In just 48 hours from now, by noon on January 20th, President Joe Biden will be inaugurated in a subdued and closely-guarded ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington. Donald Trump, still claiming, but without any proof, that November’s election was “stolen” from him, will be conspicuously absent – probably playing golf at his home in Florida.
It is hard to remember a US president who faced greater domestic and worldwide challenges because of the Covid pandemic and its devastating economic impact – and the sense that Trump has disastrously eroded America’s global reputation. Still, soon after his victory, Biden declared with impressive confidence: “America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”
Biden has significant advantages thanks to the four decades he has spent close to the pinnacle of US politics. First elected as senator in 1972, he served as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and then from 2008-2016 as Barack Obama’s vice-president. The veteran Democrat has already made clear his priorities.
His guiding principle is multilateralism – in contrast to the Make America Great Again unilateralism favored by his transactional and disruptive predecessor. Biden has pledged to engage with China, distance the US from Russia, improve relations with NATO, revive the Iranian nuclear deal, re-join the Paris Climate Accord and end America’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And he has provided telling clues in selecting the men and women he will depend upon. First is Antony Blinken –Biden’s nominee for secretary of state: he served as national security adviser to Biden and the two have worked together for nearly 20 years. On a negative point, Blinken was blamed for advising Biden to vote to authorize George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2002.
Blinken echoed Biden shortly after his win: “We can’t solve all the world’s problems alone. We need to be working with other countries. We need their cooperation. We need their partnership. But also, confidence because America at its best still has a greater ability than any other country on earth to bring others together to meet the challenges of our time.”
Another key figure is Jake Sullivan, chosen by Biden as his national security adviser. Sullivan helped oversee Obama’s Iran nuclear negotiations and also coordinated foreign policy for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign. He has served as director of policy planning at the State Department. Wendy Sherman, nominated for deputy secretary of state, was also closely involved in nuclear talks with Iran and North Korea.
Biden’s choice as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, has attracted positive attention. Burns, a seasoned and widely respected diplomat, managed the nuclear negotiations with Iran. “Biden’s choice… certainly reflects the president-elect’s commitment to serious diplomacy, and it is a morale booster for diplomats,” as two former colleagues wrote.
And John Kerry, former senator, secretary of state under Obama – and presidential candidate – is Biden’s nomination for the brand new post of Climate Change Envoy, emphasizing his serious approach to this increasingly urgent topic.
Samantha Power, the Irish-American who served on Obama’s National Security Council, as well as envoy to the United Nations, will head up USAID, the American international development agency. Another woman is Linda Thomas-Greenfield, one of the most prominent black US diplomats who worked for years on African affairs. She has been nominated to serve as US ambassador to the UN. Another early priority will be re-joining the World Health Organisation after Trump withdrew from that in the course of the pandemic.
Overall, Biden’s team is a throwback to the Obama period, with an emphasis on experience, familiarity with other governments and a shared commitment to liberal internationalism. Critics have warned of a tendency to exaggerate the importance of US military power and the risk of coming up with policies that can be described as “Obama 2.0.” Biden, however, is known to have had reservations about some aspects of Obama’s approach.
In his memoirs, A Promised Land, Obama mentions Biden in a positive way as warm and friendly character. ”On domestic issues, he was smart, practical and did his homework. His experience in foreign policy was broad and deep,” he writes. Obama was also quoted as saying: “The best thing about Joe is that when we get everybody together, he really forces people to think and defend their positions, to look at things from every angle, and that is very valuable for me.”
The new president’s advisers will face several immediate challenges – or traps it is fairer to say – laid by Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, and perhaps a future presidential candidate. Pompeo’s recent moves include naming Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization and challenging US relations with China by lifting restrictions on contacts between US officials and representatives from the self-governing island of Taiwan.
Biden and team are collectively competent, moderate and rational. The comparison with Trump and Pompeo and their officials could hardly be greater. To say that they will face uphill struggles is an understatement. But the whole world has a strong interest in hoping they succeed.