In April 1945, a 16-year-old boy was lying in an abandoned barn located just outside of Penzing, a town not far from Munich, hiding in the straw. The final days of the war had arrived and it was only a matter of time before the fall of the Third Reich, but Samuel Pisar, the son of a Jewish entrepreneur from Białystok, Poland, had learned in the past four years that even the slightest bit of carelessness could result in death.
The Nazis had deported him together with his younger sister and his parents – first to a ghetto and later to Auschwitz. Pisar survived the camps because he was young and tough and the Germans needed laborers. As the Red Army advanced from the east, the teenager began a grueling odyssey. He was moved from one concentration camp to the next until he finally ended up in a labor camp near Stuttgart. The Nazis forced the prisoners there to work without any rest. The boy witnessed grown men losing their minds from exhaustion and being shot by guards.
When Pisar was sent on a death march, a low-flying plane attacked the emaciated prisoners and their guards. Pisar and friends took advantage of the chaos to escape into the nearby woods. As they lay in the straw of the barn, they could hear the roaring sound of a tank. When Pisar spotted the behemoth, he began looking for the cross of the Wehrmacht. Instead, he recognized a five-pointed star: the symbol of the United States Army.
Pisar ran toward the tank, even as a German machine gun fired from a distance. As he stood in front of the tank, the top hatch opened and a black GI climbed out. "I fell to my knees, threw my arms around his legs, summoned the few English words my mother used to sigh while dreaming of our deliverance,” Pisar would later write in his memoirs. Then he yelled, "God bless America.”
It’s a scene that likely occurred many times in the spring days of 1945, and it probably would have long been forgotten had it not been retold by Pisar’s stepson a little over two months ago.
Antony Blinken told that story while standing on a stage in Wilmington, Delaware, the hometown of newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden, who had just announced that he would make Blinken, a longtime confidant, his secretary of state.
Blinken connected his stepfather's story with a political message: America has always been a country that has offered a home to people seeking refuge from oppression and violence, Blinken said. "For my family, as for so many generations of Americans, America has literally been the last hope on Earth.” In Blinken’s words, the black GI became a symbol of a nation that uses its power for the forces of good. "That’s who we are,” he said.
At first glance, Blinken, who everyone just calls Tony, lacks the glamour of his most famous predecessors. American secretaries of state have almost always been bedrock cabinet appointees: political heavyweights like Hillary Clinton or John Kerry who already had a presidential run behind them. Or dubious geniuses like Henry Kissinger, who had the deaths of thousands of civilians in Vietnam and Cambodia on his conscience, yet still managed to become a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Compared to them, Blinken looks like a quiet bureaucrat; a slender man with nobly graying hair who only became better known to the public when an American Special Forces unit shot and killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011.
At the time, a photo went around the world of President Barack Obama watching the action on a screen with his staff in the White House Situation Room. A man in a blue shirt can be seen in the background: Blinken, who was Vice President Biden’s national security adviser at the time.
Blinken embodies a breed of American top diplomats who didn’t stand a chance under Donald Trump: He is part of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Trump first tapped hapless oil executive Rex Tillerson for the post and then foreign policy hawk Mike Pompeo. The State Department was bled dry of staff. Blinken’s job now is to restore not only the importance of the office, but also that of his country.
And there is much to suggest that he could leave more of a mark on the world than his immediate predecessors. Blinken has been appointed Secretary of State because he enjoys Biden’s unwavering trust. The president won’t be able to retreat from foreign policy, but most Americans expect him to give priority to the domestic issues at his doorstep: a pandemic that, with more than 400,000 deaths, has claimed more American lives than World War II. And the ensuing economic crisis that destroyed over 10 million jobs.
With Blinken, the president has a secretary of state at his side who has served him for a total of nearly 20 years, first as chief of staff in the Senate and later in the White House. "People who are meeting with him around the world will have high confidence that he really is speaking for his president,” says Lincoln Bloomfield, a Republican who served under George W. Bush and played with Blinken in a band called the Coalition of the Willing, with Blinken on guitar and Bloomfield on bass.
America’s new chief diplomat not only has the backing of the president, but also the confidence to shape U.S. foreign policy. That confidence comes from years of experience during Obama’s terms in the White House. At the time, it was the National Security Council, and not the State Department, that was the center of decision-making. Now, Biden has shifted that balance of power toward a man who still believes in an America that many believe has long since vanished.
"American leadership still matters,” Blinken said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate in mid-January. "The reality is that the world doesn’t organize itself.” Despite all the disasters and missteps in U.S. foreign policy over the past decades, despite the endless war in Afghanistan, despite the disaster in Iraq: Blinken believes there can be no order without the U.S. and that it is his country’s destiny to carry the flag of democracy and freedom.
A big issue for Blinken is human rights around the world, from Egypt to North Korea and China. He also wants to address the situation of the Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, where around 1 million Uighurs are imprisoned in labor and re-education camps. Last week, Blinken reiterated his view that China had committed "genocide” against the minority.
It’s also worthwhile going back to an op-ed Blinken wrote for the Washington Post two years ago. It reads, at least on the surface, like a reckoning with Donald Trump. In it, Blinken warned of a new era of isolationism. But the op-ed was more than just some heavy-handed attack – it was a means of positioning himself politically. Blinken wrote that it was right for the U.S. to build alliances and international organizations after the horrors of World War II. But it would be a mistake for the United States to rely solely on the persuasive powers of its diplomats. "Words alone will not dissuade the Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings of this world.”
At least as interesting as the op-ed itself was its co-author: Robert Kagan, one of Washington’s most brilliant, albeit controversial, foreign policy thinkers. Kagan was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war and is still regarded today as the head of a neoconservative school of thought that wants to impose democracy and the rule of law by American force if necessary.
In their joint article, Blinken and Kagan list the successes the U.S. military had achieved since the 1990s. "We drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait," they write, "removed a drug-dealing dictator in Panama, and brought peace to the Balkans with minimal American casualties; later we killed Osama bin Laden."
In the piece, Blinken and Kagan argue that the Iraq War was not fundamentally misguided, pointing instead to the mistaken conclusions that were drawn from it, particularly when it comes to Syria. "Without bringing appropriate power to bear, no peace could be negotiated, much less imposed. Today, we see the consequences, in hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, in millions of refugees who have destabilized Europe and in the growing influence of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah."
The books written by Blinken's co-author Kagan repeatedly make clear his conviction that Europe does not have the strength to develop into a global power, with only the U.S. able to prevent the world from sinking into chaos. "The real choice we face is not between the good and the bad but between the bad and the worst," writes Kagan in his most recent book, "The Jungle Grows Back." It is "between maintaining the liberal world order, with all the moral and material costs that entails, or letting it collapse and courting the catastrophes that must inevitably follow." His wife Victoria Nuland has just been nominated for the position of undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Blinken's own rhetoric became more diplomatic after Biden launched his presidential campaign. He knows that the kind of humanitarian intervention he supports in the article written with Kagan isn't just frowned upon by the Republican Party. Most Democrats have also lost their appetite for large-scale engagement abroad, aware as they are that Americans have grown tired of conflict and believe it is time for the U.S. to address its own problems.
Blinken comes from the establishment. His father Donald earned his money as an investment banker in New York and was the U.S. ambassador to Hungary in the 1990s. His mother Judith, an art collector, was a fixture in New York high society. In 1968, she met Samuel Pisar at a party, a man who had been saved from the Nazis by American troops at the end of World War II.
By the time they met, Pisar had developed an astounding career. He attended university in Melbourne and Paris. As a lawyer, he climbed the ladder to become an adviser to John F. Kennedy and later went on to establish a legal practice with offices in Hollywood and Paris. He counted Catherine Deneuve and Elizabeth Taylor among his clients.
In 1971, Judith Blinken divorced her husband and moved with her son Tony to Paris to join Pisar. Robert Malley, who remains a friend of Blinken's to this day, says that Paris at the time wasn't particularly welcoming to Americans. The two of them met at a bilingual private school in an upscale Paris arrondissement and soon discovered their shared passion for politics.
Student protests in Paris at that time targeted the U.S. and the Vietnam War, which Richard Nixon was pursuing with extreme brutality at the time. Images from the war were everywhere, including those of Vietnamese children with horrific burns fleeing their villages. "And the Watergate affair didn't help to improve America's image either," says Malley.
When Blinken returned to the U.S., he studied law at Harvard University, as had his father and father-in-law before him. He initially tried out a career as a film producer and as a writer for the left-wing magazine The New Republic, but soon switched to politics. In 1993, he became a foreign policy speechwriter in Bill Clinton's White House, where he joined his friend Malley, who was a staff member for the national security adviser.
The most traumatic foreign policy issue at the time would turn out to be the genocide in Rwanda, which the U.S. watched from the sidelines for several weeks as 800,000 people were slaughtered. President Clinton would later say that his failure to intervene earlier was a significant misstep during his presidency.
Malley says, though, that the Bosnian War proved more significant for Blinken. There, too, Clinton hesitated for quite some time. But when a shell landed in a crowded market in the besieged city of Sarajevo in August 1995, killing more than 30 civilians, the president finally agreed to begin bombing Serbian positions to stop the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims. Three months later, the war ended with the Dayton Accords. It would be the last significant success for U.S. foreign policy – and for Blinken, it was a prime example of what his country can do when diplomacy and military force are deployed in concert.
It is too easy to call Blinken an interventionist, says Bloomfield, the Republican. "He believes that the United States has a very important role in upholding norms, but also in helping the world to coordinate like-minded countries to uphold norms."
That alone is enough to distinguish him from his predecessor Mike Pompeo, who, like Trump, had little use for alliances or partners, instead focusing completely on U.S. interests. For that reason, Blinken will do his best to sweep up the shards left behind by the Trump administration. "The world is watching us intently right now," Blinken said on his first full day as secretary of state. "They want to see whether we will lead with the power of our example."
The question is whether America's erstwhile allies are interested in being led. During the campaign, Biden consistently acted as though Trump was just an historical aberration. But on Election Day, Trump received over 74 million votes, 11 million more than he got in 2016. And Republicans have given no indications that they plan to turn their back on him. Many Europeans are afraid that Biden could just be an interim chapter before the next populist gets voted into the White House. "I think he can be counted on to, first of all, come to Europe and to hear these views," says Bloomfield. "He wants to hear from America's partners and let them explain to him what they're really thinking."
The new secretary of state was apparently incredibly frustrated by the fact that the EU completed a trade deal with China just before Biden's inauguration. Biden's people felt it was a "disgrace" that Europe had thus thwarted the attempt to find a common line on Beijing. Publicly, though, Blinken has remained silent on the issue. The president and his secretary of state have also kept their cards close to their chest on other issues as well. Internally, Biden has left no doubt that he views the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 from Russia to Germany as a grave error. Biden simply doesn't understand why the Germans would hand billions of euros to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who first apparently poisoned his main rival Alexei Navalny before immediately arresting him upon his return to Russia after he received medical treatment in Berlin. Many weeks ago, the U.S. Senate agreed to sanctions in an attempt to block the completion of the pipeline in a rare bipartisan vote.
But Biden hasn't yet imposed them. "I think philosophically, the idea that you achieve your ends in foreign policy by sanctioning your allies is something they feel very uncomfortable with," says Michael McFaul, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, addressing the sanctions against Germany. The issue has become so rancorous that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Biden avoided it completely during their first telephone call a week and a half ago.
But the Americans know that such controversial issues cannot be delayed indefinitely. Biden has long had little confidence in Europe's willingness to take care of its own security. He, too, has a hard time understanding why NATO member states like Germany are not prepared to invest more in their defense. That, at least, is one position he shares with Trump. And for years, he has had his doubts about Merkel's resolution when it comes to standing up to Putin.
From the very beginning, Biden thought it was a mistake for Obama to allow Europe to take the lead in the Ukraine crisis after Russia annexed the Crimea in spring 2014. Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany have now been negotiating in the so-called Normandy Format for over six years. But it has turned out to be little more than occupational therapy for diplomats. Results have been meager indeed.
Now, the White House and Blinken are considering taking on a direct role in the negotiations. A spokesman for the State Department did not deny these deliberations when asked by DER SPIEGEL, but said Washington will continue to work with its partners in Europe and will only lift sanctions against Russia if Moscow reverses course. The German government did not answer a request for comment.
But Germany's Foreign Ministry is well aware of the Biden administration's thoughts on the matter and believes them to be extremely dangerous. The Russians, the German side believes, would likely completely abandon the format if the U.S. got involved. But Berlin's resistance to American involvement likely has another reason as well: After Trump's election, the chancellor said that Europeans had to take greater control over their own fate. American involvement in the Normandy Format would provide more evidence that the EU is not able to do so.
Europeans breathed a huge sigh of relief at Trump's departure. But now they are realizing that things haven't automatically grown easier. Indeed, it will become that much more difficult to defy his wishes, especially because he is far more popular within the EU than his toxic predecessor. And Blinken has been received especially enthusiastically in France, partly because he speaks almost accent-free French due to the years he spent in Paris as a teenager. In his first meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Blinken spoke entirely in French.
His stepfather Samuel Pisar died in July 2015 as a well-respected man. Two years before his death, he gave an interview to the Washington Post. This time, though, the focus wasn't on himself, but on his stepson Tony, who had just been promoted by Obama to become his deputy national security adviser. Pisar spoke of the time Blinken, still a teenager at the time, had asked him about his years spent in Nazi concentration camps.
"He really wanted to know," Pisar said. "When he has to worry today about poison gas in Syria, he almost inevitably thinks about the gas with which my entire family was eliminated."