To get a good sense of President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be US secretary of state, you’ve gotta get to Sesame Street.
Antony Blinken, 58, is a close Biden ally and former senior-level diplomat in the Obama administration. Biden’s decision to choose him signaled what will likely be a dramatic shift in US foreign policy come Jan. 20 — away from President Donald Trump’s nativist “America First” approach and toward one in which Washington reasserts itself as a prominent global player, as it works to restore global alliances and tackle a slew of international crises.
For Americans looking to get to know the man who will be the next top diplomat for the US and tasked with carrying out Biden’s foreign policy — assuming he will be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate — three past appearances on very different television programs show us a lot about who Blinken is and how he will likely be a lot different from Trump’s loyal secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, whose tenure has been marked by attacks on reporters, blatant lies, and incessant hypocrisy, or from Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who came in with limited qualifications.
Two are fairly standard sit-downs with television news anchors. One is with Grover.
First, a bit about Blinken and the Biden transition: Biden announced the move on Monday and named several others to top foreign policy and national security posts.
“We have no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy. I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity, and values,” Biden said in a statement emailed to reporters.
A former deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration who has advised Biden on foreign policy since 2002, Blinken, who graduated from high school in Paris, where he lived from the ages of 9 to 18, and speaks fluent French, is no stranger to Washington or the international community.
As news of his nomination broke late Sunday, several former European officials and US diplomats expressed their delight and relief on social media.
“With Tony Blinken as Secretary of State and Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser [the US] is back as a superpower of diplomacy in our world,” Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden, wrote on Twitter, referencing another Biden pick.
Richard Haass, a former US diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was similarly pleased, saying that Blinken is positioned to be a strong secretary of state.
“A relationship with his boss that allows him to speak truth to power & the authority to speak for his boss. And he brings knowledge of the issues & State Department to the job,” he tweeted.
Suggesting that even American progressives were pleased with Biden’s choice, Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’ chief foreign policy adviser, called Blinken a “good choice.”
“Tony has the strong confidence of the president-elect and the knowledge and experience for the important work of rebuilding US diplomacy,” he tweeted.
In one of Blinken’s notable TV interviews with PBS’s Frontline, he shows his understanding of the US’s troubled relationship with one of its greatest adversaries, Russia.
Speaking about US policy toward Moscow when he served in the Obama–Biden administration and when it came to the war in Ukraine, Blinken said that “despite repeated efforts by President Obama to try to find an off-ramp for Russia, to try to demonstrate that there could be a win-win, not a win-lose,” the US failed. “Obviously, we were not successful,” he said.
In another with CBS News’ Face the Nation, Blinken exhibits humility as he reflects on the Obama administration’s failures in Syria. “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement,” he said, adding that it would be “something I will take with me for the rest of my days.”
In the interview, which took place in May, he said it would be “impossible” to imagine a President Biden ever negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But perhaps the most surprising and revealing appearance came in a conversation with Grover, the Sesame Street muppet.
In that September 2016 conversation, Blinken and Grover discuss the issue of refugees in an attempt to put the focus on a growing international crisis while global leaders met in New York during the United Nations General Assembly.
“These are people who've had to leave their homes because life in their countries was not safe for them,” Blinken told the blue, furry monster. “We all have something to learn and gain from one another, even when it doesn’t seem at first like we have much in common.”
Four years later, the video — and a Blinken tweet about it — surfaced again and was shared widely.
For many, the contrast between Blinken’s compassion toward refugees shown in the video and the Trump administration’s policy toward them was stark.
Under Trump, the US slashed refugee admissions to a record low and even separated migrant children from their parents and threw them in cages.
Biden has vowed to restore those admissions to pre-Trump era norms, setting the annual global refugee admissions cap to 125,000.
Should Blinken be confirmed by the Senate, he would play a big role in promoting Biden’s policy on refugees and migrants and work as a key interlocutor with European nations that have struggled to find a solution to the refugee issue.
He will come in with a lengthy resume, which includes senior foreign policy positions in two administrations over three decades. In his latest, from 2015 to 2017, Blinken served as deputy secretary of state under the Obama–Biden administration. In that role, Blinken helped to lead diplomacy on top issues such as the global refugee crisis.
During the Trump years, Blinken served as managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and was the Herter/Nitze Distinguished Scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
And when he wasn’t keeping tabs on international crises and events, it seems he was brushing up on his guitar and songwriting skills. In 2018, Blinken uploaded two songs to Spotify, titled "Lip Service" and "Patience."