Altered States: The World Biden’s National Security Team Will Inherit

The initial statements and early national security appointments of President-elect Joe Biden should help lay to rest any lingering fears from the recent presidential campaign that he was suffering from low-grade dementia and that he would easily become a tool of the Democratic Party’s left wing. Perhaps the best proof of this is the fact that squeals of rage and protest that are emanating from both the “progressive” left and right-wing non-interventionists of the Koch-Soros-funded school of “restrained” (read isolationist) foreign policy for the United States, as well as the frantic campaign they seem to have waged successfully to block the candidacy of well-known centrist Michele Flournoy for secretary of defense. Still, every new administration, especially one that was recently in power, has to take stock of how the world has changed and contend with a shake-down cruise on national security issues in its first year. In that context, how is the new Biden team shaping up, and what kinds of challenges is it likely to face?

The Team

One strength of the incoming administration is that Biden has not put together a “team of rivals” but rather a team of colleagues with strong pre-existing relationships with the president-elect and with one another. That could insulate them against the bureaucratic infighting that has all too often prevented coherent policymaking in both Democratic and Republican administrations since the 1970s. Although there is always a danger that such a team will fall victim to “groupthink,” naming Jake Sullivan—who is known for playing devil’s advocate and ruthlessly questioning assumptions—to the national security adviser’s role may help mitigate that risk.

The team that Biden has announced stands pretty squarely in the moderate tradition of liberal internationalism that animated the post-Cold War administrations of Bill Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama. The team shares a belief in the importance of U.S. global leadership (with varying degrees of skepticism about how easy this will be to reassert in the wake of Donald Trump), a commitment to the value of U.S. alliances and partnerships around the world (with some advocating more or less “tough love” for some allies), a conviction that the U.S. is facing greater competition from a variety of authoritarian actors in the international arena, and a creedal commitment to multilateral diplomacy as a major tool to advance U.S. interests around the world.

The one major deviation from the traditional catechism of liberal internationalism comes in the area of trade, where a significant number of those advising Biden (notably including the aforementioned Jake Sullivan) believe that the U.S. commitment to free trade has become disconnected from the concerns of middle-class Americans. This does not mean that they endorse Donald Trump’s not-so-“easy-to-win” trade wars (although it is worth recalling that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration and from which Donald Trump withdrew early in his term). Rather, they hope to reconnect trade negotiations to the broader American middle class—as Brookings’s Thomas Wright, the shrewdest analyst of Biden world, has argued and Sullivan has written—by “reforming trade deals to target tax havens, prevent currency manipulation, improve wages, and generate investment in the United States. Industrial policy should be used to compete with China, particularly in new technologies, and foreign policy should be a part of the antitrust debate on breaking up big tech.”

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