Biden brings back the establishment

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announces his national security nominees and appointees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 24, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate Antony Blinken, one of his closest advisers, to be the next secretary of state. Blinken joins a slate of anticipated Biden national security nominees who are veterans of the Obama years and known quantities in the Washington political scene: Jake Sullivan as the expected White House national security adviser, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, Alejandro Mayorkas as the secretary of homeland security and former secretary of state John Kerry as the Biden administration’s climate czar.

If confirmed, Mayorkas would be the first Latino American to take his post. Michele Flournoy, another former Obama administration official, is likely to be Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense. And Biden is expected to tap Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve chairwoman, as treasury secretary. Haines, Flournoy and Yellen would be the first women to hold their respective roles.

The anticipated appointments offer “one of the first windows into the administration Biden is hoping to build,” my colleagues reported. “If Trump’s administration was designed to upset the pillars of government and global order, Biden’s appears aimed at rebuilding it with people who have held similar roles in the past.”

The implicit message here is that of a return to competent governance and an end to the whirlwind of ax-grinding appointees and palace dramas that consumed U.S. agencies under President Donald Trump. Biden allies say his administration will revive morale in the State Department, whose career officers Trump tarred as apparatchiks of a “deep state” and whose funds the president sought to cut.

Blinken is no Rex Tillerson, the Texan oil executive with minimal diplomatic experience whose strapping figure is said to have influenced Trump’s decision to pick him as secretary of state. Nor is Blinken much like current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former congressman who has spent his years in office making the ideological case for confrontation with China and Iran, while battling the press corps and possibly laying the groundwork for a future presidential bid.

Blinken would offer less “swagger” and more sobriety. Figures close to him describe his political worldview as broadly centrist and pragmatic. Blinken is a genuine Atlanticist with precisely the sort of pedigreed background that right-wing populists caricature as “globalist.” His upbringing was split between New York and Paris and he speaks flawless French; he summered in the Hamptons, was educated at Harvard University and worked at a number of prestigious white-shoe law firms before making his way into the Clinton administration.

But it’s his many years of service as a trusted Biden adviser that have led him to potentially become the United States’s next top diplomat. “He has the judgment, the raw substantive knowledge, and the ability to interface with leaders to do any job his country could ever ask of him,” Biden said of Blinken in a 2013 interview with Politico.

Blinken was Biden’s chief surrogate during the 2020 campaign and has already played a leading role in articulating the Biden administration’s foreign policy goals. In a call with reporters the week before the election, Blinken attacked Trump for leading an American “retreat” from the world stage, leaving “chaos” in its wake and vacuums for countries such as China and Russia to exploit. He said a future Biden administration would place an emphasis on “leadership, cooperation and democracy.”

Biden conducted a flurry of phone calls with leading European officials on Monday, signaling once more an American commitment to traditional alliances and multilateral diplomacy. On human rights and democracy, in particular, the Biden administration is expected to be more vocal than Trump. In recent days, Blinken has publicly called out alleged abuses by governments in Egypt and Ethiopia.

Blinken faces the skepticism of critics on both the left and the right. The former see figures like Blinken as handmaidens to years of ultimately doomed U.S. policy in the Middle East. They also are wary of the cozy relationships cultivated by many establishment Democrats with the private sector, including lucrative consultancies and advisory roles with major tech and arms companies. Washington’s hawks, meanwhile, fault Obama-era officials for their liberal idealism and inability to stem the wars in Syria and Ukraine – crises that defined the Obama administration’s second term.

“The last administration has to acknowledge that we failed, not for want of trying, but we failed,” Blinken said about the war in Syria during a May interview with CBS. “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees. And it’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days.”

Samantha Power, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations also rumored to be in the running for a position in Biden’s team, argues that the next administration ought to shift the conversation away from past regrets to new successes. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, she outlined three major foreign policy steps that go further than simply reversing Trump’s actions: The U.S. should “spearhead global vaccine distribution in a way that reminds the world of what the United States can uniquely do”; it should dispel years of Trumpist xenophobia by boosting foreign student admissions to U.S. universities; and it should lead new international efforts to crackdown on corruption and shadowy tax havens.

This way, a Biden administration can “meet much of the world where it is: reeling from a deadly pandemic, alienated by the United States’ xenophobic turn, and hungering for a form of governance that is accountable to the people,” Power wrote. “They would also remind the world not of the nebulous ‘return of U.S. leadership’ but of specific U.S. capabilities.”



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