National Security

Sullivan is Biden’s national security ‘listener’

When Hillary Clinton was deciding whether she’d run for president for a second time in 2012, she talked up Jake Sullivan, a young aide at the time who is now President Biden’s national security adviser.

“I told my husband about this incredibly bright rising star — Rhodes scholar, Yale Law School,” Clinton said of Sullivan during a foreign policy conference at the time. 

“And my husband said, ‘Well, if he ever learns to play the saxophone, watch out,’ ” she added to laughter from the crowd. “Now we travel all over the world together and people say how excited they are to meet a potential future president of the United States, and of course they mean Jake.”

The line was made as a wink-wink moment for Clinton’s own presidential prospects. But nearly nine years later, it doesn’t seem as far-fetched for Sullivan, who at 44 is the youngest national security adviser in 60 years.

Those who know him say he is part of a rare breed in Washington: someone who is equally versed in the nuance of both policy and politics. His advocates say Sullivan, like his boss, is the right fit for the position during a pandemic and deep political tensions.

“Jake has a trait that is really important in these kinds of jobs,” said Thomas Nides, the vice chairman of Morgan Stanley, who served as deputy secretary of State under Clinton. “When you talk to Jake, you really get the sense that he’s listening to you. And he’s not only listening to you but he’s absorbing what you’re saying.”

“You can’t teach someone that skill and it will be an important one as national security adviser because he is disarming in his style and that will serve him exceptionally well in that role,” Nides continued. “There are a lot of smart people out there but his magic sauce is people skills.” 

Sullivan faced an immediate and unforeseen challenge as he stepped into the role, when Myanmar military leaders staged a coup and arrested civilian government leaders in early February. Sullivan briefed the president within an hour of the reports of the coup on Feb. 1, according to a senior administration official. Biden days later formally designated the takeover a coup. This past Wednesday, Biden ordered sanctions on Myanmar military leaders.  

The situation in Myanmar is one of a number of hurdles the Minnesota native will face in the high-profile role, from how to revive the Iran nuclear deal to handling competition with China and an aggressive Russia.

“Overall, the administration will need to determine what elements of Trump foreign policy to keep and what to jettison,” said Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security who served as foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “And as they make changes to U.S. foreign policy, they will deal with a world that wonders whether Trump’s America First approach was the aberration, or if it’s Biden’s ally-friendly, multilateral way of doing business that is the real departure from a new American normal.” 

William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who served a domestic policy adviser to former President Clinton, put it this way: “There are so many areas that require a re-think. I can’t remember a period of my life demanding a re-think on so many fronts.”

“But thinking and re-thinking, that’s Jake Sullivan’s business,” Galston said. 

He said another key challenge for Sullivan is to work quickly. 

“There’s going to be enormous pressure placed on the National Security Council to come up with proposals on all of these different fronts and do so quickly enough so that a story doesn’t gain traction that Biden’s foreign policy is set adrift. … So regarding the re-think, they don’t have the luxury of time here,” he said. 

In his earliest days on the job before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was confirmed, Sullivan placed calls to a number of his foreign counterparts, including those representing France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. 

It was Sullivan who officially conveyed to the Russians that the U.S. intended to seek a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia in Biden’s first week as president, according to a White House official.

He also appeared in the White House briefing room alongside press secretary Jen Psaki earlier this month, framing Biden’s early actions as an effort to “establish a position of strength for the United States” and outlining plans to advance a foreign policy that works for the American middle class.

Speaking ahead of Biden’s foreign policy address at the State Department, Sullivan revealed that Biden would announce an end to U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen and a freeze on former President Trump’s plan to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany. 

Those who have worked alongside Sullivan — who is fueled by a constant stream of Powerade Zero throughout the day — say he is reserved, the opposite of showy and goes out of his way to let others be heard.

“I’ll give you $100 if you can find someone who will say a bad thing about him, even on background,” one former colleague said. They say he is “an honest broker” who isn’t afraid to level with principals including Biden, for whom he served as national security adviser when he was vice president, and Hillary Clinton. 

“He was never afraid to tell Secretary Clinton when someone dissented from her beliefs or disagreed with his views,” said Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime adviser. “In fact, in those situations Jake would make sure she at least fully understood their position, if not actually have the opportunity to argue their case directly to her.”

“Jake does not fear disagreement,” Reines added. “He is comfortable enough in his own skin to debate an issue in front of the principal. He’s equally able to hear a compelling argument and change his mind.”

Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat who worked with Sullivan at the State Department and White House under Obama agreed. 

“I found him very thoughtful in terms of considering a full range of arguments,” Ross said. “He didn’t come to issues with a sense of ‘I know it all.’ He came with a sense that he needed to see all angles on one problem.”

Tags Antony Blinken Bill Clinton China Dennis Ross Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jake Sullivan Jen Psaki Joe Biden John McCain Myanmar Russia

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