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

The incoming administration will deal with strategic competition with Russia and China, emergent nuclear threats, and Islamist extremism.

Joe Biden introduces Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Alejandro Mayorka, Avril Haines, John Kerry, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post/Getty Images.)

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.”

For conservative internationalists, notably including many Never Trumpers, a big question is whether or not the new Biden administration will amount to Obama Redux or whether, to borrow a quip from the late Irving Kristol, those Obama-era returnees “have been mugged by reality.” Thomas Wright has, in his analyses in The Atlantic, divided the Democrats around Biden into two camps: “the restorationists” and “the reformists.” The “restorationists” are largely comfortable with a return to Obama policies and are reluctant to see the world as dominated by great-power competition and ideological contention between democratic and authoritarian states. The reformists, by contrast:

believe that U.S. foreign policy needs to fundamentally change if it is to deal with the underlying forces of Trumpism and nationalist populism. They are more willing than ‘restorationists’ to take calculated risks and more comfortable tolerating friction with rivals and problematic allies. They see China as the administration’s defining challenge and favor a more competitive approach than Obama’s. They view cooperation with other free societies as a central component of U.S. foreign policy, even if those partnerships result in clashes with authoritarian allies that are not particularly vital. They want less and are more willing to use leverage against Iran and Gulf Arab states in the hopes of securing an agreement to replace the Iran nuclear deal.

The reformists also share the concerns about trade and the middle class noted above. Outside the Biden circle are the “progressives” in the Democratic party who share much of the worldview of the libertarian right and are pressing the Biden transition for a rapid conclusion to the so-called “endless wars,” subordination of international to domestic concerns in general, and deep cuts to the defense budget to enable increased domestic discretionary spending. 

For the moment the reformists seem to be ascendant. Biden himself has said in an interview with Lester Holt that “this is not a third Obama term because … we face a totally different world than we faced in the Obama/Biden administration. … President Trump has changed the landscape. It’s become America first, it’s been America alone. We find ourselves in the position where alliances are being frayed.” And he has told Stars and Stripes that he did not believe defense budget cuts were “inevitable.”

The debate over the Flournoy candidacy for the top Pentagon spot, however, suggest that the progressive cross-winds facing the team are stronger than some initially suspect, and the naming of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to that position will raise concerns about the civilian-military balance of decision-making in the Pentagon.  On that front the “progressives” and “restrainers” may have won a tactical victory in the personnel wars but with uncertain long-term strategic consequences for the Biden administration.

The World They Will Inherit and the Themes They Will Stress

What kind of world will this team encounter? Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team was facing what the 2018 bipartisan National Defense Strategy commission report concluded was “the most challenging security environment in decades.” This environment consists of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia, the non-proliferation challenge of emergent and aspirant nuclear weapons states like North Korea and Iran, and the persistent threat of violent Islamist extremism—all playing out against a larger backdrop of climate change interactions with state fragility that both contribute to and exacerbate all of the above. (Full disclosure: I co-chaired the commission with former chief of naval operations Gary Roughhead.)

The Biden team’s initial agenda will consist of establishing key themes of their foreign policy approach, taking symbolic steps to illustrate those themes, repairing the institutional damage to key national security departments and agencies, and dealing with a backlog of pressing issues they will inherit from the Trump administration. 

The thematic element will feature statements and visits (both virtual and real) to international fora to stress U.S. engagement and global leadership, shedding the “America First” rhetoric of Trumpism, prioritizing multilateral diplomacy, and reasserting American values of human rights, rule of law, and democracy promotion that were either underplayed or undermined during the Obama and Trump years. But it will be one thing for President-elect Biden to say, as he did with Lester Holt, that “America’s back. We’re at the head of the table once again. … America’s gonna reassert its role in the world and be a coalition builder.” It will be another thing to convince both adversaries and allies who have been conditioned by more than a decade of U.S. administrations’ pursuing policies of “retrenchment” to adjust their own expectations and policies to a U.S. administration playing a more traditional role of primus inter pares in international affairs. 

Most of America’s allies will undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief to be dealing with a known, predictable quantity in Joe Biden, as opposed to the ignorant, unpredictable, and occasionally unhinged Donald Trump. But the invocation of the values agenda including the human rights and democracy elements will be less congenial to some partners and allies. In short, rebuilding the practices and procedures of successful alliance management will take some time and no small amount of work at ministerial and summit meetings.

Symbolic Actions

The initial symbolic actions will highlight some of the difficulties—diplomatically, politically, and organizationally—that will face the administration. Returning to the Paris Climate Accord is clearly one early step that the Biden team is likely to take. It will be almost a purely symbolic action since the accord, which was largely hortatory, was never as revolutionary as the Obama administration advertised or as dangerous as Republican opponents depicted it. It will nonetheless highlight the unusual role of former Secretary of State John Kerry. who has been tapped to be the administration’s special envoy for climate matters. Whether Kerry, whose feckless pursuit of his Iranian and Russian counterparts was a hallmark of the final year of the Obama administration, will be able to restrict himself to climate matters and not meddle in the business of his former deputy and now nominal peer—Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken—will likely emerge as a major organizational challenge, as will the presence of former National Security Adviser Susan Rice on the domestic side of the White House staff.

Another early symbolic action is likely to be a return to the World Health Organization as part of the administration’s early focus on controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and restarting the U.S. economy. Fighting the disease and generating economic activity are without doubt the correct early focus. Absent progress on both fronts, any effort to reassert U.S. global leadership—already undermined by its shrinking margin of economic and military advantage—would be laughable. But returning to the WHO will also be an early test of the Biden administration’s approach to multilateralism. Will it be a blind, unconditional attachment to a principle, or will the administration seek to use the leverage of prospective U.S. return to the organization to hold it accountable for its willingness to countenance China’s opaque and dishonest reporting of COVID and its ongoing lack of transparency?

Institutional Adjustments

An enduring feature of presidential transitions, in the best of times, is the tendency of the incoming team to discount the policy accomplishments of the predecessors and the changed circumstances of international life since the last time they were in office. The propensity to put a pox on all of the works of the outgoing team is frequently mitigated by the professionalism of the diplomatic, military, and intelligence staffers who man the institutions whose leadership the new administration is assuming. In this instance, however, severe and ongoing institutional damage has been created by the Trump administration’s fixation on a fictional “deep state” of bureaucrats conspiring against it. (In reality it was mostly Trump administration political appointees who did any conspiring.) The damage has been the greatest at the State Department, but the intelligence community and defense bureaucracy have also taken real hits (particularly in the death throes of Trumpism). 

Re-establishing normal government-to-government and institutional relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel rather than the personalized and in some instances family-to-family relationships that marked the Trump foreign policy will present an important initial challenge that will require no small amount of institutional repair at the State Department. This may require recalling some of the senior foreign service officers who fled the department under the reigns of Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo. Those officers can certainly provide very real and necessary subject matter expertise as well as internal leadership to help heal a battered institution, but their professional training and experience makes them ill suited to provide strategic guidance for the new administration. The best model for Secretary of State-designate Blinken to follow would be that of centenarian former Secretary of State George Shultz, who managed to impose Ronald Reagan’s strategic objectives while gleaning the best diplomatic advice on policy implementation from the talented foreign service officers and political appointees that he empowered in the regional bureaus.

The Austin appointment as secretary of defense will, at a minimum, complicate the task of honoring the Democratic platform commitment of restoring civil-military balance to the Department of Defense. The bipartisan NDS Commission “was struck by the relative imbalance of civilian and military voices on critical issues of strategy development and implementation. We came away with a troubling sense that civilian voices were relatively muted on issues at the center of U.S. defense and national security policy, undermining the concept of civilian control.” 

The civil-military concerns are not a reflection on Austin as a general officer or a person. Rather they relate to issues of institutional equities and balance. In 1986, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols legislation, which sought to overcome interservice rivalries and strengthen the concept of a joint military force. Since then, the role of the combatant commanders and the growth of powerful military staffs, combined with the frequent gaps in civilian leadership in presidentially appointed positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), has created an imbalance between military and civilian advice which is particularly troubling since the strategic questions in the purview of the secretary are inherently political. If the Austin appointment succeeds—which would require a legislative waiver of the National Security Act’s “cooling off” period for recent military officers—the Biden team should be thinking about how to mitigate the skewing effects of his position as secretary of defense and rebuilding the civilian staff competence of the larger OSD which is charged with providing civilian oversight.

The challenge for the intelligence community is less about the hemorrhaging of staff or loss of professional competence but rather the challenge of politicization at the top.  Some of this goes back to the Obama administration, where John Brennan was viewed by many as an excessively partisan CIA director. The Trump team, under the serial leadership of Pompeo, Grenell, and Ratcliffe, will leave behind a residue of concern about the distorting effect of applying a political lens to intelligence analysis and providing a president notoriously neuralgic about specific subjects only what he wants to hear. When Biden announced the appointment of Avril Haines as director-designate of national intelligence, she made a point of calling attention to her reputation for “telling truth to power.” Haines is a known quantity to the IC, having served as deputy director of the CIA and deputy national security adviser. From that point of view she is ideal for this assignment because she knows intelligence from both the producer and the consumer’s point of view. No one, however, should underestimate the loss of muscle memory and the task of returning the president’s daily brief to a serious intelligence product.

Loss of muscle memory will also be a factor in re-establishing something approaching normal interagency processes. The Trump administration has made a mess of these, and it is a mistake to think that everything will snap back into place with the advent of the new team. This circumstance, however, will also allow considerable opportunity for Jake Sullivan to creatively adjust the traditional processes of NSC, the Principals and Deputies Committees that have been the standard format pretty much continuously since the Bush 41 administration.  

Great Power Competition

Adjusting the interagency process will be most urgent in connection with the challenging issues of great power competition—particularly with China—that require not just interagency coordination among the traditional national security agencies but also a larger whole-of-government (if not a whole-of-society) effort. Although the new team will certainly want to—and is indeed required by legislation to—draft its own national security and national defense strategies and will undoubtedly discard much of the “America First” rhetoric of the Trump regime, the persistence of more competitive relations over the long haul will almost certainly remain a focus of its efforts with both Russia and China. As with the Trump administration, China will almost certainly be seen as the most serious and important long term strategic challenge for the U.S.

The experience of Russian election interference in 2016 has led many Democrats to reconnect with their long-lost inner cold warriors. Although there may be efforts to put arms control negotiations back into place (see below) it is not likely that there will be any “reset” or serious warming of Russo-American relations.

In fact, a major challenge for the Biden team will be developing an effective approach to Russia’s ongoing political warfare (including the most recent and apparently very serious hack of several U.S. government agencies) against the U.S. and its allies, as well as China’s increasingly sophisticated information and influence operations that have become a bipartisan concern.

The China challenge is likely to emerge as the biggest point of contention both inside the Biden administration and as a partisan matter in executive-legislative relations. Although the Trump administration declared a trade war on China, blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on Beijing (with some justice), and took some serious steps to curb Chinese predatory economic statecraft and efforts to lock in long-term technological advantages (5G and Huawei), these efforts were episodic and subject to Trump’s personalistic approach to great-power relations with Xi Jinping. This includes the appeals to Xi to help Trump politically that John Bolton witnessed, as well as Trump’s initial reliance on Xi’s assurances about COVID. 

The Biden team, which wants to compete more effectively with China but also wants to keep the competition in bounds and not provoke a direct confrontation (particularly a military one), may surprise people by keeping many of the Trump policies in place (although they may describe and explain some of them differently). It would not, for instance, be surprising to see Trump’s trade tariffs put in place on Chinese goods staying in place for the foreseeable future. This will all take place under the watchful eyes of many congressional Republicans (particularly those members of the Senate who may want to run in what Bolton calls the “Trump Lane” of the GOP in 2024 if Trump himself decides not to run). A particular challenge for the Biden folks will be maintaining sufficient hard military power to sustain a credible deterrent posture in the South China Sea and Taiwan and remain competitive with China militarily in the long run. 

Events

Harold MacMillan allegedly once replied to an Oxford student’s question about what drove policy when he was prime minister by saying “events, my dear boy, events.” Events will come at the Biden team quickly, and some will test and undermine the assumptions that underpin the policy predispositions with which they will enter office. How well they respond and adapt to changing circumstances will have a lot to say about how successful they will be in policy terms.

We can dispense with the “black swan” events because they, by their nature, are outside people’s experience. But there are events bearing down on the Biden team already that the calendar will dictate. They will have to, for instance, drop a budget in February or March at the latest. Will the budget stick largely with the Trump defense budget number (already a modest decline in real dollar terms) or will they impose additional cuts in defense spending? Starting the term with a deeper cut could undermine the message of a return of the U.S. to a leading role in the world and might also signal to allies and partners that the increased outlays for defense demanded by the Trump administration are now a thing of the past.

From a timing perspective, the question of whether to renew the expiring New START Treaty will loom largest. The treaty, negotiated early in the Obama administration, expires in February 2021. There are serious arguments for renewing New START. Russia has been engaged in a thoroughgoing modernization of its nuclear forces and has open production lines for new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), a new heavy ICBM, and is experimenting with rail mobile ICBMs, while the U.S. has only just begun to embark on modernizing the air, ground-based and undersea legs of its nuclear triad. If the warhead limits of 1,550 missiles under the treaty were to expire, one could argue that Russia would be better positioned to rapidly increase its launcher and warhead numbers. By the same token, the Russians are sufficiently worried about U.S. nuclear modernization and comparative economic advantages that they have been pushing for treaty renewal.

The arms control community in the U.S is only too happy to oblige the Russians, and, against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the INF and Open Skies Treaties, it is pushing for a rapid and unconditional extension of New START. There is a difficulty, however. A large and growing part of Russia’s nuclear arsenal (its so-called tactical nuclear weapons and some of the more exotic new systems announced by President Putin over the past several years) is not covered by the treaty, and China, which has been undertaking its own quantitative and qualitative nuclear build-up, is not covered at all by the bilateral U.S.-Russian accord.

The Trump administration attempted to get the Russians to agree to a one-year extension while the two sides worked on dealing with the issues noted above, but did not succeed. The arms controllers will likely prevail, but it would make sense for the Biden team to at least take a run at a shorter extension that would keep the pressure on Russia to seriously negotiate about the entirety of its nuclear arsenal—and to get China into a multilateral arms control discussion. Failure to do so will undoubtedly spark criticism from Senate Republicans on the foreign relations and armed services committees.

A similar issue of using leverage will also come at the Biden administration with regard to the Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed to with Iran and the U.S., European allies and partners, Russia, and China in 2015. The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and began an effort to put “maximum pressure” on Iran via diplomatic sanctions. That campaign has succeeded in bringing Iran’s economy to its knees despite expectations that unilateral U.S. sanctions would be unable to exact much of a cost on Tehran without international support.

Although Biden has said he wants to return to the deal and the prospect of the Iranian presidential election in June may prompt calls to aid the “Iranian moderates,” it would be a mistake to rush back into JCPOA.

First, it would prompt a clash with Senate Republicans, but also with many Senate Democrats like Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez, and Sen. Ben Cardin (who all opposed the deal), while distracting Biden’s focus on containing the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. economy. Second, Iran is massively out of compliance with the deal, and it is unlikely that Iran will come back into compliance without trying to exact some price from the Biden team. Moreover, the Iranian nuclear archive exfiltrated out of Iran by Israel has cast the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear work into very sharp relief and undermined Iran’s prior claims about it. The issues it raises need to be addressed. Finally, many of the timelines set by the deal have expired or will be expiring in a matter of a few years and the Iranian ballistic missile program remains outside the terms of the deal. 

A better course would be to use the leverage bequeathed by the Trump administration to reach a better deal that would permanently close off Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon and limit its ballistic missile program. The administration would also be wise to capitalize on the ongoing strategic realignment in the region that has begun to be formalized in the normalization agreements between the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Israel, as well as the less formal Israeli-Saudi ties. The U.S. can help strengthen regional states’ ability to contain Iranian aggression with U.S. military assistance and arms sales. This would contribute to a more sustainable U.S. military posture in the region that would enable greater focus on the great power challenge from China.

The other element of finding a sustainable posture will be dealing with the so-called “endless wars” in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The Trump administration has attempted to force the hand of its successors by its withdrawals from Syria in 2018 and 2019 and its last-minute retrograde of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan after the firing of former Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The appointment of Gen. Austin as secretary of defense may reflect Biden’s desire to simply accept the Trump administration’s actions and put the blame for any untoward consequences down the road on the Republicans. That course would make some political sense; it would please the “progressive” left that is anxious to end the “forever wars” and it would limit the Biden administration’s political liabilities. A far more responsible course, however, would be to develop a small-footprint, low-visibility U.S. military presence devoted almost entirely to supporting local forces with training, equipment, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance that would also allow the U.S. to observe and inhibit Iranian efforts to establish a land bridge from Tehran to the Israeli border, balance Iranian influence in Baghdad, and support the Afghan security forces in resisting the Taliban insurgency.

An early alliance management test will arrive in the form of managing relations with a fractious NATO ally in Turkey, which Israel’s Mossad chief has suggested is even more of a threat to the stability of the Middle East than Iran. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 (which could well become law despite a Trump threat to veto it) mandates that the administration impose sanctions on Turkey because Ankara has purchased the advanced Russian S-400 air and missile defense system. Trump has refrained from imposing sanctions to this point, but Secretary Pompeo has now imposed them leaving the Biden administration to wrestle with the consequences. Washington will need to be more ruthlessly transactional about this relationship, and there are indications that Biden and his team are prepared for this. Russia (which has interests that both conflict and converge with Turkey’s) has actually successfully managed the Moscow-Ankara relationship in precisely this manner.

The Biden team’s effort to restore liberal internationalism will face other underlying challenges. For instance, one of the hallmarks of effective multilateral diplomacy is the threat of going it alone if necessary when the issues are serious and imminent enough to warrant unilateral action. Will the new team be willing to engage in this kind of diplomatic brinkmanship? Similar issues will arise over the use of force. The Obama administration’s allergy to anything but the most low-visibility, difficult-to-observe uses of force arguably undermined diplomatic efforts to deal with Syria, Iran, North Korea, and other issues. Will the new team be more willing to engage in coercive diplomacy and use force when necessary?

Perhaps most important is the question of U.S. military power. George Kennan famously said at a National War College lecture in 1946 that “you have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background.” It was, he suggested, “the most important single instrumentality in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.” The margin of U.S. military superiority when matched against its global commitments and geopolitical ends has been waning for a decade. The Trump defense budget plus-up of its first three years marked a pause but not necessarily a reversal of this longer-term trend. In fact, the last Trump defense budget calls for a slight cut in real dollar terms, and its future year defense plan called for flat defense budgets into the future. Downward pressures on the defense budget are bound to increase as “progressives” call for repurposing government funds to domestic needs and budget deficits skyrocket under the continued impact of COVID-related relief bills.

These budgetary trends, if left untended, will undermine the credibility of U.S. defense commitments and fray the fabric of U.S. alliances. They will hamstring U.S. diplomacy and weaken efforts to extend American influence around the world. Although members of the Biden team will talk about the need for “soft power” and “smart power,” and point to the fact that the competition with China is as much economic and technological as it is military, the simple fact remains, as Kennan noted 75 years ago, that hard power remains the indispensable handmaiden of successful diplomacy. How do we balance the needs of current readiness to “fight tonight” in places like North Korea or the Persian Gulf against the investments that need to be made in technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, unmanned attritable systems, quantum computing, and micro-electronics, to develop the capabilities that are likely to transform the battlefield of the future? Whether that challenge suits the skill set of Secretary of Defense-designate Lloyd Austin will be one of the most important questions he will have to answer when he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January. Whether or not his team is able to succeed in renewing its commitment to liberal internationalism may turn on the answer.

Conservative internationalists will wish the Biden team well since their success will be the nation’s success. But they also will be prepared to offer criticisms when they see excesses of multilateralism, failures to attend to the bases of hard power, and reluctance to use force when America’s deterrence posture appears to be at risk. Constructive conservative criticism can help counterbalance the pressures from the “progressive” left and help shore up the Biden team’s commitment to American leadership and the hard power fundamentals that underpin that leading role in the world. It should all make for an interesting four years.