If those names sound familiar, it’s because these are all former senior Obama administration foreign policy officials. Sherman was undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2011 to 2015 and served as the lead U.S. negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal. Nuland, a retired career Foreign Service officer, served as the State Department’s top Europe and Russia official from 2013 until Trump’s inauguration. Finer, a former journalist, held various Obama administration national security posts, including working for Biden in the vice president’s office and later as Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s chief of staff.
These latest appointments reinforce the established pattern: resurrecting the Obama foreign policy team, albeit in different positions. Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken moved up from deputy secretary of state. The designated national security adviser to President-elect Biden, Jake Sullivan, moved up from the role of national security adviser to Vice President Biden. Kerry is back on the National Security Council Principals Committee (which he served on when as Secretary of State), this time as a special envoy for climate change. Susan E. Rice is back in the West Wing as head of the Domestic Policy Council. Biden’s Defense Department appointments fit this pattern, as well.
To be sure, after four years of bureaucratic mayhem and mismanagement under President Trump, there is comfort knowing that national security will be run by people who are competent and experienced. Yet, even though competence is a prerequisite to good policymaking, it’s not enough by itself. The concern around Washington is that the same people who crafted and defended President Barack Obama’s foreign policy won’t be willing or able to recognize, much less rectify, its shortcomings.
These concerns were heightened when Kerry gave his first major post-election foreign policy interview last month to NPR. He argued that the United States needed to put climate change cooperation at the forefront of U.S.-China relations. Chinese state propaganda outlets gleefully covered Kerry’s remarks, embracing his notion of a climate partnership.
As Tom Wright pointed out in the Atlantic, this fits perfectly into Beijing’s calls for a “reset” of U.S.-China relations, which from Beijing’s perspective requires Washington to back off from confronting the Chinese government’s behavior on a range of issues, including its military expansion, economic aggression and internal repression.
Biden transition officials told me that there is broad recognition inside the team that the challenges of 2021 are quite different from those in 2016, and therefore require fresh thinking. When the entire team is revealed, there will be lots of new voices to promote new approaches to go along with the seasoned veterans, these officials said.
There is evidence some incoming Biden officials are adapting their views to changed conditions. When asked about the new administration’s China approach Sunday on CNN, Sullivan spoke in terms that stood in sharp contrast to the accommodationist rhetoric of the Obama years. He said that Biden wants to first consult with allies in Europe and Asia “to talk about how together we can bring leverage to bear on China to change its most problematic trade abuses,” before jointly engaging with Beijing.
The elevation of Sullivan and Finer represents some generational turnover. But other younger former Obama national security officials — now vying for jobs in the incoming administration — told me they feel frustrated with the lack of upward mobility because of the clog of older people at the top who won’t leave the stage. There’s also frustration among the progressive foreign policy wing of the Democratic Party, which has been publicly airing its own lists of candidates (a practice that usually backfires for those doing the airing).
Meanwhile, the world these officials will confront later this month is full of vexing challenges. Returning to the Iran deal, even as a prelude to improving it, will not be easy, given the chaos Trump’s policy has sowed. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are more advanced and more intractable than ever. Chinese President Xi Jinping has turned more authoritarian, and his mass atrocities have become too big to ignore. The coronavirus pandemic complicates each and every international (and domestic) problem.
The Biden team is pledging to mend alliances, re-engage international organizations and restore respect for the professional bureaucracy. This team seems well-suited for these initial tasks. But once this low-hanging fruit is picked, the mission gets harder. The famous Obama foreign policy focus on pragmatism and process seems ill-suited for the current grave strategic environment because it tilts the scales of policymaking toward rumination and away from decisive action.
Four years of Trump’s erratic and incompetent foreign policy has left the Biden team with a steep uphill path to restoring U.S. international influence and leadership, which is urgently needed to solve urgent and complex international problems. But competence alone is not a strategy.