9 things to know about Antony Blinken, the next US secretary of state

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Monday nominated his longtime aide, Antony Blinken, as secretary of state. But who is he and what will his relationship with Europe be like?

Here are nine things to know about him:

1. Europeanist, multilateralist, internationalist

Tony Blinken’s ties to Europe are lifelong, deep and personal — and he is a fierce believer in the transatlantic alliance.

“Put simply, the world is safer for the American people when we have friends, partners and allies,” Blinken said in 2016. He has described Europe as “a vital partner” and has dismissed the Trump administration’s plans to remove U.S. troops from Germany as “foolish, it’s spiteful, and it’s a strategic loser. It weakens NATO, it helps Vladimir Putin, and it harms Germany, our most important ally in Europe.”

On every major foreign policy issue — terrorism, climate, pandemics, trade, China, the Iran nuclear deal — he has a recurring mantra: the U.S. should work with its allies and within international treaties and organizations. Blinken also views U.S. leadership in multilateral institutions as essential. “There is a premium still, and in some ways even more than before, on American engagement, on American leadership,” Blinken said earlier this year.

2. Francophone and -phile

Blinken speaks impeccable French, with just the slightest hint of an accent. The future top diplomat moved to Paris as a child after his parents divorced and his mother, Judith, married Polish-American Holocaust survivor and powerhouse lawyer Samuel Pisar.

Much to the delight of French policymakers, journalists and all other ardent torchbearers of “francophonie,” Blinken is no “Omelette du Fromage Man” but the Real Cassoulet. He has given multiple interviews in comfortable, eloquent French. Blinken attended École Jeannine Manuel, a bilingual school in Paris — the same one attended by another Obama administration alumnus, Robert Malley.

Blinken’s half-sister, Leah Pisar, lives in France, where she heads the Aladdin Project, a nonprofit organization promoting multicultural understanding. As an undergraduate student at Harvard, Blinken even wrote a dispatch for the student newspaper, The Crimson, on the 1981 historic landslide by the Socialist Party in the parliamentary elections, defeating the party of then-President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whom his stepfather knew well. Blinken wrote with earnestness, but his sense of geographic distances fell short, way short. The Rue de Solférino is a short street, some two-and-a-half kilometers from the Eiffel Tower, not near the famous landmark and not long and winding. Hopefully, the State Department now has GPS.

3. Six years in the U.S. Senate

Blinken spent a six-year term in the Senate — as one of Biden’s top aides. Like many of Biden’s closest advisers, Blinken’s first job with the future president was on Capitol Hill. He went to work for Biden in 2002 as the Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden was the senior Democrat on the committee from 1997 until he became vice president in 2009.

Those years give Blinken strong ties to other close Biden advisers who worked in the Senate, including Brian McKeon, who would go on to serve as undersecretary of defense for policy; and Avril Haines, who would later serve as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and deputy national security adviser at the White House. Biden’s closest adviser in the Senate, longtime chief of staff Ted Kaufman, is leading the presidential transition.

4. A tale of two Tonys

Blinken’s close buddy was the Biden campaign’s point-man in Europe. When Blinken was about 5 years old, he met another Tony: Anthony Luzzatto Gardner, the son of one of his mother’s closest friends, Danielle Luzzatto Gardner. The families lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the boys went to different prep schools — Blinken to Dalton, and Gardner to St. Bernard’s. But their lives would go on to follow parallel paths and the family friendship has now endured for more than a half-century.

While Blinken moved to France, Gardner spent a lot of time in his mother’s native Italy. Both ended up attending Harvard as undergraduates, and later Columbia Law School, where Gardner’s father, Richard, was a professor and Blinken was one of his top students. In the mid-1990s, Blinken and Tony Gardner worked at the National Security Council together under President Bill Clinton. Clinton appointed Gardner’s father as ambassador to Spain, and Blinken’s father, Donald Blinken, as ambassador to Hungary. (Richard Gardner previously served as ambassador to Italy for President Jimmy Carter.)

The careers of Tony and Tony crossed again during the Obama administration, when Blinken served as a top adviser to Biden and then as deputy secretary of state, and Gardner served as ambassador to the European Union.

5. Public service as family business

Government service is the Blinken family business. He met his future wife, Evan Ryan, in 1995 when he was working at the White House as a speechwriter on the National Security Council, and she was a scheduler for First Lady Hillary Clinton. Ryan went on to work for Clinton during her campaign for Senate, and later worked for Biden when he was vice president as assistant for intergovernmental affairs and, from 2013 to 2017, as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. Hillary Clinton was a guest at the Blinken-Ryan wedding in 2002, and Blinken gave a toast thanking the 40 million Americans who voted for Bill Clinton because the election led to the marriage.

Blinken’s half-sister, Leah Pisar, also worked at the State Department and as communications director at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. Blinken’s uncle, meanwhile, served as U.S. ambassador to Belgium, at the same time that Blinken’s father was ambassador to Hungary. And Blinken’s stepfather was an adviser to President John F. Kennedy as well as French presidents.

6. Jewish roots, European conscience

Blinken was born to Jewish parents, and his late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was a Holocaust survivor who wrote a memoir, “Of Blood and Hope,” about how he survived the Nazis, including time at the death camps of Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau.

In a 2013 interview with the Washington Post, Pisar, who went on to become an international power lawyer and confidante of French presidents, described how Blinken as a teenager in Paris had asked to hear about his experiences during the war. “He wanted to know,” Pisar told the Post. “He took in what had happened to me when I was his age, and I think it impressed him and it gave him another dimension, another look at the world and what can happen here. When he has to worry today about poison gas in Syria, he almost inevitably thinks about the gas with which my entire family was eliminated.”

After Pisar’s death in 2015, Biden said his memoir should be “required reading. It stands as a strong reminder for every generation of our ongoing obligation to never forget.”

7. Interventionist

In his roles in the NSC under Obama and as deputy secretary of state, Blinken advocated for more robust U.S. involvement in the Syria conflict, and notably broke with his boss, Biden, to support the armed intervention in Libya. He was also a close aide to Biden when the then-senator supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He continues to believe that diplomacy needs to be “supplemented by deterrence” and “force can be a necessary adjunct to effective diplomacy. In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little.”

8. Playing guitar and soccer

Blinken plays the guitar — “mostly blues and rock. Not good enough for bluegrass,” as he tweeted in October — and he likes to jam. In his younger days, he sometimes played jazz gigs. “Patience” and “Lip Service” might be subliminal hints at the kind of foreign policy Blinken will promote if he is confirmed as secretary of state, and they are also the titles of his band’s two singles released on Spotify. He even had “Follow ABlinken on Spotify” at the end of his Twitter bio before updating it Monday. “Lip Service” is manifestly about an unlucky evening encounter, with lyrics such as “and then I came onto you but you said let’s just be friends/baby, baby lip service tonight.”

Years ago, Blinken used to play football — the European kind — every Sunday in Washington with some of his closest friends in foreign policy, including now Congressman Tom Malinowski, Robert Malley, former Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon, and others. Here’s photographic proof of their (sweaty) exploits, trophies and all.

9. It’s Antony like the Emperor

If you write about U.S. foreign policy, beware of spellcheck from here on out: It’s Antony — without an H — Blinken, like the Roman emperor, Marcus Antonius, paramour of Cleopatra and protagonist of the Shakespeare play. He also has a middle initial — J for John — if you go in for that kind of thing. His friends call him Tony. And presumably, upon confirmation, Mr. Secretary will do just fine as well.



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