Is Joe Biden’s administration fit for the 2020s?

16 January 2021

6:09 PM

16 January 2021

6:09 PM

Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees have been warmly received by the massed ranks of anti-Trumpists in Washington. But the warmth stateside is nothing compared with the rave notices the incoming administration is receiving in much of Europe. There is particular delight in the UK, where the special Boris-Donald relationship evaporated within seconds of Biden’s election victory.

The enthusiasm derives partly from a sense that, as some have put it, the adults are back in the room. The image of Trump as ‘toddler-in-chief’ was projected on to his whole volatile administration. Now the line-up announced by the incoming President looks and sounds serious, sober and a lot more like US administrations are supposed to be.

Mostly, though, the enthusiasm on this side of the Atlantic reflects the fact that the UK and France in particular are welcoming the return of many friends, and what is assumed will be a more congenial mindset. The Biden Cabinet – assuming his nominees receive the necessary Senate confirmation –will be stuffed with familiar faces, not just from the Obama administration, when Biden was Vice-President, but from the years of Bill Clinton and even George Bush.

Those times were, of course, very different from now – and not just because of the way the trauma of Donald Trump’s departure may or may not be changing America. At 78, Joe Biden is older not just than the outgoing President, but the two Presidents, Obama and George W. Bush, before him. He was born before the end of the second world war. He is a child of the Cold War, and like most university-educated white, East-coast Americans of that vintage, his orientation is towards Europe. He had already served 15 years in the US Senate when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed.

Barack Obama chose him as his running mate in part as a counterweight to his own inexperience, Pacific outlook and ethnic heritage. That meant there was no need for Biden to change his worldview: to be good old reassuring Joe Biden was to a great extent why he was there.

And the people he has nominated now – especially, but not only, to the key foreign policy positions – are largely in his own, or Obama’s, image. When Biden recently named Samantha Power, ambassador to the UN under Obama, as the next head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), it was noted that pretty much the whole Obama foreign policy team had now been hired.

The plus is that this gives his foreign policy team a certain coherence. The minus is that it may not be the coherence that is required at this point in US relations with the world. Taken together, the nominations create a rather old-fashioned impression, orientated towards Europe and the Middle East.

Antony Blinken, nominated to be Secretary of State, served as both deputy Secretary of State and deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama administration, and before that as foreign policy aide to Biden in the Senate. His main grounding is in Europe. He is well versed in European history; he spent time in France and speaks excellent French; his stepfather is a Holocaust survivor. Like many who cut their foreign policy teeth in the 1990s, he has long been an advocate of humanitarian intervention – the principle that morphed into support for regime-change in Iraq, Libya, and in Syria.

For National Security Adviser, Biden has nominated Jake Sullivan. At just 43, he would be the youngest person in that role for 60 years and so might be thought a potential bearer of fresh ideas. That impression, though, may be deceptive. Like Blinken, he held senior jobs in the Obama administration, where he was describedby a former colleague as someone who always seemed older than he is, ‘at least a decade, if not two, beyond his biological years’.

Biden’s choice of Defence Secretary, the retired four-star general, Lloyd Austin, who is African-American, might also seem more of a departure than it actually is. Aside from any difficulties he might have in being confirmed – as someone only four years, rather than the requiredseven, out of uniform before being nominated – Austin is another veteran of the Obama era, when he served as the Commander of US forces in Iraq and then as head of Central Command.

Victoria Nuland, a cold warrior and former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, famed for handing out cookies to protesters in Kyiv and for her immortal words, ‘F**k the EU’, at the height of the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, is set to return to the State Department as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Another old-timer, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who served as head of the Bureau of African-American Affairs under Obama, has been designated US ambassador to the UN.

But it is two other appointments that have particularly pleased the French and the British. Obama’s second-term Secretary of State, John Kerry – like Blinken, a French-speaker – is to be special envoy on climate, spearheading Washington’s return to the Paris Climate Accords.

The other is the eminent former diplomat, William Burns, to be director of the CIA. Burns, who has a doctorate from Oxford and is known as a Russia hawk, is a former ambassador to Jordan and Russia and an architect of the Iran nuclear deal. He is well-known and well-connected on this side of the Atlantic. The UK could not have wished for a better nominee, either for civilised policy discourse or for the future of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing arrangement, that also includes Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

However favourably these nominations are seen in Europe, though, the extent to which the next US President’s foreign policy team is essentially rooted in a Europe-centric past should perhaps raise more questions – on both sides of the Atlantic – than it has done so far. This is, first, because the main foreign policy quandary facing the United States is likely to be China and Pacific security, rather than the EU or Russia. Second, because the recent history of US interventionism, which unites many members of the team, can hardly be accounted a great success. And third because Biden – although more multilateralist than Donald Trump (which is not be difficult) – will find himself dealing with a Europe that is evolving post-Brexit, and a Russia that is very different from the country many of the old-style hawks maybe think they know.

The old answers – tariff regimes, sanctions, Nato, arms control – may no longer suffice. Yet does the new team have what it takes to find new ones, even to recognise how much the world has changed over the past 12, and especially the past four, years?

It might be unfair to dwell on Biden’s foreign policy appointments without considering some of his more groundbreaking nominations on the home front. A female Vice-President of colour; Janet Yellen as the first woman Treasury Secretary; Merrick Garland, a respected judge, as attorney general; and Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to be submitted for a post requiring Senate confirmation. There is also the reality that some of the most urgent problems – the pandemic and its aftermath – will be at home.

Yet it is abroad, both because of Trump’s legacy and because this is where longer-term challenges loom, where the gap between expertise and expectations on one hand, and reality on the other, risks being widest. Transatlantic relations will not simply be able to slot back into an imagined pre-Trump ideal; there were tensions under Obama, too. Nor will Europe occupy the central position in US concerns that it once did. The paradox may be that Europe, if not the UK, may be recognising that the times are a-changing, even as the new US foreign policy team seems designed for a more reassuring, but fast-vanishing, past.

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