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Fast Thinking

November 23, 2020

FAST THINKING: How Tony Blinken sees America

By Atlantic Council


Joe Biden is reportedly about to make his first major foreign-policy move by announcing that he’ll nominate Tony Blinken, his longtime advisor and a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, as secretary of state. To observers like the Atlantic Council’s Josh Lipsky, the selection amounts to “a signal to the world that America is back.” To answer the big questions about who Blinken is and how he might serve in the role, we turned to Dan Fried, a former US ambassador who spent forty years in the foreign service and has known Blinken for decades.


  • Dan Fried (@ambdanfried): Former US ambassador to Poland and special assistant for Presidents Clinton and Bush, and Weiser family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council

Where’s Blinken coming from on foreign policy?

  • A telling story Blinken likes to recount: “Biography is not destiny, but it can provide clues. Tony Blinken has told the story of how his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a Polish-born Jew and survivor of the Holocaust, met America. Pisar was a skinny teenager who escaped from a forced march of slave laborers in Germany in the spring of 1945 and suddenly saw a column of US tanks on the road. He waved and said something like, ‘God bless America.’ A tank stopped, a US soldier in the turret, African-American, saw the kid by the side of the road and reached down and lifted him up and into the tank—as Tony put it, ‘into America.’ Tony tells that story with conviction.”
  • America’s story is personal for him: “There are lots of Americans, including in my own family, for whom the United States provided refuge from tyranny and a chance of life. For them, and I suspect for Tony, America as a beacon of liberty is not cant but either lived or family memory. America living by its best values—as a country dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal—has been and remains a life-or-death proposition for millions of people.”

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Do these views come through in his work?

  • What informs his thinking: “I’ve worked with Tony Blinken since the Clinton administration. I’ve never told him this, but I suspect his foreign-policy thinking is derived from his sense of America’s identity as a country of values, a country that could lift his refugee stepfather right into America, and a country that knew that the advance of its values and interests were somehow linked.”
  • Idealism versus realism: “Tony is no ideologue or idealist. He combines a deep commitment to values with a canny sense of the possible. He is realistic, as any experienced policy person must be, about the chances of getting anything done at a given moment. (Hint: The chances are usually less than you think.) As a foreign-policy practitioner, he’s fine with incrementalism, compromise, half-steps forward, and all the rest of messy reality. But he doesn’t lose sight of what larger goals are at stake or of policy’s larger purposes.”

How will all this translate into policy?

  • Clarity about allies and adversaries: “Tony is apt to mean it when he speaks of America’s alliances with fellow democracies, and when he speaks (and acts) to push back against Putin’s aggression and for a united Europe.”
  • More Albright than Obama: “In core views, Tony may be closer to Madeleine Albright (for whom America is also a personal beacon of liberty) than to the cooler outlook Obama brought to America’s foreign-policy purposes.”

With Blinken as top diplomat, what immediate steps do you expect the Biden administration to take?

  • A return to US values: “Some elements of Biden’s foreign approach already announced—an emphasis on rebuilding America’s alliances, especially with Europe, and bringing together the world’s democracies from all continents to deal with aggressive authoritarian powers—follow from Tony’s past record and probably reflect his input. First steps? To put America on the side of our core values.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Daniel Fried

Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo