National Security

Biden leans on foreign policy establishment to build team

President-elect Joe Biden is turning to a coterie of longtime advisers with decades of experience in Washington’s foreign policy establishment to build out his national security team.

Biden on Monday tapped his closest foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken for secretary of State. He also named Jake Sullivan as national security adviser and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat, as ambassador to the United Nations. Alejandro Mayorka, a former deputy Homeland Security secretary, is Biden’s pick for the top job at that department, while Avril Haines, a former deputy CIA director, will be nominated as Director of National Intelligence.

John Kerry, a former senator who served as secretary of State under President Barack Obama, will be Biden’s international climate envoy.

Biden’s reliance on longtime foreign policy and national security hands – almost all of them Obama administration alums – speaks to what will be among his highest priorities when he takes office in January: repairing and restoring many of the global alliances and agreements that frayed under President Trump’s “America First” approach to international affairs.

“Joe Biden was Vice President. He watched all these people in action. He understands how the national security bureaucracy works, and he’s staffing out his national security bureaucracy with that perspective,” said Andrew Albertson, the executive director of the political nonprofit Foreign Policy for America and a former USAID official. “These are all extraordinarily capable, experienced hands.”

Blinken, who served as Biden’s national security adviser during his first term as vice president, and Sullivan, who succeeded Blinken in that role, both represent the kind of internationalism that Trump has ostracized during his tenure in the White House.

Both are ardent defenders of global alliances who played key roles in some of the Obama administration’s biggest foreign policy achievements. Sullivan, for instance, was a senior adviser in the negotiations that eventually led to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, while Blinken played a key role in mustering an international coalition to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

One former Obama administration official called Thomas-Greenfield “one of the most respected” Foreign Service officers “of her generation.”

“To select a career Foreign Service officer with her unique skills and perspective as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. speaks volumes about Joe Biden as an institutionalist, as a guy who’s intent on picking the most capable people for the jobs,” the former official said.

Earlier reports that Biden would tap Blinken, Sullivan and other officials received praise from national security experts.

“If the national security line-up is Blinken, Flournoy and Sullivan, you have three people who know what they are doing, are experienced in national security and have experience working together,” tweeted Dennis Ross, a former U.S. ambassador with years of experience in Soviet and Middle East policy. “This is a national security team of professionalism and competence.”

David Axelrod, a former adviser to Obama, also praised the move.

“Tony Blinken is one of the finest public servants I’ve ever known.  Brilliant, thoughtful, honest and experienced-really a splendid choice.”

Blinken’s relationship with the president-elect dates back to Biden’s time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Biden served as the chair and ranking member and Blinken served as the Democratic staff director for six years.

If Blinken is confirmed by the Senate, his years-long relationship with Biden will serve the incoming administration well as they prepare to soon inherit a host of foreign policy challenges after relations with overseas allies deteriorated under Trump, who instead had a pattern of embracing authoritarian leaders, including U.S foes like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

They will also be confronting a series of growing threats as the coronavirus pandemic surges in various parts of the globe. Climate change is going to be a top priority and China and Iran are likely to be among the biggest foreign policy challenges that Biden will face in office.

Blinken and Sullivan’s views on restoring global alliances align with multiple Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have emphasized in recent weeks that repairing these relationships should be a top priority.

“At the very moment that democracies most need leadership and I would argue leadership from the United States, playing the role that is played before, as the leader of the free world,” Blinken said at a forum at the Hudson Institute earlier this year. “Unfortunately, we have a president who, by embracing autocrats and dismissing democrats, seems to many to suit it up for the other side.”

“It’s a long way of saying that if we renew our democracy at home, if we revitalize our alliances with democracies in the first instance around the world, that creates a foundation for us to act, I believe, more effectively in dealing with lots of challenges.”

The Biden administration is expected to reverse Trump’s decisions to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization as well as weigh next steps to restore efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the pact earlier in his term.

Biden is also reportedly planning to restore the role of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. to a cabinet level position, which means Thomas-Greenfield would have a seat on the national security council.

The announcements of Biden’s foreign policy team come as Trump has refused to concede the election, even as a series of legal challenges in various battleground states have been rejected.

Still, Democrats are trying to plow ahead and they say there is much repair needed in the intelligence community after four years of the Trump administration.

Trump, who values loyalty among his advisers above all else, has repeatedly fired national security and intelligence officials who have opposed his decisions or crossed him.

His clash with the intelligence community began early into his administration with the 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign‘s ties to Russia.

At one point in 2018, the president while sharing a stage with Putin publicly indicated that he trusted the Kremlin leader’s denial about interfering in the 2016 election over his own intelligence community, which overwhelmingly concluded Moscow waged cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to sow discord during the last presidential race.

The relationship, however, soured even further late last year when a whistleblower brought forward the allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine leaders to investigate his political foes to the intelligence community inspector general. The allegations ultimately led Trump to be impeached in the Democrat-controlled House late last year and acquitted in the GOP-controlled Senate earlier this year.

Following his acquittal, Trump purged his administration of multiple officials who testified before Congress on the matter as well as multiple federal watchdogs.

For Democrats, Biden’s slate of national security nominees and appointees came as a relief. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement praised the appointment of Haines and indicated there is a lot of work ahead.

“[T]he sooner we can get a confirmed DNI in place to start fixing the damage the last four years have done to our intelligence agencies, the better,” Warner said Monday.

Tags Alejandro Mayorka Barack Obama David Axelrod Dennis Ross Donald Trump Joe Biden John Kerry Kim Jong Un Mark Warner Vladimir Putin

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