In announcing most of his national security team this week, President-elect Joe Biden sent a big signal about how he will handle foreign policy differently from his immediate predecessors: This will, for better or worse, be the Biden show. Unlike either Donald Trump or Barack Obama, Biden will manage America’s role in the world with a team that is already deeply committed to his perspective ― which could help him get far more done in a job that already has outsize influence over global affairs.
News about Biden’s choices began to spread on Sunday night, when Bloomberg revealed that he would tap Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Axios reported that Linda Thomas-Greenfield would be his ambassador to the United Nations. Less than 24 hours later, Biden’s team confirmed that reporting and unveiled more appointments, notably Jake Sullivan as national security adviser and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence. Reporters, commentators and foreign policy activists scrambled to highlight various parts of the appointees’ pasts to predict how they will behave once in office.
Most of the resulting commentary missed that nearly all of the picks share a crucial characteristic: years of working with Biden, who has his own complex views on international relations and a track record of both achievements and miscalculations. The former vice president is a firm believer in U.S. leadership on the world stage, seeing a role for America in tackling a range of global challenges that may seem remote to some stateside, but he is also cautious about dramatic interventions or attempts to force major changes abroad.
Whether the issue is changing American policy to encourage diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians, reining in U.S. counterterror operations that have killed thousands of civilians overseas, or reducing international troop deployments, Washington’s national security apparatus will soon be guided by the preferences of Biden and people who hew closely to his thinking.
That poses risks like groupthink and a disregard for dissenting views. But it’s also an opportunity, particularly welcome for those who were horrified by how Trump amplified historic problems in U.S. foreign policy like excessive reliance on the military-industrial complex and who want Biden to be creative and interrogate established thinking.
The outgoing president’s initial foreign policy team seemed to hardly understand the system they were taking over, much less share a vision for it. Halie Soifer, a former State Department official under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush who has also advised Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and senators close to Biden, noted the difference between the team in waiting and Trump’s relationship with his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
“They met for the first time in the interview. It’s just such an incredible contrast: Those two men did not know each other. ... Rex Tillerson probably still doesn’t know what Donald Trump’s worldview is,” said Soifer, now the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “With Biden and Blinken, they’re almost family at this point. They are incredibly close. And similar things could be said about Jake Sullivan.”
A Team Of Allies
Obama became president after less than four years as a senator, which had been his first position that required work on foreign policy. He gathered national security advisers fast and had a deep bench of Democratic talent to choose from, but the figures he elevated were primarily associated with others in the party ― like his primary rival Hillary Clinton, who became his first secretary of state, or John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee before Obama and his top diplomat in his second term.
As Obama confronted crises abroad, the feeling that there were different, sometimes competing centers of power at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and elsewhere never fully abated. The question of who best represented the president or who could swing his views was frequently debated both publicly and privately.
Under Trump, who saw diplomacy as a question of how nicely foreigners treated him and was even less familiar with the world of national security experts, the fractures among important agencies working on global affairs became even starker. Trump’s penchant for sudden hires and fires based on a dizzying mix of personal and ideological reasons exacerbated the sense that no one really knew who was in charge or what the U.S. was trying to do.
Biden’s Washington will operate very differently.
At Foggy Bottom, for instance, Blinken will have a clear mandate. “There is no doubt not only that he has the ear of the president but that he has been a part of shaping Biden’s worldview and policies. He just intuitively knows where Biden stands on every issue that matters,” Soifer said.
Former officials expect coherence and team spirit to grow even stronger between Biden and his top advisers after having secured such a hard-won election victory.
John Brennan, a former CIA director, believes that will be the case for chief intelligence official-to-be Haines, who, like Blinken, previously worked with Biden in the Senate. “She enjoys the complete trust and confidence of Joe Biden, who will look to Avril to restore integrity and honesty at the helm of the intelligence community,” Brennan said in a statement.
And international observers welcome the sense of predictability and competence that many believe has been missing for four years.
Biden’s named and likely choices “are experienced, well-informed and with views that are close, if not identical, to the views of the president,” former Israeli diplomat Gadi Baltiansky told the newspaper Ha’aretz.
Not Seeking The Spotlight
In talking about his administration, Trump frequently described people as appropriate for jobs and worth trusting because they were straight out of “central casting.”
The joke among Washington national security hands preparing for the new president is that while Trump gave posts to people who were recent college graduates and either looked the part or had the right ideological credentials, “with Biden, it’s like, you have five years’ experience and a Ph.D.? Maybe we can get you something as a scheduler,” one current official told HuffPost.
By avoiding high-profile political picks for critical foreign policy jobs ― in contrast to Obama and Trump ― Biden has made clear that his administration will prioritize skills and experience in handling global affairs. That affects what advice he gets on foreign policy, in particular lowering the danger of his counselors pushing plans chiefly for the sake of their own future careers, as figures like Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seem to have done. And it boosts the sense that his appointees are focusing on the national interest and Biden’s objectives without veering into politicking, not least because many of them are taking over the jobs that have always been their ultimate goals.
Veteran diplomat Thomas-Greenfield, who Biden plans to send to the U.N. to succeed GOP donor Kelly Craft and likely GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, is a prime example of the approach he seems to be taking.
“A lot of people might not even know her. ... Anyone who’s worked at the State Department for the last 35 years would know her,” Soifer said. “She is not political; she’s someone with a wide breadth of diplomatic experience who will be incredibly helpful in rebuilding our relationships.”
Biden’s approach could be the first step in reversing Trump’s yearslong assault on civil servants, which the defeated president has been ramping up in recent weeks.
“Whether or not you agree with them across the board, Biden is building a team of people who actually value government expertise & public service,” David Kaye, a University of California, Irvine, law professor who previously worked with the U.N., wrote on Twitter. “That actually is building back.”