As Joe Biden forges ahead with key national security picks, the contours of a Biden foreign policy vision begin to take shape.
Earlier this week, Biden tapped long-time ally Antony Blinken to lead the State Department. A veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, Blinken’s policy approach is tightly integrated with that of the President-elect. “It’s difficult to know where one person’s policy vision ends and the other’s begins,” a former State Department official told CNN.
From the Iran Deal to the Paris Climate Agreement, Blinken joins Biden in seeking a negotiated return to most Obama-era policies. Like Biden, Blinken sees international politics through the prism of multilateralism and, more specifically, transatlanticism. To this end, Biden and his team have stated that their first order of foreign policy business is to repair what they see as the damage that has been inflicted by the Trump administration on traditional U.S. alliance structures; in their words, to tell the world that “America is back.”
There is scarcely a national security issue on which Blinken doesn’t adhere to the established Washington policy wisdom—and that’s partly by design. Biden’s late November national security picks signaled his commitment, after four years of Trump’s unorthodox policy approach, to realign the White House with the mainstream of the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence establishment.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Biden has tried to deflect charges of being soft on China— Blinken’s appointment is an early indication that this will no longer be a top concern in the transition to a Biden administration. Blinken, who has criticized President Trump’s attempts to place economic pressure on China, argued that a meaningful decoupling of China and the United States is impossible, instead expressing interest in a limited reset with Beijing.
Blinken has noted the need to deal with China from a “position of strength,” stating: “I think the [former] Vice President would tell you that we have to start by putting ourselves in a position of strength from which to engage China so that the relationship moves forward more on our terms than on theirs.” In addition, Blinken seemingly attributes China’s recent rise to Trump’s abandonment of multilateralism. As he put it in a New York Times op-ed, “While Mr. Trump is obsessed with building walls, Mr. Xi is busy building bridges.” Blinken has yet to offer concrete policy solutions for managing U.S.-China competition, nor is it clear how Blinken’s vision differs from the two preceding Obama terms that saw China’s unimpeded ascendance to an unprecedented degree of economic power and geopolitical clout.
On North Korea, Blinken partially acknowledges that the bi-partisan insistence on denuclearization as a precondition for peace talks is a policy dead end: “The hard reality is it’s, if not impossible, highly unlikely that we will achieve, in any near term, the complete denuclearization of North Korea. I just don’t see that as realistic in the near term.”
Instead, Blinken hopes for arms control talks that may eventually lead to denuclearization: “What I think we can get is an arms control and, over time, disarmament process put in place. But that requires enough pressure, sustained and comprehensive to get North Korea to the table.”
Blinken is fully in tune with the President-elect’s intention to confront and roll back Russia: “I would say quickly that a President Biden would be in the business of confronting Mr. Putin for his aggressions, not embracing him. Not trashing NATO, but strengthening its deterrence,” said Blinken in a CBS interview earlier this year.
Like Biden, Blinken has criticized Trump for failing to confront Vladimir Putin over unverified anonymous allegations that Russia offered Afghan militants bounties for the heads of slain U.S. soldiers. “When we have a president who is told that Russia may be putting bounties on the heads of our troops in Afghanistan and does nothing—in fact, worse than nothing, by his own acknowledgement, speaking to President Putin at least six times after he got that report and not raising it, not confronting him and even inviting President Putin to Washington and Russia back into the G7—we have a real, fundamental problem,” Blinken said.
Biden nominated a second Obama veteran, Jake Sullivan, as the future National Security Advisor. Sullivan operates in the neo-liberal consensus that is dominant in Biden’s early picks. This consensus believes that China cannot be geopolitically contained and must instead be integrated into an “open, fair, rules-based, regional order” through consistent multilateral engagement.
John Kerry, another old party stalwart and long-time devotee of ‘multilateralism’ as the guiding light of U.S. grand strategy, will serve in the President-elect’s newly created post of “presidential climate envoy.”
Meanwhile, the President-elect’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, seems like a safe choice to facilitate Biden’s planned reintegration into international institutions that have been spurned by the Trump administration. She is also politically salient, given that she was fired by the Trump administration in 2017.
Finally, Avril Haines, an Obama intelligence who has been nominated to serve as Director of National Intelligence, reportedly enjoys both credibility in the intelligence community as well as Biden’s personal confidence.
President Trump seemed at home with a “team of rivals” staffing strategy, pitting clashing policy visions and personalities against one another in continuous competition for the President’s attention. Biden, by contrast, is amassing an ideologically homogeneous team of loyal Obama veterans committed to restoring a slew of abandoned Obama-Biden policies and continuing along the well-trodden path of global engagement through Euro-Atlantic multilateralism.
This week of nominations has confirmed widespread speculation among Biden’s proponents and detractors alike: after four years of setbacks and frustrations, the Washington foreign policy establishment is back with a vengeance.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.