20201127 antony bilken
Image Credit: Ador T. Bustamante © Gulf News

‘Alexa, play Blinken’s greatest hits.” And with that, your smart speaker will go to Spotify and will search out two tracks, Lip Service and Patience. Known to his Spotify fans as ‘Ablinken’ — as distinct from Abe Lincoln the Civil War-time president of the US — for his crooning and smooth guitar-playing prowess, he does mostly blues and rock.

President-elect Joe Biden has turned to the 58-year-old career diplomat and Washington insider to help press reset on US foreign policy for the next four years. There will be little time for gigging but ample opportunity for Antony — he’s a stickler for no ‘h’ in his first name — to practice his considerable French skills. Most simply refer to him as ‘Tony’.

The compilation of Biden’s cabinet also includes comeback roles for John Kerry as climate envoy, Janet Yellen at Treasury and Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence. The message from the president-elect in Wilmington is that Washington is back at the table and is intent on resetting and restoring its pre-Trumpian ties with Europe and Nato in particular and plotting a new course on foreign relations. And that task falls to Blinken.

“He’s about as mild-mannered, humble and unassuming as they come,” says Robert Malley, a childhood friend of Blinken who is now president of the International Crisis Group. “I’ve yet to meet anybody who recounts an episode of Tony exploding or having a fit of anger,” Malley told AFP.

But Blinken, a deputy secretary of state during Barack Obama’s presidency, may show different instincts than Biden even while remaining loyal to him. The stepson of a Holocaust survivor, Blinken has advocated interventions on humanitarian grounds while Biden as vice president was cautious on the use of force.

“Superpowers don’t bluff,” Blinken was reported to have warned repeatedly in deliberations on Syria’s civil war, in which Obama issued warnings but ultimately decided for a limited role.

Blinken’s passion about preventing atrocities can be traced to his stepfather, Polish-born Samuel Pisar, one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, whose family was murdered. A prominent lawyer who worked for détente between the West and Soviet Union, Pisar moved the family to Paris where Blinken studied at the prestigious Ecole Jeannine Manuel. Malley, his classmate, said that Blinken learnt to navigate the US role in the world as a young American in Paris in the wake of the Vietnam War.

“Tony believed strongly in his values and identity as an American but was living in a foreign country and therefore forced to see the world through the eyes of that foreign country at a time when the US was not the most popular,” Malley says.

Blinken’s biological father is a prominent investment banker and his mother, Judith Pisar, for years headed the American Centre in Paris, which brought together artists. His youth in Paris also launched Blinken’s fledgling musical career as he played jazz and discovered rock, quoting Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in his high school yearbook.

In Washington, Blinken has performed in a Beatles cover band and used free time in the pandemic to compose his own songs, his guitar sometimes visible during interviews taped from his home.

Blinken attended Harvard University where he wrote for The Harvard Crimson — a review of an album from Bob Dylan’s Christian phrase concluded that the rock legend “is no man’s lackey. He will always do and sing what he believes” — before a career in law and Democratic party politics, serving on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden served.

In a 2017 talk, Blinken said that his views remain shaped by his stepfather who survived concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau before making a dash for his life, defying German gunfire, during a death march.

Blinken is a long-time confidant of the president-elect and served as a deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state in the second Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.

“Democracy is in retreat around the world, and unfortunately it’s also in retreat at home,” Blinken said in September. “Our friends know that Joe Biden knows who they are. So do our adversaries. That difference would be felt on day one.”

But he also inherits a State Department that saw some of its most experienced staff depart during the tenures of Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo.

If he were to express his outlook, it would be that the US should work with its allies and within international treaties and organisations. He views Washington’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,” he said.

How good is his French? Well, let’s just say he’s the real cassoulet. He speaks it impeccably with only the slightest hint of an accent.

He spent six years working for Biden as an aide on Capitol Hill. He was 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 including Ted Kaufman who is leading the presidential transition. So yes, Blinken is a Washington insider, so much so that he met his wife, Evan Ryan, in 1995 when he was working at the White House as a speech writer on the National Security Council, and she was a scheduler for First Lady Hillary Clinton. He and Ryan have two young children now.

The thing about Washington insiders is that a lot claim to be, few actually are. Blinken is. Just look at that famous photo, where a tense situation room is watching as US special forces take down Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Blinken is there, watching the raid unfold. Now he’s back, shaping things again. And that’s music to many ears.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.