In filling out his administration, Joe Biden has put not just one but two high-profile, high-powered individuals at the top of his State Department. For secretary of State, he has selected long-time aide and confidant Antony Blinken. He has also created a new Cabinet-level position, climate czar, and given the job to John Kerry, a former senator, presidential candidate and secretary of State (in which position Kerry was Blinken’s boss). The climate czar job, with offices in the State Department and the White House, will apparently have a huge mandate, and Biden advisers are reportedly already concerned about how these two positions will work together—and whether the arrangement could bring confusion or conflict to the new administration.
The parallels between the Blinken-Kerry setup and a previous relationship at the top of U.S. foreign policy are almost eerie. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate Harold Stassen to the newly created position of special assistant to the president for disarmament. Stassen was to be the administration’s point person on disarmament issues, with Cabinet rank. But this appointment did not sit well with Eisenhower’s territorial secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who thought disarmament should be his purview.
Not only did the Cabinet overlap result in an acrimonious few years, it also brought about some embarrassing setbacks for U.S. disarmament policy. If the Biden administration wants to avoid squabbling, confusion and mistakes, and instead achieve comity and clarity, it should examine what went wrong the last time. Maybe it can learn some lessons about how to make the Kerry-Blinken relationship go right.
The very idea of Eisenhower’s circumventing an established Cabinet official seemed off from the start. Eisenhower was a staunch believer in Cabinet government and felt that policy direction should come from the Cabinet heads, and not the White House staff. Accordingly, he gave his department heads a lot of leeway to run things as they saw fit and would get annoyed if they came to him too often with what he considered minor problems. Ike also usually set things up in a way to minimize conflict, typically appointing like-minded Cabinet members.
But Eisenhower upset his delicate balance on March 19, 1955, when, concerned that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was moving too slowly on disarmament negotiations with the Soviets, he appointed Stassen to be disarmament chief. The statement detailing Stassen’s appointment indicated that the position would be of Cabinet rank and that it would have “the responsibility for developing, on behalf of the President and the State Department, the broad studies, investigations and conclusions which, when concurred in by the National Security Council and approved by the president, will become basic policy toward the question of disarmament.”
The New York Times editorial board dubbed Stassen’s position the “Secretary of Peace,” which annoyed the fussy and officious Dulles. Dulles grumbled about the sobriquet: “If he is the secretary of peace, what am I—secretary for war?” Beyond hurting Dulles’ feelings, the unclear nature of Stassen’s role led to tension and confusion. Was he a White House aide or a State Department official? His title of special assistant to the president was a White House title, and he also had an office at the White House. But he had Cabinet rank, unusual for a White House aide, and was responsible for formulating positions for both the White House and the State Department. The appointment also interfered with the chain of command. While equivalent to Dulles in rank, Stassen was simultaneously under Dulles when it came to handling negotiations with foreign governments. As the historian David Tal wrote, the fuzzy arrangement “allowed Stassen to defy the clear hierarchy” when it suited him.
Stassen, to his credit, was deferential in the beginning. According to Eisenhower speechwriter Emmet Hughes, Stassen would be sure to issue reassuring statements like, “Whatever you think, Foster” and “Under your leadership, Foster.” But clashes were inevitable. Stassen was 20 years Dulles’ junior, and had nowhere near the foreign policy credentials of the older man. Yet Stassen had little doubt about his own abilities. As Hughes observed, “Many of [Stassen’s] cabinet colleagues were impressed, and not appreciatively, by the exceedingly high importance that Stassen seemed to attach to his words and his own ambitions.” Stassen may also have overestimated his mandate, believing that that Ike was frustrated with Dulles’ slow pace and failure to get results. Ike may have wanted things to move faster, but he also wanted negotiated successes and internal comity—and Stassen did not succeed on those fronts.
Dulles brought his own flaws to the relationship. According to Stassen, “My best summary of Dulles is that he always knew he was absolutely right. Further, he knew that anyone who disagreed with him was, of logical necessity, always wrong. And finally, he could not understand how anyone could dare question the fact that he was always right.” (And it wasn’t just Stassen who had a problem with the priggish Dulles. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once said, “I’m not sure I want to go to heaven. I’m afraid I might meet John Foster Dulles there.” Winston Churchill also once famously mocked Dulles with the phrase “Dull, Duller, Dulles.”)
Most seriously, the two men had a fundamental difference of opinion on arms control policy. Stassen favored a more ambitious approach, supporting a full-on nuclear freeze. Dulles was more cautious, wanting slower movement overall, with trust-building steps like mutual inspections.
As it was, Eisenhower went with a third approach, called Open Skies—a proposal that didn’t include a disarmament agreement but would allow the Americans and the Soviets surveillance flights over each other’s territory, as a way to reassure each side that neither side was planning an attack. The Soviets rejected it, forestalling the possibility of a diplomatic success, but it effectively became U.S. policy. Still, Stassen and Dulles also disagreed over how to implement Open Skies, leading to continual and even personal strife between them.
In one comical incident in 1955, Dulles had his security team take away Stassen’s assigned car at a foreign policy gathering. In a not-so-subtle example of Washington territoriality, he then offered Stassen a ride in what was supposed to be Stassen’s own car.
In the end, Stassen’s aggressiveness was his undoing. During the 1958 arms discussions in London, Stassen shared his own position on arms control with Soviet diplomat T. K. Zorin, implying it was the American position. This indiscretion angered Dulles, but also Eisenhower and America’s British allies. In response, Dulles called Stassen back to Washington, demoted him with Eisenhower’s blessing and gave him a career State Department official as his minder. Stassen’s staff was moved out of the White House to a different location.
Stassen did not last long after that, handing in his resignation to Eisenhower, not Dulles, on February 18, 1958. Ike’s statement on Stassen’s departure noted the president’s deep “regret that you are leaving the Federal government, effective today, and that our five-year association together in government service is to terminate.” It did not mention other possible regrets, namely that going against his own instincts on how to run his government had led to a failed relationship between Stassen and Dulles, a failure to get an arms agreement with the Soviets and an embarrassing breach with the British.
In the end, their fighting had stopped both Dulles and Stassen from making significant progress. Stassen was more creative than Dulles, and probably could have achieved more in the role had he not alienated the older stateman. For Dulles’ part, if he had gotten past Stassen’s aggressiveness, perhaps he could have benefited from Stassen’s energy and ingenuity in his negotiating efforts.
So what do those rocky years mean for Joe Biden’s administration?
Already, the president-elect has set himself up for a similar situation: Kerry will have Cabinet rank, and a position similar to the one Stassen had, although for climate rather than disarmament policy. In addition, Kerry is expected to have perches both at State Department and the White House, where he will be part of the National Security Council, raising the risk of his inserting himself into issues outside of his purview. Also, what’s the chain of command, and how will Blinken and Kerry’s roles overlap? In climate negotiations with foreign governments that have enormous implications, will Kerry have carte blanche, or will Blinken and Biden’s economic advisers have an opportunity to veto Kerry’s proposed concessions?
A lot will depend on the personalities and approaches of the two principals. Kerry is said to have a “maniacal” interest in negotiated wins. He is also better known than Blinken, and has known Biden longer, dating back to his election to the Senate in 1984. Unlike Stassen, Kerry is the older man, and has been a secretary of State to boot, which could further complicate matters. Kerry, too, has little shortage of ego. A 2010 Slate “Vanity Index” marked him as having the biggest ego in the Senate, which is indeed saying something.
On the other side of the ledger is Blinken. Here, Dulles’ difficult nature stands in stark contrast to Blinken, who by nearly all accounts is both a nice guy and quite down to earth. As the Atlantic Council’s Damon Wilson said of Blinken, “He’s a strategist, but he is so decent. He’s such a nice guy.” Still, sometimes being the nice guy can also lead to problems, as it can enable more aggressive actors to bypass you or take advantage.
Just as Eisenhower was to blame for the failure of Stassen-Dulles, so too is Biden ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the Kerry-Blinken relationship. Biden will have to lay out clear guidelines for what he wants Kerry to do, and how he wants Kerry to do it. If there are disagreements between the two men, Biden, or his chief of staff, Ron Klain, will have to sort them out. If the two men look to Biden or Klain too frequently to resolve disputes, that will be a strong signal that things are not working, and that changes need to take place.
Biden must also find a way to maximize the assets and minimize the liabilities of the two men under him. Eisenhower failed to integrate Stassen’s creativity with Dulles’ authority. To succeed, Biden must take advantage of Kerry’s stature and Blinken’s closeness to him without confusing our negotiating partners or alienating either of his top two foreign policy people.
Another complicating issue is the press: The 24-7 media cycle is much more intrusive than it was in the 1950s, and the press will be on the lookout for any evidence of rivalry between Kerry and Blinken. Indeed, POLITICO has already reported about concerns in Biden world regarding the potential for confusion stemming from the two roles. Also, Biden and his communications team will have to establish clear guidelines about who communicates to the press about not just climate issues, but foreign policy writ large. If Kerry and his team begin weighing in about national security issues outside the climate purview, that should serve as a signal to Biden that there is something amiss in the relationship. Similarly, if backbiting on background quotes from the two camps begins to show up on the press, it’s another sign to Biden that things are going sour.
There are reasons to be hopeful this arrangement could work: Unlike Dulles and Stassen, Blinken and Kerry are starting out in an administration at the beginning. This may mean both men are on the same page, or at least that the nascent administration is putting some thought into how the interplay of the two positions should work. Furthermore, there is not a question, as in Stassen-Dulles, of Biden making the Kerry pick out of frustration with Blinken, since the administration has not even started yet. Another positive omen is that both men are close to Biden. Biden and Kerry have their long Senate overlap, and Blinken has long served as a Biden aide and is even seen as an “alter ego” to the president-elect.
But even this strong foundation might not be enough. The inherent tension between a secretary of State and a lead negotiator with Cabinet rank might be too much for any administration to bear. If things do need to change, look for Kerry to go before Blinken. After all, special envoy for climate is a brand-new position, but we have had a secretary of State since Thomas Jefferson first took the job in 1790.