Antony Blinken Vows to do Things Differently. Will He? | Opinion

There is no question that Antony Blinken is a diplomat to his core.

The 58-year old New Yorker has been steeped in the foreign policy business ever since he was a Clinton administration staffer on the National Security Council. His previous stints include being the chief foreign policy adviser to then-Senator Joe Biden, the deputy national security adviser to former President Barack Obama and the deputy secretary of state during Obama's second term.

The Blinken family name is virtually synonymous with diplomacy: His father served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary; his uncle was a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium and his half-sister worked in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

Now at the top of the U.S. diplomatic pyramid as secretary of state, Blinken is in his dream job. But with great power comes great responsibility—and if there is anything Blinken has learned in his decades of public service, it's that the U.S. government needs to do a much better job at communicating U.S. foreign policy to the American people. His March 3 speech at the State Department was an attempt to do precisely that. Whether he succeeded or not depends on where you sit.

For those of us who consider themselves to be foreign policy realists and passionately believe Washington's entire approach to the world is overdue for a fundamental change, Blinken's remarks this week were a mixed bag.

This, of course, isn't surprising. While labels can be tricky in the foreign policy business, it's safe to say that Blinken, like many of his peers in Washington, is more of a liberal internationalist than a realist. Its members firmly believe the U.S. has a moral and strategic imperative to ensure the world is as democratic, free and respectful of human rights as possible.

Blinken's speech touched upon the theme of democracy repeatedly: "Strong democracies are more stable, more open, better partners to us, more committed to human rights, less prone to conflict, and more dependable markets for our goods and services."

These words sound reasonable enough. Who, after all, would argue that the planet would not be better off without more democratic governments in place? Who isn't pulled by the notion of America as "the indispensable nation," a country that can solve virtually any problem regardless of how big it may be?

The problem, as the United States has learned over the last two decades, is that democracy promotion is not as straightforward or simple as giving aspiring leaders in another country a tutorial on Thomas Jefferson, John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks on March 3, 2021. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As recent history demonstrates, the urge to spread freedom far and wide like a white knight in a doomed land can often lead to mistakes that, as Blinken himself mentioned, sullies the very democracy the U.S. purportedly wishes to support.

The worst thing the United States can do is overestimate its own power and minimize the long-term risks of unintended consequences of its actions. It's this type of hubris that can lead to costly, expensive, meandering military interventions like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, all of which are either in a state of civil war or are so divided internally that even the idea of order is a mirage.

As a foreign policy practitioner himself, Blinken has had extensive personal experience in the policy trenches. He has been on the wrong side of some of those debates.

As the top foreign policy adviser to Joe Biden, in October 2002, he voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. As a senior policymaker in the Obama administration, Blinken supported U.S. military intervention in Libya to remove Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi from power. That intervention kicked off what can only be described as Libya falling apart like a house of cards, with the country now a mishmash of militias, foreign powers and mercenaries duking it out over territory and oil. He was also an internal supporter of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, an idea that looked good in theory given the utter depravity of the Syrian dictator but a course of action that may very well have contributed to the violence there.

Naturally, no policymaker gets everything right 100 percent of the time. When you've been in public service for as long as Antony Blinken, you are bound to come out on the wrong side of things occasionally. Even the late-George Shultz, the legendary secretary of state widely regarded as one of the best diplomats of his generation, was wrong about Iraq.

The important thing is whether those who have made mistakes in the past have learned from them and are doing everything possible to avoid repeating them in the future.

Secretary Blinken at least appears to recognize that Washington has indeed fumbled the ball and can frequently be its own worst enemy.

"We will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force," the secretary remarked recently. "We have tried these tactics in the past. However well intentioned, they haven't worked."

Wise words, indeed. Let's hope they are met with action.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.