The United States Senate has confirmed Antony Blinken to be the next US secretary of state, the nation’s top diplomat.
Blinken’s confirmation by a vote of 78-22 signals broad political support for President Joe Biden’s promise of an American foreign policy focused on diplomacy and alliances.
“Mr Blinken has a long and distinguished history when it comes to statecraft and foreign relations matters,” said Senator James Risch, a leading Republican on foreign affairs who backed Blinken’s confirmation.
Biden’s new tone is a sharp turn away from former President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy which had irritated Washington’s allies in Europe, strained contacts within NATO and brought the US-China relationship to a new low.
In his confirmation hearing, Blinken said the new Biden administration would end US military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and seek a return to an Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.
“We will revitalise American diplomacy to deal with and take on the most pressing challenges of our time,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 19.
“American leadership still matters,” Blinken said, describing the world as one defined by “rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry from China and Russia, and other authoritarian states”.
Blinken is a former White House national security aide and former chief of staff to Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He takes the helm at the State Department after former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who saw many career foreign service officers leave the Trump administration.
On the Middle East, Blinken said during his confirmation hearing the incoming Biden administration would seek to build on recent US-brokered normalisation deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Blinken emphasised the US’s commitment to Israel’s security is “sacrosanct” and said the two-state solution, which has long been a centrepiece of US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is “very challenged at this point”.
At the same time, the Biden team will examine some of the commitments Trump made to incentivise countries to reach those deals with Israel, said Blinken.
The US recognised Morocco’s claim to the disputed territory of Western Sahara as part of a Morocco-Israel normalisation deal. It removed Sudan from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism” after the Sudanese government reached an agreement with Israel.
US policy towards Iran is one area where congressional Republicans and some Democrats break with Blinken who said he plans to seek a renewal of the nuclear deal with a “longer and stronger agreement”.
In Senate floor remarks on Tuesday, Risch cautioned that a reversal in the US approach to Iran remains a troublesome concern for many legislators.
“There are people on both sides of the aisle that have real reservations about going back into the JCPOA, particularly if there aren’t very significant sideboards put on that,” Risch said.
The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is the formal name for the nuclear deal reached in 2015 by Iran with the US, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council.
Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear pact in 2018 as his administration pursued a “maximum pressure” strategy against Tehran and Iran has begun to enrich uranium at a more rapid rate, coming closer to being able to make a nuclear weapon.
Blinken said the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani a year ago “made us less safe” in the region.
Blinken named China as the US’s top foreign policy challenge and said he agreed with the general thrust of the Trump administration’s tougher approach.
“The basic principle was the right one,” said Blinken, adding that he disagreed, however, with some of the steps Trump took.
“We have to start by approaching China from a position of strength,” Blinken said, which will require “investments in military to make sure we can deter any aggression”.