Newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to inspire confidence in American diplomats Wednesday, telling them as he arrived for his first full day of work at the State Department that “it’s a new day for America” and “a new day for the world.”
“As secretary, I will not let you down,” Mr. Blinken told a small group of about 30 department rank and file gathered for an arrival ceremony in the lobby of the department‘s Foggy Bottom headquarters that officials said was significantly curtailed in size due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I want you to know how proud I am of every single one of you and how proud I am to be on your team,” Mr. Blinken said in a brief speech that was also broadcast on the department’s website. “Whether you’re diplomats or development workers, members of the foreign service or the civil service, locally employed staff, contractors, you do hard things very, very well.”
While Mr. Blinken stuck mainly to broad-stroke statements in his first public remarks as secretary of state, he offered a few comments that suggest the Biden administration is eager to overcome sharp U.S. domestic political divisions and to reverse former President Trump’s trademark transactional foreign policy, including toward allies like NATO and adversaries such as China, Russia and Iran.
“One of the great attributes of our foreign and civil services throughout history has been your non-partisanship. You serve Democratic and Republican presidents alike, because you put country over party,” Mr. Blinken said.
“The world is watching us intently right now,” he said. “They want to know if we can heal our nation. They want to see whether we will lead with the power of our example, if we’ll put a premium on diplomacy with our allies and partners to meet the great challenges of our time, like the pandemic, climate change, the economic crisis, threats to democracies, fights for racial justice and the danger to our security and global stability posed by our rivals and adversaries.”
“The American people are watching us too,” Mr. Blinken said. “They want to see that we are safeguarding their well being, that we care about their interests, that our foreign policy is about them and their lives. We will do right by them by pursuing a foreign policy that delivers real benefits to American families, protects their safety, advances their opportunities, honors their values and leaves their children and grandchildren a healthier and more peaceful world.”
The Senate confirmed Mr. Blinken as America’s 71st secretary of state on Tuesday, paving the way for him to take charge of a vast U.S. diplomatic corps whose morale suffered during the norm-breaking years of the Trump administration.
Mr. Blinken served as deputy secretary of state during President Obama’s second term, prior to which he was national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden. He’s known as a favorite of the Democratic foreign policy establishment in Washington and has been a long-time confidant of Mr. Biden.
In his comments Wednesday morning, Mr. Blinken said he knows “a lot has changed” at State and in the world over the past four years. He pointed to the distressing nature of the ongoing COVID-19 era, noting that the “pandemic has claimed the lives of five State Department American employees and 42 locally employed staff around the world.”
“Many more have gotten sick, and outside our doors, our government buildings are surrounded by new barricades,” Mr. Blinken said in reference to dramatic security measures undertaken in Washington since a group of angry supporters of former President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6.
“We’ve never been in a moment quite like this before,” he said, adding that President Biden is “committed to getting us through it as quickly as possible so that very soon we can all gather in person again and have confidence that the foundations of our democracy are strong.”
“We at State have a role to play in all of this and I believe it starts with rebuilding morale and trust. This is a priority for me because we need a strong department for the United States to be strong in the world,” Mr. Blinken said. “To that end, we have to invest significantly in building a diverse and inclusive state department. We need the most talented people. We need the most creative work force. We cannot do our job of advancing America’s interests, values and commitment to democracy without a state department that is truly representative of the American people.”
His arrival at Foggy Bottom coincides as a moment of hope among many career diplomats that the State Department could be in for more money and more clout over the next four years as it claws back power lost in recent decades to the Pentagon and National Security Council.
The hope comes after a period of low morale that took a particularly noticeable hold of the department during Mr. Trump’s first year in office, when the White House repeatedly called for dramatic cuts to the department’s budget, and then-Secretary Rex W. Tillerson, a former Exxon CEO whom Mr. Trump ultimately fired, pushed for a major reorganization that critics said was poorly conceived and sloppily implemented.
Analysts say the big question now is whether a Biden administration would push major reforms and even press Congress to pass legislation designed to explicitly expand the State Department’s influence, or whether it would simply call for a modest budget increase and hiring to replace the roughly 12% of employees who have left and whose positions have not been refilled during the Trump years.