Current Affairs Global Affairs

The Establishment Strikes Back? – Exploring America’s Post-Trump Foreign Policy

It would be fair to say that every member of the incoming Biden administration has a stressful job ahead of them. Their list of tasks is undeniably daunting: dealing with one of the world’s worst Covid outbreaks; restoring faith in a government structure undermined by four years of populism; and attempting to reconcile a country  in which a significant proportion of the population believe the election was “stolen”. However, the magnitude of the task ahead is all the more amplified for the members of Biden’s foreign policy team. While Trump’s incompetence largely prevented him from doing too much damage domestically, it is undeniable that America’s global standing has collapsed over the past four years. America is still the most powerful country on the planet, but it is now isolated from the international allies it spent decades leading, and is no longer seen as the “shining city on a hill” of the 20th century.

Luckily for Biden, his transition team brings with him a wealth of experience. To be fair to the president-elect, he himself is immensely qualified in this regard. During his time in the Senate, Biden served as either ranking member or chair of the Foreign Relations Committee for twelve years; as vice-president he oversaw that administration’s international policy. Unsurprisingly, his nominations for the top foreign policy jobs in Washington fundamentally  reflect Biden’s view of the world, many of them having worked with him for years. Yet by exploring their backgrounds and beliefs, we still may be able to shine a light on how America will approach the myriad problems it faces over the next four years.

Antony Blinken – Secretary of State

Antony Blinken, who is in line for the top foreign policy job in Washington, is as close a Biden ally as one could imagine. Derided by some progressives as a member of the foreign policy “blob”, Blinken has worked with the president-elect for 20 years, first as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and then as vice-presidential National Security Advisor during Obama’s first term. Blinken grew up in France and can speak the language fluently, a fact which reflects itself in the perceptions of him as a committed Europhile with a deep commitment to the trans-atlantic alliance. He also represents a continuation of the interventionist tradition which dominated Washington in the 2000s. Whereas Trump’s administration has seen a piecemeal draw-down of US commitment abroad, Blinken supported the intervention in Libya and has shown regret that the US did not act against Assad. Controversially for some on the left of the Democratic party, he is also a staunch supporter of Israel, having stated that America should maintain the alliance regardless of Jerusalem’s domestic issues.

Jake Sullivan – National Security Advisor 

At 44 years old, Sullivan will be the youngest National Security Advisor in almost 60 years, and the position represents yet another step on a long road of success for the former Rhodes Scholar. While studying at Magdalen College in the late ‘90s, Sullivan was a regular at the Oxford Union, where he gave impassioned speeches supporting ideals of American Exceptionalism. Since then, Sullivan has continued to believe in the greatness of America, but has written of his concern about how younger generations of Americans view their countries in the context of the War on Terror. Like Blinken, Sullivan has a wealth of foreign policy experience, having worked at the State Department and alongside Hillary Clinton, Obama, and Biden himself. Interestingly, he has hinted at wanting to reduce the powers of the National Security Council in favour of the Cabinet departments. However, he has also argued for a stronger line against China. Compared to some other members of Biden’s team, Sullivan is perhaps less ideologically wedded to the interventionist doctrine of the “Forever Wars” era, but is nonetheless a bona fide member of Washington’s establishment.

Avril Haines – Director of National Intelligence

Haines is the first woman to have been nominated to the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), having previously served as Deputy CIA Director under Obama. In this role she played a key role in the controversial expansion of the drone program, which caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians during the Obama era. She further caused controversy among progressives by refusing to discipline CIA agents accused of hacking in to the computers of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee. As DNI, Haines will be charged with overseeing America’s vast security apparatus which includes the CIA and NSA. Alongside the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Haines will have to deal with the ramifications of a massive Russian cyber attack on the US government, which recently saw them gain entry to computers at the departments of Energy, Treasury, and Commerce. Like the other Biden appointees, Haines cannot be considered a true progressive at heart. However, she has experience and a good working relationship with the rest of the administration, marking a break from the dysfunctional personalism of the Trump era. 

Linda Thomas-Greenfield – Ambassador to the UN

As UN Ambassador, Thomas-Greenfield will be on the frontlines of trying to rebuild America’s diplomatic reputation among the international community. She will have to work at the top of an organisation which Trump has publicly disparaged, and which represents the very antithesis of the isolationist worldview America has championed over the past four years. Greenfield herself was a victim of Trump’s disregard for the diplomatic service, being forced out of the State Department after former oil-executive Rex Tillerson was made secretary. Prior to this she had worked at State since 1982, holding ambassadorial roles in Switzerland, Pakistan, and Kenya among others and heading the department’s Bureau of African Affairs. During her exile from the federal government, she worked at the consulting firm Albright Stonebridge, a past which may lead progressives who distrust the “revolving door” between government and lobbyists to be wary of her. However, she perhaps summed up the approach of the future Biden administration best in November when she declared “America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back”.

Lloyd Austin – Secretary of Defence

Capping off the list of major foreign policy appointees is the former general Lloyd Austin, the first Black nominee for Defence Secretary.  During his decades-long military service, Austin commanded troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was head of Central Command, the military zone which covers America’s ongoing quagmires in the Middle East. As such he has considerable experience for the role, with little known regarding his policy positions. However, this has not prevented controversy from arising. Austin only retired from the military in 2016, meaning Biden will have to ask Congress to grant a special waiver on the rule that prevents ex-generals from serving as Secretary for seven years after retirement. This has been granted before, most recently to James Mattis in 2017. Nonetheless some Democrats, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, have said they will vote against Austin to maintain the doctrine of civilian control over the military. Furthermore, some progressives are alarmed by his post-military employment at the arms manufacturer Raytheon where he sits on the company’s board. Thus, while Austin’s nomination will probably pass Congress, it will by no means be without controversy. 

All this shows that the foreign policy establishment, described by ex-Obama staffer Ben Rhodes as “the blob”, is back in Washington. This is not to say that American foreign policy will seamlessly revert back to the model of Obama, let alone George Bush. All of Biden’s appointees will serve in a radically changed world, and will be keenly aware that their view of policy is not shared by many Americans. However, the absence of any progressive voices at the top table is noticeable. This is in part simply due to the lack of foreign policy experience among the Democratic left, and it is likely that progressives like Trita Parsi will be appointed to junior roles to gain experience. Nonetheless, Biden’s picks underline a spiritual return to the ideologies of interventionism, multilateralism, and American Exceptionalism which have fallen out of favour, both under Trump, and within the radical sections of Biden’s own party. 

Dan Hubbard is a Global Affairs editor at the Oxford Blue. He is a second year Historian at St John's college and when not at Oxford lives near Liverpool