Antony Blinken, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of state. Photo by: Henry Romero / Reuters

Antony Blinken, the nominee to be the next secretary of state, said at his nomination hearing Tuesday that development programs should be "front and center" and "not an afterthought," along with diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy.

"Whether it's a global pandemic, whether it is a changing climate, whether it's the spread of bad weapons, you name it, all of these things demand international cooperation and coordination,” Blinken said at the hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

While much of the hearing focused on broader foreign policy issues, including China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea, Blinken was asked about a number of development challenges as well.

He said that it is important for development programs to be “fully and thoroughly integrated into our foreign policy,” and are delivered effectively.

Based on the hearing, the nomination seemed likely to proceed quickly to approval, though there were a few Republican lawmakers who expressed reservations and pressed Blinken, particularly on his record in past conflicts.

Here’s what Blinken said on a number of key humanitarian, global health, and development issues.

“Our charge is to put democracy and human rights back at the center of American foreign policy.”

— Antony Blinken, U.S. secretary of state nominee

Global COVID-19 response

The Biden administration intends to join COVAX, rejoin the World Health Organization, and likely increase resources to address the global COVID-19 response, Blinken said.

While WHO is an “imperfect” organization in need of reform, returning puts the U.S. in a better position to advance those reforms than if it is outside the organization, he said.

Biden is committed to making sure “to the best of our ability” that the vaccine is distributed properly and equitably, Blinken said.

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"We're seeing the potential for a debt crisis among emerging economies and developing economies. We're seeing public health crises in country after country because COVID has made it more difficult to provide other health services. And we're seeing state fragility increase, not decrease, as a result of many of the challenges that COVID has exacerbated, or in some cases led to,” he said.


“So we have a national interest in helping and in doing our part to make sure that as the vaccine becomes available, we help get it out there as quickly and as effectively as we can."

Yemen

If confirmed, Blinken said he would propose an immediate review of the decision by the State Department to designate the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist group, a decision that was immediately met with concerns from humanitarian leaders and lawmakers concerned about its impact on providing humanitarian aid across the country.

While the Houthis have committed atrocities, nearly 80% of Yemenis live in areas they control and so the U.S. must find a way to provide them humanitarian aid, he said.

“My concern, deep concern about the designation that was made is that at least on its surface it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table while making it even more difficult to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it,” Blinken said.

While some have discussed carve-outs for humanitarian assistance to American providers, that would not “get the job done” because most of the assistance in Yemen is provided by other countries.

Blinken called it a “specific concrete issue that we need to address immediately” if the U.S. wants to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Northern Triangle

Biden “has a strongly held view that we have a strong national interest in advancing a future for our hemisphere that is democratic, middle class, that is secure,” Blinken said, adding that there is a lot the U.S. can and should be doing to advance that vision in a way that is “resourced, focused and gets sustained” not episodic attention.

Biden has a history working in the region, but the package he helped put in place to provide assistance contingent on countries committing to concrete reforms, had started to see results before it was dismantled by the Trump administration. Addressing root causes in the region, dealing with corruption, and achieving reforms is ambitious and will take time, Blinken said.

He also said that the “safe third country agreements” so far only implemented in Guatemala are not an “effective answer to the challenge” and that the Biden administration will work to put forward plans for immigration reform and policies to address the drivers of migration.

Democracy

“Our charge is to put democracy and human rights back at the center of American foreign policy,” Blinken said, adding that it is a question of resources, focus, and commitment.

Biden has announced a plan to have a global summit of democracy, which Blinken said he hopes would happen late this year. He said it would be an opportunity for democratic countries to think about the challenges they face at home due to rising populism and other challenges, and to work on a common agenda to defend democracy, combat corruption, and more effectively stand up for human rights.

Human Rights

The U.S. State Department will return to the framework provided by the universal declaration of human rights and not the idea of unalienable rights that the Trump administration supported, Blinken said.

Blinken said he agreed with the State Department’s decision Tuesday to designate the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide and said that he would work to explore ways to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable. He mentioned using trade as a tool to respond, including considering preventing imports that use forced labor and exports from supporting ongoing atrocities.

Blinken said if confirmed, he would commit to further examination of whether the attacks and forced displacement of the Rohingya should also receive a genocide determination.

Corruption

Corruption is “without question one of the main drivers of conflict around the world” and while there may be case-specific issues, Blinken wants to elevate the State Department’s work combating corruption and ensure that efforts are better resourced, he said.

Women in foreign policy and conflict-prevention

A State Department under Blinken would view foreign policy through a gender or women’s lens, he said at the hearing. Regarding Afghanistan, any negotiated outcome will only be sustainable if it protects the gains made by women and girls in access to education, health care, and employment, he said.

Fragility

The issue of fragility “is very much on [Biden’s] mind” and the Global Fragility Act provides a “terrific foundation” for the State Department’s work on the issue, Blinken said.

Fragile states pose risks to national security, but the U.S. also has a humanitarian interest in helping to strengthen fragile states and prevent them from failing, he said. A key part of that effort will be ensuring cooperation with U.S. development programs, he said.

Horn of Africa

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The U.S. needs to be more actively involved in the horn of Africa and “not be AWOL as problems emerge” like in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Blinken said.

There needs to be greater access to the region, more accountability, a restoration of communication and humanitarian assistance, and an effort to put dialogue in place to address key issues, he said.

Otherwise, Blinken said, he worries that the violence has the potential to destabilize the region. He also said he would consider a special envoy in the region.

Blinken also expressed concerns about the recent elections in Uganda, saying that there and in other issues across the continent, U.S. engagement can make a difference.

Staffing

Blinken said if confirmed, one of his key missions will be working to restore morale, restore staff and make the State Department more reflective of the diversity of the U.S.

The State Department has about 1,000 fewer staff than four years ago as a result of attrition and declining morale, in addition, the number of applicants taking the foreign service exam has dropped, he said. The State Department needs to build a workforce to deal with today’s challenges and bring on expertise in global health, climate, and technology, he said.

Blinken said one way he would measure his own success is by the diversity of the State Department and committed to hiring a chief diversity officer to oversee efforts to better recruit and retain a diverse staff.

LGBTQI

Blinken will look to quickly appoint a special envoy for the human rights of lgbti persons at the State Department, a position which remained vacant during the Trump administration, he said.

Violence against LGBTQI has increased and it is a “matter of real urgency,” he said, adding that the US. should play a role in defending LGBTQI rights. It is an issue he will “take on immediately,” he said.

Climate finance

The administration will push international lending institutions to stop funding new fossil fuel projects, Blinken said. The administration wants to make sure that countries “don’t export dirty technology” something China has done, he said.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.