US Foreign and Security Policy Direction Viewed from the Biden Administration's Lineup

Tsuneo Watanabe
Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation

The January 20 inaugural address of the new US President Joe Biden, in which he celebrated the triumph of American democracy and called for the unity of the people, reflected the difficult situation of division in the United States. His declaration, "We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again," 1 also reflected the serious division between the world and the United States caused by the "America-first" policy in the Trump administration. The international community took this message seriously. Following Biden's inauguration, European Commission President Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen posted on Twitter, "America is back." Looking at the newly announced cabinet nominees and other political appointments, the Biden administration's foreign and security policies are likely to reflect the three elements outlined in his inaugural message: democracy and human rights; an emphasis on the environment; and measures to combat COVID-19. This paper will outline the Biden administration's lineup that will support its foreign and security policies and consider its future policy direction.

The harsh political environment in which the Biden administration finds itself

The political environment in which the Biden administration finds itself is harsher than that which awaited any of the previous administrations. The centrist Democratic Biden administration faces resistance from both the Republican Party and the left-wing faction of the Democratic Party and is also in too precarious a position to maintain power and to implement its policies without coordination with both of these groups.

First of all, the Republican Congress and many of its supporters do not perceive the Biden administration as legitimate because President Donald Trump left office claiming that the recent presidential election was fraught with fraud. According to the Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted on January 10-13, 2021, 32 percent of respondents said that Biden did not legitimately win the presidential election. Notably, 70 percent of Republican voters said Biden did not legitimately win. The Biden administration must prepare for a tough stance from Republican supporters and Congress. 2

In addition, there is a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate --- Vice President Kamala Harris provides her party with a one-vote majority. The Democratic Party also holds a slim 222-211 majority in the House of Representatives. The Senate's approval is necessary for the appointment of government officials and for the ratification of treaties. The Republican Congress may exert a non-ignorable influence over foreign policy decisions, not to mention defense policy decisions in addition to debates on huge budgets.

On the other hand, support from the left in the Democratic Party was essential for Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential election. It has been pointed out that one of the reasons for Hillary Clinton's defeat in the 2016 presidential election was weak support from the Democratic left, which disliked her centrist stance. 3

President Biden is well aware of the political constraints imposed on his administration. His administration's appointments and policies take into account both the Republican Congress and the left in the Democratic Party. Thomas Wright, senior fellow and director of Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, interviewed some people from Biden's transition team. According to Wright, after Biden defeated leftist candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to win the Democratic nomination in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Jake Sullivan, former National Security Advisor to the Vice-President, and Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State, coordinated with the leftist (progressive) faction of the Democratic Party. Since there were few leftist experts in foreign affairs and security at that time, the leftists seemed to have agreed to assume key positions in economic and domestic affairs in the incoming administration.

However, some of the leftists are increasing pressure on Biden's foreign policy and security teams, thereby wielding their influence over US policies toward China, Iran, and military spending reduction. On the other hand, the Democratic left, which is domestic politics-oriented, seems to be concerned about the decline in the world of democracy and believe that such a tendency must halt. 4

China hard-liners and the pro-alliance group are at odds over US foreign and security policy toward Asia

On November 23, 2020, Biden announced the nominations of two of his closest aides, Blinken and Sullivan, as, respectively, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. Both of them are confidants who know the policy orientation of diplomatically experienced Biden, who served three times as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was Vice President of the United States for eight years. The media described Blinken as Biden's alter ego. 5

Biden, born in 1942, is a centrist Democrat and a realist who emphasizes power elements in foreign policy. Biden's two aides share this realism. Blinken (b. 1962) and Sullivan (b. 1976), who belong to generations much younger than Biden's, are more keenly aware of the challenges posed by China than Biden, who gained experience during the Cold War.

Sullivan has created a new position in the presidential National Security Council (NSC), which will report to him; the Coordinator for Indo-Pacific has been instituted above the Senior Director for Asia, a position which has so far been head of Asia policy. Kurt Campbell, who led the "Pivot" Policy (later renamed the Asia Rebalance Policy) as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the Obama administration, has been appointed to the new position. This appointment is believed to aim at mitigating the concerns of Japan, South Korea, and other allies in Asia that the pro-European President Biden and incoming Secretary of State Blinken might focus on the Russian threat or European allies and neglect Asia. 6

Sullivan and Campbell share a hard perception of China, which is associated with their emphasis on allies. A paper they co-authored offers a frank statement that to date the US engagement policy with China has been a mistake. Replacing the Cold War policy of "containment," the US engagement policy toward China aimed to: tolerate China's economic development and integrate the country into the international community; encourage China to respect international rules and democratic values, and in the long run, anticipate the democratization of China's political system. They point out that "the basic mistake of engagement was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China's political system, economy, and foreign policy." 7 In this regard, they share the same perception as the Trump administration's Secretary of State Pompeo, who pointed out the failure of the US engagement policy toward China in his speech delivered at the Nixon Memorial Library in July 2020. 8 Sullivan and Campbell also criticize the Trump administration's neglect of allies in Asia, arguing that the "United States needs to get back to seeing alliances as assets to be invested in rather than costs to be cut." 9

In a paper titled "China has two paths to global domination" that he co-authored with Hal Brands, professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Sullivan examines China's two approaches to global hegemony, arguing that the United States could frustrate those approaches through the network of US allies, especially close allies like Japan, which neighbors China across the sea. 10

Rush Doshi, director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative, and Laura Rosenberger, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF), were appointed as directors for Asia at the NSC under Sullivan and Campbell. 11 Doshi, in a joint paper with Campbell, proposed that the United States should curb China's military adventurism by rectifying the power balance between China and other Asian countries tilted heavily in China's favor. 12 In a joint Newsweek op-ed with Julianne Smith, director of the Asia and Geopolitics Programs at German Marshall Fund (an expert on Europe who served as Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden), Rosenberger warns of China's growing influence in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, as US-European relations are deteriorating under the spread of COVID-19. 13

Former Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Ely Ratner, Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), has been appointed special assistant to the Secretary of Defense. Ratner is known as a China hard-liner. He will be a chief advisor to the new Secretary of Defense Austin, who has little experience working in Asia.

Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who served as North Korea policy coordinator in the Clinton administration and worked on the comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran in the Obama administration, has been nominated as Deputy Secretary of State. This nomination of Sherman presumably takes into account not only negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons but also the threat of North Korea's nuclear development.

Warning and restraint from the left in the Democratic Party

The left-wing faction of the Democratic Party is alarmed by the appointment of such China hard-liners who will dominate the new administration. The leftists are not necessarily pro-China, but they are critical of China's human rights abuses and suppression of democracy. Nonetheless, they are wary of the escalation of the military confrontation between the United States and China, which would lead to an expansion of military budgets and tighten budgets for health care and social welfare. Consequently, the leftists have opposed the appointment of security experts tied closely to the military industry.

For example, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, a promising candidate for Secretary of Defense, wrote in her journal article that the United States should dispel doubts about its intentions and capabilities to deter China and that in addition to investment in military capabilities, the United States needs to emphasize its enduring presence in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen relations with its allies and partners. 14 Her argument coincides with the perceptions of Biden's diplomacy and security team mentioned above. In the end, however, President Biden nominated former US Central Command Commander Lloyd Austin III, who has no experience in Asia, to be Secretary of Defense instead of Flournoy.

President Biden responded to the demands of the Black Caucus by appointing for the first time a black man to the head of the Pentagon, showing some consideration for the concerns of the leftists. In a journal article, Biden praised Austin's ability to have carried out the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq as commander-in-chief of US forces in Iraq, anticipating that his experience as a military logistic expert will be helpful for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. 15 Perhaps Biden's "personal relationship" with Austin was also a vital factor: his eldest son Beau, who was later to die of illness at the age of 46, served under Austin while being deployed to Iraq. On January 22, the Senate approved Austin's appointment as Secretary of Defense, the first black in American history to serve as Secretary of Defense. This appointment is an example of how President Biden has considered the pressure from the Democratic left.

Emphasis on climate change and pandemic control

President Biden has brought to the center of his foreign policy agenda a policy issue, on which the centrist and the leftist can agree --- climate change response. Biden nominated Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA Administrator under Obama, to head the newly created Office of Domestic Climate Policy in the White House as the first White House National Climate Advisor. President Biden has thereby created an organization in charge of climate change that stands side by side with the National Security Council in charge of diplomacy and security and the National Economic Council responsible for economic policy. This is a move to place an unprecedented emphasis on climate change.

On his first day in office, President Biden signed a presidential executive order to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, from which the previous Trump administration had withdrawn the United States, and appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as the Presidential Envoy for Climate Change. This is a policy measure aiming to appeal to the European countries and the leftists in the Democratic Party. Both of them place importance on climate change.

The fight to control the COVID-19 outbreak, the most significant domestic problem for the Biden administration, is also a vital issue in its foreign and security policy agenda. On his first day in office, President Biden signed a presidential executive order to advance the process for rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO), from which President Donald Trump announced US withdrawal. President Biden has also reinstated the Global Health Security and Biodefense Division at the National Security Council, which the Trump administration abolished in May 2018. Elizabeth Cameron, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, who helped launch that division during the Obama administration and authored the NSC's pandemic playbook, was named senior director in charge. 16

Diplomatic emphasis on democracy and human rights

In his inaugural address, President Biden declared the triumph of American democracy and his determination to continue to defend democracy, noting that Congress and the judiciary had rejected former President Trump's baseless attempt to overturn the presidential election results. At the same time, he expressed his will to repair relations with US allies and engage with global issues. It is a message not only addressed to American citizens. While asking democratic allies and partners for cooperation, the message articulated US opposition to China and Russia, which deny democratic values and try to expand their influence in the world.

This political agenda-setting will appeal to the Democratic left concerned about the possible expansion of defense spending favored by Biden's pragmatic foreign and security team because the left in the Democratic Party is, as mentioned above, apprehensive about the ebbing of democracy in the world.

The Biden administration has appointed Shanthi Kalathil of the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy as Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights at the National Security Council. In the Department of State, President Biden nominated Uzra Zeya, former Acting Assistant US Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, to be Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, and Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, to be Administrator of USAID. 17 Those who are politically liberal but support US military intervention in favor of human rights and democracy are called "liberal hawks." Samantha Power is a prime example. President Biden has nominated former NATO ambassador Victoria Nuland for Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the third-ranking position in the Department of State. Nuland is also a "liberal hawk." Liberal hawks are said to be close to neoconservatives who legitimize US armed intervention to achieve democratic values; in fact, Nuland's husband is neocon commentator Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Revitalization of American diplomacy and functions of the Department of State

The Trump administration downplayed traditional diplomacy practiced by diplomats. For example, in the two unsuccessful US-North Korea summits, President Trump sought, above all, for outcomes advantageous to his reelection and continued diplomacy with little prospect for success and neglected professional diplomats. The Biden administration seems to be considering, as an antithesis to the Trump diplomacy, reinstating traditional diplomacy and the prestige of the Department of State, taking into account the wishes of progressives in the Democratic Party, who are wary of an expansion of the military budget.

John Finer, who served as Vice President Biden's speechwriter, has been appointed as Principal Deputy National Security Advisor. He concluded in his recommendations on the revitalization of the Department of State prepared for the Council on Foreign Relations that "diplomacy remains the best tool the United States has to advance its foreign policy interests." 18

Although the Trump administration reduced the number of Deputy Secretaries of State from two to one, Biden has decided to have two deputies to Secretary of State as in the Obama administration. In addition to Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the Biden administration, therefore, has appointed Brian McKeon, former Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Policy (earlier Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden), as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources. This nomination aims at leveraging the Department of State.

Brett McGurk, a former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, has been appointed as Middle East Coordinator at the NSC. He was in charge of Middle East affairs since the Obama administration through the Trump administration but resigned in opposition to President Trump's unilateral call for the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. 19 An early withdrawal of US troops from Syria, which would have endangered the US-allied Kurdish armed forces and would have damaged the trust to the United States of its allies around the world, led to the resignation of the then Secretary of Defense Mattis. The appointment of McGurk may represent an antithesis to the failed "Trump diplomacy" that disregarded the voices of allies, overseas US troops, diplomats, and the Department of State.


Viewing the appointments made by the Biden administration, the feature and direction of its foreign and security policies can be summarized as follows. First, President Biden is attempting to strike a balance between the Republican Party, which is influential in Congress, and the leftist faction of the Democratic Party that he cooperated with in the presidential election, thereby leading to his centrist, pragmatic policies. To this end, he has placed in key government positions those people who have gained Biden's trust through working closely with him as his aides during his long political career.

President Biden is also trying to revitalize American diplomacy by emphasizing the functions of the government bureaucracy, especially the Department of State, which was at the mercy of President Trump's self-righteous foreign and security policies in the Trump era. His efforts in this direction take into account pressure from the Democratic left, which is wary of expanding defense budgets. They also aim at mitigating the concerns of the international community, especially US allies, about the America-first policy in the Trump era. President Biden has also placed climate change policy, which will enlist the support of the left in the Democratic Party and the European allies, at the center of his energy and foreign policy. His expert recruitment of staff and steady policy direction owe much to his long political career. But the harsh political environment surrounding his administration also obliges Biden to recruit his staff members and adopt the policy direction as he has done.

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