The two men provide a study in contrast: Where Pompeo has the reputation of being abrasive and blustery, Blinken has been described as ‘soft-spoken’ with a gift for self-deprecating humour
On Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden, introducing his national security and foreign policy team, declared: “America is back and ready to lead the world”. Biden, in an interview with NBC, added, “America’s going to reassert its role in the world and be a coalition builder.”
Perhaps no Biden Cabinet pick better encapsulates the fundamental shift in US foreign policy that is set to occur than Antony Blinken being chosen as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s replacement, a move that will likely assuage the frayed nerves of traditional US allies whom President Donald Trump has often belittled and brushed aside.
The two men provide a study in contrast: Where Pompeo has the reputation of being abrasive and blustery, Blinken has been described as “soft-spoken” with a gift for self-deprecating humour.
Pompeo graduated first in his class at West Point, served as an officer in the US Army during the Cold War, graduated from Harvard Law School, having been an editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, represented Kentucky in the US House before being picked to head up the CIA and then the state department (the first person to have done both).
Blinken took a much different path.
Graduating from Harvard University and Columbia Law School, Blinken served on the National Security Council (NSC) during the Clinton administration before becoming staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chair of the panel.
In the early years of the Barack Obama administration, Blinken returned to the NSC and was then-vice president Biden’s national security adviser before he moved to the state department to serve as deputy to secretary of state John Kerry.
Where Pompeo has served as a deacon and Sunday School teacher at his Kansas church, Blinken, to the amusement of many on social media, fronts a “wonk rock” band named ABlinken and has penned two original love songs entitled Lip Service and Patience (available on Spotify where the band has amassed a whopping 53 followers).
For those who like wonk rock check out and follow ABlinken on Spotify. Some original songs from many years back but just recorded. https://t.co/lVO7GhkuXC
— Antony Blinken (@ABlinken) June 23, 2018
Unilateralist vs internationalist
Pompeo and Blinken also seem to have extremely different attitudes to foreign policy.
While Pompeo has oscillated between echoing and pushing back on Trump’s rather harsh public skepticism of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, first calling it an “indispensable institution” and then saying the alliance needs to grow and change or risk becoming obsolete, Blinken a firm believer in the organisation, has in the past argued for robust NATO military action (most notably in Libya in 2011).
Pompeo, in a 2018 Brussels speech that Foreign Policy derided as ‘tone-deaf’ and ‘arrogant’, seemed offer a harsh assessment of the current international order.
“Critics in places like Iran and China – who really are undermining the international order – are saying the Trump administration is the reason this system is breaking down. They claim America is acting unilaterally instead of multilaterally, as if every kind of multilateral action is by definition desirable. Even our European friends sometimes say we’re not acting in the world’s interest. This is just plain wrong,” Pompeo said,.
“After the Cold War ended, we allowed this liberal order to begin to corrode. It failed us in some places, and sometimes it failed you and the rest of the world. Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself. The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done.” Pompeo added.
Blinken, over the past few years, has issued full-throated declarations of Europe’s importance to America.
“Put simply, the world is safer for the American people when we have friends, partners and allies,” Blinken said in 2016, as per Politico. He has described Europe as “a vital partner” and has dismissed the Trump administration’s plans to remove US troops from Germany as “foolish, it’s spiteful, and it’s a strategic loser. It weakens NATO, it helps Vladimir Putin, and it harms Germany, our most important ally in Europe.”
Blinken, the son of Jewish parents, speaks often of his grandfather who “fled pogroms in Russia.” He also tells of how his late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor, the only one of 900 schoolchildren in a town in Poland to survive the Holocaust, fled a death march in Bavaria. Pisar, was rescued by an American soldier who opened the hatch of his tank. Pisar, Blinken said, uttered the only three words he knew in English: “God bless America.”
Blinken, who has said that the United States cannot solve global problems on its own and that “we need to be working with other countries”, has been called an internationalist and a multilateralist.
Pompeo, predictably, has openly denounced such calls for greater international cooperation, saying that Trump had been focused on “real results” and “the reality on the ground.” “More multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with their buddies at a cocktail party? That’s not in the best interest of the United States,” Pompeo recently told Fox News.
But both men seemingly have one thing in common: their respective bosses seem to be rubbing off on them.
‘Secretary of Trump’
Derided by his critics as the ‘Secretary of Trump’, Pompeo underwent a transformation from a determined skeptic of the then presidential candidate Trump to a fervent foot-soldier of the commander-in-chief: at least when it comes to China and Iran.
Pompeo, much like a pit-bull straining on a leash, has mimicked his boss by taking a consistently confrontational approach to both countries during his tenure helming the state department.
Much to the dismay and discomfort of some, the top US diplomat has pushed the “Wuhan virus” label (a phrase coined by President Donald Trump) at international summits and repeatedly put the Chinese Communist Party on blast.
“The Chinese Communist Party poses a substantial threat to our health and way of life, as the Wuhan virus clearly has demonstrated,” Pompeo said at a G7 Summit in May. That push seemingly led to a small rift within the alliance, which failed to agree on a joint statement after Pompeo insisted that the term “Wuhan virus” be included.
Pompeo, on a farewell tour of friends and allies in Europe and West Asia these past ten days, is leaving his post in a familiar manner: by angering Turkey’s leaders, infuriating the Palestinians and befuddling the French, as per Bloomberg.
“He’s spending his last two months in office trolling the world,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution told Bloomberg. “It’s an odd role for the nation’s top diplomat to be playing at a rather sensitive time.”
Pompeo, refusing to acknowledge Biden’s victory in the US presidential election during this tour, sent shockwaves around the world when he, some say in jest, announced that he expected a ‘smooth transition to a second Trump administration’.
Pompeo, at the same press conference, lashed out when a reporter asked how Trump’s cries of the election being rigged would be viewed abroad. “That’s ridiculous, and you know it’s ridiculous, and you asked it because it’s ridiculous,” Pompeo said, in a rather unconvincing fit of pique. He continued:
“You asked a question that is ridiculous. This department cares deeply to make sure that elections around the world are safe and secure and free and fair, and my officers risk their lives to ensure that that happens.”
Trying to cement Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran as Trump winds down his day in office, Pompeo has insisted Iran is the region’s top threat, in a tour taking in Israel and the UAE and concluding in Saudi Arabia: all countries that view Iran through the same hawkish lens.
In August, Pompeo, accusing Iran of being in “significant non-performance” with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA (a deal that Trump renounced), unilaterally declared that that all UN sanctions against Iran have been restored.
“The United States took this decisive action because, in addition to Iran’s failure to perform its JCPoA commitments, the Security Council failed to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which had been in place for 13 years,” Pompeo said.
“In accordance with our rights… we initiated the snapback process to restore virtually all previously terminated UN sanctions, including the arms embargo,” he said. “The world will be safer as a result.”
‘Biden’s alter ego’
Blinken, described as ‘Biden’s alter ego’ when it comes to international relations, has aligned himself with numerous former senior national security officials calling for a major reinvestment in American diplomacy and renewed emphasis on global engagement.
Blinken has fiercely defended Obama’s Iran deal from its critics, writing in The New York Times, “In an ideal world, we would have negotiated every misbehaviour that Iran conducts both at home and around the world. But we live in the real world, not an ideal world. The only issue that our partners were prepared to negotiate, including the Europeans, including China, Russia, not to mention Iran, was the nuclear programme.”
Blinken, speaking to The Associated Press in September, also took aim at the Trump administration: “Democracy is in retreat around the world, and unfortunately it’s also in retreat at home because of the president taking a two-by-four to its institutions, its values and its people every day.”
“Our friends know that Joe Biden knows who they are. So do our adversaries. That difference would be felt on day one,” he added.
In May, Blinken, in a nigh-unthinkable statement for anyone serving in the Trump administration, went ahead and issued a mea culpa for the Obama administration’s Syria policy: “Any of us, and I start with myself, who had any responsibility for our Syria policy in the last administration has to acknowledge that we failed,” Blinken told The New York Times.
“We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. It is something I will take with me for the rest of my days.” He went on to criticise Trump for pulling US troops out of Syria, and making the problem “arguably even worse.
Blinken faces uphill battle
Blinken faces some daunting challenges: He is set to inherit a deeply demoralised and depleted career workforce at the state department. Trump’s two secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, offered weak resistance to the administration’s attempts to gut the agency, which were thwarted only by congressional intervention.
Although the department escaped massive proposed cuts of more than 30 percent in its budget for three consecutive years, it has seen a significant number of departures from its senior and rising mid-level ranks, from which many diplomats have opted to retire or leave the foreign service given limited prospects for advancements under an administration they believed did not value their expertise.
Pompeo has already slammed some of Biden’s picks.
“I know some of these folks, they took a very different view, they lived in a bit of a fantasy world,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier. “They led from behind, they appeased. I hope they will choose a different course.”
Pompeo has said he had not spoken to Blinken but would “do everything that’s required by law” as part of the transition.
Regardless, it seems the United States will go from ‘America first’ to ‘America at the head of the table’.
With input from agencies
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