Blinken’s diplomatic cart will have a bumpy ride

US Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken at confirmation hearing of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington, Jan 19, 2021

The confirmation of Antony Blinken as US secretary of state by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a foregone conclusion. That makes his opening statement at the senate hearing Tuesday an important document.

Blinken did not throw away the baby with the bathtub, as it were, when he marked a distance from the previous Trump administration’s foreign policy record on China, but he dissented on how Washington had gone about it. On the other hand, while avoiding any indulgence in American exceptionalism, he didn’t reject it either. 

That is not surprising. The America that Biden will work for is unrecognisable from that of the Obama era, and, more important, the world has changed phenomenally during the past four years. Avoiding a value-based route map of American exceptionalism, Blinken instead dwelt on his own Jewish family roots as immigrants who escaped “Russian pogroms”, “the communist regime” in Hungary, and the “horrors of the Holocaust.”   

Blinken acknowledged that the US must set an example at home on what it preaches abroad. He also stressed the need for “humility”. But he insisted nonetheless that the US’ global leadership “still matters” since the world is incapable of organising itself “when we’re not leading,” as some other country may usurp America’s lead role impacting “our interests and values”, or, simply, chaos may follow! 

Now, that’s an extraordinary boast so soon after the Capitol Riots whose leitmotif was Chaos in capital “C”. Blinken made a laughable claim. But it also betrays delusional thinking. At any rate, Blinken has pledged to “revitalise American diplomacy” and address the challenges of “rising nationalism, reseeding democracy, growing rivalry from China, and 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.” 

Interestingly, Blinken thrice cited Russia as a challenging relationship — China twice and Iran and North Korea once — but he made no reference to the transatlantic alliance although he took note of the need to “mobilise others.” 

Blinken’s relatively softer tone on China during the Q&A merits attention. Without elaborating, Blinken said, “We can outcompete China — and remind the world that a government of the people, by the people, can deliver for its people.” Referring to Trump’s China policy, he noted, “The basic principle was the right one,” but he disagreed with the methods. “There is no doubt that [China] poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States,” Blinken said.

Blinken cited human-rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and he backed military and diplomatic support for Taiwan in international organisations. But he went on to underscore that there also are issues where it makes sense to cooperate with Beijing.

As regards Iran, Blinken said during the Q&A that Iran would represent a much greater threat if it wields nuclear weapons or gets to the threshold of nuclear weapons. He said the Biden administration would seek to move toward a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran and the next steps would depend on what happens with Iran, without elaborating on plans for engaging with Tehran. “President Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken said.

Meanwhile, Blinken’s hearing followed the release of a policy brief earlier this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations, the influential pan-European think tank which conducts research on European foreign and security policy and provides a meeting space for decision-makers, activists and influencers across Europe. It contained some startling conclusions based on a poll it commissioned in November – December in the European capitals: 

  • Europeans rejoice at Biden’s victory in the presidential election, but do not think he can help America “make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader”; 
  • A “massive change” has come over European attitudes towards the US: “Majorities in key (EU) member states now think the US political system is broken, and that Europe cannot just rely on the US to defend it”; 
  • European countries “look to Berlin rather than Washington as the most important partner”;
  • Europeans believe that China will be more powerful than the US within a decade “and would want their country to stay neutral” in a conflict between the US and China; 
  • EU should develop its own defence capacities; and, 
  • While there is “a great chance for a revival of Atlanticism”, Biden Administration “cannot take European alignment against China for granted.”

How far Blinken’s presentation was influenced by the the ECFR policy brief titled The Crisis of American Power: How Europeans see Biden’s America, we we won’t know but it would have come as a reality check for Biden’s national security team. The policy brief signals that the European opinion is “to be tougher” with the US on economic issues and that Europe lacks confidence, and “most doubt Washington’s capacity to shape the world.” 

Above all, Europeans do not “trust the American electorate not to vote for another Donald Trump in four years.” The Europeans “believe that the US political system is completely or somewhat broken” and Biden won’t be able to repair America’s internal divisions so as to “invest in solving international issues such as climate change, peace in the Middle East, relations with China and European security.”   

Clearly, the transatlantic relationship is no more valued in existential terms for European security. There is also growing evidence that Germany’s — and Europe’s — transatlantic policies in the years to come could be influenced by its increasing economic ties with China. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s imprimatur is visible on the recent EU-China investment agreement.  

READ ALSO: China-EU deal is a reality check for India 

The bottomline is that Europeans prefer to stay neutral in a conflict between the US and Russia or China. Although both Europeans and Americans are toughening their attitude towards China, and both have security issues with Russia, their long-term interests are different. 

That means, while the Americans want to decouple and contain China, Europeans (above all Germans) seek a constructive engagement with China. Similarly, while the Biden Administration is expected to take a “tough” line on Russia, major European capitals (Berlin, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Budapest, etc.) see the imperative to engage with Russia to resolve differences and address common concerns. Germany has pushed back at the US threat to impose sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project which would create underpinnings for a long-term German-Russian strategic partnership.  

READ ALSO: Germany draws another line in the sand for the US

To be sure, the Biden team senses that a new transatlanticism is needed. But then, that is easier said than done. Put differently, the US is not going to be able to mount a concerted “Western strategy” against China or Russia in the present international milieu. The resulting sense of frustration is palpable in Blinken’s intemperate remark during the Q&A on Capitol Hill yesterday when he said that it was “extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man” — Russian political activist Alexey Navalny.

Blinken promised at the Senate hearing that Navalny’s arrest and other points of tension with Russia would be “very high on the agenda for an incoming administration.” He does seem to want us to think that Navalny is a truly national hero for the Russian people! Having been a close aide to Obama, Biden and Hillary Clinton at different times through the past decade and more, Blinken’s antipathy toward Putin and Russia will not come as a surprise. But life is real. 

If the extraordinary op-ed written by former president Dmitry Medvedev last Saturday is any indication, the Kremlin estimates that Biden will have little stamina left to wage and sustain a Churchillian war with Putin after attending to the deep-rooted malaise in America’s body polity, which is also of a systemic character and can further aggravate the societal fragmentation in that country unless addressed single-mindedly. 

It is hugely ironic that the Kremlin fielded Medvedev at all. It is a safe guess that the Russian messaging went home. To jog memory, ten years ago in 2011 during Biden’s last visit to Moscow as Vice-President in the Obama administration, he had committed a gaffe (which Biden is famous for) by propositioning to Putin not to contest the presidential election in the following year and instead make way for Medvedev for a second term. Putin of course ignored Biden’s intrusion into Russian domestic politics and his hint that Medvedev would be Washington’s preferred choice as its Kremlin interlocutor.

Vice President Joe Biden, talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Gorky Dacha outside Moscow, Russia, March 9, 2011.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann).

Is Biden making another horrible mistake by fancying that Navalny could succeed Putin? Conceivably, the unorthodox decision to put William Burns, a former ambassador to Moscow, as the head of the CIA hints at a regime change project in the pipeline. Medvedev’s op-ed appeared soon after Biden announced Burns’ appointment.

READ ALSO: US makes aggressive first move on Russian chessboard 

Blinken, who is reputed to be a mild mannered man, was uncharacteristically brash by mentioning Putin by name in a derogatory remark on the Capitol Hill. It probably showed the mental strain and anxiety. To be sure, a bumpy ride lies ahead for Blinken’s diplomatic cart.

READ also: Whither American Democracy? Jan. 8, 2021; No matter Impeachment 2.0, Trumpism haunts America, Jan. 14, 2021; Biden is shifting leftwards, Jan. 17, 2021