Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, received a largely warm welcome from Democrats and Republicans in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, aided by his pledge to work in sincere cooperation with Congress.
“Both the President-elect and I believe we must restore Congress’s traditional role as a partner in our foreign policy making,” Blinken said. As a former staff director for the committee before he joined the Obama administration, Blinken is in a good position to work with members on both sides of the aisle, and he seized on that connection in his remarks and responses to questions. Chairman Jim Risch of Idaho and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were among the Republicans who made clear their support for Blinken, with Graham saying he expects a “big bipartisan vote” for Blinken’s confirmation and declaring, “You deserve it.”
Over more than four hours, the hearing was a world tour of trouble spots, starting with Iran but with equal concern over the challenges the United States faces from China, Russia, North Korea, and even NATO ally Turkey. On China, Blinken provided serious answers to a range of rigorous questions, from its economic coercion around the world, to suppression of dissent in Hong Kong and of its minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang Province, to its aggression toward Taiwan.
Senators also focused questions on the conflict in Ethiopia and the extremist threat in several parts of Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the ongoing turmoil in Venezuela. On immigration, Blinken said the administration will seek continued aid for the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to help them tackle issues such as corruption and lack of education and health care that spur emigration to the United States. With respect to asylum in particular, Blinken said the United States has a legal and moral obligation “to allow people to make asylum claims and to deal with those claims expeditiously.”
Biden has been “very clear,” Blinken said, “that our charge will be to put democracy and human rights back at the center of American foreign policy.” Biden’s plan to hold a Summit for Democracy likely will materialize toward the end of this year, Blinken said. “Our ability to be a stronger leader for and defender of democracy and human rights largely depends on the strength of our own democracy here at home.”
Blinken said the key will be to engage vigorously across the globe and bring on board the expertise needed to address current and future foreign policy and national security challenges, noting in particular the need for increased expertise in global health, climate, and technology issues. Blinken noted that rising to these challenges will require focus, commitment, and resources, and committee members expressed a readiness to provide such resources.
“We’ll show up again, day-in, day-out, whenever and wherever the safety and wellbeing of Americans is at stake,” Blinken said. “We’ll engage the world not as it was, but as it is: A world of rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states, mounting threats to a stable and open international system, and a technological revolution that is reshaping every aspect of our lives, especially in cyberspace.”
In addition to turning the page on substantive foreign policy matters, Blinken’s hearing showcased a clear shift in tone from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s quips about bringing “swagger” to the department.
“Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership coin,” Blinken said in his opening statement. “Humility because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad. And humility because most of the world’s problems are not about us, even as they affect us. Not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone – even one as powerful as the U.S.”
Risch and Menendez agreed to try to expedite Blinken’s confirmation. “I think all of us have a very strong interest in seeing that the president has in place, as rapidly as possible, his national security team,” Risch said.
Just Security consulted a range of leading experts and former senior State Department officials for their views on Blinken’s confirmation hearing and what may come ahead:
Brian Egan, Partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, former National Security Legal Adviser and Deputy White House Counsel, and former Legal Adviser at the Department of State under the Obama administration, Just Security Board of Editors.
Blinken’s nearly five-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) was a homecoming of sorts for the nominee, who served as the Democratic staff director for the panel from 2002 to 2008. Blinken struck a largely conciliatory note with Republican members of the committee, even while identifying several areas where the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy would differ from the Trump administration. Blinken repeatedly committed to rebuilding and “reinvigorating” the State Department, with diversity in hiring as one of his major priorities. Blinken emphasized the importance of revitalizing the U.S. role in multilateral institutions and diplomacy. He also committed to “returning to regular order” on conferring with and notifying the SFRC of foreign arms sales.
Blinken characterized China as posing the “most significant challenges of any country” and described the Trump administration’s policy towards the Indo-Pacific region as “getting some questions right” while “getting the answers wrong.” He noted the need to distinguish more clearly areas where the United States is adversarial to China from those where the United States should compete or cooperate with China.
On Iran, Blinken confirmed that the administration would seek to renew diplomatic discussions with Iran and the other parties to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear framework, while acknowledging the importance of addressing Iran’s support for terrorism and its ballistic missile capabilities. Blinken would not commit to introducing any new nuclear-related deal with Iran as an advice-and-consent treaty – instead he promised to engage with Congress in the course of any Iran-related negotiations.
When asked whether the existing Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) would authorize military strikes against Iran, Blinken said he believed that they would not, and that the executive branch should consult with Congress before conducting such strikes regardless. Blinken also committed to working on a bipartisan basis to repeal and replace the existing AUMFs from 2001 and 2002. He said the Biden administration would immediately seek to work with Russia on an extension to the New START arms control agreement, which is due to expire next month.
Blinken also acknowledged several foreign policy achievements of the Trump administration, including its efforts to normalize relations between Israel and other states in the region through the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords, and he indicated that he had no intention to move the U.S. embassy out of Jerusalem. He strongly endorsed the “Global Magnitsky” human rights sanctions framework that had been created by Congress and implemented by the Trump administration. He also agreed with outgoing Secretary Pompeo’s statement yesterday that China’s actions against its Uyghur minority amounted to genocide.
Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr., Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors of Lightbridge Corporation, served for nearly three decades at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, including 15 years as its General Counsel.
Blinken’s opening statement was excellent, particularly some comments on his and his family’s background. [Blinken told the story of his late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, who escaped from a death march after four years in a concentration camp, was rescued by an American GI, and “found refuge in America after enduring the horrors of the Holocaust.”]
The series of questions on the merits or lack thereof of the policies of the Trump administration permitted him to display the great depth of his knowledge and understanding of foreign policy. It also demonstrated his ability to communicate effectively with members of the Senate on the complexity of foreign policy issues, which reflects his years as the chief Democratic staffer of the Foreign Relations Committee.
He will be an excellent Secretary of State backed up by an outstanding staff.
Beth Van Schaack, Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights at Stanford Law School, former Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice of the U.S. Department of State, Just Security Executive Editor.
It is notable that Blinken agreed with the Trump administration’s determination the same day that China had committed genocide in its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a position that is consistent with an earlier condemnation from the Biden-Harris campaign.
From a doctrinal perspective, this is important. In addition to decrying the use of “concentration camps” to detain Uyghurs, the statement from Pompeo reflects an understanding that there can be a genocide without mass killing. This is consistent with the main treaty devoted to genocide, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which prohibits the imposition of conditions of life calculated to destroy the target group as well as forced sterilization and the transfer of children, as we have seen in Xinjiang.
Crimes against humanity, one of the core crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg, captures this harm as well and can be prosecuted even without firm evidence that the perpetrators are acting with the intent to destroy the group, in whole or in part — the hallmark of genocide.
The timing of Pompeo’s statement — coming as it did on the eve of the inauguration — is, of course, curious when this course of conduct has been underway since at least 2017, as noted by the statement. It will now fall to the Biden-Harris administration to identify additional measures to mitigate the harm to the victims and promote accountability for those responsible for this campaign of ethno-religious persecution.
Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President for Policy at Human Rights First, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
Blinken’s confirmation hearing today was noteworthy both for what it was and for what it wasn’t. Unsurprisingly, from his prepared remarks forward, Blinken evinced a tone and perspective concerning U.S. foreign policy at deep odds with that of his immediate predecessor. As Mike Pompeo hurled culture war napalm from the sidelines, Blinken made clear that swagger and bombast are soon to be replaced as America’s diplomatic lodestars by “humility” and “confidence,” which he aptly described as “the flip sides of America’s leadership coin.”
On substance, Blinken ably reaffirmed what I’ve come to think of as the “3 Rs” of President-elect Biden’s stated priorities when it comes to U.S. foreign policy: revitalizing reeling workforces at the State Department and other agencies; returning to multilateralism and a commitment to defend democracy and human rights; and realizing gains for the American people. A fourth “R,” Blinken made clear, would be the reestablishment of constructive relationships torched during the Trump era. The list of those in need of repair is long, but Blinken made clear that he’ll extend the principle not just to America’s traditional European allies, but also to members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle.
The message seemed well received by most members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Joining Democrats, several Republicans went out of their way to praise Blinken’s deep knowledge, thoughtfulness, and willingness to learn from past mistakes in what could accurately be described as a multi-hour sub-tweet of the past four years. For one day, at least, a sense of shared national interest in solving exceptionally difficult questions prevailed. It was a breath of fresh air. Let us hope that more such days are to come.
Luke Hartig, Fellow in New America’s International Security program, former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Just Security Board of Editors.
Of the many exchanges Blinken had with senators during his four-hour confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, one of the most interesting was his collegial dialogue with Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham, of course, has largely been a fierce Trump defender while also being a friend of the late Senator John McCain, who opposed Blinken’s nomination as deputy secretary of state. But Graham was warm and gracious and, even before asking a question, affirmed his support for Blinken – he called the nominee “an outstanding choice” and predicted “a big, bipartisan vote” for his confirmation and declared “you deserve it.”
Among a long list of foreign policy concerns, Graham focused on the counterterrorism campaigns of the past 20 years since 9/11, stating his view that the United States had only been spared a major attack by al-Qaeda and ISIS because the country has kept its “foot on their throat.” Graham was critical of the Afghanistan drawdown and cautioned against trusting the Taliban in negotiations around the future of Afghanistan. Blinken largely agreed with Graham on most of this, noting the importance of staying vigilant on terrorism and expressing wariness about the Taliban.
But while Graham and Blinken may have agreed on foundational principles, in other parts of the nominee’s testimony, differences appeared around implementation. Although Graham reaffirmed his support for soft power to go with aggressive responses and sustained military operations, Blinken outlined a vision of a robust and distinctly civilian-led response to these threats. He called for a reinvigorated State Department, a strengthened civil service and Foreign Service workforce, and a diplomatic corps that could effectively and safely operate in some of the world’s most challenging environments. Blinken acknowledged the mistakes the Obama administration had made in Libya, particularly in overestimating the capacity of Libya’s institutions to take control post-Qaddafi. He spoke with nuance about the tricky diplomacy the department would have to utilize to address the dynamic situations in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa, places with immense challenges and where terrorist groups have often thrived. Blinken applauded the Development Finance Corporation, Global Fragility Act, and Middle East Partnership for Peace Fund. And he committed to multilateral approaches to terrorism and more.
This is the approach that many of us have called for over the past four years, as the Trump administration gutted the State Department, slashed the foreign affairs budget, shredded alliances, undermined its own diplomacy, and carried out a series of aggressive but often haphazard military operations. The challenge for Blinken, however, will not just be turning back the Trump approach but turning the ship of U.S. counterterrorism from the militarized approach that has prevailed across three administrations. The U.S. has built a machine that has kept America safe, as Graham rightly notes, but at the cost of creating a sense of perpetual war, a view that every overseas terrorist threat, no matter how small, must be neutralized with military force, and a belief that we must spend whatever it takes to carry out that mission. As Blinken notes, we can’t “take our eye off the ball” of terrorism, but the hard work now is building – and securing congressional support for – the civilian institutions, processes, and capabilities necessary for them, rather than the military, to take the lead on the effort.
Rita Simeon, Director of National Security Advocacy at Human Rights First, Just Security Board of Editors.
There was much of note in Blinken’s confirmation hearing today, but one important issue worth highlighting is the need to address the outdated war authorizations that remain not only on the books but in use far beyond what Congress originally authorized. As Blinken rightly noted, it is “long past time we revisit and review them. In many instances, they have been cited and used in countries and against groups that were not part of the original authorization.”
As Blinken acknowledged, getting agreement on the path forward on authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) has proven a challenge: “We did try to do this a few years ago, and it’s not easy to get to yes. For some, the porridge is too hot and for others it’s too cold…but I would be committed and determined to working on that. The president-elect feels very strongly about this.”
As the incoming administration considers the appropriate path forward, it should take heed of the lessons learned from how the existing AUMFs have been stretched beyond recognition, and ensure that any new authorities it seeks from Congress contain minimum essential safeguards.
But, if military force is to be used only as a “last resort,” as Blinken testified it should be, then the administration must also first carefully consider the full array of available tools for addressing current security challenges before seeking new or additional authorization to use force.
Laura Rozen, foreign policy reporter and founder of the Diplomatic newsletter, formerly at Politico and Foreign Policy, where she launched The Cable newsletter, Just Security Board of Editors.
Blinken pledged to make a sharp break with his predecessor in cutting partisan politics out of the State Department, in working to restore America’s alliances — especially with European democracies, and in committing to recruit, retain, and promote a more diverse and inclusive diplomatic corps. The latter particularly was a sharp contrast to outgoing Secretary Pompeo’s reactionary tweet ahead of the nomination hearing that “woke-ism, multiculturalism, all the isms — they’re not who America is.”
He offered some continuity in taking a tougher approach to China, saying he was interested in crafting a bipartisan policy on China that would seek to forge an alliance with other democracies. In response to questions, Blinken said he agreed with Pompeo’s declaration the same day that China’s abuses against its Uyghur Muslim minority constituted genocide.
“I think we’re very much in agreement,” Blinken said. “The forcing of men, women, and children into concentration camps; trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”
Blinken sought to leave room for Biden to return to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if Iran agrees to return to its full commitments, as a starting point. The administration would then seek to negotiate, in concert with partners and allies, a longer and broader deal, and to address issues left out of the pact, such as Iran’s support for militant groups in the region, its development of ballistic missiles, and its human rights record.
Biden “believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would too,” Blinken said. “But we would use that as a platform with our allies and partners, who would once again be on the same side with us, to seek a longer and stronger agreement,”
“Having said that, I think we’re a long way from there,” Blinken added.
Blinken said Biden was inclined to extend the new START strategic arms reduction pact with Russia, which expires next month, but hedged on the details, noting that Biden transition officials had studiously avoided consultations with foreign governments while another president was in office.
Blinken also said the Biden administration would halt military support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, though he said officials would have to examine the details of U.S. backing to gauge how and when to shift gears, and that it would review U.S. policy toward the Saudi kingdom more broadly. He also said the Biden administration would immediately review a controversial 11th-hour Pompeo designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, which humanitarian groups, the United Nations, and a bipartisan group of Senators fear could worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation while, “at least on its surface, it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table.”