Call it déjà vu d’état. Four years ago, I was privileged to serve previously and know personally the new president’s secretary of State. Four years later, I find myself again so privileged. Secretary Antony Blinken, a month now at the helm of America’s ship of state, was a mentor of mine at the White House nearly 25 years ago. Although our career paths later diverged, our service together—and my admiration for his intellect and integrity—stick with me still. None other than an author of The Wise Men, the seminal biography of the leading US diplomats who shaped the modern world order, has suggested that Secretary Blinken is destined to join their company. Knowing Tony, I expect no less.
Since President Joe Biden selected him to serve as our nation’s top diplomat, many others have discussed Tony’s time at his present patron’s side—in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing room during the Iraq War debates, in the White House Situation Room during the Osama bin Laden raid, or on the campaign trail during a pandemic testing American global leadership. The president and his senior cabinet secretary’s reported “mind meld” cemented over decades together at the center of US foreign policymaking. However, few have discussed Tony’s formative early years of public service prior to joining Biden’s staff, years when our paths crossed.
Tony was senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council when he asked me to join his team during President Bill Clinton’s second term. “Strategic planning” meant mostly speechwriting, a sneer-worthy euphemism for some. But as I learned on the job, capturing in words a president’s voice and vision entails the kind of critical, coherent, and creative thinking strategic planning calls for. (Indeed, the department Tony now leads has historically housed speechwriters in its Office of Policy Planning, State’s cerebral cortex.) It has been said that the world’s most powerful weapons are not nuclear arms, biological agents, or even smart technologies, but articulated ideas capable of captivating and motivating the masses. Ask Thomas Jefferson. In the battle of ideas that shape foreign policymaking, the president’s words are strategic arms.
As a drum major in the battle of ideas at the NSC, Tony sounded themes that resonate still. The remarks he crafted for President Clinton echo in his own a quarter-century later. During our time together, accelerating globalization, driven by the advent of the internet, presented a critical international opportunity and challenge. It called for a new intellectual framework for a rapidly changing world. Tony helped construct this framework and the “bridge to the twenty-first century” that President Clinton spoke of by advocating for active and engaged American leadership aimed at ensuring globalization, as it progressed, bore a “human face” and reflected the democratic, free-market, peace-loving values the United States espoused.
Resurgent ethnic nationalism posed another challenge in that era, especially in the liberated satellites of the Soviet empire. In Bosnia and Kosovo, critical American leadership rallied NATO allies and leveraged both soft and hard power to help defeat a tyrant and avert a worse genocide. The US-led military airstrikes against Serbian strongholds lacked formal United Nations endorsement. But they commanded moral authority and established a precedent for humanitarian intervention that provided a foundation for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), an international norm patterned after just war principles, as Providence readers will appreciate. Tony helped fuse interests and values with President Clinton’s appeal to Americans’ common sense during the war: “Our objectives in Kosovo are clear and consistent with both the moral imperative of reversing ethnic cleansing and our overwhelming national interest in a peaceful, undivided Europe… I do not believe we ought to have thousands more people slaughtered and buried in open soccer fields before we do something.”
Biden and Blinken probably forged their alliance in the crucible of the Balkans. Then-Senator Biden, as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, took an intense interest in the former Yugoslavia, urged in part by a Catholic monk who exposed the Serbs’ atrocities and sacrileges. At the White House, Tony had been promoted to senior director for European Affairs at this time and likely met frequently with Biden. I recall accompanying National Security Advisor Sandy Berger on a long drive to Delaware to attend a speech the senator delivered on the Kosovo crisis to his constituents—a show of White House support for the state lawmaker turned global statesman. In his remarks, Senator Biden voiced moral outrage and steely determination to defend American interests and values in the Balkans—outrage and determination Tony shared.
Following the September 11 attacks, the US foreign policy apparatus grappled with the challenge of international terrorism. Between serving President Clinton and Senator Biden, Tony distinguished himself as a thought leader in this policy area as well. “Winning the War of Ideas” was the title of an essay he authored for The Washington Quarterly in 2002. In the piece, Tony addresses rising anti-Americanism following US military retaliation for the terrorist attacks, and argues that “U.S. success in Afghanistan will count for little if the U.S. loses the global war of ideas.” To win this war, he advocated for strengthening public diplomacy, boosting international broadcasting, and “remaking the marketplace of ideas” by directing new information technologies to confront regressive regimes. His bedrock belief in the power of multilateralism also found renewed expression here:
Never has a country been more powerful by traditional measures… Yet, never has a major power been so dependent on the active cooperation of others to defeat its enemies and advance its interests. Left unattended, those who criticize U.S. policies or resent U.S. power today are less likely to stand with the United States tomorrow… Winning the war of ideas is critical to the United States’ future.
Tony has since risen in the ranks from drum major to field marshal in the battle of ideas, now leading the charge to reverse the retreat of the Trump administration and advance a new paradigm of American leadership. This paradigm rests on presumptions that are embedded in a mantra that Tony regularly recites in his writing and remarks, including at his recent Senate confirmation hearing: “The reality is, the world simply does not organize itself. American leadership still matters.”
This phrase implies that the state of nature is disorder—a state, as I have argued in these pages, to which President Donald Trump sought to return. But the assertion that ours is not a self-ordering international system also implies that bringing order to it can and should be done, if only to serve our national interests. Self-help alone is self-defeating. As Tony continues:
When we’re not engaged, when we’re not leading, then one of two things is likely to happen. Either some other country tries to take our place—but not in a way that is likely to advance our interests or values. Or, maybe just as bad, no one does. And then you have chaos. Either way, that does not serve the American people.
Averting such outcomes and creating order from chaos therefore requires active leadership. The mantra that “the world does not organize itself” in this way parallels the phrase coined by Prof. Alexander Wendt to summarize the constructivist school of international relations theory: “Anarchy is what states make of it.” Constructivists reject the radical realist belief that geopolitics is strictly materialistic, antagonistic, and ultimately deterministic, asserting instead that shared ideas drive international relations. They recognize that alliances, forged by leaders based on shared values, are capable of creating new realities. As evidence, they point to the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom—two nuclear powers that pose negligible threats to one another because of their common democratic orientation and values. Constructivism melds with the Biden-Blinken paradigm.
During the last four years, President Trump blurred conceptual battlelines in advocating for a radically disruptive, ultranationalist, neo-isolationist foreign policy. Clearly, repudiating “America First” is first in the new president and secretary’s order of battle. But the Biden-Blinken perspective on American leadership also finds a challenge on its left flank from what Tony has dubbed the “progressive cousin” of Trump’s policy—retrenchment. Proponents of this perspective distrust US power and question the virtue of active global engagement. They warn that American global leadership is not only arrogant, but dangerous.
At the vanguard of this new front in the battle of ideas is the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new Washington, DC-based think-tank that draws inspiration from its secretary of State and presidential namesake, who vowed that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The Quincy Institute’s priorities include “exposing the dangerous consequences of an unaccountable, overly militarized foreign policy” and advancing an “alternative approach” that “promotes local ownership and resolution of local issues.” Its stable of scholars has taken aim at Trump’s and Biden’s foreign policies alike.
This new clash of concepts played out in dueling essays in the March 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs. Opposite an essay by presidential candidate Joe Biden arguing “Why America Must Lead,” the Quincy Institute’s Stephen Wertheim penned a piece on “The Price of Primacy: Why America Shouldn’t Dominate the World.” The titles tell it all. Brandishing the progressive priorities of economic equity and environmental protection, Wertheim argues the United States botched both when liberal internationalists occupied the White House because of their insistence on preserving US primacy and projecting unmatched military power. “To correct its course,” Wertheim urges, “the United States should make the conscious choice to pull back.”
To this challenge, Biden and Blinken provide a principled counterattack. The principle is what the president has called the “wellspring of our power”—democracy. “No army on Earth can match the electric idea of liberty,” the president has argued. Although committed to preserve—and, if necessary, project—US military might, the new administration views the ideals of freedom and democracy as perhaps the most effective weapons in our arsenal. As Tony argues in his Washington Quarterly essay, “The United States remains powerfully attractive… Millions of the world’s citizens desire to move to, become educated in, do business with the United States, considering it a land of opportunity and democratic ideals.” America’s magnetism is a force multiplier. To pull back, as retrenchers advocate, would sap the United States of its essential strength.
The test of principled American leadership will come when President Biden delivers on his campaign promise to convene a Summit of Democracies, a promise Tony pledged during his confirmation hearing to fulfill later this year. In gathering the world’s democracies (an evolving and contested membership list, to be sure), the administration aims to galvanize action to confront authoritarianism, fight corruption, and advance human rights. The summit promises to be a centerpiece of the Biden administration’s foreign policy that dovetails with its domestic priority of restoring America’s democratic institutions, and testifies to its commitment to the constructivist paradigm. Importantly, at the summit, President Biden insists that the United States will sit at the “head of the table.”
This laudable project is not without its detractors, including from the left. Critic Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, predicts that the formation of a “league of democracies” would “lead to a de facto league of authoritarians—and to deep fissures between the two.” Based on this and his record of supporting US military interventions, Tony receives a C-grade in Wright’s book. Skeptic Stephen Walt has similarly questioned the wisdom of the United States assuming a leadership role. Biden and Blinken seek “not just [a seat] at the table, mind you, but at the head. That instinct is a recipe for overcommitment… It will provoke immediate resistance from some countries (e.g., China, Russia).”
But rallying the free world to reengage the battle of ideas against authoritarian forces is precisely the point of the incoming administration’s democracy-centric agenda. Withdrawing from the field provokes dictators more so than confronting them, as Tony argues, and it invites international instability antithetical to US interests. Russia’s ongoing cyberattacks targeting our electoral and governmental systems suggest we remain squarely in their sites as a prime target. If the United States is not at the head of the table, we may find ourselves on the menu.
Moreover, retrenchment cedes a critical advantage the United States, as the world’s strongest democracy, wields: the potential to construct potent, durable alliances. Not since the Concert of Europe two centuries ago has there been a sustainable league of authoritarians per Wright’s suggestion. Democracies, by their nature, engender cooperation and collective defense, in contrast to authoritarian regimes that at best build ephemeral coalitions of convenience. NATO is the supreme example of this inherent organizing advantage. It is the “bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal,” Biden writes, “an alliance of values, which makes it far more durable, reliable, and powerful than partnerships built be coercion or cash.” Tony echoes this article of faith in democratic leadership: “America at its best still has a greater ability than any country on Earth to mobilize others for the common good.”
The new administration’s innovative contribution to the battle of ideas—active US democratic leadership to rebuild a values-infused order—is rooted in President Biden’s own Catholic faith, as I have argued, as well as Secretary Blinken’s own family history. Tony heralds not from the top one percent, but from the one-tenth of one percent. That was the survival rate in the Polish grade school of Samuel Pisar, Tony’s stepfather, during the Holocaust. He was the only child among 900 of his classmates to survive Auschwitz and escape to freedom. Nearly 75 years on, the story of the young Pisar’s deliverance from the Nazis still inspires Tony, who recounted it during his Senate confirmation hearing. In the closing days of the Second World War, Pisar fled his Nazi slave drivers during a forced march, absconding to the Bavarian forests. Days later, from his hideout, he heard the rumble of an approaching tank, but rather than the dreaded swastika, it bore a white, five-pointed star. Coming upon the young, emaciated refugee, the tank ground to a halt, and from the hatch emerged an African-American GI, who literally lifted the boy to freedom. In gratitude, Pisar uttered the only English he knew: “God bless America.”
As this story suggests, Secretary Blinken brings to today’s battle of ideas more than an innovative intellectual framework for understanding international relations, informed by constructivist concepts of order and shared ideals, and an unyielding commitment to active US leadership in mobilizing the world’s democracies. Tony also brings a passion and wisdom to the fight that readers of Providence can appreciate. In his first public statement as secretary of State, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, he gave a riveting expression to both:
The story [of my stepfather] made a deep impression on me. It taught me that evil on a grand scale can and does happen in our world—and that we have a responsibility to do everything we can to stop it… I will remember that a nation’s power isn’t measured only by the size of its military or economy, but by the moral choices it makes. And I will remember that atrocities like the Holocaust don’t just happen. They are allowed to happen. It’s up to us to stop them.