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Can Antony Blinken make American foreign policy great again?

Can Antony Blinken make American foreign policy great again?
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenDobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' Should deficits matter any more? Biden's Cabinet gradually confirmed by Senate MORE defied expectations last week with the announcement of long-time aide and foreign policy expert Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State President Biden must prioritize international religious freedom Biden's Cabinet gradually confirmed by Senate MORE as his nominee for secretary of state. Blinken isn’t a political celebrity, and his name may be new to many pundits, but he brings a wealth of experience at a critical time for the department. 

With America’s reputation in tatters and our diplomatic service barely functional, can Blinken make American foreign policy great again? 

If Blinken succeeds Mike PompeoMike PompeoBiden (mostly) builds on Trump's foreign policy China: US military presence in South China Sea a threat to peace, stability White House installs new leadership at federally-funded international broadcasters MORE in January, he will inherit a State Department devastated by inattention and mismanagement and ravaged by years of double-digit budget cuts and career staff departures. At a time of growing global uncertainty, America’s Foreign Service – once a pipeline for bright young minds to enter the diplomatic corps – is near its smallest level in memory.

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The situation is acute: in January, the department’s inspector general released a scathing report that found “staff shortages, frequent turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and undertrained staff” jeopardized the department’s ability to carry out its critical international role. Senior staff point to Pompeo’s directionless, self-serving leadership as a key factor in tanking the reputation of what was once our nation’s premier Cabinet posting.

Before a future President Biden and Secretary Blinken can hope to rebuild American credibility on the world stage, they must grapple with the underhanded ways the Trump administration turned American diplomacy into a tool for advancing the personal interests of President TrumpDonald TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' MORE

Nowhere is this more apparent than Pompeo’s inexplicable and roundly criticized global “farewell tour,” really a series of campaign stops designed to position Pompeo as the clear successor and heir to the MAGA throne. In Israel, Pompeo struck a Trumpian note with a visit to a winery built on occupied Palestinian land. While the rest of the world cringed, the secretary guzzled a red wine named in his honor.

The tour, like so much Trumpian pomp, was designed not to advance any strategic American interests but to play well with Republican voters back home. The tour was a hit on some right-wing outlets, but the broader media landscape described the event as “trolling” on the taxpayer tab. In his French stop, America’s top diplomat was invisible except for small events with Trump-aligned political groups.

Our allies seem eager to move on. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian wistfully remarked that, “for the moment, my counterpart is MIke Pompeo. Until January 20.” When asked if he was happy to see the American secretary of state on French shores, Le Drian told reporters, “I receive him.”  

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But Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser under President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden's Cabinet gradually confirmed by Senate To fix social media now focus on privacy, not platforms Just 11 percent of Americans satisfied with direction of US: Gallup MORE, knows the State Department needs more than an ethical leader at the helm. It also needs core staff. After berating career intelligence and diplomatic officials during his impeachment, Trump now presides over the smallest and weakest foreign service in modern history. 

Despite a congressional mandate that the State Department increase its hiring to pre-Trump levels, nearly 300 diplomats have quit in just the past six months. In the last year of the Obama administration, the United States fielded nearly 18,000 career and generalist FSOs. Today that number is closer to 13,000, including major losses in the senior ambassadorial corps and public diplomacy tracks. 

“The Foreign Service has experienced the biggest drop in applications in more than a decade,” wrote career diplomats William J. Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield in an essay for Foreign Affairs. “Career diplomats have been systematically sidelined and excluded from senior Washington jobs on an unprecedented scale. The picture overseas is just as grim, with the record quantity of political appointees serving as ambassadors matched by their often dismal quality.” 

Biden has made an active effort to court those former foreign service professionals, and Blinken will likely increase those efforts. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that Biden aimed to rehire dozens of the diplomats fired by Trump for their perceived lack of loyalty to the administration. One of those individuals was Thomas-Greenfield, whom Biden recently tapped to become the next United States ambassador to the United Nations. 

Blinken and Biden have an unenviable road ahead. It is no small thing to reshape American foreign policy after four years of neglect; it is exponentially harder when the department itself is struggling to perform the basic functions of state. Repairing the internal damage to the State Department will rank among Biden’s most consequential national security priorities. 

In Antony Blinken, Biden has nominated Pompeo’s polar opposite: a thoughtful administrator with a passion for the details of international diplomacy and credibility among our allies and rivals alike. By emphasizing competence over political celebrity and efficiency over headlines, Biden and Blinken could oversee a renaissance era in American foreign policy and international leadership. The world will be better and safer if they succeed.

Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies.