Biden’s State Department picks are a diplomatic slam dunk
During the Trump administration, perhaps no other cabinet agency has suffered the greatest fall in standing as the U.S. Department of State. In the long history of presidential appointments, we have never witnessed two different cabinet secretaries work so hard to slash funding to their departments while at the same time purge hundreds of experienced, career employees from their ranks.
When Rex Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO with no formal diplomatic experience, was nominated to serve as Trump’s first Secretary of State, he came into the job proposing to cut the State Department’s budget by a third. Immediately following his appointment, dozens of senior officials at State resigned in protest as Tillerson went about with his plans to “dramatically scale back the already measly sums America spends on refugees, democracy promotion, women’s rights, and the prevention of H.I.V.” Indeed, during Tillerson’s initial eight months in office, the State Department’s workforce shrank more than 6 percent — one of the largest drops in personnel following a new administration.
When Tillerson was unceremoniously fired via presidential tweet after serving just over a year on the job, State Department watchers were hopeful that President Trump’s second pick to lead the department would bolster our diplomatic standing. Taking a cue almost immediately from his predecessor, Secretary Mike Pompeo went about proposing similar cuts to his department as well as USAID — drawing harsh criticism from legislators from both parties.
Not content with simply gutting his department, reports during the summer indicated that Secretary Pompeo had used his position to advance his own personal political standing. Treating his position atop State as some kind of fiefdom, Pompeo had his own department’s inspector general fired after it came to light that the IG was investigating the secretary and his wife who routinely directed employees to perform household tasks.
After four years of unmitigated attacks on the Department of State from its own two secretaries, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of State is that much more critical in order to repair the damage done in Foggy Bottom and around the world.
In Antony J. Blinken, Biden has found the perfect candidate to lead the State Department at this crucial juncture. A diplomat held in high esteem by his colleagues and around the world, Blinken began his career working in the State Department during the Clinton Administration. Blinken will be the first career diplomat to assume the top diplomatic post since Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger served under President George H.W. Bush nearly 30 years ago.
In direct contrast to both Tillerson and Pompeo, Blinken has a long association with the incoming president and has often been described as Biden’s ‘alter ego’ when it comes to international affairs. Similar to President Bush’s other secretary of state, James Baker, incoming Secretary Blinken has worked with President-elect Biden for over two decades, going back to their time together on Capitol Hill. A relationship that harkens back to the Bush-Baker era at the State Department will be an incredible benefit for an agency with a serious morale problem — and should start to restore our standing in the world.
During the Obama Administration, Blinken played a pivotal role in many key diplomatic achievements including negotiating the Iran nuclear deal as well as the Paris climate accord — two key priorities that the incoming secretary will likely focus on. As NPR’s Michele Kelemen indicates, “choosing Blinken signals a return to a more traditional foreign policy that favors strong international relationships,” leading many allies to breathe a sigh of relief that America will once again engage on the international stage.
In addition to Blinken, President-elect Biden will appoint Linda Thomas-Greenfield as America’s 31st U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Thomas-Greenfield had most recently served as the top diplomat overseeing African affairs in the Obama Administration. Similar to Blinken, she is a career diplomat, having served in various roles and capacities around the globe, including as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012.
In the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield co-authored a compelling op-ed along with Ambassador Bill Burns that is a blueprint for restoring the State Department, including a focus on rehabilitating the ranks of the foreign service. In another clear signal to the international community, along with Thomas-Greenfield’s appointment, the president-elect also signaled that the position of UN Ambassador would also once again be elevated to Cabinet rank.
As Ambassadors Thomas-Greenfield and Burns write in their op-ed, “After four years of relentless attacks by the Trump administration and decades of neglect, political paralysis, and organizational drift, U.S. diplomacy is badly broken.” Fortunately for all of us, Antony Blinken and Linda Thomas-Greenfield are the two perfect Americans to help repair our “badly broken” standing in the world and our State Department here at home.
Kevin Walling (@kevinpwalling) is a Truman National Security Project Partner, Democratic strategist, Vice President at HGCreative, co-founder of Celtic Strategies, and a regular guest on Fox News, Fox Business and Bloomberg TV and Radio.