After the past four years, it was a disorienting experience to read the rundown of President-elect Joe Biden’s selections for senior national security posts. Where, I wondered, were the unqualified businessmen? The grifters with the FBI hot on their tails? The Twitter trolls? The fanatics? The sycophants? The relatives of the president?
All mercifully missing. Instead, we have a diverse slate of highly competent appointees with decades of relevant experience. Most know each other and Biden well. The backstabbing, extremism and incompetence that were the hallmarks of the Trump administration appear likely to be replaced by professionalism, moderation and collegiality.
There is, of course, a danger that the “best and brightest” may crash and burn. That, after all, is why that ironic moniker was affixed by David Halberstam to the Ivy League graduates who embroiled the United States in the Vietnam War. But it’s worth remembering how little actual policymaking experience the senior Kennedy and Johnson officials had: National security adviser McGeorge Bundy had been a professor, just like his successor, Walt Rostow. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had been an automotive executive. Secretary of State Dean Rusk had all of five years’ experience in the State Department before taking charge. And while President Lyndon Johnson was a wily political veteran, John F. Kennedy was young and untested.
The Biden team is closer in spirit to the veterans assembled by another former vice president steeped in foreign policy. Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan could turn out to be the strongest combination of secretary of state and national security adviser since the fabled duo of James A. Baker III and Brent Scowcroft in the George H.W. Bush administration. A hidden strength is that Ronald Klain, with his long experience in Washington and close ties to Biden, is likely to be a more effective chief of staff than former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a newcomer to Washington. That matters greatly because White House chief of staff is usually the second-most important position in the government.
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All that said, it’s important to keep expectations in check. It’s a vast improvement to get rid of a clueless team that sabotaged the national interest at every turn. But simply because you stop doing the wrong things doesn’t mean that the right approach is obvious or that it will pay off anytime soon.
Consider North Korea. Biden will not fawn over Kim Jong Un or hold photo-op summits. But what will he do instead? Maintain sanctions and hope for the best? Or offer a partial lifting of sanctions in return for a nuclear freeze that will be difficult to verify and that could ratify North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons power? There are good arguments on both sides and no certain way forward.
The same is true of every other important foreign policy problem. Biden will not issue a one-sided peace plan offering to recognize Israeli annexations after failing to consult with Palestinian leaders. But what will he do instead?
Biden will seek to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal — but its limitations would begin expiring in 2025 anyway. How will he convince Tehran not only to rejoin the deal but to extend its timeline? And what will he do about Iran’s missile buildup and destabilizing activities?
Biden will not kowtow to Vladimir Putin, but what will he do to check Russian aggression?
Biden will reenter the Paris climate accord, but how will his new climate envoy, John F. Kerry, convince China (the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide) to reduce its pollution?
Biden is less likely to overlook human rights abuses committed by U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey — but how will he manage these difficult relationships?
Biden presumably will not launch trade wars, but will he reenter the Trans-Pacific Partnership — and, if so, how will he convince Congress to ratify it when the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is as protectionist as the MAGA wing of the GOP?
And what about Afghanistan: Will Biden pull U.S. forces out, as called for in an agreement concluded by Trump, thereby running the risk of a Taliban takeover? Or will he stay committed to a “forever war”?
The challenges are all the greater because Trump will do everything in his power to sabotage his successor. It is not simply that he is taking steps as a lame-duck to limit Biden’s options — although he is. For example, Trump is pulling out of the Open Skies treaty and reducing troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even more dangerous is the prospect that Trump could run again — and win. It will be hard to reassure allies that America is back for good if there is a real prospect of Trump — or some other neo-isolationist — reclaiming the Oval Office in 2024.
President Barack Obama offered some words of wisdom in 2014 about the glacial pace of progress in foreign policy that are worth remembering today: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” So don’t expect a lot of home runs anytime soon from the Biden team. But at least we won’t see so many unforced errors.
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