The US President-elect's appointments have sent out a clear message
In his bid against President Donald Trump, President-elect Joe Biden had argued for a liberal internationalist foreign policy to “once more place America at the head of the table.” In contrast to Trump’s ‘America First’ conduct, Biden wants the US to re-assume its leadership of global governance issues, embrace advocacy of democratic values and human rights, and sustain its network of security partnerships. Towards such a restorationist agenda to “rescue” US foreign policy, Biden recently announced nominations to key foreign policy and national security posts, with most being veterans of the Barack Obama administration. However, Biden’s decision to nominate former colleagues (and some close confidants) also reflects careful deliberation.
Biden’s cabinet is a departure from the experience of the Trump cabinet. The latter often oversaw intense factional conflicts, with an odd combination of supposed ‘adults in the room’ (like Jim Mattis, H R McMaster), neoconservatives (like John Bolton), political acolytes (like Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley), and ideologues as advisers (like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller). Biden’s team is less of an odd mix of rivals, and more like a reunion of former colleagues. However, each pick also reflects Biden’s foreign policy priorities.
As US ambassador to the UN, Biden has tapped career-diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who will be the second African American woman to represent the US at the global high-table. In contrast to the Trump years, which saw US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO, Biden’s prioritisation of the organisation is reflected in his plan to reinstate the US ambassador to the UN to cabinet rank. Moreover, at a time when China has sought to expand its influence at the UN (particularly among African member-states), Thomas-Greenfield’s experience as Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa would be central to America’s counter efforts. Similarly, in once again rallying the world after Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, the decision to tap former Secretary of State John Kerry (who helped negotiate the agreement under Obama) as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change is significant.
In addition, on Biden’s agenda to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal — and possibly even coax an expansion of the deal’s scope with “follow-on negotiations”, Biden has picked Jake Sullivan as his National Security Adviser. During the Obama years, apart from serving as National Security Adviser to then-Vice President Biden, Sullivan was a key player in the secret negotiations that led to the deal with Iran. Furthermore, Sullivan’s nomination also reflects Biden’s intent to convey continuity in US policy towards Asia. As the Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sullivan notably worked on Clinton’s flagship ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy which, in hindsight, was a critical precursor to the Indo-Pacific strategy.
The most significant nomination was that of Antony Blinken for US Secretary of State. With some in Democratic national security circles also viewing him as Biden’s “alter ego”, Blinken most recently served as National Security Adviser (2009-13) to Vice President Biden, Deputy National Security Adviser (2013-15) to Obama, and Deputy Secretary of State (2015-17).
With this extensive experience, Blinken’s nomination as Biden’s top diplomat chiefly pertains to rekindling US ties with its prime allies across the Atlantic. After four years of Trump deriding Europe as America’s “foe” and claiming that the European allies had “ripped off” Washington on collective security, they will now have a Secretary of State to deal with who is a fluent French speaker and who considers them as partners of “first resort, not last resort.”
Moreover, at a time when there is dwindling appetite for US internationalism across the political spectrum, picking Blinken offers a centrist proposition. He is known to be uncompromising in his support for American advocacy of democratic values and human rights, albeit in recognition of the limits of US power. In the Obama administration’s deliberations on supporting the democratic uprising in Egypt, Blinken was part of a majority of officials who called on Obama “to be on the right side of history”, while his boss (Biden) was part of a minority who “counselled caution” against abandoning the pro-US Hosni Mubarak regime. However, on Afghanistan, Blinken and Biden together convinced Obama to adopt a limited counterterrorism-focused strategy, over a military-led counterinsurgency mission.
Known for his prudent understanding of the limits of American power, Blinken was notably also one of the prominent Obama administration officials who expressed doubt on the proposition of arming Ukrainians against Russia. In the past, such a worldview has also often informed Blinken’s position against overstating the centrality of America in other nations’ strategic considerations. For instance, in pushing back against Republican insinuations on Russian aggression against Ukraine being a result of Obama’s inaction in Syria, Blinken notably said in an interview: “This is not about what we do or we say in the first instance, it’s about Russia and its perceived interests”.
Blinken’s nomination will also bear on Biden’s continuity on US-India ties, since he has had first-hand experience of the cultivation of America’s ties with India. In the early years of Washington’s courtship of New Delhi, Blinken served as staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — when as its chairman then-Senator Biden oversaw the passage of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement.
Moreover, Blinken’s prudent nature has been apparent in the context of US-India ties as well. For instance, during the campaign, Blinken often touted two key developments of the Obama-Biden years for US-India ties. They were, the designation of India as a Major Defence Partner and the announcement of the US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). Since then, Trump has only further built on these Obama-era developments by classifying India under the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 category and finalising the Industrial Security Annex for the actualisation of DTTI. Given Trump’s continuity, Blinken hence seemed to limit criticism of Trump’s record on India to the futility of “photo-ops” and a transactional approach to trade issues.
However, there would be one critical avenue where Blinken’s approach to India would surely depart from the Trump precedent. Given his record as a supporter of US advocacy of democratic values, Blinken would certainly raise American apprehensions over some of India’s domestic policies. Blinken has already alluded to there being “real concerns” over India “cracking down on freedom of movement and freedom of speech in Kashmir, [and] some of the laws on citizenship.” However, he has pragmatically called for working on those “differences”, even as the two nations continue to “build greater cooperation and strengthen the relationship.”
Blinken’s rhetoric on China suggests a recalibration of US-China ties along ideological lines. Case in-point, in construing the US-China rivalry as a contest of two distinct governance and development models, Blinken has identified Trump’s apparent “signals of impunity” on Beijing’s human rights record as a major reason behind Washington suffering a “strategic deficit.” Certainly, one way to look at this criticism is to also consider it as a course-correction of the Obama years’ folly of over-prioritising cooperation with China, at the cost of ignoring its transgressions at times. However, regardless of the motivation to assume a firm stance this time, in Blinken’s plan to now have America remerge “in a position of strength from which to engage China”, he has invoked Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy and notably called on India to be “a key partner in that effort.”
Hence, with greater attention to the China challenge, Biden’s team of Obama-era liberal internationalists could adopt a degree of pragmatism on American apprehensions over India’s domestic policies.