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Ben Rhodes is worried about Joe Biden’s climate change and China policies

There’s an inescapable tension that might lead to unpalatable trade-offs.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the Leaders Summit on Climate at the White House on April 23 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Since leaving government at the end of the Obama administration, former Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes has spent the last four years calling for Democrats to put climate change at the center of US foreign policy.

He and his colleagues at National Security Action, a now-closed progressive foreign policy group filled with former Obama officials, said doing so was imperative because it was the world’s biggest long-term threat.

Now some of those same colleagues are in the Biden administration, which just convened a successful two-day international climate summit during which nearly all 40 nations made important commitments to reduce emissions, among other things.

Which means Rhodes’s wish came true. Or did it?

I called up Rhodes to see how he’s feeling now that a Democratic administration has finally put climate change at the “center” of US foreign policy, as explicitly stated by Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.

But what Rhodes told me came as a surprise.

He’s not convinced yet that climate change is actually the central pillar of Biden’s foreign policy. It’s certainly a top priority, sure, but from Rhodes’s perspective, China is also taking up a lot of space in Biden’s foreign policy. So are democracy promotion and human rights.

Rhodes worries Biden may have to make some unpalatable trade-offs on climate change issues if he wants to make progress on those other priorities. Simply put, Rhodes believes Biden has many tough choices ahead, with traps awaiting him beyond the 100-day mark.

“If you’re a progressive who cares about both climate change and human rights in China, it’s a very difficult call as to which one you’re going to care about more. I don’t think we know how the Biden administration is going to answer that question,” he said.

It’s an important concern. Biden is only a few months into his presidency, and for now he has the wiggle room to push on his priorities. But eventually others (read: China) will push back and could force Biden into an uncomfortable situation.

It’s worth noting that Biden’s team rejects any suggestions that they would make any concessions to China solely for progress on climate change. “That’s not going to happen,” John Kerry, the special envoy for climate change, told reporters in January.

Yet Rhodes, who worked to sell the Iran nuclear deal to skeptics in Washington and now co-hosts the Pod Save the World podcast, firmly believes the hardest part — executing climate change policies while trying not to compromise on other priorities — is yet to come.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

When you were in the Obama administration, you worked with a lot of people who are currently in government. And you worked alongside some of those people, like National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, to define foreign policy priorities for the next Democratic president while you all were out of power at National Security Action.

Help me understand why you settled on tackling climate change not only as a key pillar of a progressive foreign policy but also a key tenet of any administration’s national security strategy.

Ben Rhodes, all the way on the left, during a September 24, 2014, meeting alongside President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in New York City.
Anthony Behar/Getty Images

Ben Rhodes

In order to get to something like the Paris climate accord, you had to make the US government do things that it wasn’t designed to do on foreign policy. Two things stand out to me.

First, every bilateral or multilateral relationship increasingly became about climate change. If you were meeting with the leader of China or Brazil or South Korea, suddenly among the top three issues was a climate issue. For China, that’s obviously their overall emissions reduction plan; for Brazil, it’s the Amazon; for South Korea, it’s their financing of coal plants.

To deal with all that, you need an infrastructure in the US government to support everybody from the president of the United States all the way down to embassies. That’s the only way you’re going to prioritize climate change like we’ve prioritized terrorism or other vital US interests. That structure didn’t exist at the beginning of the Obama years; it was an ad hoc arrangement.

Second, similarly, was how to set up an interagency process to handle the climate. You had to make it a separate entity because you needed anyone from a global special envoy to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy around the table. Leading up to the 2015 Paris agreement, we set up an interagency process that was originally chaired by John Podesta and then was chaired by Brian Deese [who’s now the director of the National Economic Council in the White House].

This matters because it brings the international and domestic together, which you need when promoting clean energy and other things America is working on abroad.

Alex Ward

This sounds like “If you build it, they will come.” By building a federal government infrastructure, you begin to get the tools and processes in place to deal with climate change long term, somewhat independent of who sits in the White House.

Ben Rhodes

There’s also the resource question. How much money is the intelligence community putting into climate reporting? How much money is the Defense Department putting into transitioning their energy sources and scenario planning, contingency planning, around climate effects?

If climate is going to be an organizing principle of American foreign policy and America’s role in the world for the next 30 years — as I’m sure Jake Sullivan and Brian believe — what kind of government do you need to build to do that?

We built a post-9/11 government to fight terrorism. That’s had huge ramifications for all manner of national security agencies. In a way, you have to do something similar for climate change, even though it’s obviously a different challenge.

I think people shouldn’t lose sight of how big of a shift it is in terms of what kind of people you’re hiring, where you’re spending money, how you’re organizing yourself, how embassies are prepared for their relationships. It’s a huge thing to make this a real centerpiece and focal point of American foreign policy.

Alex Ward

With the climate summit, it feels like the work you, Jake, and others now in the administration did over the last four years paid off. Climate change, as you hoped for, is the centerpiece of US foreign policy, at least during the Biden years.

Ben Rhodes

Well, I’ll be totally honest with you, Alex, there are three main elements they’re proposing of a post-post-9/11 foreign policy, if you will.

The first is China, where everything has a China dimension and you’re kind of in a Cold War structure. Another is democracy, pushing back on the authoritarian trend. And the other is climate. I don’t know that they made a choice — I think they’re kind of doing all three of those things.

I couldn’t tell you whether climate or China is how they’re organizing themselves. I think they’re probably considering both, but it’s a little too early to say climate is the organizing principle for their foreign policy. To some extent, democracy is, too, but we’ll obviously have to see what comes out of their process.

Alex Ward

This is interesting, because to make all three “organizing principles” is to invite a ton of tension. Not that there’s a zero-sum problem, but I think it’s fair to say to make progress on one of these fronts, you probably have to sacrifice gains in another.

A pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong holds a black umbrella on March 1.
Geovien So/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ben Rhodes

Looking back on the Obama years, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was happening right when we were getting the Chinese to be more ambitious on climate ahead of Paris. Whether you think about it or not, there must be a trade-off there — you know, prioritizing democracy might mean making it harder to deal with China on climate change.

Alex Ward

This is something I ask progressives about often. They consider climate change the existential national security threat of our times. If that’s the case, then you’re probably going to have to make concessions on China’s aggressive behavior or crackdown on democracy. Similar problems arise for other nations we want to take climate change seriously.

None of that is good, but at some point you have to prioritize because you can’t have it all. It seems to me that this is an obvious tension and one that’s going to be problematic for this administration or any other that follows a similar playbook.

Ben Rhodes

I think you’re right. And look, nobody in government would want to say that out loud. Having been in government, it’s inevitable that you will face some very uncomfortable decisions between, say, getting the Chinese [government] to stop investing in dirty infrastructure and placing sanctions on China over the mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims and labeling it a genocide.

If you’re a progressive who cares about both climate change and human rights in China, it’s a very difficult call as to which one you’re going to care about more. I don’t think we know how the Biden administration is going to answer that question. But over the course of the next year or two, it will probably become evident, though I couldn’t predict in which direction they’ll go.

In some ways, the US-China relationship is big enough and complex enough. The analogy might be the Soviet Union, where we confront them on a whole bunch of issues, but we still sit down and make arms control agreements together. That’s the ideal, but I have to think that at some point there will be trade-offs made.

Alex Ward

That seems like a tough, and some would say bad, spot for any administration to be in.

Ben Rhodes

It’s going to be difficult.

On the one hand, you could argue that the Chinese have to act on climate and environmental issues for their own sake. They have huge environmental problems of their own.

The problem with that is as China becomes a superpower, we need Beijing to do stuff not just within China but outside of China. They could fix the air quality in their cities while they still build dirty infrastructure along the Belt Road. So I don’t think just appealing to China’s self-interest is going to be sufficient on these climate issues.

That suggests that if you are really provoking the Chinese on really important issues like Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, I just have to think that makes it harder to reach big, multilateral agreements on climate change.

So, yeah, I’m watching the trade-off space of the Biden team over the next year and a half up through the midterm election. They seem pretty wedded to kind of drawing a firm line with the Chinese. I’m speculating, but the US may just be testing how much they can get on climate from Beijing while still being a hardass on everything else.

Vice President Joe Biden toasts with Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 25, 2015.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Alex Ward

I’m glad you mentioned the midterm elections because there’s a political side to all this. If Biden’s three priorities are climate change, China, and democracy, then that causes headaches because they’re long-term issues. It’s hard to show voters — the few who care about foreign policy, anyway — real-time progress being made on those fronts.

Sure, there’s the coronavirus pandemic response the administration can point to. That’s apart from these challenges. But in the long run, it’s hard to see how this administration can politically boast about progress. It’s hard to show success but easier to demonstrate failure.

Ben Rhodes

It probably doesn’t lend itself to obvious agreements you can trumpet. Climate change, though, is pretty measurable in the sense that you can look at commitments and if emissions are dropping, etc.

With China, you can invest more in technologies to compete with China, that's good. Though the danger of engaging in long-term competition is that you’re fueling the fires by sending a lot more weapons to Taiwan or sparking attacks on Asian Americans. Ratcheting up too much can have unintended consequences.

They’re going to have to be skilled in how they lay out what success looks like three, five, 10 years on regarding climate change and other challenges. They need to show they’re hitting targets and people feel a sense of progress, even if the problem feels unsolvable.

Alex Ward

That requires disciplined focus. This administration is just working on so much stuff — everything, really. It’s already hard to show progress on a few items, let alone a lot of them.

Ben Rhodes

Absolutely. If these three items are your real focus, then you need to deprioritize other things.

Like, if you guys really want to deal with China and climate change, you can’t spend the same amount of bandwidth on issues like Iran in the way this country has done over the last five years. Iran is a medium-size country, and it just makes no sense that it’s occupying so much of our time. They need to clear the decks a little bit.

Alex Ward

I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if there’s anything the Biden team is doing that you wish you had done during the Obama years.

Ben Rhodes

We could have done more of the structural work inside the US government to embed climate into how the State Department and the Defense Department and the intelligence community operate. We did some of that, and I’m thrilled that the Biden team is being really ambitious in the space.

We could’ve done more on China. We were getting pushed in the South China Sea and couldn’t pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. The TPP would have been a very useful strategic framework for dealing with China right now, by the way. They could use it, but this administration isn’t going to try and revive it for political reasons — both parties don’t like it.

We could’ve done more on democracy. For me, the HR 1 voting rights bill is a foreign policy bill. There are a lot of countries that need HR 1. Thinking of democracy as something that is on a continuum from the US domestic political circumstance to the circumstances in other countries, that’s an area where, if I could go back to like Obama’s reelection in 2012, we should’ve done more on.

Correction, 6:20 pm: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story mis-titled Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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