United States Secretary of State Tony Blinken, on his first day on the job, said the “world is watching” how the administration of President Joe Biden will change course from the “America first” approach of former President Donald Trump.

Blinken, speaking to a small welcome ceremony on Wednesday, a day after being confirmed by the US Senate, vowed to rebuild the ranks and morale in the foreign service, which saw depletion during Trump’s presidency, while saying the Biden administration will take a diplomacy-first approach to world affairs.

“The world is watching us intently right now. They want to know if we can heal our nation,” Blinken said.

“They want to see whether we will lead with the power of our example and if we will 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, threats to democracies, fights for racial justice and the danger to our security and global stability posed by our rivals and adversaries,” he added.

Since his swearing-in on Tuesday, Blinken, the most senior cabinet member to be confirmed thus far, has made a flurry of calls to foreign minister counterparts in neighbouring and allied countries, including Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea, the State Department said.

Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the administration of former President Barack Obama, is known to have a more interventionist outlook than Biden, for whom he has been a longtime advisor.

He told staff on Wednesday that he wanted to show the world that US leadership is back.

“America’s leadership is needed around the world, and we will provide it, because the world is far more likely to solve problems and meet challenges when the United States is there,” he said. “America at its best still has a greater capacity than any other country on earth to mobilise others for the greater good.”

Confirmation hearing

During his confirmation hearing, Blinken promised renewed American leadership and an emphasis on shoring up strained ties with NATO allies in Europe and Asia, but also said he agreed with some of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives.

He backed normalisation agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, but said the Biden administration would examine the commitments Trump made to incentivise countries to reach those deals.

Blinken also said he would not seek to undo Trump’s controversial move of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The city remains at the heart of the decades-long Middle East conflict, with the Palestinian Authority (PA) insisting that East Jerusalem – illegally occupied by Israel since 1967 – should serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.

However, Blinken, a staunch defender of Israel, is expected to give less concessions to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than under the Trump administration and told legislators he supports a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine.

Blinken also said he would take a tough stance on China over human rights and its assertiveness in the South China Sea, but broke from the Trump administration on Iran and Yemen.

The former president withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which saw Tehran curtail its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. He reaffirmed that the Biden administration will try to bring Iran back into compliance with the agreement.

Blinken said the Biden administration would end US military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

Demoralisation and depletion

Blinken inherits a deeply demoralised and depleted career workforce at the State Department.

Neither of his two immediate predecessors under Trump, Rex Tillerson or Mike Pompeo, offered strong resistance to repeated attempts to gut the agency, which were only thwarted by congressional intervention.

Blinken told staff on Wednesday he would promote and protect the foreign service, which had been sidelined during the Trump era, and that after four years of atrophy the State Department will once again play a leading role in America’s relations with the world.

“The State Department will be central to all this work in the years ahead,” he said. “I know you’re ready. I am, too. We’re in the arena together, and what we do matters. Let’s meet this moment, our moment, with joy.”