Antony Blinken, courtly new top US diplomat, preaches humility and intervention

Washington (AFP) –


Unfailingly calm and courteous, America's new top diplomat Antony Blinken advocates a more humble approach to build alliances but, more than his boss, has advocated military power when human rights are in question.

The 71th US secretary of state, who was easily confirmed by the Senate Tuesday, is the stepson of a Holocaust survivor and fluent French speaker who embodies diplomacy in both his image and ideals -- and also has a side passion playing rock guitar.

When President Joe Biden nominated him and at his confirmation hearing, Blinken stressed "humility" and nurturing alliances -- a sharp departure from former president Donald Trump's in-your-face "America First" approach.

"Humility and confidence should be flip sides of America's leadership coin," he said.

With an elegant mane of salt-and-pepper hair, the 58-year-old Blinken -- who goes by "Tony" -- could scarcely be more different than his hard-charging predecessor Mike Pompeo.

"He's about as mild-mannered, humble and unassuming as they come," said 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.

Blinken, a deputy secretary of state during Barack Obama's presidency, has advised Biden since his Senate days but may show different instincts from those of his longtime boss, a skeptic in recent years of military interventions.

"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.

Speaking during the last presidential campaign about the "horrific" loss of life in Syria, Blinken said: "The last administration has to acknowledge that we failed -- not for want of trying, but we failed."

"It's something that I will take with me for the rest of my days. It's something that I feel very strongly," he told CBS News.

Prominent Republicans supported him despite disagreements, including on his support of returning to the Iran nuclear accord, with Blinken at his hearing vowing continuity on key issues including Trump's hard line on China.

- Formative youth abroad -

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 detente 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 learned 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 said.

Blinken's biological father is a prominent investment banker and his mother, Judith Pisar, for years headed the American Center in Paris, which brought together artists.

His youth in Paris also launched Blinken's fledging 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 played guitar in a Beatles cover band and used free time during the pandemic to compose his own songs, his voice uncharacteristically forceful over slow-driving 1970s-inspired rock.

His musical alter ego, ABlinken, had a modest 57 monthly listeners on Spotify before his nomination in November but has since risen above 2,500.

- Belief in US mission -

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

Blinken has repeatedly said his views were 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.

After two days hiding in the woods, the teenage Pisar heard the rumblings of a tank and, to his relief, saw not a German but an African-American soldier.

"He fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: 'God Bless America,'" Blinken recalled at his confirmation hearing.

"The GI lifted him into the tank -- into America, into freedom."

"That's who we are. That's what we represent to the world, however imperfectly, and what we can still be at our best."