WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be America’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, vowed to unravel a slew of the Trump administration’s foreign policy positions during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, even as he said Donald Trump got some things right on world affairs.
Blinken said if he is confirmed, he would refuse to participate in any partisan political activities, deploy “humility” in America’s relations with the world, and allow U.S. embassies to fly gay pride flags, among other steps that would reverse policies enacted by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
At the same time, Blinken embraced many of the Trump administration’s most high-profile policies – including the State Department’s 11th-hour determination on Tuesday that China is committing genocide in its treatment of the Uyghur people, a Muslim minority group.
“That would be my judgment as well,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when asked if he agrees with the State Department’s surprise genocide declaration. “Forcing men, women, and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect reeducate them to be adherents to the Chinese Communist Party – all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”
Here are four takeaways from Blinken’s confirmation hearing:
Graham bubbly on Blinken: ‘You’re an outstanding choice’
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was one of Trump’s most ardent supporters over the last four years. But the South Carolina Republican was among the friendliest GOP questioners of Biden’s secretary of state nominee on Tuesday.
“You have my complete support,” Graham told Blinken as he began his 10-minute questioning slot. “You’re an outstanding choice.”
Graham only seemed to grow more enamored of Blinken as the nominee agreed with the senator on a host of nettlesome questions, from Iran’s support for terrorism and Afghanistan’s ongoing instability to America’s asylum policies.
“We’re on a good start here,” Graham remarked as he ticked through his questions.
Iran ‘will not acquire a nuclear weapon’
Blinken faced bipartisan skepticism from the committee about Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.
Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, said it would be one of the toughest issues Blinken faces, noting that Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment and is engaged in a bevy of other malign behavior.
“President-elect Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not be permitted to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken said. Noting that during the Trump administration, Iran has reduced its breakout period for acquiring enough material for a nuclear weapon – from more than a year to about three or four months – the nominee said the situation is at a “crisis point.”
But while Blinken said the Iran deal “was succeeding” in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, he also said it would be difficult to rejoin the deal. First, he said, the Biden administration will have to assess what steps Iran is prepared to take and then determine how to verify whatever promises the regime’s makes.
“We’re a long way from there,” he said.
Under questioning from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Blinken suggested the Biden administration would leave in place many terrorism-related sanctions on Iran to curb its support for militant proxy groups.
‘The world’s on fire’: Blinken faces unprecedented foreign policy challenges
Menendez noted that Blinken’s confirmation hearing comes as the world grapples with a deadly pandemic, spiraling impacts of climate change, unprecedented migration, and myriad other global problems.
“The world is on fire,” Menendez said. He said Blinken would need to refocus and “re-center” American foreign policy even as the U.S. confronts its diminished international reputation and its own internal crises.
“Over the past year, the world has watched the United States completely falter on a national response to COVID-19, continue its overdue reckoning with systemic racism, and struggle with a president’s obsession with thwarting the peaceful transfer of power, pushing disinformation and attacking a free press,” Menendez said.
Blinken promised to revive morale at a State Department that’s been hollowed out by attrition and demoralized by attacks from Trump and his allies.
“I will work with you to reinvigorate the department by investing in its greatest asset: the foreign service officers, civil servants, and locally employed staff who animate American diplomacy around the world,” Blinken said in his opening remarks. “Often far from home and away from loved ones, sometimes in dangerous conditions exacerbated by the global pandemic – they deserve our full support.”
China, COVID and COVAX
Blinken said China poses “the most significant challenge of any nation-state” to America’s national security.
Asked if China “misled the world” about the coronavirus, Blinken did not hedge. “I do,” he said.
Blinken said he would look for ways to follow up on Tuesday’s determination by the Trump administration that China is committing genocide in its treatment of the Uyghurs. Among the possible steps he named: banning exports to China that its authoritarian government can use in its repression of the Uyghurs and banning imports from China that are made with forced labor from the Uyghur population.
Blinken also said the Biden administration would join COVAX, a global alliance to distribute COVID-19 vaccines – particularly to low-income countries that cannot afford to buy mass quantities from the pharmaceutical giants. And the incoming president would also rejoin the World Health Organization. The Trump administration refused to join COVAX and moved to withdraw from the WHO, citing China’s influence over both.
Blinken cast both steps as necessary to combat the pandemic – as well as necessary to counter Chinese influence. He expressed concern that leaving the WHO would create a power vacuum China could fill, and said China may use global vaccine distribution to gain leverage over developing countries if the US and others do not step in to help them.