The hastily thrown together portraits of Antony Blinken published by various media outlets this weekend after US President-elect Joe Biden announced he was appointing his longtime aide as Secretary of State paint a fairly consistent picture: that of an urban French-speaking professional diplomat; a loyal substitute and reserved team player; A moderator with a taste for intervention and multilateralism. In fact, only one incongruity stands out from his otherwise flawless credentials.
Antony Blinken is a perpetrator of Wonk Rock.
Most Americans have probably never heard of wonk rock. It is a Native American subgenre and is graciously limited to the Washington, DC metropolitan area. The city that gave the world go-go, the local music that depends on the invocation and response of a predominantly black audience, also gave it what is perhaps the whitest music imaginable. As the name suggests, the participants in Wonk Rock are morbid dweebs who stalk the countless think tanks, media institutions, consulting firms and other government bastions of the nerddom during the day. Wonk rockers gather at events like the annual Journopalooza, where they form bands with moaning names like Suspicious Package and Beats Workin ‘and perform covers of songs that rocked with sparkling eyes as young wonklings.
It may be humanizing that men who are able to craft the national media narrative, conduct domestic surveillance operations, and bomb campaigns in Libya still feel compelled to produce and share middle-aged guitar solos in their downtime. Or, like me, you might find it annoying. Can global historical decisions really be made in a context of such utter lameness? Does the banality of Wonk Rock reflect the same everyday indifference that shapes the life and death of millions in DC offices? One thing is certain, however: a wonk never really leaves work behind. Although it may seem harmless, Wonk Rock is always informed through the Wonk’s day job. Under the funky bass lines and power chords there is always a passion for a comprehensive data report, a finely crafted proposal for a directive, a pragmatic bipartisan compromise.
So last night I spent several hours – possibly more time than anyone but Blinken himself – listening to Blinken’s tape and trying to guess the future of that country’s foreign policy. Like the artistic works of the mighty elsewhere, they must be carefully analyzed. The expected foreign minister has two songs on Spotify under the name “ABlinken” (understood? “Abe Lincoln” ??). As others have noted, they are surprisingly good. “Lip Service” is a bluesy, zeppelin-sounding jam that apparently describes a failed carnal encounter. while the acoustic ballad “Patience” becomes wistful and in love. I am sorry to report that on both tracks it is easy to imagine the future designer of US power worldwide soulfully closing his eyes while reading lyrics like “So give me the chance to let you feel what I feel / cause my heart sighs ”in a hoarse baritone.
In the following I have highlighted selected texts from “Lip Service” and “Patience” as well as my interpretation of what they mean for the next four years of international relations.
“I want to convince you / this is a mighty fight”
It wasn’t long before it was established that “lip service,” which on the surface appears to be a straightforward report of sexual rejection, actually tells the story of Blinken’s frustration with President Barack Obama, under whom he served as Assistant Secretary of State. Blinken, who is open to the intervention, was reportedly upset when Obama failed to keep his promise to intervene in Syria after the Bashar al-Assad regime crossed the “red line” with chemical weapons against civilians. Was Obama’s talk of the red line just lip service?
“Patience is the test of life itself / and failure would be suicide”
“Patience” is more thoughtful than “lip service,” suggesting Blinken has reconsidered its passionate pro-interventionist stance. “Patience” came out the same year Blinken and a number of other foreign policy wonks signed an open letter calling for an end to American support for the Obama-led Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The campaign that Blinken supported quickly proved to be a major humanitarian disaster. Will Blinken take on this differentiated view of intervention in his new job?
“From the bottom of my heart I tell you, I think I could love you for our lives.”
It took me a while to figure this out, but on the 25th or so it finally clicked: This line is about the South China Sea. The desire to resolve the conflict in the South China Sea and the nine-dash line lies deep in the heart of every foreign policy won. Expect Blinken to take a stand on the Spratly Islands as soon as he takes office.
With Blinken set to take on one of the most powerful and challenging jobs in the world, we may not get much more from ABlinken. But maybe there is an opportunity to take the show on the road if travel resumes after the coronavirus. What more could be done to promote the idea of America as a generally benevolent, dorky power than get the Secretary of State to serenade foreign leaders? Like former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s penchant for breaking into “Love Me Tender” on international occasions, this could be soft power in its softest form.