These are discussions well worth having. Projecting the likelihood of the Joe Biden administration conducting a successful foreign policy is an important question. That said, it’s still November 2020. Biden will not be the president for another eight-plus weeks. The Age of Trump is not a patient one, but it might be good to give the new team a month or two before writing up their postmortems.
This does not mean that we cannot make any predictions, however. We know Biden will be the president, and Kamala D. Harris will be the vice president. Biden is sufficiently conventional that political scientists do not need to gin up individual-level explanations for their behavior.
We further know from the Biden-Harris transition team who will be occupying the key positions in the foreign policy team: Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations, and John F. Kerry as presidential envoy for climate change.
So, based on the political science literature, what can we expect from the incoming Biden administration? Here are three predictions:
1) Minimal freelancing. As noted previously here at Spoiler Alerts, Biden is the most experienced person to be elected president since George H.W. Bush. This is particularly true on foreign policy. Biden was vice president for eight years and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for even longer. He is genuinely interested and knowledgeable about foreign policy.
As my colleague Elizabeth Saunders noted in her outstanding 2017 International Organization paper, experienced subordinates are far more likely to freelance when the president is inexperienced because they know they are more likely to get away with it. This was why the same people were perceived as acting competently under Bush 41 and less so under Bush 43. This was also why so many Trump subordinates clashed with each other and with the president on foreign policy matters.
Saunders’s model suggests that Biden’s experience means freelancing will be at a minimum with the incoming administration. I am delighted to see that she codes this in a similar way. So, expect less talk from envoys of playing shell games with the president.
2) The foreign policy machine will run better. Trump came into the presidency convinced he could bluff, bully and feint his way through foreign affairs. This turned out not to be true, leading to some loud failures. A related problem was that Trump’s subordinates came to be viewed as not representing the president. Everyone lived in fear of a presidential tweet that would disrupt whatever understandings had previously been reached. Over time, this meant foreign interlocutors discounted the word of U.S. diplomats and national security officials.
If nothing else, Biden is highly unlikely to countermand anything Blinken says with a tweet. All of Biden’s foreign policy picks go back a long way with each other and with Biden. Furthermore, most of them have held policy positions outside of where they are about to be appointed; Sullivan was director of policy planning at State, and Blinken spent considerable time at the National Security Council before becoming deputy secretary of state.
For foreign interlocutors, the message is a simple one. Biden’s subordinates and surrogates will be viewed as an extension of the president and not as the adult in the room who might be fired in the next 24 hours.
3) Biden will make foreign policy boring again. As Graeme Wood notes in the Atlantic, Biden’s choices to date are “the equivalent of a warm cup of Ovaltine with a melatonin chaser.” He did not mean this as an insult, but rather as an acknowledgment that “they were hypercompetent public servants who tended not to make hilarious, unforced errors.”
Wood also notes that this does not guarantee success by any means: The Obama administration did not have an unblemished foreign policy record. Still, this is going to be such a welcome relief. The world is uncertain enough without having to endure drama queens in one’s life, and the Trump administration was nothing but drama queens.
I am looking forward to getting off a plane, turning on my phone and not mentally girding myself for the insane news cycles missed in midair. If the Trump administration’s foreign policy team resembled a loud, vulgar reality show, the Biden team sounds like that soothing music they pump into day spas. And I, for one, am ready for less drama in my life and work.