Behind the jokes, however, there is frustration. Mr. Blinken and President Biden say the United States faces a herculean challenge in restoring bonds with key allies, re-establishing American leadership against rivals like China and Russia, and confronting threats such as climate change and a nuclear Iran.
Although Mr. Blinken has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, State Department officials say they are being cautious about his foreign travel, which involves an entourage of aides, security personnel, support staff and journalists, many of whom would be at risk of contracting or spreading the virus. Mr. Blinken currently has no travel planned, and a senior administration official said he might not take to the air before April — though even that timeline is uncertain.
That, former government officials and diplomacy experts say, is an undeniable handicap, especially at a moment of such flux in the world. Plenty of business can be done through phone calls and video meetings. But diplomats say proximity breeds a familiarity that cannot be replicated, fueled by body language, eye contact and handshakes, shared meals, cultural events, exchanged gifts and the serendipity of hallway encounters, outdoor walks and other moments away from neurotic, agenda-clutching aides.
Mr. Blinken was, for instance, unable to make an in-person appearance at the annual Munich Security Conference, a forum staged virtually last week for American and European elites to speak, schmooze, strategize and affirm trans-Atlantic bonds. On Monday, he held a video call with European Union foreign affairs ministers.
In ordinary times, those events might have been “part of a sweeping Europe trip to include the Munich Security Conference and a trip to NATO,” said Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, the executive director of The Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.