Secretary of State Antony Blinken began his first full day as the top U.S. diplomat Wednesday with a pledge to restore American leadership in the world, a sharp contrast to the previous administration's tone regarding foreign policy, which left the country largely isolated on the global stage.
After he spoke to foreign counterparts representing longtime American allies in the Western Hemisphere, Asia and Europe, Blinken described the desire to have the United States more involved on the global stage as "almost palpable."
"What I've picked up from those conversations already is a very, very strong desire for the United States to be back in the room, back at the table, working with them on the many, many common challenges we face," Blinken said. "And I expect to hear more of that in the days ahead."
Stopping to make a traditional first day speech to State Department employees in Washington, Blinken acknowledged that a strong global presence requires a strong U.S. State Department and the diplomatic agency of today was not the one he left four years before.
Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state under President Donald Trump, faced widespread criticism for politicizing the historically nonpartisan institution and the restructuring of the agency under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, only exacerbated rates of attrition. Blinken committed to rebuilding the morale and trust of the diplomatic corps.
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"The world is watching us intently right now. They want to know if we can heal our nation," Blinken said, addressing the few masked diplomats able to greet him under Covid-19 restrictions. "They want to see whether we will lead with the power of our example ... and if we will put a premium on diplomacy with our allies and partners to meet the great challenges of our time."
The State Department will spend Blinken’s first few months in office reviewing many of the policy decisions made by Pompeo on his way out the door, including placing a hold on last-minute arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Blinken said Wednesday that he was particularly focused on reassessing the Trump administration’s decision to label the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group a foreign terrorist organization. The Houthis or Ansar Allah control 80 percent of Yemen and the sanctions are seen by international aid organizations as pushing a country already on the brink of famine into further humanitarian crisis.
“It's vitally important even in the midst of this crisis that we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen, who are in desperate need,” Blinken said Wednesday. “And what we want to do is make sure is that any steps we're taking do not get in the way of providing that that assistance.”
But on Afghanistan, President Joe Biden's new secretary of state drew less distinction from his predecessor, expressing the need to first fully understand the commitments made by both the United States and Taliban in their agreement. He confirmed that Zalmay Khalilzad, the ambassador who led U.S. negotiations with the Taliban during the Trump administration, will stay on in the Biden administration.
Blinken also called the Philippines' secretary of foreign affairs, Teodoro Locsin Jr., on Wednesday to reaffirm America's opposition to China's moves to assert its dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
"Secretary Blinken also underscored that the United States rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea," spokesperson Ned Price said, adding that Blinken would "stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC [People's Republic of China] pressure."
Blinken referred to the Chinese treatment of Uighur Muslims as "genocide," continuing the stance taken by Pompeo.