The first African American Secretary of Defense in US history

Retired General Lloyd Austin made history on Friday when he became the first African American defense secretary, arriving at the Pentagon minutes after the Senate approved his appointment, to face a busy schedule that included contact with Secretary General of NATO.

After the swearing-in, the 67-year-old Austin received his first intelligence briefing as Secretary of Defense. 

The Pentagon said it later chaired a meeting on the Coronavirus pandemic with senior Defense Department leaders, many of whom had joined virtually.

The pandemic that killed more than 400,000 Americans was the subject of Austen’s first letter to members of the armed forces. 

He referred to the military’s support for health care workers in America, and said, “You can expect this mission to continue”.

“But we must help the federal government to move more and more quickly to eliminate the devastating effects of the Coronavirus,” Austin said, without providing details of the additional assistance.

Austen’s first conversation with a foreign leader as defense minister was with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, which underscores the importance the Biden administration attaches to the alliance.

Former President Donald Trump had stirred up tension in NATO by regularly blaming allies for not spending enough on defense and sought to punish Germany over a dispute to withdraw U.S. troops.

Austin and President Joe Biden have repeatedly pledged to promote diversity in the US military, whose command positions are largely dominated by whites and men, although there is diversity in the junior ranks.

Austin became the first black soldier to be appointed as the 82nd Airborne Division Operations Officer.

Austin was also the first black soldier to lead both an infantry division and army corps in combat, the first black officer to become the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff and the first to assume US Central Command and oversee US military forces in the Middle East.

In another context, US President Joe Biden spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday, in the US president’s first call with a foreign leader since his inauguration this week.

Trudeau’s office said they had agreed to hold a meeting next month “to advance the important work of renewing the deep and enduring friendship between Canada and the United States”.

The White House said the call highlighted the strategic importance of the relationship between the United States and Canada and would revitalize cooperation in the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic, defense, economic relations and global leadership to tackle climate change.

Biden and Trudeau discussed their common vision of sustainable economic recovery and agreed to cooperate to reduce carbon emissions to zero.

The White House said Biden had acknowledged Trudeau’s disappointment with his decision to cancel the controversial Keystone XL pipeline permit.

In one of his first actions as president, Biden canceled the March 2019 permit for the pipeline, which was to transport oil from Canada to the United States, indicating that its construction was inconsistent with his administration’s economic and climate goals.