What does Joe Biden's new foreign policy team tell us

Biden Inside
Joe Biden supporters will welcome the tone in Foreign policy (Gayatri Malhotra)

US President-elect Joe Biden's designation of his first officials for national security and foreign policy was not just a signal; it was a spotlight shone for Governments, businesses, and NGOs around the world of an America re-engaging with competence, responsibility, and multilateralism.

Each of the officials, joining Biden at a Tuesday press conference in Wilmington, Delaware, has extensive experience at the highest levels of the Federal Government. Each served in the Obama Administration in which Biden was Vice President.

  • Secretary of State: Antony Blinken, at Biden's side for more than two decades and a former Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor
  • National Security Advisor: Jake Sullivan, only 43 but National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden and Director of Policy Planning at the State Department
  • Director of National Intelligence: Avril Haines, the first woman in the post and former Deputy Director of the CIA and Deputy National Security Advisor
  • Secretary of Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latino and immigrant to hold the office and former Director of Homeland Security
  • Ambassador to the UN: Linda Thomas-Greenfield-Thomas, former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa
  • The new post of Climate Change Envoy: John Kerry, former Senator, Secretary of State, and Presidential candidate

Biden is expected to name former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary. Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defence, has been tipped as Defence Secretary, although Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration, is reportedly still under consideration.

Expertise and Engagement First

Throughout their campaign, Biden and his Vice Presidential running mate Kamala Harris emphasized unity, responsibility, and competence. They contrasted this with the unpredictable, chaotic, Twitter-first approach of Donald Trump.

The announcement of the foreign policy teams, just over two weeks after confirmation of Biden's electoral victory, consolidates that portrayal. It is in tandem with the Biden-Harris emphasis on management of the Coronavirus pandemic that has taken almost 260,000 American lives, with their naming of a 13-member Coronavirus Task Force of medical, public health, and technology specialists.

But the appointments also establish the tenor of the Biden Administration's foreign policy, with a return to multilateralism in place of Trump's superficial but significant attachment to protectionism, propensity to insult and denigrate US allies, and admiration of authoritarian leaders such as Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

In the press appearance yesterday, Biden opened, "America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it", and each of the officials riffed on the theme.

Blinken drew on his family history, with survivors of both the Russian pogroms and the Holocaust, to declare: “We can’t solve all the world’s problems alone. We need to be working with other countries. We need their cooperation. We need their partnership. But also, confidence because America at its best still has a greater ability than any other country on earth to bring others together to meet the challenges of our time.”

Haines pointedly supported the staff derided by Trump as part of a “Deep State” trying to undermine him: “I will represent to you, Congress, and the American public the patriots who comprise our intelligence community.

But her pledge, "I will never shy away from speaking truth to power", was also a message to agencies outside America that intelligence --- and thus foreign policy --- would not be perverted to satisfy the whims of the occupant of the White House.

Thomas-Greenfield, a native of Louisiana, used a homespun presentation of "gumbo diplomacy" to make her point, "It was my way of breaking down barriers, connecting with people, and starting to see each other on a human level." Then she repeated the mantra of the Biden team: “The challenges we face, a global pandemic, a global economy, a global climate change crisis, mass migration and extreme poverty, social justice are unrelenting and interconnected, but they’re not unresolvable if America is leading the way.”

Sullivan echoed those issues, and Kerry said a return to the Paris Accords on climate change — from which the Trump Administration withdrew — “is not enough”: “[We are] determined to seize the future now and leave a healing planet to future generations.”

Challenges

Of course, a return to competence and engagement does not guarantee smooth relations. A lot of repair work is needed in the US after the damage of the Trump years, and with the country still polarized, the Biden Administration is likely to face obstacles in Congress --- particularly if top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell decides to be obstructionist --- in the media, and among right-wing constituencies.

Biden is already guarding against his Presidency as an "Obama third term", and his advisors have acknowledged shortcomings from their earlier service. Blinken said, "We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life" with failure to protect Syria's civilians from mass killing." Others have mentioned the lack of recognition the scope of Russia’s interference in the 2016 US Presidential election until it was too late to act, and a slow response to the economic and political actions of China.

Russia and China will be near the top of the agenda as soon as Biden is inaugurated. The path back to an Iran nuclear deal will be tricky, if not impossible, and North Korea has exploited Trump to advance further with its nuclear weapons program. Preceding all of this is the immediacy of the pandemic, and the scale of the threat of climate change.

Even relationships with allies will need time to rebuild. Topics such as contributions to NATO through increased defence spending or a reworking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are no closer to resolution. On top of this is the self-inflicted damage of a UK isolating itself from the European Union, and thus from the Biden Administration's conception of the multilateral, through Brexit.

But for now, the precondition of an Administration playing by the rules of the diplomatic game rather than suspending them for a Twitter blast, has been met. 

It's not as much "America is Back" --- that's an applause line for the domestic audience. It's more "Competence is Back".

Professor Scott Lucas - Professor of American Politcs.