The Biden administration paused or scrutinized a wide range of Trump-era foreign policy when the new US top diplomat took the helm of the State Department.
The administration has at least temporarily placed several major ticket sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, while newly installed Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said he would rather look at a terrorist designation against Yemen’s Houthi rebels that his predecessor adopted shortly before leaving office.
On his first full day at work, Blinken said on Wednesday that the administration has begun a comprehensive review of the United States’ relations with Russia and is investigating details of a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban that was signed almost a year ago. He said, however, that the administration had asked Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, former UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, to remain in office for the sake of continuity.
Congratulations to our new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. @SecBlinken will revive American diplomacy, promote our values in the world and promote America’s security and prosperity. pic.twitter.com/ecuYdOLFXL
– Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) January 28, 2021
Speaking to reporters just hours after his ceremonial but coronavirus-restricted entry into the Foreign Office’s main lobby, Blinken also said the administration is willing to return to commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which former President Donald Trump withdrew, but only if Iran returns to full compliance with the agreement.
In his comments on a demoralized diplomatic corps that has often been humiliated or ignored over the past four years, Blinken promised to rebuild the Foreign Service and rely on its expertise as the Biden administration seeks to restore the United States’ global position. He said the world was looking at how America pursued foreign policy after Trump’s “America First” doctrine, which alienated many American allies.
On Wednesday, Blinken spoke to the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, as well as to the Secretary General of NATO after talks late on Tuesday to his counterparts in Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea.
Today I called the French Foreign Minister @JY_LeDrian to discuss how we can deepen the relationship between the United States and France. Whether we are fighting terrorism in the Sahel or strengthening @NATO, I look forward to continuing our close cooperation.
– Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 27, 2021
Blinken appeared in the press conference room, which had rarely been used during the Trump administration, and promised to respect and be available to journalists and to restore the State Department’s daily press conferences starting next week.
On political issues, Blinken said he was particularly concerned about the “foreign terrorist organization” term for the Iranian-backed Houthis announced by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just ten days before the end of the Trump administration. Many fear that the measure, which comes with strict US sanctions, will unnecessarily exacerbate what is already one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Of all the steps that Trump and Pompeo took during their declining days, “this is the priority in my book,” Blinken said of the designation. “We are taking a very urgent and much closer look at it.” The Ministry of Finance has already moved to suspend some of the sanctions linked to the designation, but aid groups say mass famine could occur if they are not all lifted.
The break in arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which was announced just days after the November 6 election that Trump lost to incumbent President Joe Biden, is also related to Yemen. Critics fear that the two Arab countries could use advanced American weapons to continue the Saudi war in Yemen with a significant risk of civilian casualties. The department billed the temporary suspension, which includes a halt to a $ 23 billion transfer of stealth F-35 fighters to the United Arab Emirates, as “a routine administrative measure” for a new administration.
Blinken said the sale is under review to determine if they meet US national security targets.
In Afghanistan, Blinken said the Biden administration wanted to take a detailed look at the February 2020 peace agreement negotiated between the Trump administration and the Taliban to try to free US troops from the country after nearly 20 years of war. “We have to understand exactly what is in the agreement” before deciding how to proceed, he said. Khalilzad, the US chief negotiator, has been asked to stay on the job so he can “continue the important work he is doing”.
With regard to Iran, Blinken reiterated comments that Biden has previously made and that he himself made a legislator at his confirmation hearing just last week. Blinken said the administration is prepared to ease sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran as long as Iran returns to full compliance with the 2015 agreement. At that time, Blinken said that the administration would try to strengthen and extend the terms of the agreement. But, he said, “we are far from that point.”
Biden has promised to reverse Trump’s approach, which had promoted many traditional American allies who saw it as a harsh, one-sided approach that left no room for negotiation. Blinken said that after four years, the United States would once again cooperate with allies on a mutual, rather than a purely transactional basis.
“The world is watching us closely right now,” Blinken said. “They want to know if we can heal our nation. They want to see if we will lead by force in our example and if we will put a premium on diplomacy with our allies and partners to meet the great challenges of our time – such as the pandemic, climate change, the economic crisis, threats to democracies , fights for racial justice and the danger to our security and global stability posed by our rivals and opponents. ”
Blinken, a 58-year-old longtime Biden trustee, was confirmed by the 71st Secretary of State by the Senate on Tuesday in a 78-22 vote. The position is the top management in the cabinet, with the secretary fourth in line of the president’s legacy. A former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, Blinken promised that the US global leadership is back and that the State Department will be “central” to it.
Blinken inherited a deeply demoralized and impoverished career workforce at the State Department. Neither of his two immediate predecessors under Trump, Rex Tillerson or Pompeo, offered strong opposition to repeated attempts at the gut agency. They were only hindered by congressional intervention.
Blinken said he would promote and protect the foreign service, which had been shut down during the Trump era, and that after four years of atrophy, the State Department would once again play a leading role in US relations with the world.