Image Credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
By Raphael J. Piliero
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is set to take office on January 20, 2021, and has started to announce various political appointments to hit the ground running when he begins. Recently, he announced arguably his most important appointment to date – that of Antony Blinken for Secretary of State. Blinken has past experience serving in Democratic administrations, having served as Deputy Secretary of State from 2015 to 2017 and Deputy National Security Advisor from 2013 to 2015 during the Obama administration. Previously, Mr. Blinken was a member of the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 2001 under the Clinton administration.
The pick of Mr. Blinken for Secretary of State doesn’t come as a surprise, as Blinken has been a key foreign policy advisor to the Biden campaign and has served in Democratic administrations and the foreign policy establishment for decades. This experience gives Mr. Blinken an established record and well-developed set of views on a number of foreign policy challenges facing the country, particularly those that relate to China. Importantly, Blinken is seen by many as signaling a return to normalcy. Contrast the selection of someone with decades of foreign policy experience in the establishment with the initial Secretary of State pick of President Donald Trump – Rex Tillerson. Mr. Tillerson, an ExxonMobil executive with no prior foreign policy experience, was picked to bring an outside disrupter. In contrast, Mr. Blinken is someone that brings a return to previous administrations, signaling to the rest of the world that prior American foreign policy goals may be returning.
Described by the New York Times as as a “defender of global alliances,” Mr. Blinken is someone expected to reverse President Trump’s “America First” stance, seen by many as retrenchment from United States allies. In a 2017 op-ed, Mr. Blinken noted that “the world does not organize itself,” criticizing the shift by President Trump away from multilateral institutions and cooperation. He argued that “in the absence of an engaged, diplomatically energized America, others will set the agenda, shape the rules, and dominate international institutions – and probably not in ways that advance our interests or values.”
Not only does Mr. Blinken’s op-ed signal a possible return to multilateralism, such as rejoining the Paris Agreement and remaining in the World Health Organization, it also grants insight into Mr. Blinken’s perspective on China. Mr. Blinken alluded to the emergence of a vacuum in the absence of United States influence, leaving other countries to set the agenda – here, Mr. Blinken is likely referring to Chinese attempts at international agenda-setting. Mr. Blinken has written extensively about concerns that China is building a viable alternative model to the current international system, noting in a separate op-ed that “while Mr. Trump is obsessed with building walls, Mr. Xi is busy building bridges.”
In contrast to the Trump Administration’s approach of tariffs and opposition, Mr. Blinken seems more likely to reinvigorate and utilize American alliances to pressure China. For example, by strengthening ties with European allies and forming new ties with Southeast Asian nations, American partnerships may be able to compete with the One Belt, One Road initiative and render it less attractive. Here, Mr. Blinken’s strategy seems to reflect less blunt force than international encirclement, where the United States might pull allies away from China’s sphere of influence, weakening China’s political and economic clout.
This also requires rebuilding American soft power and influence. Mr. Blinken described alliances, human rights credibility, and support for democracy as areas where the United States retreated remarkably under President Trump – these realities have diminished America’s ability to lead by example. To reverse these trends, Mr. Blinken believes the United States needs to get its own house in order, while also working to shore up democratic commitments to allies like Taiwan and by dissuading China from believing it could get away with territorial aggression.
Trade and Tariffs
With Mr. Blinken at the helm of the Department of State, the Biden administration may still bear some similarities with the Trump administration on tariffs. Although Mr. Blinken has been critical of President Trump’s tariffs, describing them as “fake toughness” which “harm our own people,” Mr. Blinken has expressed a willingness to use tariffs in coordination with American partners and allies. For Mr. Blinken, tariffs can serve a purpose of punishing China for trade violations, stating that his team would “aggressively enforce American trade laws.”
There are a number of putative benefits to acting multilaterally on trade, as opposed to unilaterally. With allies on board, they can impose their own tariffs on China, preventing China from finding other potential trading partners to replace the United States. Additionally, Mr. Blinken has emphasized a role for multilateral litigation when it comes to trade violations, arguing that the World Trade Organization can be a forum that complements American tariff policy. Noting that the United States won 16 out of 16 cases against China at the WTO during the Obama administration, Mr. Blinken emphasizes the role the WTO can play in facilitating fair trade practices.
Despite his hardline stance against Chinese trade practices, Mr. Blinken has also indicated interest in pursuing a diplomatic “reset” with China. However, unlike past resets (such as when the United States failed to reset relations with Russia during the Obama administration), Mr. Blinken believes that an effective reset will require the combined force of American allies – with allies and a combined 50-60% of world GDP, the United States and allies have leverage to reset relations with China on American terms.
This stems from Mr. Blinken’s contention that a full “decoupling” of economic and trade relations with China is fundamentally impossible, as the two are the largest economies in the world, intertwined and interdependent. Instead of isolated tariffs and trade deals that fail to address the drivers of problems in the relationship, Mr. Blinken argues the first step will be to work with allies to secure mutually agreeable stances on technology transfers and trade practices.
Mr. Blinken will be (in his own words) taking office during a time of transition, both in the United States and abroad. The past four years have forced allies to contingency plan for a world without American influence, while allowing adversaries the opportunity to expand their influence. As Secretary of State, Mr. Blinken will simultaneously embrace China as a strategic challenger and seek rapprochement with the world’s second largest economic player.
Time will tell whether he succeeds.