Biden Makes His Picks: The Impact of Team Biden on US Foreign Policy

By Prof Brad Nelson, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Saint Xavier University, Chicago; and Co-founder and President, Center for World Conflict and Peace

The inauguration over, Prof. Brad Nelson analyses the foreign policy of Team Biden. Australia looks like being one of the winners from a return to the promotion of liberal US values.

Now that the dust has settled on the US presidential election—the legal disputes and attempted coup are over—and Donald Trump’s term has expired, Joe Biden can officially get down to the business of governing. Biden will have his hands full dealing with a number of complex challenges on the home front, including the coronavirus, reopening the nation’s economy, political polarisation, and domestic extremism. The international tests and difficulties, such as China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism, among other issues, are just as knotty and intractable.

Arguably, it’s on foreign policy, given Biden’s long Senate record, his participation on various Senate foreign and defense committees, and his keen interest in foreign affairs, that he’s expected to show his political bona fides. Biden’s core vision and lengthy political experience will surely inform his approach to foreign policy. But Biden will also lean mightily on his cabinet and other trusted advisers—Team Biden, so to speak—to help him formulate and implement his administration’s policies. In fact, at times, on various issues, Team Biden, for better or worse, will even prove to be a decisive player on US policy. With this in mind, then, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the new Biden team and see what it might mean for US foreign policy.

In short, Biden’s political and policy team consists of an array of familiar faces. Biden’s Secretary of Defense (Lloyd Austin), Secretary of State (Antony Blinken), Secretary of the Treasury (Janet Yellen), Director of National Intelligence (Avril Haines), National Security Adviser (Jake Sullivan), climate envoy (John Kerry), and UN ambassador (Linda Thomas-Greenfield) have longstanding ties to Washington—via DC think tanks, previous government experience, and direct connections to Biden. Additionally, all of these key team members have, in various roles and functions, served in the Obama White House.

Biden’s team is smart, competent, qualified, and experienced, especially in light of the group of officials who advised Trump—a motley crew that was widely seen, in both the US and abroad, as substandard neophytes and grifters. Biden did choose these individuals for their strong credentials. But his personal familiarity and comfort with them also undoubtedly played a strong role in their selection to his team. He’s worked with all of them previously in some capacity, and he has especially close relationships with Blinken and Sullivan.

Team Biden is a relatively homogeneous group of party insiders, officials, and wonks, and that’s a routine thing in US politics. What is a bit rare is that Biden’s team isn't in sync with his foreign policy views. Biden is a center-left moderate on foreign policy; his advisers are fairly hardcore liberal internationalists. As such, it largely sits to the left of Biden politically. Like Biden, his advisers prize human rights, alliances, international institutions, and multilateral cooperation. Notably, though, Biden’s team is more hawkish than him, at times reflexively advocating the use of force as a policy solution, and some of his team have supported bungled campaigns in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Biden’s team believes the US has the mantle to shape the structure of the world and the parts in it in more far-reaching and ambitious ways than Biden does. This doesn’t bode well for the world’s autocrats, human rights abusers, and rogue states who have gotten used to Trump’s non-meddling in their politics.

Antony Blinken’s recent testimony to the Senate confirmation committee highlights the dilemma that Team Biden brings to the White House. While Blinken offered some boilerplate Biden promises, such as overturning Trump’s transactional foreign policy and re-energising America’s neglected diplomatic corps, he did take positions that are probably more critical and muscular than what Biden might think or say, particularly on China. For instance, Blinken used extremely tough language on China, agreeing with outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Beijing is committing genocide in Xinjiang against Muslim Uighurs and arguing that China, as a “techno-autocracy,” threatens the free use of the internet. According to Blinken, “We have to start by approaching China from a position of strength, not weakness. The good news is our ability to do that is largely within our control—a position of strength is when we are working with and not denigrating our allies. That is a source of strength for us when dealing with China.” Blinken also signalled his hope that the US would offer more support to Hong Kong reformers and activists and to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, two very sensitive topics to Beijing. Was Blinken simply telling the truth as he sees it? Or did he cater his testimony to woo hawkish Congresspersons? Regardless, I suspect he got ahead of where Biden wants to be on China right now, and he may have riled up the Xi government—a government that’s hyper-sensitive and possesses a long memory—on day one of Biden’s tenure.

Antony Blinken
Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State under President Barack Obama, is President Biden's nominee for Secretary of State. Image credit: The Brookings Institution, Flickr.

Undoubtedly, Team Biden offers some benefits. Because members of Team Biden are known and experienced and qualified, they will reassure US allies who have been worried about the direction of the US and their role in American foreign policy, like France, Germany, Australia, South Korea and Japan. They can sleep peacefully at night knowing a conventional US administration that embraces a typical and predictable foreign policy is in office. They don’t have to worry—at least for now—about being abandoned, extorted, castigated and demonised, and undermined by the White House, as they have been the last four years. Strengthening democracy at home and encouraging the protection of human rights abroad—key pillars of the Biden administration—will reaffirm the common values the US shares with its democratic friends. Moreover, the US is going to prioritise its commitment to issues that are in line with the interests of many of its allies—climate change, immigration, COVID-19, global institutions and partnerships, and the stability of the world order. Overall, America’s longstanding friends and allies can expect to have a friendly and cooperative relationship with the Biden administration.

The biggest winners from Team Biden and a Biden presidency will likely be South Korea, Japan, Australia, and India—the four strong democracies in the heart of the Indo-Pacific. It’s clear that Biden, and especially his team, sees China as the major geopolitical challenge the US faces today. They want to engage with China when Sino-US interests overlap, and deter and contain when they don’t. Deterrence and containment will be built around America’s alliances in the region, with countries like South Korea, Japan, and Australia. At the same time, the US will seek to expand its alliance portfolio by continuing to woo India and Indonesia—a process that started during the tail end of the George W. Bush administration and continues to the present. Of the two countries, India is seen as extremely vital to US interests, as it sits in a prime geographical position to block China’s ability to dominate South and Southeast Asia and prevent Beijing from using the Indian Ocean as a gateway to the Atlantic. The Trump White House revived the “Quad,” in part to bring India gradually on board with America’s defense and security initiatives in the region. Biden will seek to maintain this steady progress, by strengthening the US-India bilateral relationship, maintaining the Quad, and perhaps even working to get India a seat on a reformed UN Security Council – something Blinken has suggested in the past.

Biden and his advisers’ emphasis on strengthening democracy at home and worldwide will only reinforce the strategic value and necessity of good ties with the big four Indo-Pacific democracies. At bottom, common liberal democratic values will underpin and bolster the relationship. As the Sino-US competition heats up and the political, security, and economic rivalry deepens into an ideological struggle, as has been the case over the last year or two, it’s pretty clear that liberal democratic South Korea, Japan, India, and Australia make natural partners vis-à-vis authoritarian and statist China. The previous administration prized these four nations because they were willing to follow Trump’s China policy with only minor resistance and because they shared similar strategic objectives. By contrast, Biden will value them also because they are like-minded powers. In this view, the four democracies categorically exist within America’s in-group of favoured and trusted nations. They are like the US politically, economically, and ideologically, and Washington wants to protect their sovereignty and way of life from the one global power that could infringe upon, if not damage, both.

One way to think of Team Biden’s commitment to reinforcing democracies is this: Democracy is hard to sustain—as the US is currently finding out—because of manifold domestic and global forces that constantly aim to undermine it. Hence, democracy is precious, like a jewel. It needs to be cared for and guarded, both internally and externally. It is incumbent upon democracies to find global companions that can help them live and thrive in a dangerous world filled with violent villains. This idea of democracies sticking together is a fundamental part of the Biden platform.

President Joe Biden and new chief of staff Ron Klein
President Biden brings on board Ron Klain as Chief of Staff, the same role he filled during Biden's tenure as Vice-President. Image credit: vasilis asvestas, Shutterstock.

Keep in mind, however, all is not completely rosy for Biden and his team. The domestic and international problems the US faces nowadays are as numerous, intense, and complicated as any set of problems the US has faced in its history. While it’s nice that Team Biden possesses smarts, good intentions, and considerable experience, they do not guarantee success. After all, John F. Kennedy’s team of the “best and brightest” almost bungled the Cuban Missile Crisis, began America’s first deep descent into the Vietnam nightmare, and did little to tackle the protracted civil rights struggle. In the end, Biden and his advisers need a dash of luck, something they don’t control, and a good dose of humility, something they do. It is essential they recognise they don’t know everything and don’t have all the answers all the time, as that will enable Team Biden to ask good questions, learn from mistakes, and course correct if needed.

Further, it would have been better had Biden picked a more ideologically bipartisan core staff. It would've been a nice peace offering to Republicans and a tangible sign to the American public that Biden's sincere about bridging divides and healing the wounds of the last four years. It also would've produced more ideological diversity and balance, which probably would have facilitated greater debate and discussion among his staffers and increased the potential for better policymaking. Of course, the left—both democratic officials and party activists—likely would have resisted doling out key positions to the political opposition. And true, in this polarised political climate, it's unclear who on the right would've taken a cabinet offer from Biden. Nevertheless, a genuine effort to reach across the political aisle so early in his presidency would have been a welcome sign.

Given the strong and large presence of former Obama officials in his administration, Biden must figure out if he’s more interested in pursuing a third Obama term or charting his own independent presidency. If Biden really wants to carve out his own foreign niche, one that reflects and leans on his views and experience, then he’ll have to be prepared to manage his advisors. For instance, given the views of his staff and the fact that they out-number him, Biden should be aware that he’s likely to be pulled to the left by his core advisors. Yet it's to his advantage to resist hyper-liberal policies and the familiar excesses of liberal internationalism over the last three decades. This will require him to ask questions, play devil's advocate, and push back on his advisers when they stray too far from his preferred policies. Additionally, it would be smart for Biden to incentivise centrist, moderate views on his team, perhaps by giving his advisers more responsibility, more access to him, and more resources (if they lead departments).

The team Biden selected says his administration is going to try to pick up where the US left off in January 2017. The problem is that it’s no longer 2017 and the world is in a different place than it was then. After embracing an America First platform for four years, much of the world—with some exceptions, such as Israel and the Sunni powers in the Middle East—is wary of American motives and interests. It’s not self-evident that US friends and foes should consider the Trump years an aberration, rather than the norm, going forward. Put simply, in recent years American citizens, who are the foundation of US power, consistently voice support for a narrow and defined US foreign policy, not the kind of ambitious, engaged foreign policy Biden has in mind. Team Biden is going to have to make a convincing public case—both to a global audience and American citizens—that the US can and should once again serve as a global leader and problem solver. Why should the US lead? And why should others follow it? A vigorous, credible case will reduce the domestic and international headwinds Team Biden could face and galvanise enough support to make his foreign policy feasible and appropriate.

Brad Nelson is an adjunct professor at Saint Xavier University and co-founder and president of the Center for World Conflict and Peace. His Twitter is @BNNelson74.

Banner image: President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr Jill Biden prepare to enter the White House after he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, Washington, D.C., USA - January 20, 2021. Credit: mccv, Shutterstock.