April 26, 2022
I intended to write tonight about Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—and I will—but the research for that topic led me elsewhere: into the world of the early years of the Trump administration, when many journalists were trying oh, so hard to pretend that maybe Trump’s gutting of the State Department, for example, was just some part of a new policy approach.
It’s startling when you compare it with today’s coverage of Biden.
What got me on this track was Blinken’s offhand comment today that his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was “the 100th time that I’ve had an opportunity to brief Congress, which is one of the ways I’ve worked to meet the commitment that I made in my confirmation before this committee to restore Congress’s role as a partner both in our foreign policymaking and in revitalizing the State Department.”
That reminded me that shortly after Trump took office journalists wrote about how he was sidelining the State Department. “Is the State Department Being Intentionally Gutted?” wondered Michael Fuchs on February 28, 2017, in Just Security. He noted that Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, former chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, had not held a single press briefing since he took office and hadn’t been at summit meetings with Trump and foreign leaders. The tradition of daily press briefings from State Department spokespeople had also stopped dead the day Trump took office. The White House had said it was going to cut the State Department budget to offset an increase of $54 billion in defense spending.
The Trump administration had asked the senior career officers running the department’s administration to resign, and several senior diplomats had been recalled before replacements were even nominated. The floor where the secretary of state and the senior team have offices was essentially empty, and the administration was not filling those positions.
Maybe, Tillerson was “just getting up to speed,” but while he sounded tentative, Fuchs wasn’t willing to believe an innocent explanation. He said there were “strong signs” that “the White House [was] trying to sideline the State Department[.]” Fuchs noted that Trump seemed “enamored of the military” and seemed eager to get rid of the nonpartisan bureaucracy that stabilizes democracies.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette had similar observations but wondered if the silence of Tillerson’s State Department was just a reflection of his caution in front of the media. She recorded that the deafening silence from the State Department created confusion as Trump’s tweets rocked long-stable ships. “[T]he President and his Cabinet have given mixed messages on issues like the US commitment to NATO,” she noted.
And then, for his first trip abroad, Trump went not to Canada or to Mexico, our two largest trading partners, democracies, close allies, and neighbors, but to Saudi Arabia, an oligarchic kleptocracy. There, he and Tillerson appeared to embrace the culture, something previous presidents had been careful to avoid because of its extreme misogyny and occasional extremism. Tillerson did in fact hold a press conference there, but U.S. media was banned: only foreign media was admitted. Foreign affairs expert Anne Applebaum called the trip “bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American.”
Of course, we now know that Trump was centering foreign affairs in the White House—Ivanka Trump went along on that trip to Saudi Arabia to promote “female entrepreneurs”—and among his own cronies like the “Three Amigos” who tried to pressure Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky into launching a fake investigation into Hunter Biden. The plan was, at least in part, to stop looking at foreign affairs as national security—just days ago, Trump told an audience that during his term he had threatened European leaders that the U.S. would not honor the mutual aid pact and defend Europe against incursions by Russia—and instead to pocket huge sums of money. We know now it was Trump friend Tom Barrack who was behind the meeting with the Saudis as he angled for a huge deal to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
People who seemed nonplussed by the extraordinary actions of the Trump administration were not deliberately giving him a pass, I don’t think. They just couldn’t believe they were seeing the dismantling of centuries of diplomacy to enrich one family and its inner circle.
So when Blinken now talks about values and national security again, it seems sometimes we are cynically harsh.
Today, he spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reminding it that he, the secretary of state, had spoken to the committee 100 times. He thanked it for its support and talked of the recent visit he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had made to Kyiv, where they had gone to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the government and the people of Ukraine. He described the countryside and cities coming back to life after the carnage Russia visited on them, and he hailed the extraordinary determination of the Ukrainians.
There is a lesson in that determination for the U.S., he suggested. “Moscow’s war of aggression against Ukraine has underscored the power and purpose of American diplomacy. Our diplomacy is rallying allies and partners around the world to join us in supporting Ukraine with security, economic, humanitarian assistance; imposing massive costs on the Kremlin; strengthening our collective security and defense; addressing the war’s mounting global consequences, including the refugee and food crises….”
Blinken was understating things. The administration’s bolstering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other allies and partners, along with its strong effort to keep various nations on board with economic sanctions, has been key to supporting Ukraine. Today, news broke of just how extensive U.S. sharing of intelligence has been with Ukraine, enabling Ukraine not only to protect its own weapons from attack, but also to shoot down a Russian plane transporting troops. Indeed, U.S. intelligence has helped prevent Russia from getting control of the airspace over Ukraine.
And now the administration has expanded that cooperation to include intelligence sharing to enable Ukraine to take back territory Russia has captured, including in Crimea or the Donbas. This reflects Austin’s statement today that Ukraine can not only survive against Russia, but can “win.” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby elaborated: “winning is very clearly defined by a Ukraine whose sovereignty is fully respected, whose territorial integrity is not violated by Russia or any other country for that matter.” Kirby also explained Austin’s comment that the U.S. wants “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Kirby said: “We don’t want a Russia that’s capable of exerting…malign influence in Europe or anywhere around the world.”
In addition to responding to the urgency of the attack on Ukraine, the State Department “continues to carry out the missions traditionally associated with diplomacy, like responsibly managing great power competition with China, facilitating a halt to fighting in Yemen and Ethiopia, pushing back against the rising tide of authoritarianism and the threat that it poses to human rights,” he said. The State Department will continue to modernize, as well, to address emergence of infectious diseases, the climate crisis, and the digital revolution.
Blinken noted that the State Department is filling out its ranks as quickly as it can with diplomats that “reflect America’s remarkable diversity, which is one of our greatest strengths, including in our diplomacy,” providing the paid internships that will enable poorer young people to accept them, and finally having State’s “first ever chief diversity and inclusion officer.” The effort is paying off: State is on track for its largest hiring intake in ten years.
“My first 15 months in this job have only strengthened my own conviction that these and other reforms are not just worthwhile;” Blinken said, “they’re essential to our national security and to delivering for the people we represent.”