Blinken, Now Secretary of State, Faces Challenges at Home and Abroad

January 26, 2021 by Dan McCue
Tony Blinken, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON – Antony Blinken, confirmed as America’s top diplomat by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, now faces a myriad of problems both within the agency he will now lead and abroad.

Confirmed by a 78-22 vote Tuesday afternoon, Blinken is now the nation’s 71st secretary of state, succeeding Mike Pompeo.

The position is the most senior Cabinet position, and for those who keep track of such things, he is now fourth in the line of presidential succession.

For President Joe Biden, a longtime friend, Blinken’s most important international role will be that of international fixer, renewing bonds with allies that were left in tatters by former President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy doctrine.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blinken told the panel that “American leadership still matters. … When we’re not engaged, when we’re not leading, then one of two things is likely to happen. Either some other country tries to take our place, but not in a way that’s likely to advance our interests and values, or maybe just as bad, no one does and then you have chaos.”

Closer to home, Blinken faces a similarly daunting challenge: How to rebuild a depleted staff while restoring morale.

Since 1992, according to the Partnership for Public Service, administrations of both political parties have launched 11 separate initiatives to organizationally reform the department.

“The fact that many of the same challenges — such as underfunding, concentrated authority, cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and outdated IT infrastructure — have persisted throughout the past 30 years despite these efforts indicates the stubbornness of the department’s long standing issues,” the organization says. “It also suggests the need for a new approach to resolving them.”

Blinken appeared well aware of the challenges during his testimony before the Foreign Affairs Committee, telling Senators last week that a combination of workforce attrition and a sharp decline in morale had left the agency with 1,000 fewer employees than it had at the start of the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump instituted the hiring freeze upon taking office in January 2017.

The Office of Management and Budget lifted the freeze in mid-April of that year, but the State Department unilaterally continued it for another 13 months under the tenure of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

In August 2019, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report that showed the hiring freeze had broad and negative impacts on the agency, including its ability to ensure the safety and wellbeing of personnel domestically and abroad.

According to the report, 96% of embassies and consulates and 95% of domestic bureaus and offices who responded to OIG’s surveys said the hiring freeze “had a somewhat negative or very negative effect on overall operations.”

Some 97% of embassies and consulates and 100% of bureaus and offices told OIG that the freeze negatively impacted employee morale and welfare.

Although Trump’s second Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, lifted the hiring freeze, his action wasn’t enough to offset the overall staff reduction.

Blinken told the panel that going forward, he’s committed to doing more than “simply … bringing people back” and “filling the slots that are now empty.”

“It’s making sure that to the best of our ability, we’re building a workforce that has the skill set to deal with the incredibly complex challenges that we’re facing — that are very different from the challenges we faced in previous generations,” Blinken said.

Blinken also told the senators that he would seek additional hiring authorities and increased flexibility to add employees to the agency’s ranks.

If he follows through, his strategy would align nicely with that laid out by the Partnership for Public Service in its report, which said “agency transformation requires good ideas and realistic strategies—as well as clear focus and workforce buy-in, which are encouraged through committed leadership.”

The executive summary of the report concludes, “To help the department address these issues and renew the power of diplomacy, there are a number of practical, high-impact recommendations that can be accomplished within 6-12 months without additional congressional authority.

“By focusing on the talent management life cycle—recruiting, hiring, orientation, performance management, professional development and career advancement, succession planning and leveraging workforce data—the civil and foreign service staff can be better prepared to address deeper challenges and create momentum for a broader agency revitalization initiative,” it continues.

“Moreover, through the quick wins of implementation of these proposals, the department’s leaders can garner the necessary support of the White House and Congress to implement a larger reform program.”

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