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Blinken's Faceless Diplomacy — A Secret Weapon For Post-War Peace?

Reserved, not accustomed to the spotlight, capable of taking a step back and not overshadowing the president. In this time of crisis, Antony Blinken navigates geopolitics with the president's full trust.

Illustration of Antony Blinken speaking at a lectern with his face blurred, and a U.S. flag in the background

Blinken and you'll miss it

Alberto Simoni


WASHINGTON — When he was Secretary of State, Colin Powell was famously reluctant to leave his office on the seventh floor of the Truman Building. In contrast, John Kerry had such a passion for traveling that he took 108 trips during his four years as the head of U.S. diplomacy.

Antony Blinken is clearly following in Kerry's footsteps. His shuttle diplomacy, with which he is trying to defuse the conflict in the Middle East — preventing it from spreading, protecting civilians, and projecting American leadership in the region — has so far tallied for 73 foreign stops.

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On Wednesday, he laid out his post-war vision of a united Palestinian state that connects Gaza and the West Bank. Earlier in the week, when reporters asked him if he had really achieved anything from his endless chain of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Arab leaders and others, he qualified the current situation as a "work in progress"

It's a low-profile, cautious, and prudent expression for a reserved man, not used to the limelight, capable of taking a step back and not overshadowing the president.

Qualities for many, limitations for others.

Close ties with Biden

It is undeniable that, when looking at the names of the heads of U.S. diplomacy over the past 30 years, it's difficult to find someone with less charisma or a weaker resume than Blinken.

Colin Powell was a decorated general; Hillary Clinton was already a presidential aspirant and senator (not to mention her role as First Lady); John Kerry was his party's presidential nominee, and Madeleine Albright was the brightest star in the U.S. foreign policy constellation. And Blinken? Maybe the best description for him is super-technician.

During his first mission in the Middle East, when Mohammed Bin Salman made him wait for hours before their scheduled summit, he didn't lose his composure. But critics point out that such treatment is typically reserved for the "second string." Blinken may be a "second string," but he enjoys the full trust and support of No. 1: Joe Biden.

Blinken's bond with Biden is akin to that of father and son.

Blinken once described his bond with Biden to be akin to that of father and son. He has been working with Biden since 2002, both in the Senate and later at the White House as an assistant in the National Security Council. It was he who encouraged Biden to align himself with Bush on the Iraq war; Biden wanted to give the president more limited powers, but Blinken convinced him otherwise.

After being a founder and manager of WestExec Advisors, a breeding ground for officials in the current Administration, Blinken led the foreign policy machine of Biden's 2020 campaign to become the natural choice for Secretary of State. A colleague who knows him well told La Stampa that it's very "difficult to explain foreign policy to Biden, but Blinken is someone who dares to do it."

It's also crucial that Blinken is unafraid to challenge his boss. Despite his genteel appearance, with a consistently white shirt and impeccably pressed clothes, this low-key deputy knows how to say No. He privately told Biden that he shouldn't follow the withdrawal timeline from Afghanistan set by Trump, then acted as a shield by taking public criticism. During the Obama Administration's Libya policy, he sided with the president rather than his own boss.

These are all actions that have allowed Blinken to always keep the direct channel active with Biden. When he's traveling, he calls him several times from the plane, as well as in the evening from the hotel to assess the situation.

Photo of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in Tel Aviv on Nov. 3

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Nov. 3

Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO/Handout/Xinhua/ZUMA

Personal drive

Blinken's hand was behind Biden's lightning trip to Israel two weeks ago. Derek Chollet, one of Blinken's advisors, even talked about a Secretary of State who was capable of raising his voice with Netanyahu without messing up his hair and wrinkling his suit before facing the cameras and announcing that Biden would visit to the region.

His core foreign policy belief is that of liberal internationalism, defending rights, and a willingness to use force if necessary. It harks back to Clinton and Madeleine Albright, the wars in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. And ultimately, Blinken's career began with the return of the Democrats to the White House in the early 1990s. In fact, he was a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor during Bill Clinton's presidency.

Yet what sets his resume apart is how Blinken's vision is shaped, even permeated, by his own personal history. The son of Judith Frehm Pisar, a UNESCO envoy, and Donald Blinken, ambassador to Hungary, he was also raised by his stepfather Samuel Pisar, a lawyer and Holocaust survivor. At the second wedding of his mother, a Catholic marrying a Jew, a ceremony officiated according to two rituals, Blinken sees his lived experience within the Middle East conflict.

Blinken is a hawk.

In his first mission to Israel, he presented himself not only as Secretary of State but also as a Jew. The day after in Cairo, Egyptian Abdel Fattah El-Sisi needled Blinken for this overlap between faith and politics. He didn't flinch.

Elitist air

"Tony is a hawk; for him, Russia is almost a personal matter," a former colleague at the National Security Council told La Stampa. He took a hardline against Moscow back in 2014, and has maintained that stance since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Blinken has been and continues to be among the Administration's strongest voice for a tough approach towards the Kremlin.

And now? Blinken has no higher ambitions; the White House is not in his plans, at least not as long as his political mentor is in power. Perhaps it's true that there's something missing for him to make the leap from the State Department to the political arena. Or perhaps there's something about him that rubs Americans the wrong way. He speaks French – coincidentally, just like John Kerry, whom many Americans could never connect with for his cosmopolitan tastes and love for the homeland of Enlightenment. Too elitist, too European.

For now, there's plenty in the rest of the world to keep him busy.

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Photo of a drone on the tarmac during a military exercise near Vícenice, in the Czech Republic

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