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Joe Biden’s foreign policy vision takes shape as he selects his team

Biden’s foreign policy team is predictable. That’s not a bad thing.

President-elect Joe Biden arrives at the Queen Theatre to meet virtually with the United States Conference of Mayors on November 23, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden has started selecting core members of his foreign policy and national security team, revealing a slate of experienced — if not all that surprising — Cabinet picks with the goal of returning some stability and credibility to America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

“It’s a team that will keep our country and our people safe and secure,” Biden said Tuesday, introducing his nominees. “And it’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back.”

Several of Biden’s nominees have deep ties to the president-elect, like longtime aide Antony Blinken, whom Biden picked as his first secretary of state. Many built their résumés working in key roles in past administrations, especially the Obama-Biden White House, like Avril Haines, a former deputy CIA director who’s been nominated as the first female director of national intelligence; and Jake Sullivan, a former State Department official and Hillary Clinton advisor who also worked for a time as Biden’s national security adviser during his vice presidency.

The list also partially reflects Biden’s commitment to fill his Cabinet with personnel that “look[s] like America,” nominating diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as United Nations ambassador, and Alejandro Mayorkas, a former deputy at the Department of Homeland Security under Obama who if confirmed would be the first Latino to serve as secretary of that department.

Biden also tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry for a new role of special climate envoy, another signal to the country — and the world — of Biden’s plan to become a “climate administration.”

Domestic crises, from the raging pandemic to the struggling economy, are likely to consume Biden’s first months in office, and the president-elect’s decision to pick trusted confidants and veteran officials for these top foreign policy roles shows he wants a team he can trust to carry out the task of rebuilding America’s global alliances and reputation.

Sighs of relief have accompanied these picks from within the foreign policy establishment, which largely recoiled at Trump’s “America First” approach. But the praise has not been unanimous. Some progressive critics have raised questions about how some of Biden’s picks made money — and who their clients were — in the years they were out of politics. For their part, Republican leaders have been largely quiet, with just some pushback from a few GOP senators. Biden’s choices are pretty conventional, though what the GOP might do if it controls the Senate is less clear right now.

The beginnings of Biden’s foreign policy team, for better or worse, are known quantities, who are likely to be closely aligned with his goals to restore American leadership. Trump trampled on multilateral institutions as he pursued a more nationalistic foreign policy, and tensions rose with traditional allies over disagreements on everything from the role of NATO to Iran to trade. The president-elect, of course, will inherit a world that has changed in the four years since he ended his tenure as vice president, in some ways irrevocably. But Biden’s team, at least, may bring back some stability and predictability after four years of Trump.

“It certainly seems to be more of an echo of going back to the ‘no-drama Obama’ years,” Garret Martin, a lecturer and co-director of the Transatlantic Policy Center at American University, told me.

“There will, of course, be some disputes and disagreements — that’s part of the policy process,” he added. “But the idea is to certainly look less chaotic to the outside world.”

Biden’s foreign policy team has experience, and that comes with upsides and downsides

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 the administration. By extension, those officials, like Blinken and Sullivan, all worked closely together.

“I think the theme is experience and harmony among the team,” Elizabeth Saunders, a foreign policy expert at Georgetown University, told me. She pointed out that many members of the team worked in similar positions in the past administration, as deputies or other slightly less senior positions. Now they’re in the top jobs. “These are all people who are able to step into these jobs and hit the ground running. And that, in itself, is a signal.”

Biden comes into the presidency with a deep foreign policy résumé, one that is atypical even for most candidates. Biden has relationships with foreign leaders and has throughout his campaign emphasized the need to work with allies, and for democracies, in particular, to work together against growing threats like China.

Biden has been an advocate of drawing down the war in Afghanistan and has been more reluctant to use military force, including in places like Libya. Critics, especially progressive ones, say that long résumé has its fair share of missteps, including his initial support for the Iraq War and postwar policies he pursued as vice president. But overall, his approach is centrist, a kind of internationalist approach that seeks to balance US interests with values — and his team largely reflects that worldview.

This was on display Tuesday, when Biden formally introduced his nominees to the public. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security adviser, said he and the team would “work relentlessly in service of the mission you have given us” and “advance our national interests and defend our values.” And as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominee for UN ambassador, said Tuesday, “multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.”

Of course, too much of a unified perspective can have its downsides, creating blind spots in how these nominees approach US challenges. Critics of the foreign policy establishment often point out that lack of dissent creates inertia in US foreign policy or, in the worst cases, lead to misadventures abroad. That said, there will likely be disagreements among them; for instance, as my colleague Alex Ward has pointed out, Blinken has a much stronger interventionist streak than Biden.

Biden’s emphasis on restoration, too, also risks falling into the trap of believing in a return to normalcy — which probably isn’t possible, and may not be so desirable, either. “Is this going to be really a restoration to the Obama years, or is this going to be something new to take into account the fact that the world has really changed?” Martin, of American University, said. “And so that’s where you can understand there’s still reservations as to how this team is going to apprehend a world that’s changed a lot in the last four years.”

Trump’s foreign policy was disordered, but that also meant he was willing to break with the accepted foreign policy orthodoxy. He also recognized Americans’ dissatisfaction with the status quo on things like trade and military engagement. Biden can’t simply undo Trump, even as he seeks to make America’s international relations a little more predictable.

It seems a pitfall that Biden recognized. Introducing his team Tuesday, he noted that while they have “unmatched experience and accomplishments, they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits.” What that might look in practice, though, is harder to say.

Biden’s team still needs to prove itself to progressives

Having a long record in Washington means, well, a long record in Washington. And Biden’s picks will have to answer for policies they’ve supported in the past, and for the actions and decisions they’ve taken both in and out of office.

Progressives, especially, are cautiously waiting to see how Biden’s foreign policy team continues to shake out — and how much they may, or may not, reflect the “old thinking and unchanged habits.”

“I think that ... the people he would naturally turn to lead foreign policy and national security considerations for him are people who are part of a longstanding bipartisan consensus in DC,” David Segal, co-founder and executive director of the progressive grassroots group Demand Progress, told me.

“And these are those people,” he added, referring to Biden’s Cabinet.

Sullivan, for example, worked for Hillary Clinton, someone who’s generally seen as embracing a more hawkish foreign policy than Biden. Blinken was among those in the Obama administration who argued in favor of the Libyan intervention on humanitarian grounds, the aftermath of which is largely seen as a failure. Haines, at the CIA, had a role in deciding not to punish CIA officials who spied on Senate staffers who were investigating and compiling the torture report. Out of office, Haines also supported the nomination of Trump’s CIA director, Gina Haspel, who had a role in the Bush-era torture program.

Progressive foreign policy advocates are broadly supportive of Biden’s emphasis on cooperation and return to multilateral agreements, like the Paris climate accord, though they are wary of those forums becoming a venue for great-power conflict, particularly between the US and China. And they want to see Biden break with his predecessor on issues like ending the war in Yemenwhich Biden has said he supports — and stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have intervened in Yemen and exacerbated that conflict and the humanitarian catastrophe there.

Beyond specific policies, some of Biden’s picks have faced scrutiny another reason: how they spent their time out of government. Many former officials went into consulting, which often has ties defense corporations and hedge funds and, sometimes, unsavory foreign partners.

In 2017, Blinken co-founded WestExec Advisors with Michèle Flournoy, who’s widely believed to be Biden’s frontrunner pick for secretary of defense. Haines also served as a principal there. As Politico reported, “little is known about WestExec’s client list. Because its staffers aren’t lobbyists, they are not required to disclose who they work for. They also aren’t bound by the Biden transition’s restrictions on hiring people who have lobbied in the past year.”

Because of that, some progressive activists told me, questions remain about how those private sector experiences will intersect with the policy choices 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, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) had said he is also concerned about that past work, but given the entanglements of Trump’s own Cabinet picks, the criticism rings a bit hollow.

Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive advocacy organization, says he expects Democratic senators to hold Biden’s nominees accountable in the same way they would Trump’s. Trump’s former Pentagon chief Mark Esper, for example, got grilled about his work with the defense contractor Raytheon. “I think it’s very important for them to be transparent and allow the public to have the basic information about who their clients were,” Sperling told me.

“That’s important, especially in light of the corruption of the Trump team, for Democrats to be very clear and show a break from the Trump style of doing things.”

The missing pieces of Biden’s foreign policy team

Biden is still forming his foreign policy team, and as he fills out the ranks in the days and weeks to come, a more detailed picture of his international and national security agenda will emerge.

The people Biden chose for the job largely are those who can begin to execute on his broad vision. There are some top foreign policy positions that Biden has yet to announce, like Pentagon chief (though Flournoy, again, is expected to take that job) 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 also isn’t clear yet; Biden took on a huge role in Obama’s foreign relationships, but Harris, who didn’t have as much experience working on foreign policy as a senator from California, might not replicate that role. Progressives in and out of Congress will matter. So will Republicans, whose approach to Biden’s foreign policy isn’t really clear: Will traditional Republicans welcome the stability, or has Trump’s hard-edged “America First” approach fully stuck?

And as experts pointed out, as much as these leaders matter, the people below them do, too: the assistant secretaries and deputies who will be helping to carry out and implement policy.

Some of what Biden wants to accomplish on the world stage may be done pretty swiftly — such as reversing Trump’s decision to leave the World Health Organization. But otherwise, much of Biden’s first term may be doing the quiet and unglamorous work of getting allies to trust and work with the US again.

That also involves rebuilding the State Department and its foreign service, which was decimated under Trump, while also recruiting a more diverse force. It’s the kind of work that tends to disappear into the background and doesn’t often make waves but is vitally important to America’s security. And that, at least, is a dramatic change from a few years of “fire and fury.”

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