'Wise men' redux: The Biden national security team

'Wise men' redux: The Biden national security team
© Getty Images

Reaction to President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenMissouri woman seen with Pelosi sign charged in connection with Capitol riots Facebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP MORE’s national security nominees has ranged from the sublime — “Thank God” — to the ridiculous — “They are over-educated.” In-between that range, some have expressed concerns that they may be too boring, or simply an extension of the Obama administration’s national security team. 

There is another possibility. This group of national security officials could be this generation’s wise men — or in this case, persons — as described in the book, “The Wise Men,” by Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson. From Dean Acheson to George F. Kennan to Averell Harriman and others, those wise men reshaped America’s place in the world — not through fanfare and bravado but through competence and a deep knowledge of the world, their country and the possibilities and problems that lay ahead.

The pandemic is redefining how nations interact through profound economic, developmental and political changes. What is needed is a group of experts with an understanding of how difficult and complicated a situation the U.S. faces internationally, and the skills and experience to handle these turbulent times. The Biden team is poised to take on the challenges.


Developing a strategy to respond to the pandemic is the first order of business. This means engaging our allies and reforming international institutions so they work more efficiently and effectively. It does not mean going it alone and undermining international organizations that can be helpful during this crisis.

Engaging allies and working with international organizations is a Biden strong suit. His new national security team of Tony Blinken, John KerryJohn KerryFor Joe Biden, an experienced foreign policy team Biden's trade policy needs effective commercial diplomacy Biden taps ex-Obama aide Anita Dunn as senior adviser MORE, Jake Sullivan, Avril Haines, Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasOvernight Defense: Agency watchdogs probing response to Capitol riots | 25,000 guardsmen now approved for inauguration security | Troops levels in Afghanistan, Iraq hit 2,500 Biden briefed by federal officials on security concerns regarding inauguration Biden formally appoints NSA's Anne Neuberger to key national security position MORE — with more to come — is committed to having the U.S. reconnect with the world in ways that protect our interests and promote our values.

The global economy is in dire straits and will have consequences for U.S. foreign policy, as nations adjust to the dramatically changed economic landscape. The good news is that the Biden national security team includes Treasury nominee Janet Yellen, who, as a former chair of the Federal Reserve, knows how to respond to crises — and she is not alone. Jake Sullivan, the new national security adviser, and others point out in a paper for the Carnegie Endowment that “hawks and doves and isolationists and neoconservatives alike all agree that a critical pillar of U.S. power lies in its middle class — its dynamism, its productivity, its political and economic participation, and, most importantly, its magnetic promise of progress and possibility to the rest of the world.”

The development crisis is acute and will need an experienced team of professionals to manage it.  In its 2020 report on poverty and shared prosperity, “Reversals of Fortune,” the World Bank Group underscores this concern: “The human cost of COVID-19 is immense, with hundreds of millions of people in the developing world reversing back into poverty.” 

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s three decades-plus of diplomatic experience make her uniquely qualified to handle the nexus of political and development issues at the United Nations. As she and Ambassador William Burns wrote this year in Foreign Affairs, there is a need for the U.S. “to mobilize coalitions to deal with transnational challenges and ensure greater resilience in American society to the inevitable shocks of climate change, cyber threats and pandemics.” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) nominee, Alejandro Mayorkas, refers to himself as a “political refugee.” This personal understanding will help him ensure that DHS plays a constructive role in developing a humane immigration and refugee policy. 


Climate change will be a defining part of the new president’s foreign policy. It touches on everything from hard national security issues to burgeoning global development concerns.  Anyone who has worked for or with John Kerry knows that climate change has always been a foremost concern for him. As Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, succinctly put it, “Secretary Kerry is one of the world’s most effective climate champions, both in the U.S. and abroad.” 

While there are plenty of new challenges to keep the Biden national security team occupied, there are chronic ones that remain among the myriad of issues they will need to confront. The intelligence community (IC) is central to meeting all national security challenges. It is, as IC professionals often say, the tip of the spear of U.S. national security policy. Avril Haines, who was deputy director at the CIA, is the right person to help restore the IC’s stature so it can continue the work it was created to do unencumbered by politics: provide policymakers with the intelligence they need to do their jobs effectively.  

Tony Blinken has an exceedingly high foreign policy IQ, matched by a decency and humility that make him the right person to be in charge of U.S. foreign policy at this difficult moment. He is tough when necessary and will stand up for the U.S. and the president at all times. Just as important for the country’s leading diplomat is his or her connection to the president, and Blinken has that with Biden. When he speaks, there can be no doubt he will be speaking for the president.

The world has changed dramatically from what it was in 2016 at the end of the Obama administration. Biden’s national security team members have been preparing for the challenges ahead all their lives. They are this generation’s “wise men” (or persons) who will protect and promote U.S. interests and values, just as the group of post-World War II diplomats did. 

William C. Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs who, among other things, worked for the intelligence community. He most recently was a World Bank Group Special Representative for International Relations.