Biden Transition News, Secretary of State, January 19, 2021

CABINET HEARING: Antony Blinken, Secretary of State

January 19, 2021

Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken’s hearing was largely positive, with Blinken receiving support for his nomination from both Democrats and Republicans. Most of the questions revolved around increasing competition with China, Iranian aggression, and Russia. Blinken committed to increased engagement in Africa, recentering human rights as a core of American foreign policy, reflecting America in the State Department workforce, and rebuilding and reinvigorating alliances and partnerships. 

ISSUES RAISED

  • China – Blinken said that there are areas of U.S.-China relationship that are adversarial, areas where it is competitive, and, where interests align, areas where there is cooperation. Blinken criticized the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, agreeing with Secretary Pompeo’s designation of attempted genocide, and advocated for additional efforts to confront these human rights abuses, including blocking imports of products produced by or with forced labor in Xinjiang, and ending any exports of technology that facilitates Chinese oppression of the Uighur population. Blinken credited the Trump administration for raising competition with China in the public discourse, even while disagreeing with some of the actions taken, and stated that engagement around the China question is at its most productive and effective when working with allies and partners. He also stressed that competition with China should not be about blocking their ascension, but rather, removing self-imposed setbacks and supporting American development and innovation, especially in cutting edge technology development. Blinken also criticized China for their deceptive actions at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, noting they did not provide transparency, information, or timely access. He stated that instead of looking at punitive measures, he wants to focus on preventative measures, to ensure the U.S. is prepared for the next global health threat regardless of its source, which includes rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO). Blinken stated the WHO is flawed and in need of reform, but that the best way for the U.S. to ensure those reforms help serve our interests is to have a seat at the table.
  • Taiwan – Blinken said that providing the ability for Taiwan to defend itself from military aggression by China is a priority and that he would like to see Taiwan take a larger role in the world as a strong economy and a model democracy. Blinken advocated for Taiwan to join international institutions that do not have requirements about sovereignty. He said he will review U.S. diplomatic engagement with Taiwan, pursuant to legislation from Congress, and that China would be making a “grievous mistake” if it launched military operations against Taiwan.
  • Hong Kong – Blinken noted that he was disappointed the U.S. had not acted earlier with respect to Hong Kong, as China, through their new national security law and overbearing pressure on Hong Kong’s leadership, has put into tatters the freedom and autonomy of Hong Kong. He advocated for increasing the acceptance of Hong Kongers fleeing for refuge or asylum into the U.S. Blinken also stated that with Chinese oppression in Hong Kong, the U.S. and its partners need to examine relations with businesses operating or based in Hong Kong, arguing that China should not reap double rewards for its actions.
  • Iran – Multiple Senators criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal, over concerns it provided funds and legitimacy to Iran without addressing other egregious behavior, like Iran’s support for terrorist organization in the region. They asked Blinken to expand on how President-elect Biden would engage with Iran. Blinken noted that the JCPOA was designed solely to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, as the assessment was with a nuclear weapon, Iran would be able to act with more impunity, and it would be harder to stop their other bad behavior. He stated that President-elect Biden places a firm priority on Iran never gaining a nuclear weapon. He stated that if Iran were to verifiably return to the terms of the JCPOA, the United States would as well, and they would use this as the foundation for broader action on Iran’s malign behavior, though Blinken stressed the need for multilateral engagement with partners and allies, including in Europe, the Gulf States, and Israel, on future agreements. He discussed the possibility of a regional fuel bank, that could provide nuclear fuel for domestic civilian use, never for enrichment. Blinken stated repeatedly that it was his opinion that the 9/11 AUMF was long overdue for reconsideration by Congress and stated that despite Secretary Pompeo’s recent statement that Iran was the new home for Al Qaeda, he and the President-elect would view it as the right and legal action to seek Congressional approval before launching operations in Iran – that the 9/11 AUMF does not expressly authorize them to take that action without congressional approval.
  • Israel/Abraham Accords – Blinken stated that the only right, and moral, solution that ensures a Jewish democracy in Israel and the government Palestinians deserve would be a two-state solution, though he recognized that relations between Israel and the Palestinians have not been this bad in decades. He lauded the Abraham Accords, stating they could be used as a platform for regional engagement on Iran, and stated his hope it provides Israel with the sense of safety and stability needed for Israel to meaningfully engage on the Palestine issue. He stated that he does not believe Israel is a racist country and stated that both he and President-elect Biden condemn the BDS movement, while committing to respecting the First Amendment rights of American citizens.
  • Russia – Blinken was asked to elaborate on the steps that can be taken to combat disinformation from Russia. Blinken credited Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny for being a voice for millions of Russians. He highlighted the work of the Global Engagement Center in the State Department as an effective tool in combating disinformation, and stated he would prioritize expanding the Center’s capability, including through the hiring of technical experts. Blinken also highlighted the fast-approaching deadline to renew the New START treaty with Russia, stating that while President-elect Biden had been adamant about his team respecting the principal of one President at a time, Biden’s team would almost immediately be returning to Congress with a yet-to-be-determined extension of the New START. Blinken noted that the New START treaty provides the U.S. with a predictable cap on the core of the Russian nuclear arsenal and provides access to data and inspections otherwise unobtainable. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) asked Blinken to commit to blocking the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and asked if Blinken would commit to pressuring European leaders to not engage with the project. Blinken stated that he and President-elect Biden agree that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline should not be completed and that he would make that position clear to European leaders. 
  • Ukraine – Blinken stated that he supported providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine and that the U.S. should also be providing training and support, not just to Ukrainian security forces, but to the whole governance structure to help root out the corruption that benefit’s Russian interests.
  • The Northern Triangle/The Americas – Multiple Senators raised concerns about the fragility of governments in the Northern Triangle, and the ramifications that instability has on immigration to the United States. Blinken repeatedly stressed the need for a fair, humane, and orderly immigration process at the border, and criticized Trump administration policies that have left asylum and refugee seekers in Mexico and Guatemala. He said that his message to any prospective “Migrant Caravan” would be to not come to America. He stated that to address the underlying causes of immigration, the U.S. has to help address the instability in the Northern Triangle. To do so, Blinken proposed increasing funding for aid, assistance, and economic development, tied directly to verifiable policy changes. He also emphasized that the U.S. should increase support and training for equivalents of Attorneys General, for judges and magistrates, and for prosecutors, to help combat corruption fed by open criminal elements that prevent stability from taking root.
  • Africa – Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) raised concerns about the increasing tensions in the Horn of Africa, democratic backsliding in the region, and the rise of Chinese influence as American engagement has dropped off. Blinken noted that rising tensions in Ethiopia, in the Tigray region, with Sudan, with refugees, and with dam projects are creating an unstable cycle that could lead to civil war. He stated he would strongly and quickly consider Sen. Booker’s recommendation that he appoint a special envoy for the Horn of Africa. Blinken also agreed with the Senators’ concern that Chinese influence is steadily increasing, epitomized by 27 African nations’ UN Ambassadors signing a letter defending China’s treatment of Uighurs. He stated that Chinese influence is mostly found through commercial diplomacy, specifically with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but highlighted that American engagement is an effective tool to counter this, as the BRI ladens countries with debt, while U.S. projects are more sustainable, create economic development through local employment, and tend to be higher in quality. He stated that American engagement in Africa needs to be increased, both through development work and in diplomatic efforts to address instability and democratic backsliding. Blinken also noted his commitment to using State Department resources to help offer COVID-19 vaccines to those who need it, recognizing concerns raised that developing countries, like some in Africa, may still be dealing with the pandemic in 2024.
  • Diversity in the State Department Workforce – Blinken said it is his goal to make the State Department ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse, as well as to increase the proportion of women serving. He stated that while he wants the State Department to look like America, he wants to build the foundation that will enable diversity that stands the test of time, increasing recruitment in communities usually not reached out to, and focusing on retainment of talent as well. He stated that, if confirmed, he will appoint a Chief Diversity Officer who will establish benchmarks and ensure transparency and accountability by collecting information and data and sharing it with Congress. 

TAKEAWAY

Blinken stressed the need for U.S. engagement globally, including to counter China’s influence around the world and stand up for democratic values and condemn China’s human rights abuses. His focus on diversity and morale in the State Department is also an important point for Democrats looking to bolster the organization and reinvest in diplomacy. Furthermore, Blinken’s focus on reinvigorating alliances and partnerships is expected to be a key component of the incoming Biden administration’s policies as the Biden team pivots away from the Trump administration’s “America First” policies. This includes, for example, rejoining the World Health Organization. Blinken also highlighted the desire to restore Congress’s role in the foreign policy process. 

WHAT’S NEXT? 

Overall, the hearing was cordial and respectful. Blinken received positive feedback from Senators on both sides of the aisle. While Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Rand Paul (R-KY) stated explicit objections to Blinken’s nomination, their objections will not hold up his confirmation. Incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) told reporters today that the Committee would report out Blinken’s nomination on Monday. It is likely that Blinken’s nomination will be reported favorably out of the Committee to the Senate Floor, with confirmation possible as early as next week.