President-elect Joe Biden has begun selecting core members of his foreign affairs and national security team, unveiling a list of seasoned – if not overly surprising – cabinet elections aimed at restoring stability and credibility to America's relationship with the rest of the world.
"It's a team that brings our country and our people to safety," said Biden on Tuesday and presented his nominees. "And it's a team that reflects the fact that America is back."
Some of Biden's candidates have close ties to the elected president, such as longtime aide Antony Blinken, whom Biden selected as his first secretary of state. Lots built their résumés in key roles in previous administrations, particularly the Obama-Biden White House, such as Avril Haines, a former CIA deputy director who was nominated as the first female director of national intelligence; and Jake Sullivan, a former State Department official and advisor to Hillary Clinton who also served as Biden's national security advisor for a period during his vice presidency.
The list also partly reflects Biden's commitment to filling his cabinet with staff who “look like America” and diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations and Alejandro Mayorkas, a former MP for the Department of Homeland Security under Obama, who, if approved, would be the first Latino to serve as secretary of that department.
Biden has also won former Secretary of State John Kerry for a new role as Special Envoy on Climate, yet another signal to the country – and the world – of Biden's plan to become a "climate protection agency."
Domestic crises, from the raging pandemic to the weak economy, are likely to take Biden's first few months in office The President-elect's decision to select trusted confidantes and veterans for these high-profile foreign policy roles shows that he wants a team he can trust the task of rebuilding global alliances and America's prestige.
Sighs of relief accompanied this selection within the foreign policy establishment, which largely withdrew from Trump's "America First" approach. But the praise was not unanimous. Some progressive reviewers have raised questions about how some of Biden's tips made money – and who their clients were – in the years they were not in politics. For her part Republican leaders have been largely calm, with only a few setbacks from a few GOP senators. Biden's decisions are pretty conventional, although it is currently less clear what the GOP could do if it controlled the Senate.
The beginnings of Biden's foreign policy team are well-known figures who are likely closely linked to his goals of restoring American leadership. Trump trampled multilateral institutions as he pursued a more nationalist foreign policy, and tensions with traditional allies increased over disagreements on everything from the role of NATO to Iran to trade. The president-elect will, of course, inherit a world that has in some ways irrevocably changed in the four years since he ended his tenure as Vice-President. But at least Biden's team could bring some stability and predictability back to Trump after four years.
"It certainly seems to echo back to the drama-free years," said Garret Martin, lecturer and co-director of the Transatlantic Policy Center at American University.
"There will of course be some arguments and disagreements – that is part of the political process," he added. "But the idea is to look less chaotic on the outside."
Biden's foreign policy team is experienced, and that has advantages and disadvantages
Key members of Biden's foreign policy team rose to high profile jobs during Obama's tenure and worked closely with the then vice president in administration. In a broader sense, like Blinken and Sullivan, these officials worked closely together.
"I think the issue is experience and team harmony," said Elizabeth Saunders, a foreign affairs expert at Georgetown University. She pointed out that many members of the team have worked in similar positions in the past, as MPs or other slightly less senior positions. Now they are in the top jobs. “They are all people who are able to get into these jobs and get started right away. And that in itself is a signal. "
Biden enters the presidency with an in-depth foreign policy résumé that is untypical even for most candidates. Biden has ties to foreign leaders and throughout his campaign has stressed the need to work with allies, and especially for democracies, to work together against growing threats like China.
Biden was a supporter of the crackdown on the war in Afghanistan and was reluctant to use military force, including in places like Libya. Critics, progressives in particular, say the long résumé has a number of blunders, including his initial support for the Iraq war and the postwar policies he pursued as Vice President. Overall, however, his approach is centrist, a kind of internationalist approach that seeks to balance U.S. interests with values - and his team largely reflects that worldview.
This was seen on Tuesday when Biden officially unveiled his nominees to the public. Jake Sullivan, Biden's new national security advisor, said he and the team would "work tirelessly in the service of the mission you gave us" and "advance our national interests and defend our values". And as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden's candidate for UN ambassador, said on Tuesday: “Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back. "
Of course, too uniform a perspective can also have disadvantages and create blind spots in the approach of these nominees to the challenges facing the United States. Critics of the foreign policy establishment often point out that a lack of disagreement creates inertia in US foreign policy or, in the worst case scenario, leads to misfortunes abroad. That is, there will likely be a disagreement between them; for example, As my colleague Alex Ward pointed out, Blinken has a much stronger intervention streak than Biden.
Biden's emphasis on restoration could also fall into the trap of believing in a return to normalcy – which is probably not possible and possibly not so desirable. "Is this really going to be a restoration of the Obama years, or will this be something new to reflect the fact that the world has really changed?" Martin from American University said. "And here you can understand that there are still reservations about how this team will capture a world that has changed a lot in the last four years."
Trump's foreign policy was disorderly, but that also meant he was ready to break with accepted foreign policy orthodoxy. He also recognized Americans' dissatisfaction with the status quo in terms of trade and military engagement. Biden can't just undo Trump, even if he's trying to make America's international relations a little more predictable.
It appears to be a trap that Biden recognized. When introducing his team on Tuesday, he noted that while they “have unmatched experience and success, they also reflect the idea that we cannot face these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits”. What that might look like in practice is harder to say, however.
Biden's team has yet to prove progressive
Having a long record in Washington means a long record in Washington. And Biden's selection must account for policies that have supported them in the past, as well as the actions and decisions they have made both inside and outside the office.
Progressives in particular are cautiously waiting to see how Biden's foreign policy team will develop – and how much they reflect “old thinking and unchanged habits” or not.
"I think that … the people he would of course turn to to guide foreign and national security matters for him are people who are part of a long-standing bipartisan consensus in DC," said David Segal, co-founder and executive director the progressive base group demand progress told me.
"And these are these people," he added, referring to Biden's cabinet.
For example, Sullivan worked for Hillary Clinton, a person who generally pursues a more Hawkish foreign policy than Biden. Blinken was among those in the Obama administration who, on humanitarian grounds, spoke out in favor of Libyan intervention, the consequences of which are largely viewed as a failure. Haines of the CIA was involved in the decision not to punish CIA officers who spied on Senate staff investigating and compiling the torture report. Haines also backed the appointment of Trump's CIA Director Gina Haspel, who played a role in the Bush-era torture program.
Progressive foreign policy advocates largely support Biden's emphasis on cooperation and a return to multilateral agreements such as the Paris Agreement, although they are wary of these forums becoming a place for great power conflict, particularly between the US and China. And they want Biden to support Biden with his predecessor on issues like ending the war in Yemen, and stopping the stop Arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which intervened in Yemen and exacerbated the conflict and the humanitarian catastrophe there.
Aside from specific guidelines, some of Biden's recommendations were scrutinized for another reason: how they spent their time outside of government. Many former officials went to the advisory service, which often has ties to defense companies and hedge funds, and sometimes unsavory foreign partners.
In 2017, Blinken co-founded WestExec Advisors with Michèle Flournoy, who is widely believed to be Biden's frontrunner in defense. Haines also served as the headmaster there. As Politico reported, “Little is known about WestExec's customer list. Since the employees are not lobbyists, they do not have to disclose who they work for. You are also not bound by the Biden transition's restrictions on hiring anyone who has lobbied in the past year. "
Because of this, some progressive activists told me, questions remain as to how this private sector experience will intersect with the policy decisions Biden's team will have to make in the years to come. (The Biden-Harris transition team did not return a request for comment.) At least one Republican, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), had said he was also concerned about this earlier work, but given the entanglements of Trump's own cabinet election, the criticism sounds a bit hollow.
Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive advocacy group, expects Democratic senators to hold Biden's candidates just as accountable as Trump's. Trump's former Pentagon chief Mark Esper, for example, has been harassed about his work with defense company Raytheon. "I think it is very important that they are transparent and give the public the basic information about who their customers were," said Sperling.
"This is important, especially given the corruption of the Trump team, so that the Democrats are very clear and show a break with Trump style."
The missing parts of Biden's foreign policy team
Biden is still forming his foreign affairs team, and as he fills in the ranks over the coming days and weeks, it gets more detailed A picture of its international and national security agenda will emerge.
The people Biden has selected for this job are, for the most part, the ones who can begin to realize his broad vision. There are some top foreign policy positions that Biden has yet to reveal, such as the Pentagon chief (although Flournoy is likely to take that job again) and other top intelligence and national security positions, including a possible new CIA director.
The role of Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris in foreign policy is also not yet clear. Biden played a huge role in Obama's foreign affairs, but Harris, who didn't have as much foreign affairs experience as a California senator, couldn't repeat that role. Progress in and out of Congress will matter. Also, will Republicans whose approach to Biden's foreign policy isn't really clear: Will traditional Republicans embrace stability or is Trump's sharp-edged "America First" approach completely bogged down?
And as experts have pointed out, as important as these leaders are, so too do the people below them: the deputy secretaries and MPs who will assist in the implementation and execution of the policy.
Some of what Biden seeks to achieve on the world stage can be done fairly quickly – such as reversing Trump's decision to leave the World Health Organization. Otherwise, much of Biden's first term could be the quiet and nondescript job of getting allies to trust and work with them the US again.
This includes the rebuilding of the State Department and its foreign service, which was decimated under Trump, as well as the recruitment of a more diverse force. It's the kind of work that tends to fade into the background and doesn't make waves very often, but is vital to America's security. And that is at least a dramatic change from a few years of “Fire and Fury”.
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