WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Antony J. Blinken as the nation’s 71st secretary of state, installing President Joe Biden’s longtime adviser with a mission to rejoin alliances that were fractured after four years of an “America First” foreign policy.
A centrist with an interventionist streak, Blinken was approved by a vote of 78-22, a signal that senators were eager to move past the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to diplomacy.
“Blinken is the right person to reassure America’s prerogatives on the global stage,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, said before the vote.
“This is the person for the job,” said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Blinken, 58, inherits a State Department that he said has suffered from low morale and a workforce of about 1,000 fewer employees than when he left as its deputy secretary in early 2017. In his nomination hearing last week, Blinken said his plans to ensure multiculturalism in the diplomatic corps will be “a significant measure of whether I succeeded or failed, however long I’m in the job.”
Beyond the nation’s borders, it will be his ability to coalesce skeptical allies and manage a range of adversaries that will be the true test of his influence. His past roles at the center of President Barack Obama’s blunders in Syria, Iraq and Libya also remain a sticking point for his critics.
Minutes before Tuesday’s vote, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made a lone speech to oppose Blinken, blaming him for helping draw the United States into conflicts in Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2014 that have fueled regional chaos and instability.
“When we had the Obama administration, with Blinken and other military interventionists, we got more war,” Paul said. He said Blinken had failed in his confirmation hearing to assure senators “that regime change is wrong.”
In one of the most divisive policy decisions on his horizon, Blinken has already described a measured willingness to rejoin other world powers in a 2015 agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018.
He has promised a harder line against Russia than President Donald Trump was willing to take, and will review American policy toward North Korea, which he described at the Senate hearing as “a problem that has not gotten better; in fact, it’s gotten worse.”
Blinken intends to keep the tougher tone that Trump struck against China — an overarching strategy the Biden administration will wield either to confront Beijing on human rights abuses and military aggressions, or to compete against it in Africa, Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
“I disagree, very much, with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one,” Blinken told senators last week, referring to Trump’s approach toward China. “And I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.”
He also called the Abraham accords — agreements that the Trump administration helped broker for Israel to warm relations with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates — a “good thing.” However, he said, some of the incentives that were offered to the four states to improve ties with Israel merited “a hard look,” including those, such as recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, that defy international norms.
Some of the policies Blinken is now reviewing are decisions that were issued in the final days of the Trump administration and were “clearly designed to box in” Biden, said Anne W. Patterson, a former career diplomat.
Blinken “has to reverse some of these,” said Patterson, an ambassador during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations and the assistant secretary of state for Middle East policy from 2013 to 2017. Here are five Trump administration policies that Blinken told senators were on his list to review or overturn.
A terrorism designation against Yemen’s Houthis
As secretary of state, Mike Pompeo had debated designating the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization for more than a year before finally doing so on Jan. 10, with just over a week left in office. Allies, aid workers and even State Department diplomats had pleaded with him to resist the designation, arguing that it would gravely exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which is already on the brink of famine. Under the designation, food importers could face criminal penalties if their shipments fall into the Houthis’ hands.
Blinken said it was not clear that the designation would hinder the Houthis in any practical way, or encourage them to negotiate a peace deal with neighboring Saudi Arabia to end Yemen’s war. Saudi Arabia backs the former Yemeni government that the Houthis ousted in 2015, and Blinken pledged to withdraw U.S. support for Riyadh’s role in the war.
“We’ve got a very specific and concrete problem that we need to address very quickly, if we’re going to make sure we’re doing everything we can to alleviate the suffering of people in Yemen,” he said.
A record-low cap on refugee admissions
In Blinken’s last year as the Obama administration’s deputy secretary of state, 110,000 refugees fleeing violence and oppression in their home countries were authorized to enter the United States.
He has now inherited a new low that caps refugee admissions at 15,000 for the 2021 fiscal year.
“People who need protection should get it,” Blinken said.
Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights
One of Pompeo’s top priorities was to push religious liberties as the crux of American human rights policy, a principle enshrined in the findings of a State Department panel he created in 2019. That Commission on Unalienable Rights was made up mostly of conservatives who critics said opposed abortion and marriage equality, and bypassed the department’s own bureau for democracy, human rights and labor.
In a discussion about protecting LGBTQ people around the world from violence, Blinken said he would repudiate the report from Pompeo’s panel, and allow American diplomats to fly the gay pride flag at U.S. embassies abroad.
Newly opened channels of communication with Taiwan
Blinken was careful to underscore support for Taiwan, including helping it defend against Chinese aggression. “I’d also like to see Taiwan playing a greater role around the world, including in international organizations,” he said.
He said he would review a decision by Pompeo, announced on Jan. 9, that relaxed restrictions on interactions between American officials and their counterparts in Taiwan. Some of the restrictions have been in place for years, as part of the “One China” policy that in 1979 ended American recognition of a nationalist government in Taiwan. Their lifting was widely viewed as an effort to lock in a tougher line on Beijing before the end of the Trump administration.
Blinken, however, raised the possibility that the step went beyond a law to assess diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei that Trump approved just last month. “We’re going to take a hard look” to make sure it has not, Blinken said.
Stopping short of describing abuses against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims as genocide
Blinken said he would oversee an interagency assessment to determine whether atrocities against Myanmar’s minority Rohingya, by the country’s security forces, amounted to genocide. The State Department has steered clear of doing so, with officials instead referring to “ethnic cleansing” in documenting mass killings and widespread evidence of torture and rape.
The United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court have described the atrocities as genocide. But, in 2018, an unnamed State Department official told NPR that “we rarely make atrocity determinations” and would do so only after a thorough review and “because we assess that to do so at a particular time will help advance our policy objectives.”
Pompeo declared China’s repression of Uighur Muslims as genocide in one of his last acts in office.