Biden’s China-related appointments represent a Democratic Party dream team of consummate insiders with a Beltway accent, fluent in the business of politics and the politics of business.
The placement of Anthony Blinken as Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell and Laura Rosenberger at the National Security Council, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, Lloyd Austin heading the Pentagon and William Burns leading the Central Intelligence Agency is a manifestation of Biden’s centrist worldview. It’s an old-school business-as-usual approach, a congenial crowd comfortable with both the security establishment and corporate giants, especially energy, tech and defense contractors.
More ideologically hawkish candidates, such as Michele Flournoy for the Pentagon, and Mike Morell, formerly of the CIA, met with internal Democratic Party resistance and did not secure the jobs they vied for. Flournoy may have over-extended herself in the private sector, including affiliations with WestExec, Booz Hamilton, Boston Consulting and Pine Island Capital. Pine Island, a private equity firm, has emerged as another boutique power nexus to watch. Both Blinken and Flournoy were partners there, and its outsized influence in the new administration includes newly-appointed Pentagon chief Austin.
The new team includes many Obama administration retreads and Hillary Clinton loyalists who know how to play the game -— but what if the game is changing? A question is whether these foreign policy elites, who have played along Washington’s tune, have what it takes to deal with an emboldened China.
A paradigm shift is underway on account of the ongoing pandemic, redefining “normal” as we know it. Then there’s the diminishing returns of an economic downturn and the rise of provocation on both sides of the U.S.-China divide. Given these challenges, it will take more than the usual inside-dealing of the usual Beltway beneficiaries to get U.S.-China relations back on a balanced footing again.
Most of Biden’s China team, though competent, comprises partisan professionals who work in the orbit of Pentagon-friendly think tanks and lucrative consulting firms. To put it another way, these are the agents who not only espouse the policy vision of the Democratic Party but help to shape it. It is unclear whether they can remain immune to the wish-lists of the consulting firms and corporate hands that put a silver lining on their political exile during the Republican-dominated Trump years.
The well-connected team of Democratic party loyalists is a tight-knit network in its own right, but it is also riddled with cliques and potential conflicts of interest that come with private sector backgrounds. The line between public service and private pecuniary activities tends to overlap and firewalls get blurred in the corridors of the Beltway. What’s more natural than favoring people who have also favored you? Conflicts of interest will arise.
That spoils are attendant to the two ruling oligarchic parties that vie to put a president in the White House is a feature built into the game, but just because both parties do it doesn’t make it any better. Consultants and analysts are often dependent on the largesse of big corporate donors with vested interests. Being disinclined to bite the hand that feeds them, appointees are not particularly well-positioned to carry out a supple foreign policy free of fear or favor.
U.S. China policy going forward will be more muscular than that of the timid Obama era, but it will also be miles away from the tantrum-a-day style of Trump’s leadership. Biden policy will be somewhat closer to what the relatively strident Hillary Clinton would have sought had she won the ticket in 2016. However, the absence of Clinton stalwart Michele Flournoy, and the demotion of former Obama “Valkyries” Samantha Power (to direct USAID) and Susan Rice (to head the domestic policy council) to roles less relevant to international security hints of a policy shift away from humanitarian intervention and more inclined to hard realism.
Incoming Secretary of State Blinken has set the tone for Biden’s China policy by acknowledging that Trump’s decision to get tough on China was correct. More surprisingly, he said he supports declarations made by his unpopular predecessor Mike Pompeo, who has accused China of originating the “Wuhan virus” and genocide in Xinjiang.
WestExec, founded by Blinken and Flournoy, has been a favored bureaucrat bunker of the Biden moment. Aptly named after the West Wing of the White House, it has Ely Ratner going to the Pentagon, and Avril Haines directing National Intelligence. With Blinken now the nation’s top diplomat, this relatively new boutique firm can be said to have eclipsed think tanks with venerable veneers, such as CSIS, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Albright-Stonebridge Group and the Brookings Institution.
The New Center for American Security, a think tank founded by Campbell and Flournoy, gets its juice from major clients in aerospace and energy. It is also unusually well-represented in the new administration, with the appointments of Campbell at NSC, Biden aide Ratner as the China point man at the Pentagon and ardent anti-communist Victoria Nuland at State.
The complex web of relationships in the Beijing leadership is frequently defined by personal networks or guanxi, and the same could be said for Washington. The Trump era, with its high turnover rate and constant revolving door was something of an anomaly in this respect, and some advisors, like the maverick Steve Bannon, were in and out the door several times.
For Trump’s China team, Peter Navarro’s White House role as an anti-China fanatic was balanced by the relative gravitas of Michael Pillsbury of the Hudson institute, while the initially discreet Matt Pottinger at NSC didn’t bare the fangs of a deeply anti-China agenda until later in the game.
Biden’s China-related appointees, in contrast, are mostly mild-mannered Beltway insiders, consummate players in the game by which ambitious bankers, lobbyists, recycled bureaucrats, Silicon Valley czars and Pentagon factotums mix behind a respectable facade of high-end consultancies. Beijing, where money and power exist in sometimes indecent proximity, won’t have any problem with that.
Philip J. Cunningham is a freelance writer on East Asian politics and author of “Tiananmen Moon” and “Tokyo Crush.”
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