Can an old Blob learn new tricks?

What did Biden's veteran foreign policy team learn in exile?

Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Joe Biden's election pitch leaned heavily on predictability and a return to the familiar. In his major foreign policy picks, the president-elect has certainly delivered.

With Antony Blinken at state, expected to be joined by Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, Michèle Fluornoy at defense, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the United Nations, Biden has picked a team with extensive experience across multiple administrations, dominated by figures with whom he has a long and close personal relationship. These are not political picks, designed to reward key supporters (sorry, Mayor Pete), nor do they constitute a team of rivals whose clashes could offer Biden a diversity of perspectives to choose between or reconcile. Rather, they are exemplary representatives of The Blob, the bi-partisan foreign policy establishment that Donald Trump ran so memorably against in 2016.

That's exactly what we should have expected from a Biden administration, and it may well be comforting to many. But it's also a test: of whether the establishment has learned anything, and whether you can teach an old blob new tricks.

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Trump's "America First" orientation in foreign policy didn't come from nowhere, and didn't triumph at the polls for no reason. It was a blunt response to a foreign policy that appeared to many to have been failing for a quarter century — failing to preserve and enhance American power, and failing to deliver for the American people. In the Balkans and the Baltic states, in Mesopotamia and the Maghreb, and in numerous other places across Europe, Asia, and Africa, America took on more and more open-ended responsibilities. Inasmuch as there was a strategy behind all this activity, it aimed at preserving American primacy rather than protecting specific American interests. The result, too often, was instability abroad and an increasing strain on America's military.

But the swerve of the past four years has neither ended those commitments nor redefined America's relationship with other powers in a productive way. We are still enmeshed in the Middle East wars begun by Trump's predecessors, while also growing more deeply implicated in the war in Yemen and more entrenched in our hostility toward Iran. Our relationship with our European allies has deteriorated badly — but so has our relationship with Russia. We are increasingly at open odds with China, but our major Asian allies are deepening their economic ties with Beijing, evincing limited faith in America's willingness and ability to respond to the Chinese challenge. It's not only because of the coronavirus that two thirds of Americans think the country is in decline, a number that has risen with every decade and with every administration, but most sharply since we elected a man who promised to make America great again.

This is the world that Biden's team of seasoned professionals will inherit. The simple question is whether they recognize how it has changed since they left office, which there is every sign they do. The more difficult question is whether they recognize how it came to be this way, and how substantial are the constraints preventing America from simply returning to the course they had formerly charted.

Biden's top priority will be to rebuild America's alliances. But America's allies cannot fail to have noticed the wild swings in American policy since the end of the Cold War, nor are they unaware that our most recent election was a close-run thing that delivered a divided government. Allies and rivals alike have taken note as American officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have continued to wield democratic idealism as a rhetorical cudgel even as they have engaged in the most cynical and anti-democratic rhetoric at home. So the more Biden promises, the more skeptical nations rationally should be that he can deliver; the more he demands, the more rational they would be in going around him to find allies among his domestic opposition. That's why any pretense of American leadership going forward depends on American unity first — something Biden's foreign policy team cannot achieve on their own, and that they therefore need to recognize as an objective constraint.

John Kerry, Biden's anticipated choice as special envoy on climate change, may desire deeply to restore America's leadership in that vital area. But his interlocutors in Beijing and Berlin, New Delhi and Tokyo will know that half the country opposes him, and will treat his proposals accordingly. Furthermore, they will know that the effort to woo Chinese cooperation on climate cuts against any effort to counter Chinese threats toward Taiwan, or the expansion of Chinese economic and technological dominance.

Meanwhile, even if Biden's team has learned the essential lesson from the past quarter century, and sets out to rebalance America's international commitments, to set priorities and establish limits, one thing they should have learned from the Obama years is that, in practice, such an effort can look an awful lot like losing. When America pulled out of Iraq and declined to intervene in Syria, ISIS emerged. That doesn't mean that America can't or shouldn't extricate itself from Afghanistan, from Libya, from Yemen — we most certainly can, and we should, because staying is achieving nothing for us. But we can't expect to be rewarded for it. Turkey, Russia, Iran, and China will move in as we move out, and it will take deft diplomacy to prevent further erosion in America's position elsewhere as a consequence.

That's the tragic reality of America's situation today. If Biden's picks are realists — not in being narrowly self-centered in their conception of America's interests, but in seeing the world as it is and not as they wish it might be — then they certainly have the experience, the intelligence, and the relationships to make the best of it.

But it's a big if.

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