A new Gallup poll shows a huge turnaround in how the world sees the United States. Under Donald Trump, our approval rating hit a record low. Under President Biden, it has rebounded to very nearly the highest level yet recorded, almost equal to that achieved during the presidency of Barack Obama.
What does the world see in America under Biden’s leadership that so many in the U.S. media have not? The answer is diplomacy. Often quietly, often in ways that do not drive ratings or generate clicks, the U.S. has put active, constructive diplomacy back at the center of our relations with the rest of the world.
At the center of this effort is U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Not just the country’s chief diplomat, Blinken is, in the eyes of one senior White House official, the senior foreign policy and national security team’s one true “Biden whisperer.” Blinken’s closeness to Biden, which dates back two decades to when Blinken served as his top aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, enables him to be the most credible messenger of the foreign policy of a president who has more international affairs experience than any previous occupant of the Oval Office. It also makes him Blinken just a trusted adviser but one who foreign leaders know has the ear and the full confidence of the president.
Such trust and closeness has been essential to many of the most influential and effective Secretaries of State in our modern history. James Baker, for example, widely regarded as the most effective Secretary of State of the past half century, was described by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft as having a relationship like that of a brother to the president he’d previously served at Foggy Bottom, George H.W. Bush. Condoleezza Rice’s closeness to George W. Bush gave her credibility as an interlocutor with the president that the late Gen. Colin Powell was never able to achieve despite all of his experience—because the “mind-meld” did not exist between him and his boss. (Which was, in retrospect, to Powell’s credit.)
In this respect, Blinken, 59, reveals himself to be a far cry from many recent occupants of the Secretary of State’s suite on the seventh floor of the State Department’s headquarters. He is not a wannabe presidential candidate like Mike Pompeo, John Kerry or Hillary Clinton. He is not an entitled corporate titan like former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. He is in fact, something very different, a man who has devoted his entire life to the study and practice of foreign policy and diplomacy—often behind the scenes, not seeking the limelight.
From his days as an undergraduate at Harvard and law student at Columbia to his first government jobs on the staff of the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration through his tenure as staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2002 through 2008 to roles on the Obama foreign policy team ranging from serving as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser to his appointment as Deputy Secretary of State, for the past 30 years he has come to understand both the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. and the challenges the U.S. faces worldwide.
This preparation has enabled him not only to swiftly settle into the top job at State but to rely on long-standing relationships around the world to begin to address key challenges. But much of what Blinken and the Biden foreign policy team have done has been the kind of work that does not garner media attention. The press is happy to cover crowds outside of Kabul airport because there is drama there, but months of laying the groundwork with allies for the exit or the heavy lifting that had the US coordinating nearly three dozen countries response to the challenges of the end to the 20-year war are hard to point a camera at and so, while appreciated abroad and consequential in both the short and longer run, do not get the attention they deserve.
This week, for example, Blinken flew to Latin America. His first stop, in Ecuador, was intended to stand up for democracy against the pressures it is feeling worldwide. Next, he headed to Colombia to work out concrete steps with regional partners to stem the flow of migrants including, notably, northward to the United States. In this respect, his effort was complementary to the earlier effort of Vice President Harris in Mexico and Central America and represents a reversal of Trump policies that killed programs intended to minimize migrant flows to the U.S.
“It is true that some of our most substantive, consequential work tends to fly under the radar,” said Blinken in a telephone conversation, listing numerous examples where he asserted that material advances with real consequence for the U.S. took place largely unnoticed. But he felt that other nations worldwide recognize that the U.S. is engaging constructively in a way that we did not during the Trump years.
One example he cited was a recent inaugural meeting of a U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council in Pittsburgh. He stated that the outcomes from the meeting—reflecting progress on the part of the U.S. and the European Union to work together to help address critical trade and technology challenges, including that posed by China—was “significant.” Other examples he cited also had to do with the kind of blocking and tackling diplomatic work that is essential to reshaping the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world—that between the U.S. and the PRC. They also included laying the foundation for the AUKUS submarine deal (and acknowledging that with regard to how the French were handled, “we could have done a better job”) or hosting the first ever summit of the leaders of the Quad, a foundation of our new Indo-Pacific security structure, which has already delivered in concrete arenas, including the battle against COVID-19.
“We are taking a three dimensional approach with China,” Blinken said. He described this as beginning with addressing foundational issues like establishing and enforcing rules for international behavior as illustrated by the technology security discussions with our allies and partners. It includes engaging China where our interests overlap, while fundamentally competing with China “across different dimensions.” He also spoke of putting forward an affirmative agenda, including a global version of “Build Back Better,” known as “Build Back Better World,”undertaken by the G7 countries to create an alternative to China’s high-profile Belt and Road Initiative to strengthen its influence worldwide.
From the very substantial leading role the U.S. is playing in vaccine diplomacy to working with major powers on the efforts to negotiate an updated nuclear deal with Iran, from climate talks to restoring the level of refugee flows to the U.S., Blinken has overseen a diplomatic effort that is a 24/7/365 business, one that notably recognizes the importance of American diplomats and civil servants rather than one that minimizes their role, as was often the case during the last administration.
Another of the work that also often goes unnoted is the framing of the efforts. It was no coincidence that the end of the U.S. involvement was followed immediately by announcements of expanded engagement—via the Quad, AUKUS, on trade, etc.—in the Asia Pacific region. At the same time, the shift from investing in foreign wars to investing in American strength was illustrated both by the juxtaposition of getting out of Afghanistan at the same time that Biden is pushing his infrastructure and Build Back Better initiatives in Congress.
In a speech in Baltimore in August that was overshadowed by the events in Afghanistan, Blinken laid out the thinking that was the foundation for these shifts. Titled Domestic Renewal as a Foreign Policy Priority, it underscored the carefully considered links between Biden’s domestic and foreign policy agendas. While it included an emphasis on competitiveness (“China is spending three times as much on infrastructure as we do every year. And it’s not just China. The United States now ranks 13th in the world in the total quality of infrastructure”) but on the tradition, going back to the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations, of seeing investment in ourselves as the most important foundation of our international leadership.
In this respect, the speech, like Blinken in some respects, was a throwback. In diplomat George Kennan’s famous 1946 Long Telegram, he described the Soviet threat before concluding that the only way to beat the Russians would be on the home front, via example and cultivating domestic strength. But Blinken’s speech was also an effort to set aside partisan concerns (perhaps that is why it was nearly invisible to the media) and focus on the common interests of Americans.
The grounding of the current Secretary of State and his president in the modern traditions of foreign policy as well as the recommitment of both to the ideal of placing diplomacy and the rule of law at the center of our foreign policy, was particularly resonant because not only did this week see the passing of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a man who deeply believed that our politics should stop at the water’s edge, but days ago, Blinken attended a memorial for another Secretary of State who recently died, George Shultz. At the event in California, Blinken was joined by former Secretaries of State like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Condoleezza Rice.
Blinken, who started in foreign policy when the ideal of a bi-partisan national interest-driven foreign policy consensus was still often achieved, says he saw the examples of both men as a reminder of what we should continue to strive for. He praised Shultz at his memorial for his clear priorities in this regard and concluded by saying, “He was a teacher. And many of us here today, in one way or another, were his students. Still are.”
Certainly those words are true of the man who spoke them. He and the president are remaking foreign policy for the 21st century without losing sight of the values that have worked for America in the past.
While Blinken’s reverence for diplomacy and diplomats and his commitment to the hard work they entail far from the glare of TV lights may not receive the coverage they warrant in the U.S. media, they are resonating around the world.