Will Antony Blinken’s Past Catch Up With Him?

When last week Antony Blinken emerged as the candidate likely to be tapped by Joe Biden to be his nominee for either National Security Advisor or Secretary of State, those of us in the camp dissenting from the ‘bash Russia’ policies on Capitol Hill during the Trump years groaned at the thought of the same policy being now enthroned in the Executive Branch by one of its most prominent spokesmen. Blinken had long served Biden as an advisor, had been in the Obama Administration as Undersecretary of State and was known to be one of those actively promoting imposition of stiff sanctions on Russia as from its 2014 takeover of the Crimea.

When he was interviewed a couple of days ago by Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s Hard Talk show, Blinken gave mixed signals on what Russia policy will be under Joe Biden. He reiterated his long held stance that Russia would have to pay a tougher price for its [alleged] massive and malign intervention in the American political process during the 2016 presidential election. At the same time, he said that there were areas such as disarmament and climate change where the United States and the Russian Federation should cooperate. Clearly there was nothing about the way he handled Sackur’s questions to suggest he shares the opinion of former CIA Director John Brennan that Russians are incurable liars and low life because it is in their DNA.

A lot of attention has been given in the press in recent days to Blinken’s background from childhood on up. We are told, for example, that he is one of the most “European” American foreign policy specialists in memory. Not quite a Henry Kissinger, but then not a bumpkin either.

Though our journalists are quick to speak of the “fluency” of the leading personalities in our foreign policy community, as for example the supposedly Russian-fluent Susan Rice, in the case of Blinken the bouquet to him over fluency in French is very possibly justified. In 1971, at the age of nine, he left behind the exclusive Dalton School in Manhattan and moved with his divorced mother to Paris, into the household of his new stepfather, the internationally celebrated French lawyer Samuel Pisar. There he entered the Ecole Jeannine Manuel. But before jumping to conclusions about young Blinken’s studying all those years in French, I point out that the Ecole describes itself as “a French bilingual and international school.” English clearly figures as a language of tuition. Yet, let us assume that Blinken had plenty of exposure to French over a number of years, at home as well as at school.

And what else could a childhood spent in the bigger-than-life presence of Samuel Pisar have meant for the young Blinken other than introduction to the French language?

Wikipedia’s updated entry for Blinken speaks about the link between Blinken’s mother and Pisar in their common experience as survivors, both of them, of the German concentration camps, Auschwitz and Dachau. This was a determinedly Jewish home.

When we turn to Wikipedia’s entry for Samuel Pisar, there is heavy stress on his being a Holocaust survivor, on his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein in the latter’s composition of Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”). We read about how he recited a poem at a performance of Kaddish at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2009. Then there is mention of his fabulous education, his doctorates in law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.

Pisar is described as having “become a member of John F. Kennedy’s economic and foreign policy task force. He was also an advisor to the State Department, the Senate and House committees.” This high profile in the 1960s carried over to his law practice where Wikipedia says “Pisar’clients included many Fortune 500 companies and many known business leaders of the 20th and 21st century.”

We are told by Wikipedia that his books have been translated into many languages. But the list of books shown here is on the literary, artistic side, with no mention whatsoever of the book I will present in a moment. It has been airbrushed away lest it detract from the author’s reputation as human rights activist receiving many state decorations in the years leading up to his death in 2015.

We learn almost nothing about how Pisar made his living, exactly which services he was providing to those Fortune 500 companies. I suggest we give this full consideration because it is highly relevant to the household that young Blinken grew up in.

The fact is that Samuel Pisar was one of the earliest exponents of détente in the heyday of the Cold War and one of the most professionally successful advisors to corporations on how to do business with the Soviet Union. The cornerstone of his reputation with the broad public was his 558 page book entitled Coexistence & Commerce: Guidelines for Transactions between East and West, published in 1970 by McGraw-Hill in the United States. The French language edition is even more revealing of the author’s intentions: Les Armes de la Paix: l’ouverture economique vers l’Est [The Weapons of Peace: the Economic Opening to the East]. Note that the publication date is just one year before Blinken came into his home.

The covers of the book display blurbs from thinkers, business people, politicians and mainstream media on two continents. Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber tells us: “The publication of Samuel Pisar’s monumental book…is a major event. For the first time, a man of impressive intellectual credentials and vast practical experience explains the entire spectrum of East-West exchange.” Henry Ford II is quoted as saying of the book: “…cuts through the fog of emotionalism, ideology and misunderstanding…a very important book…” The New York Times wrote: “A timely and authoritative study of trade and its potential as a cold war calefacient.”

Not surprising that the Times was speaking out of both sides of its mouth even back then by likening the book to a mustard plaster…

At the start of Coexistence, on the page opposite the Acknowledgments, Pisar quotes Alexander Hamilton, 1787: “The spirit of commerce has a tendency to soften the manners of men and to extinguish those inflammable humors which so often have kindled into wars.”

I never met Samuel Pisar, though I was hot on his trail in 1979 when I accompanied the Vice President, International of Burger King Corporation to Moscow for negotiations with the Moscow City Council and the Russian Olympics Organizing Committee ahead of the 1980 Summer Olympics. The objective was to win designation as official supplier to the Olympics, to open a hamburger restaurant on the grounds of the Olympics stadium at Luzhniki and also a number of downtown restaurants to serve visitors to the Games. In parallel there was the ambition to get a ten-year exclusivity on hamburger restaurants opening in the USSR similar to what Pepsico received for cola drinks at the start of the decade.

We were welcomed into the Organizing Committee just days after McDonalds had been shown to the door following its protracted and ultimately unsuccessful talks on the same subject. McDonalds was guided in their negotiations by…Samuel Pisar, who reportedly received fees of $150,000 for his sage advice. The Russians were less than impressed. More details on this adventure can be found in my Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume I.

However, a decade later, at the end of the 1980s, I did meet several times with one of Sam Pisar’s former colleagues in his Paris law firm, Jeffrey Hertzfeld. In the Acknowledgments page of Coexistence, Pisar mentions Hertzfeld as having “collaborated in the long, arduous, multilingual research and in the drafting of Book Two.” They had in common their law profession, transatlantic culture and French-English bilingualism. In addition, Hertzfeld was fluent in Russian and his clientele when we met consisted heavily of companies entering the Russian market.

Indeed, Jeffrey Hertzfeld was paid by the International Business Development manager of the French household appliances and Teflon pots and pans company SEB-Calor to interview me in Paris and check my Russian language ability when the company was vetting me to take over management of the joint venture manufacturing facility they were planning to build in St. Petersburg. I was duly given a written employment offer which I turned down to join UPS. A year later, our paths crossed again, this time fortuitously near the World Trade Center in Moscow. Hertzfeld told me that the position at SEB-Calor was still vacant. A nice hint…

Pisar’s Coexistence and Commerce is now long out of print. In case his stepson, our incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken should wish to take a look at what his stepfather wrought and to reconsider his own political positions on the question of sanctions and cold wars versus détente, I will gladly lend him my copy.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020