An Interview with Antony Blinken – Part 2

Antony Blinken

9th February 2017

Antony Blinken was Deputy Secretary of State between 2015 and 2017, second in the State Department only to John Kerry. Before this he was Deputy National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama, having previously been National Security Advisor for Vice President Joe Biden. He was part of Biden’s presidential campaign in 2008, and served on the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition team after Obama’s first victory.

This is the second of a two part series. You can find the first part, about the future of US foreign policy here.

Q: What do the Democrats need to do to rebuild support following Obama’s departure, now that they hold neither the Presidency, the Senate, nor the House of Representatives?
A: It’s a bit of a paradox because the Democratic candidate, Mrs Clinton, won almost three million more votes than President Trump in the election, but because of the nature of our system with the Electoral College, the way those votes were distributed meant that he won the presidency, not Mrs Clinton. So if you’re looking at the majority of the country, and if you’re looking at the basic policies Democrats are pursuing, there’s actually a majority for Democrats.
But certainly, at a local level, everything from mayors to governors in our states, Republicans have done very well of late, and I think the Democrats have a lot of work to do. First of all, they should listen very carefully to what people are saying, to what their concerns are. I think one of the things we’re seeing is that this isn’t a debate between Republicans and Democrats; it’s a debate between those who want the United States to remain open to the world, engaged and connected, and those who think we should in effect pull up the drawbridge and build walls. And it’s understandable why some people feel that way. The extraordinary flow of information that people get every day, together with the rapid pace of technology change, can lead to a sense of chaos, confusion and growing vulnerability, as well as to the sense that borders are eroding.
All of this gives people a great sense of uncertainty, and they tend to see immigrants as a threat to their identity, refugees as a threat to their security, trade as an enemy to their jobs. So I think any political party has to hear that, and has to think about how to do a better job of explaining why American engagement and the connectivity we’ve built with the world has been beneficial to us, not harmful, and why it’s still the best path forward.
Political parties also need to address this prevalent sense of insecurity. People who feel left out and left behind actually need to be brought along, and that may mean anything from figuring out better ways to assimilate people in communities when they immigrate here, so that people’s sense of identity isn’t lost, to doing a better job in helping people adjust to a fast moving economy, for example, in manufacturing, where the biggest challenge is not coming from trade, but from automation. People are losing their jobs to robots, not to the Chinese. We need to think of smarter, more creative ways to help them adjust to that reality. That’s where the debate is, and Democrats need to get a grip on that.

Q: Do you think that Joe Biden will run for President in 2020?
A: I don’t know. Well, he’ll be 77 years old. But as he put it a few weeks ago, he’ll be 77, President Trump will be 74, but he, Joe Biden, will be in better physical shape. I don’t know what he’ll do, I don’t know if he’ll run, but I do know this: he’s a powerful leader in the Democratic Party. He is highly regarded across the country, beloved even, and what’s very powerful about Joe Biden is that he is a bridge between the internationalist wing of our party – the people who believe we need to remain engaged with the world and open and connected – and people who are concerned about the downsides of globalisation, especially the middle class. He is the one person who speaks to both communities, so I think no matter what he decides to do in terms of running for President, he’ll play a leadership role going forward through 2020.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: There are books that animated me when I was in my late teens. There are books of fiction that had a powerful impact on me because they did so much to illuminate either the human condition, or just what I was going through and thinking about in my own life. Books by Milan Kundera, Martin Amis and Philip Roth are all extraordinary windows into the human condition. There was a book that had a very big impact on me by a French author, André Schwarz-Bart, called Last of the Just. It is the story of the legend that in every generation of the Jewish people, there is one just individual who shows the way to the future and connects the community with its values. In this book, the last of the just dies at Auschwitz. It’s a very powerful meditation on history, and on the place of Jews in history, and on notions of morality and justice. So those are some of the fiction books and authors that had an impact.
I think when it comes to non-fiction, something that really has an impact is reading great political histories and biographies, like William Manchester on Churchill, or David Herbert Donald on Lincoln, or Edmund Morris on Teddy Roosevelt. These books are wonderful because they show the impact that one individual can have on history and on the course of events, and they’re also incredibly beautifully written. Then finally, I think one of the most masterful books on how the world works and foreign policy more generally, if that’s your interest, is Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger, and I would recommend that to anyone.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: You hope you learn a lot. I guess a few things stand out, just in terms of my general way of engaging with people; there are some wonderful clichéd statements and aphorisms and so forth that are no less true for being clichéd. It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. I found that that works pretty well. Taking responsibility and giving credit; that works pretty well too. If something goes wrong and you’re to blame, own up to it. If someone else does a good job, give them some praise, it’s amazing how that comes back to your benefit. I think knowing what you don’t know is important, especially when you’re dealing over time in a job, maybe with a superior. I tell people to memorise these words when they’re asked a question and they don’t know the answer: the words are ‘I don’t know, I’ll find out’. If you give someone bad information because you’re embarrassed to say you don’t know the answer, you’re usually on a path to getting fired or written off by that person.
I’d say that maybe the most powerful thing is this: you’ll be very surprised that so many of the people that you meet along your life’s journey, particularly in school, will have an impact, a role, a place in your life many years in the future, in ways that you never expected. I’ve literally gotten jobs through people that I met back at university, or even in high school. We stayed in touch, and something came up, and a friend thought of me. So those kinds of relationships, friendships, networks are incredibly enriching, and I think they’ll animate your life in ways you can’t even imagine many years into the future.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: I guess if you have the luxury, and it really is a luxury, of being able to follow some of your passions at a young age, that’s a wonderful thing. It just makes you a broader, richer, more open person. I loved music, so I played in bands, and that’s something that has enriched my life, and I think in strange ways, helped in other areas. Writing for my school newspaper; that too, I think, played a big role. But mostly, I think what I learned was what I said a moment ago: the friendships and the relationships that you build, even as young as in your teenage years, are going to have an influence. Finally, I was fortunate because I was born in the United States, but I lived for nine years in Paris, from the age of nine to eighteen. I think that taught me to look at my own country, the United States, through different eyes; to see it as a foreigner might see it. It helped me to see some of its foibles, but it also put me in a position of having to defend my country, and what it stood for, and how it acted. I became an advocate, and that probably influenced me more than anything else to become a diplomat in later years.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Not really, because I was able to try a lot of different things, in sports and the arts and writing. I was very fortunate because my family travelled a lot, and I got to see a good chunk of the world at a young age. So other than getting turned down for a few dates, that’s about it.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met and why?
A: The truth is, in many ways, the most interesting people I’ve met starts with my own family; listening to their stories, hearing their experiences, thinking about how I would have reacted in similar situations.
Like so many Americans, I’m from a family of immigrants and refugees. My father’s father fled the pogroms in what is now Russia at the turn of the last century, and made his way to the United States with virtually nothing in his pockets. He was welcomed into this country with open arms, and was able to build a life, build the family, and build a very successful career and contribute back. My stepmother fled communism from Hungary, and literally got on the train in the middle of the night as a young girl with her mother to flee. She too was welcomed into the United States, and was then able to contribute back by helping refugees for many years.
My stepfather passed away recently, about a year ago; he was born in Białystok, in Poland. It was a very prominent city, a strong Jewish city. But during the Holocaust, he was the only child in his school who survived, and his entire immediate family was wiped out too. He spent four years in various concentration camps, among them Auschwitz, Dachau, and Majdanek.
At the very end of the war, he was on a death march out of one of the concentration camps, and he made a run for it, and he made it into the forest in Bavaria. A few days later, he heard this rumbling sound, and he looked out, and instead of seeing the dreaded swastika on the approaching tank, he saw a five pointed white star, and he ran to the tank, and the hatch opened up, and an African American GI looked down at him. He got on his knees and he said the only three words that he knew then in English; his mother had taught his those words, and they were ‘God bless America’. The GI lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into the United States. And then he was able to rebuild a life. To me, I learned more from hearing those stories about human resilience and perseverance and courage, and more about my own country and what Abraham Lincoln used to call ‘the better angels of our nature’. That’s what we stand for, that’s who we are, that’s what we do. And all of that, I learned from my family.

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