Does anyone recall the old Alka-Seltzer commercial that sang: “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, Oh what a relief it is?”
That song ricocheted ‘round my head as the Trump administration finally greenlit a transition period to the Biden presidency. And as President-elect Joe Biden unveiled his national security team, including longtime foreign policy aides Antony Blinken as future secretary of state and Jake Sullivan for national security adviser, along with former Secretary of State John Kerry as cabinet-level climate czar.
Yes, Senate Republicans like Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), finally freed to start campaigning for 2024, have already blasted the picks as an Obama team redux that will speed America’s decline. And Democratic progressives will complain they’re too mainstream and like-minded.
Both those critiques have it backward. It was Donald Trump who accelerated our country’s decline by undermining our democratic institutions, which he continues to do as he exits. It was Donald Trump who badly wounded our ability to deal with an adversarial Russia and China with his America First policy that fired experts and disdained our allies.
At this critical moment, we need deep foreign policy expertise — and steadiness — at the top, in contrast with Trump chaos (Blinken held the number two job at the State Dept. under President Obama). This will ensure that the Biden cabinet can hit the ground running, especially on the pandemic and vaccine distribution.
And Biden’s foreign policy team appears to recognize that it must address the world it faces today, meaning a far cry from the Obama era of 2008-2016.
Of course, a central theme of Biden’s foreign policy is the rebuilding of alliances and institutions that Trump disdained or quit. Some, like the World Health Organization, are imperfect, but given Trump’s abdication, China is positioned to reshape international rules.
And, obviously, there is no way to fight a pandemic or combat climate change if America insists on going it alone.
“A Biden administration would do the opposite of what Trump administration has done in terms of pulling back from our leadership in international organizations, institutions, alliances,” Blinken told CBS’s Face the Nation in May. “Whether we like it or not, the world doesn’t organize itself,” he continued. “In the absence of our doing it, either someone else does [or] no one does. And then you tend to have chaos.”
That is the road toward which America First has led.
But, as I noted, Biden’s team do not appear fixated on a return to the status quo ante prior to Trumpworld. Renewing alliances is critical to confronting America’s main foreign policy challenge: China’s aggressive military and economic competition.
“Tony Blinken’s views on China have changed,” says Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, meaning a tougher look at handling the relationship in close coordination with allies. “America can’t confront China alone,” Zakheim added. “Look at the bullying of the Australians,” a reference to Beijing’s punitive blocking of Australian exports to China after Canberra dared to call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
However — and here it really gets interesting — beyond the need to strengthen alliances the Biden team knows it has to link foreign policy with policy at home.
“We have to start by putting ourselves in a position of strength from which to engage China,” Blinken said in the Face the Nation interview.
One sign: a central Biden foreign policy theme of reorienting foreign policy around the needs of the middle class. This concept has been promoted by Sullivan, a thoughtful strategist and former national security adviser to Biden. The youngest team member, he will turn 44 this week.
Absorbing the lessons from Trump’s continued populist appeal, Sullivan argues that pro-market democracies must adapt their economic model to deal with inequality, technological disruption, and climate change. All three are fraying democratic systems and encouraging the rise of autocrats or their imitators, abroad and even here.
Without repairing democracy at home, he argues, it will be impossible to compete with the authoritarian model of capitalism which China is promoting.
Toward this end, Sullivan proposes that greater government investments in infrastructure, technology research, and education be treated as national security measures, not largesse. The U.S. cannot compete without them.
“Industrial policy” should be seen as a norm, as it was when Dwight D. Eisenhower built the interstate highway network. More government and private investment in innovation is key if we don’t want China to dominate the world’s technological future.
The policies Sullivan proposes are not new, but they are smart in linking domestic policy directly to America’s most important foreign policy challenge, China. This may open the door to bipartisan political cooperation on some of these policies, a goal Biden is eager to pursue.
Whether the bipartisanship pursued by Biden and Blinken can make headway remains to be seen.
But overall, the Biden team appears primed to pull back U.S. foreign policy from the America First disaster that was undermining our democracy and strengthening our rivals. Oh what a relief it is, indeed.