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11 March 2022

Antony Blinken faces his greatest test over Ukraine

His ties to Biden and his personal history make him uniquely qualified as secretary of state as Putin wages war.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – There was a story Antony Blinken told a few times after President Joe Biden announced him as his pick for secretary of state. It was the story of Samuel Pisar, Blinken’s step-father. During the Holocaust, Pisar survived Nazi labour and death camps in Poland. Having escaped a death march, he came across a tank emblazoned not with a swastika but a white star: it was the Americans. He ran over to the tank, and to the man driving it, yelling the three English words his mother had taught him: God Bless America.

“I used to hear him tell [the story] before he became secretary of state,” said Dan Fried, a diplomat who has known Blinken since the Clinton administration in the 1990s. Today, with Russia waging war in Ukraine, Blinken’s family history means “this is not alien territory” for him. “The argument that somehow America has no interest in Ukraine, that it belongs to Russia and it’s all our fault because of Nato enlargement”, the kind of arguments that “reduce Ukrainians to a spot on the board game of Risk”, don’t fly with Blinken, says Fried.

“That doesn’t mean he’s emotionally attached to Ukraine,” Fried clarified. Rather, he said, it means that all of the sort of phrases and speeches we hear — about freedom, about European security, about stopping dictators from running rampant — to Blinken, “that’s real”.

***

At first glance, Blinken, 59, is a true creature of Washington. He has been in and out of government for decades. He was a special assistant in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs in the early 1990s, and then moved to Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, where he worked as senior director for European affairs and principal adviser on the European Union and Nato. He worked as Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the George W Bush years. In the Obama administration he eventually rose to deputy secretary of state.

His supporters say he is an experienced, seasoned, knowledgeable statesman, exactly the kind of person you want at the helm of the State Department; his critics point to his support for the war in Iraq and invasion of Libya and ask why a person who has had a hand in such disastrous foreign policy choices is still given opportunities.

Blinken has known and worked with Biden in various capacities for decades. When Biden, as a senator, was on the Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s Blinken prepared his support for the US invasion of Iraq. When Biden became vice-president Blinken was his national security adviser during his first term, from 2009 to 2013. Blinken’s relationship to Biden “is as close to a father-son relationship as you can get without being related”, said Jon Wolfsthal, who was Biden’s special adviser for nuclear security and non-proliferation during this time.

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“Tony,” Wolfsthal said, understands Biden’s “priorities, how he liked to operate, his instincts”. In practical terms, that means that, today, as Blinken travels around Europe trying to co-ordinate with allies and partners, “You don’t have a secretary of state being more full-throated than the president.” Instead, “Tony can be an effective conduit for the president’s thinking.” That’s particularly important given how high the stakes are, and the consequences that can come from having members of the administration out of sync.

“To put a very fine point on it: you would be hard pressed to find another person that you wanted to co-ordinate European allies to confront the greatest aggression in our lifetimes,” said Wolfsthal, who is now a senior adviser at Global Zero, a campaign group dedicated to nuclear disarmament. That is because Blinken, in addition to being Biden’s long-time right-hand man and a creature of Washington, has other qualifications too: he is deeply familiar with the Europeans, whose trust the United States needs to now win and keep, and with whom the United States needs to work.

***

It isn’t just that he worked with Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or that his father, Donald Blinken, was ambassador to Hungary, or that his uncle, Alan Blinken, was ambassador to Belgium. It isn’t just that he moved to Paris with his mother and stepfather in high school, or that he speaks fluent French.

“A secretary of state who’s dependent on talking points is going to fail,” said Fried, who is now at the Atlantic Council, a think tank based in Washington, DC. “Blinken is not dependent on talking points.” That doesn’t mean he’s immune from making mistakes, Fried says. That Poland offered MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine and the United States, in response, said it was surprised by the announcement is one such recent example. But he speaks French. He understands German politics. “He gets this stuff.”

Truth be told, it’s not only that, either. It’s also that he is the stepson of the man who, over half a century ago in Poland, walked towards a tank belonging to the country he believed represented freedom and deliverance. It’s that he is, as secretary of state, trying to prove that it still might.

Standing at the Polish-Ukrainian border with Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Blinken expressed “awe” for him, and for the resistance that Ukrainians have offered and continue to offer. Pressure on Russia, Blinken said then, “will not only continue, it will grow until this war of choice is brought to an end”.

This is Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. “We’re in it with Ukraine”, the secretary of state said, “one way or another, the short run, the medium run, the long run.” The refugees from Ukraine keep coming, over the border, trying to find something safer now that the world they thought they knew has given up. Trying to find freedom and deliverance.

[See also: The West must do more to resettle refugees fleeing Ukraine]

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