US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday made his international debut in an unusual setup befitting extraordinary times — with virtual “trips” made a short walk from his office via video.
From the relative safety of the State Department, Blinken “traveled” to Mexico and then Canada, looking to revive ties with neighbors after President Donald Trump’s turbulent tenure.
With President Joe Biden discouraging travel to prevent the spread of Covid-19, his top diplomat went abroad for the first time virtually via a video of entering Mexico over the busy bridge between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez.
“Let’s go,” Blinken said with a smile as officials on both sides gave him a tour in a sometimes crackly pre-recorded video.
Blinken, accompanied by the handful of aides who would normally travel with him, then strolled into the State Department’s ornate Benjamin Franklin Room and — under chandeliers and with Mexican and US flags behind him — began talks with his counterparts on three facing screens.
“I wanted to ‘visit’ — in quotation marks — Mexico first to demonstrate the importance that we attach, President Biden attaches, to the relationship,” Blinken told his Mexican counterpart, Marcelo Ebrard, who hailed the “new technologies” that made the meeting possible.
“I guess the benefits of doing the virtual visit are no jetlag. On the other hand, no frequent flyer miles either, so it’s a little bit of a tradeoff,” joked Blinken, who is expected to pay similar virtual visits soon to capitals that have more than the one-hour time-zone difference between Washington and Mexico City.
Blinken voiced hope that he could soon see counterparts in person.
Biden on Friday was taking his third official trip outside the Washington area, but has not gone overseas amid his administration’s concerted effort to fight the pandemic that has claimed more than 500,000 lives in the United States.
– No substitute –
Blinken’s predecessor Mike Pompeo mostly went ahead with travel during the pandemic but under Biden even most senior State Department officials have been grounded — a rare exception being Tim Lenderking, the new envoy seeking to end the war in Yemen.
Brett Bruen, a former diplomat who served as director of global engagement under former president Barack Obama, understood the Biden administration’s intentions but said there was no substitute for eventual in-person contact.
In virtual encounters, “diplomats are not able to have conversations in hushed tones where they feel more at ease, no matter how close the allies might be,” said Bruen, who heads the Global Situation Room consulting firm.
He noted that the State Department was still sending rank-and-file diplomats overseas who can meet counterparts.
“I think we just have to have a balance because cutting ourselves off from face-to-face contact is not a viable alternative,” he said, also pointing to security risks of virtual communication.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — who similarly took office with vows of restoring US prestige after an unpopular Republican president — had at this point in her tenure already been on a lengthy trip to Asia and was about to head on a tour that included the Middle East and a meeting with her Russian counterpart.
– Mending ties –
Trump had a tense relationship with many allies including Canada, needling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over trade policy.
Biden on Tuesday held his first summit — also virtually — with Trudeau, a center-left ally he hailed as a partner.
Trump, however, had a surprisingly productive relationship with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a populist from the left, who under threat of sanctions agreed to assist the former US president in cracking down on Central American migration.
Blinken said that Biden was committed to immigration reform and addressing the “heartbreaking reasons why people are risking their lives” to flee to the United States.
But Blinken also warned would-be migrants: “To anyone thinking about undertaking that journey, our message is — don’t do it.”