Today we review Biden's pick for secretary of state, track the latest COVID vaccine news, examine Guatemala's political crisis and prepare to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey!

Thanks for reading,

Gabrielle Debinski


Today we review Biden's pick for secretary of state, track the latest COVID vaccine news, examine Guatemala's political crisis and prepare to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey!

Thanks for reading,

Gabrielle Debinski


The person a US president taps to assume the coveted role of secretary of state, the nation's top diplomat, says a lot about that president's foreign policy ambitions and global vision.

Indeed, the selection of Henry Kissinger (Nixon and Ford), James Baker (George H.W. Bush), Hillary Clinton (Obama) and Rex Tillerson (Trump) to head the State Department, provided an early window into the foreign policy priorities — or lack thereof — of their respective bosses.

President-elect Joe Biden has now tapped his longtime adviser Antony (Tony) Blinken to head the US State Department, a sprawling bureaucracy with some 70,000 employees. The nomination of Blinken — an aide Biden has referred to as his "go-to-guy" — suggests that the president-elect has an ambitious foreign policy agenda that he wants to be driven only by a person he knows well and trusts.

What do we know about Tony Blinken and how he might shape US foreign policy?

Global alliances are key. Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state under president Obama, has long maintained the importance of strong global alliances. It is through revitalizing relationships strained during the Trump years, he has said, that the United States can reassert leadership on the world stage and better position itself to meet a host of pressing challenges: "Even a country as powerful as the United States can't handle them alone," he said this past July.

Indeed, this offers insight into how Biden might tackle key foreign policy issues like China's increasingly assertive policies in Asia and beyond. But Blinken has also argued that traditional alliances need to be redesigned in order to better tackle issues like global health, cybersecurity, and climate change: "Why shouldn't Germany and France work with India and Japan on strategic issues?" he says.

Rebuilding the State Department itself. Under President Trump, who mistrusts non-partisan civil servants, the State Department — which oversees an annual budget of $54 billion (2019) — has fallen on hard times. Career foreign service personnel reported that morale hit rock bottom in recent years amid sharp budget cuts, hiring freezes, and the politicization of the agency. (In 2017, the Atlantic reported that "the normal day-to-day operations at the department had stopped, leaving employees with little to do and anxious about the future.")

Blinken will surely prioritize the refilling of senior State Department positions that have remained vacant under Rex Tillerson (2017-2018) and Mike Pompeo (2018-present), President Trump's secretaries of state. He may even rehire career diplomats who were fired after threatening to expose Trump administration misdeeds, a process that Foreign Policy says led to "the State Department hemorrhaging its own talent."

Blinken the centrist. As deputy secretary of state under President Obama, Blinken was instrumental in laying out America's Middle East policy during the tumultuous years of the "Arab Spring." As civil war gripped Syria — and later Libya — Blinken advocated a more interventionist position, breaking with Obama — and even Biden at times — who favored a more restrained approach.

Indeed, during his years in the Obama orbit, and more recently, Blinken has made no secret of his belief that America should sometimes intervene in foreign conflicts to safeguard human rights. (He has described US retrenchment in recent years as the "progressive cousin" of Trump's "America First" foreign policy.) Blinken attributes his support for humanitarian intervention to his experience as stepson of a Polish-born Jew and Holocaust survivor.

Bottom line: If President Trump's administration aimed to topple the global order and deprioritize America's relations with traditional allies, Biden's choice of Blinken to head the State Department shows that his administration plans to do the exact opposition: deepen engagement with allies and bury the "America first" mantra as quickly and fully as possible.



Guatemala in crisis: In the latest unrest to hit the streets of a Latin American capital, a group of demonstrators — angry about a controversial new budget — set fire to the Guatemalan parliament building over the weekend. The budget, negotiated largely in secret while the country reels from the impact of the pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes, cuts funding for healthcare, education, and human rights organizations while boosting money for infrastructure and — get this — adds more than $50,000 for lawmakers' meal stipends. The mostly peaceful protesters, along with the Catholic Church, are demanding at a minimum that President Alejandro Giammattei veto the budget, but some on the streets are calling for him and his whole government to step down entirely. Vice President Guillermo Castillo has offered to do just that, but only if the president jumps ship with him. Can Giammattei find a solution or is this a rerun of 2015, when mass protests unseated the government of then-President Otto Perez Molina? With its economy battered by the pandemic and natural disasters, Guatemala can ill afford a prolonged crisis.

Bibi goes to Saudi: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly travelled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend for direct talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Although Riyadh has formally denied that any meeting took place, the reports come as speculation swirls about the possibility of a normalization of ties between the two countries. Israel and Saudi Arabia have grown closer in recent years, in part because of a shared interest in containing Iran, but Riyadh's formal position is that it cannot establish formal ties with the Jewish State until Israel and the Palestinians reach a peace accord. In recent months, Israel has pulled off a flurry of normalization deals with Arab states — the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan — but a pact with Saudi Arabia would be a much more dramatic achievement, given the country's size, economic clout, and its role as the custodian of Islam's holiest sites.

Trump closes Open Skies: Six months after giving notice, the US has now officially exited the Open Skies treaty, a 30-year old agreement with Russia that permits both sides to conduct unarmed reconnaissance flights over each other's territory. The pact was intended to increase transparency and reduce the risk of war by giving each side a window into the other's military movements, but the Trump administration had complained that Russia wasn't living up to its side of the bargain, by refusing US access to certain areas in the former-Soviet sphere. US President-elect Joe Biden, for his part, has said he supports maintaining the Open Skies treaty and would prefer to address Russia's violations via the agreement's dispute resolution mechanisms. But even if he wanted to rejoin the treaty after he becomes president in January, he'd have a problem: the Trump administration is retiring the specialized surveillance planes that are used in the program, and stripping them for parts (paywall). If you are in the market for a highly sophisticated wet-film surveillance camera, call the Pentagon.



For decades the US President has traditionally "pardoned" a Turkey for Thanksgiving. But in 2020, of course, even that can't go as planned. See the latest fowl-play Puppet Regime here, and don't let it ruffle your feathers.



The coronavirus crisis won't end in 2020, but there are reasons to be hopeful that vaccines could be on the way, and that the lessons learned in this pandemic can lead to a safer, more equitable world — if we work together. GZERO Media is partnering with Eurasia Group and the Gates Foundation to discuss vaccine safety and distribution, COVID's disproportionate impact on women, and the pandemic's implications for global alliances. The conversation will happen live at noon EST on December 4. Register here and submit your questions for our esteemed panel.



10: Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is in a Paris court to face corruption charges that could land him in prison for up to 10 years. Prosecutors allege that in 2014, Sarkozy and his attorney tried to tempt a judge with a quid-pro-quo: provide information on a corruption probe targeting Sarkozy in exchange for a plum job in Monaco. This is the first time that a former French president has ever been tried for corruption.

3: After promising announcements last week from drug companies Pfizer and Moderna about their respective COVID vaccines, now a third vaccine, produced by British-Swedish company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, has shown itself to be extremely effective in preventing the disease. Though preliminary findings suggest the efficacy of AstraZeneca's vaccine is slightly lower than the other two, it is easier to transport and cheaper to produce, presumably making it more accessible for low-income countries.

18: Americans and Germans are miles apart when it comes to perceptions of the Transatlantic partnership. While 74 percent of Americans say that relations between Washington and Berlin are "good," just 18 percent of Germans feel the same way. Both countries will have new leaders in 2021 — will this change people's divergent views?

72: After weeks of fighting between Ethiopia's federal government and nationalist forces in the northern Tigray region, Ethiopia's prime minister Abiy Ahmed has given Tigray rebels an ultimatum: surrender within 72 hours or face a brutal offensive by the Ethiopian army. Tigray leaders did not respond to the threat, but international observers are on edge about a deepening crisis that has already caused 30,000 refugees to flee to neighboring Sudan.



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This edition of Signal was written by Gabrielle Debinski, Alex Kliment, and Willis Sparks. Spiritual Counsel from Carlos Santamaria.


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