North Korea’s nuclear program is further along, despite all the “love letters” Trump exchanged with the dictator Kim Jong Un. The Taliban is on the march in Afghanistan, unimpressed by the Trump administration’s negligible “peace” talks. Trump’s hasty push to bring US troops overseas home by January, days before the inauguration, is going to leave his successor boxed in, both in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Then there is the defunct US nuclear deal with Iran. The world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, in Yemen. And China’s expansionist behavior, assault on democracy in Hong Kong and human rights abuses against the Uighurs.
There is also the worsening pandemic. And looming over everything else, the planet-wide threat of climate change.
Against this scary backdrop, the people Biden has chosen to fill key national security and foreign policy posts reflect his wish to restore order and to value competence and experience. The six picks for national security posts, whom Biden formally introduced at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday have around one and half centuries of public service among them.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, is a centrist Democrat well known to foreign leaders from his time in the Obama administration as deputy secretary of state and principal deputy national security adviser. He is a savvy diplomat who can help restore morale at the State Department, which largely collapsed during the indifferent tenures of secretaries Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo.
Blinken’s overseas interlocutors will know that he speaks for President Biden, as the two have worked closely together for almost two decades, since Blinken was staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was its chair.
Blinken will reassure longtime American allies that the United States will once again take its place as the first among equals in NATO and stop kowtowing to adversaries like North Korea and Russia.
Avril Haines, who is also leading Biden’s foreign policy and national security transition team, is a deft pick to be director of national intelligence, coordinating the work of the 17 US intelligence agencies. She is a former deputy director of the CIA and a former principal deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration. She would be the first woman DNI, and the ideal leader to restore morale in the much-battered intelligence community.
Jake Sullivan, a former Rhodes scholar, who was Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, now will be the President’s national security adviser. It’s one of the toughest jobs in Washington, as it requires managing the often unwieldy “interagency process” to give the president the best possible menu of policy options when he has to make tough national security decisions.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield should be a safe pair of hands as ambassador to the United Nations given her three and a half decades of diplomatic experience. Biden has said he will elevate the role to a cabinet position, signaling to the world that he is serious about reinvigorating international bodies.
The Department of Homeland Security, a behemoth agency with more than 240,000 employees, has never been easy to manage. Alejandro Mayorkas, an immigrant son of Cuban refugees, would be the first Latino to be nominated to run DHS.
He was the agency’s No. 2 under President Obama, and before that the head of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles naturalizations. He is widely respected by immigrant-rights advocates for his work for the “Dreamers” by setting up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which has helped hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants work and go to school, while protecting them from deportation.
Biden has yet to name his choice for Secretary of Defense. Many expect it to be Michèle Flournoy, a former top Obama Pentagon official. Are there other candidates that Biden may still be mulling, such as Jeh Johnson, an Obama administration veteran who was the general counsel at the Pentagon and then the secretary of homeland security, who would be the first Black man to be Secretary of Defense were he to be nominated and confirmed?
Whoever Biden picks in that role will surely have a world of troubles to contend with.
To be sure, fixing some of them will be relatively easy. America’s NATO allies
are already pivoting quickly to support the President-elect.
Rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate is also a relatively simple matter, since it’s not a binding treaty that needs to be ratified by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Reversing the Trump administration’s pique-filled rejection of the World Health Organization is also a no-brainer in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century.
Biden will surely bring more savvy and humility to the North Korean nuclear issue than Trump, who thought he would succeed where every other president since Bill Clinton had failed and instead who got played like a Stradivarius by Chairman Kim.
Despite the rise of an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan and the recent significant battlefield advances by the Taliban, Trump is now pushing to remove all but 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by January 15 unilaterally and with no regard for the deteriorating conditions on the ground.
This is bad for Biden. No president wants to have to send more Americans back into Afghanistan, and Biden opposed a large-scale troop presence there when he was vice president. Trump’s pullout also ends the meager leverage his negotiating team has with the Taliban, since the Taliban’s principal goal is the removal of US troops.
Trump is pushing a withdrawal from Iraq. Biden knows well what happened when the Obama administration pulled all US troops out of Iraq in 2011. Three years later, ISIS took over much of the country and Obama had to send thousands of troops back there. The Biden team surely doesn’t want to see this history repeat itself.
In 2018, the Trump administration exited the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by President Obama’s team, and since then the Iranians have restarted the modest production of nuclear fuel.
While Biden has said he will revive the nuclear deal, the Iranians have sent mixed messages about whether they will go along, and what price they will extract.
Trump gained little from his embrace of the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, who continues to act erratically in the Middle East, pursing his failed war in Yemen.
The Trump administration is now contemplating designating the Houthi rebel group there as a terrorist organization, which would likely hamper efforts to make peace between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
And then, of course, there is China which has continued its efforts to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. China also continues to extirpate what remains of democracy in Hong Kong and has interned some one million Uighurs in what it euphemistically terms “re-education camps.” The Biden administration must try and pull off the delicate task of containing China’s rising power and calling out its human rights violations, while also not endangering the economic ties that are key to a well-functioning global economy.
Then there is the coronavirus. Under Trump, the United States has fared poorly among advanced nations about its own handling of the virus, and while there is promising news on vaccines, it will take many months to manufacture and widely distribute them. Something approaching normality is only likely to return in the fall of 2021.
The baleful effects of a warming planet are all around us, from the vast forest fires in the American West to the record number of destructive hurricanes in the southern United States. This will likely be the hottest year since record-keeping began, according to meteorologists.
By appointing the former senator and secretary of state John Kerry to a new cabinet-level position for climate change, Biden is widening the aperture about what really constitutes our “national security.”
And that may be his most consequential move of all.