Joe Biden is a cautious man of the center. He has anchored the moderate camp of the Democratic Party for several decades. For many, he is a welcome antidote to the last four years of fire and fury, like a bite of white bread to alleviate the pain of a mouthful of habanero pepper.
The reassurance Biden provides is that of the status quo ante. Donald Trump promised a return to an illusory golden age. Joe Biden offers a reset to the Obama years — a bronze age at best, but one that at least existed.
As he assembles his foreign policy team, Biden is predictably drawing from past Obama administration figures. By embracing these middle-of-the-road figures, the new president is mindful perhaps of confirmation battles to come in a Senate that is either in Republican hands or so precariously in Democratic control that a single defection could prove ruinous.
Progressives are understandably upset at Biden’s reliance on establishment types among his first picks. And it’s true that the team so far has not been a transformative bunch.
But progressives should not pay too much attention to personalities. Three other factors are more important: the overall policies of the administration, the shifting geopolitical context, and the popular pressure that progressives can bring to bear on Biden’s emerging priorities.
Reconstituting the Foreign Policy Elite?
Barack Obama was notoriously frustrated with the foreign policy elite in Washington that resisted some of his more ambitious initiatives, particularly around reducing the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East.
Obama encountered perhaps even stronger pushback from hawks in both parties who distrusted his nuclear deal with Iran, détente with Cuba, and efforts to reduce the nuclear arsenal. Even though he wasn’t able to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East, Obama did manage to win enough support from the foreign policy elite on Iran, Cuba, and climate change.
Biden so far is relying on that same foreign policy elite. His choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has long been in Biden’s foreign policy orbit, first in the Senate and then as the vice president’s national security advisor. With his knowledge of European affairs and his fluent French, he’ll quickly repair relations across the Atlantic. He’s a firm believer in international partnerships, but he also has more interventionist leanings than Biden, having supported the military action in Libya and a more aggressive position on Syria.
Biden’s other picks have been likewise familiar. Jake Sullivan, his choice for national security advisor, was an Obama administration mainstay, as was CIA pick Avril Haines, who’d been a deputy CIA director. John Kerry, the climate czar, was Obama’s secretary of state. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the nominee for the UN representative, was in charge of the Bureau of African Affairs under Obama. The proposed head of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, was the deputy secretary of DHS during the Obama years.
When it comes to foreign policy, there aren’t many leading candidates outside the establishment consensus who cast a critical eye on the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
Appointees of a more realist persuasion — Harvard professor Stephen Walt, for instance, or former CIA analyst Paul Pillar — might have nudged Biden to shrink the U.S. military footprint overseas. But that presupposes an institutional commitment to reexamining American exceptionalism. Such realism is occasionally found among academics or former government officials, but seldom among those who still aspire to top positions in the foreign policy elite.
Much has been made of the links many of these nominees have to the consulting firm WestExec that Blinken created with Michelle Flournoy, who’s in the running for Pentagon chief. Avril Haines is also a WestExecutive.
The name itself tells you all you need to know about the connections of the principals: West Executive Avenue links the West Wing of the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Technically not a lobbying firm, WestExec doesn’t have to disclose its client list, which only adds to its mystique.
Let’s face it: this is the swamp.
It’s not Trump’s version of an old boy’s network, which featured outright corruption, cronyism, and nepotism. Rather, Biden is bringing back the more familiar inside game of influence-peddling, which is technically legal but morally suspect. WestExec is firmly part of that world. But then, what did you expect, that Biden would nominate people who’d spent the last four years volunteering for Habitat for Humanity rather than profiting from their elite connections? That’s not how Washington works.
Biden is surrounding himself with people like himself: consummate insiders. They know how to interact with their foreign counterparts and will hit the ground running on day one of the administration. They will be competent, which generally is a good thing, except if they’re prosecuting a bad policy. Trump’s people could have done a great deal more damage if they’d actually been good at their jobs.
Focus on the Policies
Even skeptics of the Great Man approach to history — that those in power determine the course of events — often put inordinate emphasis on individuals in contemporary politics like presidents, cabinet officials, and congressional leaders. Of course these people have power and influence. But they all must operate within institutional constraints, in larger geopolitical contexts, and according to the vagaries of popular pressure.
Consider the examples of China and climate change.
On relations with Beijing, I’d love to see a secretary of state who favors the kind of engagement necessary to avoid military conflict and wrecking the global economy. But the foreign policy consensus on China has shifted in the last five years — an evolution I describe here — so there’s no real engagement camp from which to recruit a secretary of state.
Biden himself has leaned toward a more cooperative relationship. But during the presidential campaign, The Economist reports, “Biden had to be reprogrammed on China, says an adviser. It seems to have worked. Mr. Biden has since called Xi a thug.”
Even if a China expert like Lyle Goldstein were to be appointed to a top administration position, he would be a lone voice. The best to hope for in this situation is Blinken’s preferred mix of containment, and engagement. “China poses a growing challenge, arguably the biggest challenge, we face from another nation state: economically, technologically, militarily, even diplomatically,” he told CBS. “And, you know, the relationship has adversarial aspects, competitive aspects, but also cooperative ones.” At least the secretary of state is open to win-win scenarios. A change of personnel absent a change in consensus will not go very far.
On climate change, meanwhile, the policy consensus has shifted the right way within the Democratic Party toward greater recognition of the urgency of the crisis. Although Biden hasn’t adopted the language of the Green New Deal, his “clean energy revolution” comes pretty close. Appointing John Kerry to the new position of special presidential envoy for climate is a strong indication of Biden’s seriousness. Bringing Kerry into the Cabinet and giving him a seat on the National Security Council are even stronger signs.
This policy shift is far more important than the person who occupies the position. It’s of course extremely useful that Kerry has the international contacts as well as the specific experience of helping to negotiate the Paris accords. But he will have to answer not only to Biden but to an energized environmental movement that has young activists at the forefront.
He’ll also be operating in a different international context than the one in which he participated in the Paris negotiations. Although some countries continue to drag their feet on limiting carbon emissions — Brazil, Russia — the rest of the world is beginning to realize the enormity of the challenge. The Paris accords set an informal goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. A number of countries have made legally binding pledges to achieve that goal: the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Hungary, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea.
Sweden was the first country, in 2017, to set a legally binding goal ahead of 2050. It has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2045. Austria and Iceland have more informally set 2040 as their goal, Finland is looking at 2035, and both Norway and Uruguay expect to achieve the mark by 2030. Bhutan and Suriname are the only two countries that currently absorb more greenhouse gasses than they emit.
Biden has pledged to make the United States carbon neutral by 2050. The domestic pressure will be on the administration to carry through on this pledge even as Kerry will face pressure on the international stage for the United States to do even better.
Shifting Geopolitical Context
As long as the Biden administration doesn’t need to push a treaty through the Senate, it will have a relatively free hand on foreign policy. It can rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord. It can lift restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. It can negotiate its way back into the Iran nuclear deal. It can extend the New START treaty with Russia. Republicans can squawk all they want. It will be their turn once again to feel helpless in the face of executive power.
But the world has moved on from 2016. The Trump team has left messes pretty much everywhere it camped around the world. A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off has become ever more remote. The Iranians are understandably wary of U.S. promises of reengagement, and the reformists might only be in power for another half year in any case, pending an early summer election. Europeans are increasingly skeptical of relying on the United States for anything. China is hedging its bets after several years of more hostile U.S. policy.
Biden’s foreign policy team will have to navigate this new world. Their intentions — good, bad, indifferent — may end up mattering very little as they come up against the new geopolitical realities.
Moreover, other countries are making a whole new set of calculations based on the domestic discord that Trump sharpened over the course of four years. Dmitry Suslov is a professor of international relations at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He recently gave this prognosis of U.S.-Russian relations in the Biden era:
Moscow expects Biden to spend the better part of the next four years mired in all-consuming domestic political battles, making any significant breakthroughs in the U.S.-Russian relationship impossible.
Under these circumstances, Russia will try to avoid a new arms race or direct military confrontation with the U.S., but will hope for little else… Instead, it will prioritize strengthening ties with China and other rising powers like India.
One can easily imagine other countries — China, North Korea, Iran — making a similar calculation. Even putative allies like Japan or Australia are likely to loosen their grip on the American bandwagon over the longer term.
From the naïve perspective of many Americans, the right Cabinet nominees will push the Biden administration to do the right thing on a number of foreign policy issues. In reality, the world will often go about its business with scant regard to what anyone in the Biden administration says or does. Thanks in no small part to Donald Trump, the United States just doesn’t matter as much anymore.
The Obama administration was pragmatic to a fault. When Obama endorsed nuclear disarmament, he was careful to say that neither his children nor perhaps even his grandchildren would see that goal realized. And when it came to passing the New START deal with Russia, Obama committed to a massive modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in order to secure Republican support for the treaty. If there had been a powerful, influential peace movement in the United States, Obama wouldn’t have had to curry favor with Republican hawks.
The Biden administration will have only so much bandwidth for foreign policy. The Democrats want to win a clear congressional majority in 2022 as well as a second presidential term in 2024. They have to deliver, first and foremost, on the economy. If progressives want to score wins on foreign policy, we need to frame key items on our wish list in domestic economic terms and turn up the popular pressure accordingly.
- Our efforts to reduce carbon emissions have to be framed as a massive jobs bill connected to the creation of clean energy infrastructure.
- Our desire to avoid a Cold War with China begins with the removal of tariffs that ultimately hurt U.S. farmers and manufacturers and continues with cooperation in clean energy that grows that sector in both countries.
- A détente with Cuba and a nuclear deal with Iran both give U.S. businesses a leg up in both countries and thus also can have job-creation potential domestically.
Yes, of course there are quite a few items on the progressive wish list that are not so easily connected to the U.S. economy. Free global access to a COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t translate into more American jobs. But the Biden administration has to prove that it’s working on behalf of struggling Americans, even with its foreign policy.
If it can’t make that case, the Biden administration won’t have a chance to undo all the damage of the last four years much less push the United States in a more progressive direction, regardless of how progressive members of the foreign-policy team happen to be.