WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has kicked off his first month in the job with a blaze of diplomacy.
As part of his effort to re-energize American alliances frayed by the Trump years, Blinken has spoken with dozens of his counterparts around the world and joined gatherings of Asian and European leaders — all without ever leaving his seventh-floor office at the State Department.
As the world struggles to get the coronavirus pandemic under control, most diplomatic travel remains postponed. In ordinary times, Blinken would have hosted a stream of visitors and logged thousands of air miles by now; instead, he has relied on the telephone and video screens, much like Zoom-dependent workers everywhere.
“It’s a good thing we’re on the family plan here at the State Department, otherwise I’d be broke,” Blinken told NPR this month.
Behind the jokes, however, there is frustration. Blinken and President Joe Biden say the United States faces a herculean challenge in restoring bonds with key allies, re-establishing American leadership against rivals like China and Russia, and confronting threats such as climate change and a nuclear Iran.
Although Blinken has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, State Department officials say they are being cautious about his foreign travel, which involves an entourage of aides, security personnel, support staff and journalists, many of whom would be at risk of contracting or spreading the virus. Blinken currently has no travel planned, and a senior administration official said he might not take to the air before late March — though even that timeline is uncertain.
That, former government officials and diplomacy experts say, is an undeniable handicap, especially at a moment of such flux in the world. Plenty of business can be done through phone calls and video meetings. But diplomats say proximity breeds a familiarity that cannot be replicated, fueled by body language, eye contact and handshakes, shared meals, cultural events, exchanged gifts and the serendipity of hallway encounters, outdoor walks and other moments away from neurotic, agenda-clutching aides.
Blinken was, for instance, unable to make an in-person appearance at the annual Munich Security Conference, a forum staged virtually last week for American and European elites to speak, schmooze, strategize and affirm trans-Atlantic bonds. On Monday, he held a video call with European Union foreign affairs ministers.
In ordinary times, those events might have been “part of a sweeping Europe trip to include the Munich Security Conference and a trip to NATO,” said Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, the executive director of The Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Missing out on the events in person “is a lost opportunity at this moment of reinvigoration for the trans-Atlantic relationship in particular,” she said, not least because of the many side meetings that occur around the Munich event.
“You think of all the pictures from the summits, where the leaders are leaning over one another,” Clüver Ashbrook said. “That’s where the actual details are ironed out.”
The current stasis is notable in comparison with Blinken’s predecessor, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, along with other senior State Department and White House officials during the Trump administration, slowed the pace of their travel during the pandemic. But that travel agenda was part of an overall business-as-usual ethos toward the virus criticized by health experts, and it by no means halted travel, which came with predictable results. After returning from meetings in London and Paris in October, for instance, Pompeo’s director of policy planning tested positive for the coronavirus, aggravating allies over their potential exposure.
The start of a chief diplomat’s tenure is typically a moment for particularly ambitious travel.
When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state in January 2009, after the Iraq War and President George W. Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy,” she also felt that the United States urgently needed to replant diplomatic seeds worldwide. By mid-February, Clinton was airborne for Japan, China, South Korea and Indonesia. A couple of weeks later, she visited the Middle East before attending a NATO foreign ministers’ summit in Brussels in early March, then met with Russia’s foreign minister in Geneva before popping over to Turkey.
By early April, Clinton had visited 15 countries plus Ramallah, West Bank.
It is not just Blinken who is grounded, but his wider team. (Biden also has no plans to travel abroad soon, the White House says.) The climate envoy John Kerry, a former secretary of state known for his boundless appetite for foreign travel, has not yet left the country and has no specific plans to do so. The same goes for Blinken’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, who otherwise would likely be shuttling between Europe and the Middle East to confer with allies.
By contrast, President Barack Obama’s special envoys, including ones for the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, hit the road almost immediately in 2009.
One exception is the State Department’s envoy for war-ravaged Yemen, Timothy A. Lenderking, who departed Monday for his second trip to the Persian Gulf region in pursuit of a Yemen peace deal. In a reminder of the complications of Covid-era travel, he underwent an obligatory quarantine period after returning from his last trip to the Gulf this month. A senior official said that Lenderking’s travels were justified by the urgency of relief for Yemen’s humanitarian disaster, and because he did not require a large retinue.
State Department officials say that while it may not be ideal, there are benefits to virtual diplomacy. When Blinken spoke by phone last week with the foreign ministers of Australia, India and Japan — who together with the United States make up what is known as the Quad, a group implicitly aligned against China — he was able to connect with counterparts tens of thousands of miles away without disruptive travel time and jet lag.
“Of course, it’s always better to be face-to-face with your foreign counterparts. No one wants to live in this world permanently,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state and NATO ambassador. But, he added, “it is easier. You can get a lot more done on short order than you did before.”
Burns said that the Biden team had suffered little by staying home; he argued that early public remarks by Biden and Blinken had signaled a clear break with the Trump era and a return to vigorous multilateral diplomacy.
Much as employers are reconsidering whether their employees can work from home more regularly after the pandemic, Burns suggested that diplomats might see a new appeal to time saved on travel and the challenge of coordinating schedules. “I think video summits will continue to be an option in the future,” he said.
But there are other pitfalls. Journalists will protest a shift to virtual encounters that do not provide the same opportunity for questions that many top-level diplomatic meetings offer.
And then there is the question of keeping video meetings secure. In April, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain tweeted an image of a Zoom meeting over which he was presiding. People were quick to note that the image included the meeting’s ID, potentially allowing uninvited guests to join.
While senior officials like Blinken and Biden rely on methods far more secure than Zoom, they would be wrong to be complacent, Clüver Ashbrook noted.
“We’ve just comes off the biggest hack in American history with Solar Winds,” she said. “That should give us pause.”