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Diplomacy And Multilateralism Shape Biden Officials' Foreign Policy Approach


Diplomacy and multilateralism are back. That is the message from the newly confirmed secretary of state, Tony Blinken, on his first full day on the job. The nominee to become ambassador to the U.N. had a similar message in her confirmation hearing today. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Usually, State Department officials pack the main lobby to welcome a new secretary of state. In this time of a pandemic, though, only a few were on hand to greet him outside with elbow bumps.


TONY BLINKEN: Good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nice to see you, too.

BLINKEN: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good morning, sir.

BLINKEN: Morning.

KELEMEN: There's never quite been a moment like this, Blinken said in his opening remarks to a mostly empty entrance hall. And the world, he said, is watching.


BLINKEN: They want to see whether we will lead with the power of our example, if we'll put a premium on diplomacy with our allies and partners to meet the great challenges of our time, like the pandemic, climate change, the economic crisis.

KELEMEN: As he was getting down to work, another Cabinet nominee, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was telling senators that if confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations, she will restore America's leading role there.


LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And our leadership is needed at the table. We know that when we cede our leadership, others jump in very quickly to fill the void.

KELEMEN: China, she says, has been doing just that. The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch, wanted to know how the Biden administration will deal with a more assertive China, which has made inroads at the U.N.


JIM RISCH: The result is a U.N. that can be used by the CCP to silence Chinese political dissent, advance its foreign policy aims, promote its own authoritarian values and even set technical standards and norms that will define the technologies of the future.

KELEMEN: Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she'll work with partners to push back. Other Republicans on the committee, though, blasted her for a paid speech she made in 2019, sponsored by China's Confucius Institute. Thomas-Greenfield said she regrets accepting that invitation, though it was at Savannah State University, an historically Black college where she, an African American, has spoken before.


THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I came away from the experience, frankly, alarmed at the way the Confucius Institute were engaging with the Black community in Georgia. It reminded me of what I'd seen in Africa - the Chinese government going after those in need.

KELEMEN: Thomas-Greenfield has served as ambassador to Liberia and assistant secretary of state for Africa, so she's seen China's debt traps up close. But often, she says, the U.S. wasn't there to offer any alternative to African countries.


THOMAS-GREENFIELD: When they have a choice, they choose us.

KELEMEN: While China dominated the hearing, some senators also raised doubts about the rush back into multilateral institutions before they're reformed and the administration's plans to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Secretary Blinken, in his first news conference, said Iran must get back into compliance first.


BLINKEN: And then we would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we call the longer and stronger agreement.

KELEMEN: That, he says, is a long way off. He's just getting started with phone calls to allies to rebuild bridges.


BLINKEN: What I've picked up from those conversations already is a very, very strong desire for the United States to be back in the room, back at the table working with them on the many, many common challenges we face. And that was almost palpable.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken says he also needs to get buy-in from Americans and from Congress to have a credible foreign policy.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZLO HOLLYFELD'S "BONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.