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Who Is Antony Blinken, Biden's Nominee For Secretary Of State?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We are getting a clearer picture of who will be running national security and foreign policy in a Biden administration. Today Biden formally tapped half a dozen people, including his picks for director of national intelligence, ambassador to the United Nations, Homeland Security secretary and secretary of state. For that plum job, the nation's diplomat in chief, Biden landed on longtime aide Tony Blinken. He is a former deputy secretary of state under President Obama. And to hear what he brings to the job, we have invited someone who knows him well who also served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, Jim Steinberg.

Hey there. Welcome.

JIM STEINBERG: Great to be here.

KELLY: I gather you two know each other very well. You go back decades.

STEINBERG: We go back a long way. I first met Tony in the early days of the Clinton administration.

KELLY: What was your first thought on hearing that he was the pick?

STEINBERG: Just that the country will be in good hands and the president will be well-served. He's picked somebody who really meets all of the key qualifications. He has the experience and the knowledge. He has the temperament. He's a great colleague and works well with others. And most important of all, he has the confidence of the president of the United States.

KELLY: You know, I remember when President Obama was leaving office, he was handing off to the Trump administration, and it was reported that he singled out North Korea as the area that would present the single biggest national security challenge, the most urgent challenge. What do you think will present the most urgent foreign policy or national security challenge to this incoming administration?

STEINBERG: Well, in the short term, it's clearly dealing with the consequences of COVID. We're in the middle of a crisis of unprecedented magnitude, the extraordinary health toll and the broader ramifications. This is not only having a huge impact on the global economy, but it's challenging the stability of many countries around the world. And it's affecting relations among key states, not least of which the relations between the United States and China.

KELLY: Does the pandemic, as awful as it is - does it also present some opportunities for the incoming team in that it's such a all-encompassing, massive disruption and the whole world is living through it all at once? It seems like if you were looking for a moment where you could do things quite differently, this might be it.

STEINBERG: There is, as Rahm Emanuel always used to say, opportunity in crises. And crises are opportunities that should not be wasted. And I think there is a sense here that the goal is not to go back to where we were before. We've learned some lessons from COVID about some of the fragilities and vulnerabilities of the United States and others in the world that we live. And so the question is going to be, looking forward, how do we build a strategy that works with others, that improves our resilience against these kinds of crises and allows us to advance our interests, especially working with like-minded countries? And I think President-elect Biden has signaled very clearly that that's going to be part of the core of his overall approach.

KELLY: If he is confirmed, Tony Blinken will walk back into a State Department that is a very different department than he left in January 2017. You will have tracked, as we all have, the reports of high level of departures and concerns about a hollowed-out diplomatic core. What are the biggest challenges for him just in taking over that department?

STEINBERG: I think he clearly needs to restore a sense among the career people at the State Department that their expertise and experience is valued and that they will be part of his core team. But I think they're facing a great opportunity and advantage here because Tony has served in this role as deputy secretary. He knows the foreign service well. He knows the career civil servants well. He knows the value that they bring. And so he's going to know quickly how to encourage them to reengage and, importantly, how to get people to think about coming back into the department.

KELLY: It's so interesting because President Trump, of course, has put personal relationships right at the center of U.S. foreign policy. You know, his personal relationship with Vladimir Putin is at the heart of the U.S.-Russia relations. You could say the same about Kim Jong Un and North Korea. You're talking about a very different thing, but you're talking about the importance of personal relationships that Tony Blinken will carry with him into this role.

STEINBERG: Relationships are extremely important not just as a matter of having good feelings, but rather as a means to promote our national interest, it is really critical. And I think that's the big difference that we'll have here - is that both President Biden and Secretary Blinken have those relationships. But it's not just about their personal relationships. It's about how to use those relationships to advance America's interests.

KELLY: Jim Steinberg, thank you.

STEINBERG: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: He is a former deputy secretary of state, now a professor at Syracuse University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.