This week, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announced the nominees for his national security team. All are familiar faces, experts in their fields, with extensive experience in the bureaucracies that they will soon lead.
It is a capable and competent group, one that will serve U.S. national interests and reassure allies that the new administration understands its roles and responsibilities and takes them seriously. The rest of the world and the Republican opposition may not cooperate in that endeavor, however, and whatever return to normalcy that candidate Biden promised may prove beyond his and his team’s reach.
First and most important, it is composed of foreign policy traditionalists who believe that the U.S. must be engaged in the world, endeavor to lead and should do so through the multilateral institutions that previous administrations worked so hard to build. Their instincts are to consult and do so first with allies and longtime partners.
Second, they are close to the president-elect. Foreign leaders must know that envoys with whom they meet speak for the president, and that their words are his words. Nothing is more damaging to an emissary’s effectiveness than the perception of a gap between the president and his representative. Diplomats in the Trump administration, no matter how senior or what the mission, were often undercut by presidential pronouncements that conflicted with the messages that they were trying to deliver, even if only minutes or hours apart.
There is in the Biden team a consistency of views between principal and agents, as well as respect for the policymaking process. There will be no freelancing by Biden officials, because they know what the president wants and appreciate the relationship between ends and means.
There are two dangers for the new administration. The first is overconfidence. This group knows their jobs; some were in similar positions just four years ago. The world has changed since then, however, and the Biden team must grasp and respond to that evolution. The president-elect acknowledged this new reality when he announced the nominations, explaining that “While this team has unmatched experience and accomplishments, they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits.” Central to this assignment are changes in the way that alliances operate and are managed.
Success demands recognition that the populism behind Trump’s “America First” policies has not dissipated. Foreign policy must better serve the interests of the middle class and not be seen as a tool of elites. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan knows this well: He served on a task force that focused on this issue. He must ensure that the Biden administration puts that understanding to use if its policies are to be sustainable.
That logic dictates a more expansive definition of national security, one that the Trump administration has adopted – and perhaps taken beyond its proper limit. Policymakers must better operationalize the connection between economic and national security. Japan has been moving in this direction with the reorganization of the National Security Council and National Security Secretariat. In the U.S. case, it means that the attorney general and the secretaries of Treasury and Commerce will play vital roles in a world in which the competition among great powers is multidimensional.
The main competitor is China and U.S. allies in Asia (and increasingly in Europe) will be called upon to join efforts to end Chinese misbehavior and contain the spread of Beijing’s influence. China policy will be one of the most important tests of the new administration’s seriousness and credibility, and there will be laser-like scrutiny of issues where it is prepared to engage with China. Biden cannot sacrifice or compromise its allies’ national interests for a deal on another set of concerns.
Japan will be especially attentive to the role played by John Kerry, a longtime friend of Biden who has been named international climate envoy. Climate change was Kerry’s signature issue when he served as Barack Obama’s second secretary of State, and he was the chief U.S. negotiator for the Paris climate accord, a deal that Trump withdrew from after six months in office. Climate change is a serious threat and it cannot be solved without China’s participation, but Japanese equities cannot be sacrificed in the process. The same is true when dealing with North Korea, Taiwan or Iran.
The second danger the Biden administration faces concerns the Republican Party. Will it work with the new president to overcome national challenges, such as the COVID-19 outbreak and the recession it has triggered, or will the GOP try to sabotage the new administration by refusing to confirm nominations, undermining efforts to deal with those challenges and launch endless investigations to cripple and distract the government? Biden believes that he can govern from the center and that the GOP will join him; recent history offers little grounds for optimism. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has aspirations to run for president in 2024, confirmed that skepticism is in order when he judged Biden’s new team to have “strong resumes … and will be polite and orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” but added that “I have no interest in returning to the ‘normal’ that left us dependent on China.”
Few do, in Washington or in Tokyo. The challenge is building an administration and using it to pursue credible and consistent policies that marshal U.S. and allies’ resources to sustain a peaceful and prosperous world. It looks like Biden has made a good start.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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