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Antony Blinken Starts Virtual 'International' Tour As Secretary Of State

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The crackdown on opposition in Russia, airstrikes in Syria, delicate diplomacy with Saudi Arabia - usually at this point in a new administration, the secretary of state would jet off to visit allies and partners abroad. But the pandemic has forced President Biden's top diplomat, Antony Blinken, not to jet, but to Zoom and Crowdcast, Webex, et cetera. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports his first trip was virtual.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There were no passports, motorcades or Air Force jets involved - only video conferencing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: It's wonderful to be here with everyone virtually. As you know, COVID-19 forced me to postpone actual travel for a little while, so this is the next best thing.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken today started in El Paso, Texas, where a U.S. border guard gave a video tour of the bridge to Mexico. Blinken was sitting in the State Department, pledging to work with governments in the region to address what he calls the heartbreaking reasons that people risk their lives to get to the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: To anyone thinking about undertaking that journey, our message is don't do it.

KELEMEN: Upstairs in the ornate Ben Franklin Hall (ph), he sat alongside his aides at large tables facing three massive video screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: Great to see you, Marcelo.

KELEMEN: Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told him that he was happy to host Blinken through new technologies. When reporters were escorted back upstairs later in the day, the Mexican flags were gone and the Canadian flags were up while that country's foreign minister, Marc Garneau, was talking about the need to maintain cross-border supply routes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARC GARNEAU: I think you'll agree with me. Now is not the time for our two nations to turn inward.

KELEMEN: State Department officials say the goal of the virtual trip was to engage early on with America's neighbors without putting anyone at risk during the pandemic. They even tried their hand at virtual public diplomacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF THROAT SINGING)

KELEMEN: Blinken was serenaded by Inuit throat singers and spoke to students in Canada.

Setting up these trips is a big job for U.S. embassy officials, who often celebrate when the secretary's plane takes off. Blinken asked how they do that this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: I'm wondering exactly what kind of wheels-up party you're going to have when I, quote, unquote, "leave." Maybe it's a link-down party. We need to find some kind of new terminology for it.

KELEMEN: He also hit a somber note as he addressed the staff of the embassy and consulates in Mexico, noting that they've lost 21 colleagues in the coronavirus pandemic, including contractors and local guards. Blinken calls that devastating and is promising to get everyone vaccinated, though that has been a logistical challenge.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRUS CHESTNUT'S "GYMNOPEDIE NO. 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.