President-elect Joe Biden has spent most of his long career cultivating expertise in foreign policy, so it is no surprise that his picks for three of the top foreign policy positions—Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence—are among his closest, most trusted aides on the topic.
The choices suggest that the Biden administration will speak in one voice on national security issues—avoiding the internecine conflicts that beset many presidencies, especially early on. And the unitary voice will be in synch with Biden’s voice. Foreign leaders will have no cause to wonder, as they often have in the past, whether these officials speak on behalf of the president. Both traits are especially vital—for assuring allies and apprising adversaries—after President Donald Trump’s four years of chaos.
Since all three spent years in senior staff positions in the White House, the State Department, and Congress, they won’t need any remedial training; they will start work as full-blown professionals, knowing the issues and the landscape—again, unlike Trump’s appointees.
The combination of expertise and unanimity will harden if Michèle Flournoy is named secretary of defense, as many expect. A widely respected military analyst and former senior Pentagon official in both policy and administrative positions, Flournoy co-founded WestExec, a consulting firm specializing in global risk assessment, after Trump was elected. The firm’s other co-founder was … Tony Blinken.
Yet this clear virtue of intellectual harmony carries the risk of groupthink: If the top officials share the same assumptions and experiences, creative thinking—important in dealing with a fast-changing world—may get short shrift. These officials are smart enough to know that what worked a decade ago may not work now, but they might be less open to new approaches.
Maybe Vice President Kamala Harris and her national security advisers will play devil’s advocate, just as Biden did to President Barack Obama. And maybe the new Cabinet secretaries’ underlings will challenge them, just as they challenged the likes of Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton during the Obama years.
In some ways, Biden’s national security team will resemble that of the Obama administration—where many of them started working in government—but with one crucial difference. At one point of his new memoir, Obama writes about the occasional “friction between the new and old guard inside my foreign policy team”—the old guard being the more traditional Cabinet secretaries, the new guard being the young staff, far from firebrands but more idealistic, “wanting to break from some of the constraints of the past in pursuit of something better.” Blinken, Sullivan, and Haines were leading figures in Obama’s new guard. Now they’re about to be in Biden’s old guard, and this is likely to tilt policy at least a little bit—especially since, in several of these internal conflicts back then, Biden sided with the young staff.
The cleavages weren’t strictly liberal-conservative or dove-hawk. Biden and the young staffers opposed the escalation of the war in Afghanistan—but they supported U.S. military operations to stave off humanitarian disasters, notably in Syria and Libya. If past is precedent, the Biden years may see fewer big wars but more humanitarian interventions.
Biden’s presidency is also likely to see a firming up of U.S. alliances in Europe, Asia, and South America; a more critical stance toward Saudi Arabia for its human rights violations; and a return to several diplomatic forums that Trump abandoned—the Paris climate accords, the World Health Organization, the Open Skies Treaty, an extension of the U.S.-Russian New START nuclear arms reduction treaty (which is set to expire in February), and, if possible, the Iran nuclear deal.
Biden’s nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations may also signal new overtures to African nations, which have been all but ignored the past four years. His first Black nominee, Thomas-Greenfield, 68, is a longtime foreign service officer who served as Obama’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs and has been running the State Department section of Biden’s transition team—meaning she is thoroughly in synch with the president-elect’s approach to foreign policy. Her article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, titled “The Transformation of Diplomacy: How to Save the State Department,” indicates she shared his views already.
Biden has always touted the primacy of American values in foreign policy, to a greater degree than Obama, who, though values played an important role in his calculations, was more in the “realist” school of international relations. (Hence Biden’s frequent remark that U.S strength lies not only in “the example of our power but in the power of our example.”)
Blinken shares Biden’s view to his core. He worked as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when Biden was its chairman, then as his national security adviser, when Biden was vice president. Obama hired him away as his own deputy national security adviser and then as deputy secretary of state. But he always stayed close to Biden, serving as his chief foreign policy adviser during the campaign.
More than that, Blinken—who grew up in Manhattan and Paris—was deeply influenced by his Polish-born stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor and an international lawyer who spent much of the Cold War trying to reduce tensions between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. Though the young Blinken entertained other career paths—rock guitarist (he still plays in a band that covers Beatles and other pop tunes), independent filmmaker, or something in the arts (his father, Donald Blinken, a prominent investment banker, and his mother, Judith, are both major art patrons and collectors)—Pisar’s influence steered him to study law, then pursue the direction he took
Jake Sullivan, 43, also studied law, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Beyer, then worked as counselor for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who introduced him to Hillary Clinton, who hired him as her policy planning director when she was Obama’s secretary of state. He then succeeded Blinken as Biden’s national security adviser. Like Blinken, he advocated bombing Syrian military targets after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens; both advisers were shocked when Obama, who had been on the verge of ordering airstrikes, changed his mind. Sullivan played a major role in the Iran nuclear deal, secretly meeting with Iranian officials several times in Oman—meetings that made the subsequent negotiations possible
His strongest point, though, may be his grounding in domestic policy. During Biden’s campaign, he worked mainly on COVID-19 relief and economic recovery. Biden has said that his most challenging issues, including the pandemic, will involve the intersection of foreign and domestic policy. In that sense, Sullivan may be better suited than anyone else on Biden’s team to be national security adviser—a job that involves coordinating policy with all the federal agencies.
Avril Haines, 51, who, if confirmed, will be the first female director of national intelligence, has veered through the most varied avenues. Born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she has degrees in law and theoretical physics, a pilot’s license, and a brown belt from an elite judo institute in Japan. Like Blinken, she worked for Biden as a staffer—in her case, deputy chief counsel—on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She also worked in the State Department, before and after then, for Republican and Democratic administrations. Obama named her deputy director of the CIA and, shortly after that, deputy national security adviser—the first woman to hold either job and the first person to hold both.
At the CIA, she supervised the redaction of a highly critical Senate report about the agency’s torture of suspected terrorists, but she also placed restrictions on the agency’s use of drones to kill them—garnering controversy for both. As deputy national security adviser, she disagreed with the National Security Council principals—the Cabinet secretaries—on nuclear war policy, prompting her to think about printing up T-shirts reading, “Deputies should run the world.” Now she too will be a principal.
In the lead-up to Biden’s announcement of his foreign policy team, which is scheduled to take place Tuesday, many speculated that Blinken would be national security adviser and Susan Rice—who was national security adviser under Obama and was, over the summer, a runner-up on Biden’s very short list of possible running mates—would be secretary of state. However, when the Democrats failed to win a substantial number of Senate seats in last month’s election, this prospect dimmed. Many Republicans had demonized Rice for her role in the Benghazi crisis, and while their loathing was entirely unjustified, the label has stuck. (Rice, who was U.N. ambassador at the time and thus played no role in decision-making on the crisis, was hauled out to read the CIA’s talking points on all the Sunday TV talk shows after Hillary Clinton declined to do so. A few of the points turned out to be inaccurate; she got the blame.) A very self-assured professional, whose flair for profanity matches her intelligence, Rice did herself no favors when, on a podcast last month, she denounced Sen. Lindsey Graham, her most virulent critic over Benghazi, as “a piece of shit.”
Obama was going to name Rice as secretary of state in his second term, after Clinton stepped down, until Republican leaders, who controlled the Senate, told him she wouldn’t be confirmed. Their resistance hasn’t subsided. Even if the Democrats regain control after the senate runoffs in Georgia, giving them 50–50 standing (with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote), Biden seems to have realized that nominating Rice might rub against his pledge to end partisan rancor.
It was in Obama’s second term that Rice became national security adviser (a job that doesn’t require Senate confirmation), and Blinken was her deputy. In her 2019 memoir, Tough Love (which, by the way, is a very engaging, sometimes fascinating book), Rice praised Blinken as “a wonderful colleague and friend … with a hokey humor and smooth style that provided a kinder, gentler counterbalance to my own.” She touted and congratulated him in a tweet Sunday night.
However, one Biden associate told me a few weeks ago, shortly after the election, that the top security slots would be shaped by Blinken: If he wanted to be secretary of state, Biden would have been hard pressed to turn down his request.