
But reentering some international agreements will hardly be enough to restore American influence abroad to an even keel and reassure America’s allies that Trump was simply a short toxic detour. Certainly, the close personal ties the president-elect and his secretary-of state-designate have built over a lifetime of travel and diplomacy will go a long way toward that end.
Indeed, Pompeo’s last swing through Europe and Middle East should have served as a warning to any who might have any reservations about embracing Blinken as a breath of fresh air. Trump’s top diplomat managed in 10 days to infuriate Turkey’s leadership, enrage Palestinians with a visit to the West Bank, and confuse the French from President Emmanuel Macron on down.
Blinken will face a colossal task of restoring morale and rational discourse to American diplomacy, while rebuilding a decimated and demoralized diplomatic corps. He can begin to do so by using competence and experience as qualifications for important positions – rather than unquestioned loyalty to a president and a determinedly self-centered agenda.
Biden’s naming of a veteran foreign service officer like Linda Thomas-Greenfield rather than a political lackey to the newly elevated cabinet-level post of UN ambassador is also an important symbolic move in the direction of restoring professionalism to the nation’s diplomatic ranks.
The Biden-Blinken universe represents a return to a world where America may not be the center of the universe in every instance, nor needs to be. At the same time, the president-elect’s new national security and diplomatic team represents a determination to make the nation a shining example of democracy, standing on the foundations of a long and deeply rooted historical tradition.