WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken used his first major address on Wednesday to rally a constituency for President Biden’s foreign policy at a time when Americans are focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and other domestic issues .
The 28-minute speech, delivered in a largely empty State Department reception room, was intended to demonstrate that the most pressing issues of diplomacy were matters that directly affect Americans.
From defending democracy to fighting climate change to managing the nation’s relations with China – “the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” he said – Blinken outlined eight foreign policy priorities for the Biden government. He said they have to face both domestically and abroad, “or we’ll be left behind.”
Mr Blinken’s statements accompanied the publication of the so-called Interim National Security Strategic Guidance by the White House, a 24-page document is intended to serve as the first foreign policy blueprint until administrators come up with their first official national security strategy, a report that will be released annually by every White House this year.
Briefing reporters of the document, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the guidelines are based on the idea that the United States must be able to compete for “great powers” at the same time as rival powers such as China and Russia are being defended against cross-border threats such as pandemics, climate change and terrorism.
The key to this, Sullivan said, was rebuilding the American economy, democracy and alliances to operate “from a position of strength” worldwide.
Neither Mr Blinken nor Mr Sullivan made any new political announcements. And while the guidance document was intended for government officials, Mr Blinken attempted to connect with average Americans in a speech he would have given to an audience well beyond the Beltway without pandemic restrictions.
“I know that foreign policy sometimes feels disconnected from our daily lives,” said Blinken. “It’s either just about major threats like pandemics, terrorism, or it disappears from view.”
As a result, he said, “Americans have asked tough but fair questions about what we do, how we lead – in fact, whether we should lead at all.” He acknowledged that government officials need to better explain why foreign policy matters to average Americans.
(His immediate predecessor, Mike Pompeo, frequently lectured in the U.S. to students, factory workers, and religious groups – though critics noted that he also selected venues and audiences that may be related to his suspected future political aspirations.)
Although Mr Blinken said several countries – including Russia, Iran and North Korea – presented serious challenges, he made it clear that China was America’s main competitor.
Repeating Mr. Biden’s promise to alternate competitive, collaborative and potentially confrontational positions with China on various issues, he said strong alliances are the best way to balance Beijing. “Where we withdrew, China filled in,” said Blinken.
He offered few details, however, a vagueness that warned some former State Department officials that adapting to Beijing’s global influence would require expensive diplomatic and development efforts.
“We cannot confront China cheaply,” said Brett Bruen, former professional diplomat and White House official in the Obama administration.
Mr Pompeo had routinely singled out China during the Trump administration, calling it a rampant human rights abuser whose communist leaders had invaded foreign territories and were unable to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Mr. Blinken repeatedly drew contrasts with the previous administration and President Donald J. Trump’s bombastic “America First” approach. “Real strength isn’t noise or bullying,” he said.
On immigration, Mr Blinken said the government would continue to secure US borders but also pursue a “simply decent solution” to the plight of the thousands of desperate Central Americans trying to enter the United States.
He also noted the deep rifts that have occurred in American politics and helped spark the January 6th uprising at the Capitol. “There is no question that our democracy is fragile,” he said.
However, Mr Blinken also acknowledged that previous administrations – including the Obama presidency in which he served – had failed ordinary Americans at times.
On Free Trade, “We haven’t done enough to understand who would be negatively affected and what it would take to adequately offset their pain or enforce agreements already on the books and help more workers and small businesses to fully benefit of them, ”he said.
Some liberal critics see Mr Blinken as too supportive of previous military interventions, admitting that “we need to remember what we have learned about the limits of violence in order to build lasting peace” – particularly in Afghanistan and the near by East.
“The day after a major military intervention is always more difficult than we imagined,” he said.