Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Pragmatists, Professionals, and Patriots on Biden’s National Security Team

The announcements so far show a clear break from the Trump administration.
December 9, 2020
Featured Image
Antony Blinken on stage during President- elect Joe Biden introduction of his cabinet member nominees at the Queen in Wilmington, DE on November 24, 2020. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Now that President-elect Joe Biden has tapped retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to be secretary of defense, the choices for the new administration’s national security team are nearly complete. So far, they are solid picks. For the most part, Biden has selected men and women who have vast experience in foreign affairs, understand the importance of treating our allies with respect, have diverse backgrounds, and recognize the need for the United States to lead by example.

Gen. Austin, while qualified to be secretary of defense, doesn’t have as much high-level political experience as Biden’s other national security picks. His military service was distinguished and honorable, but lack of civilian leadership experience raises some legitimate concerns.

Most of Biden’s other picks have worked with him for decades; they have his trust and when they speak in their new capacities, they will represent his views. We have worked with many of them in the past, and we believe that they are exceptionally well qualified to advise the president and manage U.S. national security policy.

All Americans, Republicans included, have an interest in seeing the Biden administration succeed, whether dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and reviving the economy to keeping America safe and repairing our badly frayed relations with allies. Biden is in the process of building a team to do just that.

Republicans should give him a chance. It is disappointing that some Republicans are already criticizing Biden’s national security team. On a recent Fox & Friends appearance, Sen. Tom Cotton blasted the picks for signaling a “return of the Obama administration’s foreign policy,” which “had disastrous consequences for our nation.” He went on to tweet that Biden has “picked a national security team that is weak on China.”

Sen. John Cornyn tweeted that the Senate is “not obligated to confirm anyone,” citing financial industry ties of some of the nominees, a concern voiced by few Republicans when considering highly conflicted nominees of President Trump. Sen. Josh Hawley derided the picks as “a group of corporatists and war enthusiasts.” It’s hard to find similar Hawley complaints about Trump appointees with private sector backgrounds.

Sen. Marco Rubio was even more caustic. “Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” he tweeted. “I support American greatness. And I have no interest in returning to the ‘normal’ that left us dependent on China.”

The senators’ comments suggest the confirmation hearings for Biden’s nominees will be contentious and partisan. It’s possible the hearings will devolve into silly attacks over the nominees’ Ivy League degrees and corporate ties—concerns that Republicans never raised when Mike Pompeo was being considered for CIA director or secretary of state despite his Harvard Law degree, or when Wilbur Ross was confirmed for commerce secretary despite his myriad business interests.

But if the confirmation hearings go beyond political theater and focus more on substance, they could offer a window into the GOP’s foreign policy thinking post-Trump. Will the Republican party return to its roots of stressing American leadership in the world, rooted in values and working closely with allies, or remain an anti-establishment party pushing disengagement and isolationism, which essentially sums up the past four years of Trump’s “America First?”

After all, Trump’s foreign policies have not made America great around the world. According to a number of surveys, the international standing of the United States has plummeted under the Trump administration. America is no longer viewed as a reliable and engaged ally. North Korea and Iran are further along in their development of nuclear weapons capability than they were four years ago. Transatlantic relations are the worst they have been in decades. The United States is no longer, as Ronald Reagan once said, a “shining city on a hill.”

With the exceptions of former Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and one or two others, Trump’s national security team has been weak and has not commanded the same respect as its predecessors in Republican and Democratic administrations. Many heads of the various departments lacked the necessary experience for their positions and engaged in unethical behavior. They have badly politicized the departments they have run and demoralized the staff who work there. And they have damaged America’s national interests.


Biden’s picks will be marked improvements.

  • Take for example Tony Blinken versus Mike Pompeo. A former deputy secretary of state and former deputy national security advisor, Blinken is a decent, thoughtful person who will restore morale at State and return the department to the lead role in foreign affairs. Pompeo’s reputation for exploding at his staff, failing to defend career diplomats, attacking journalists, and misusing State Department resources for political events won’t be repeated under Blinken. Both Biden and Blinken care about human rights and democracy, and that alone will be a welcome change from Trump and Pompeo, both of whom have defended authoritarian governments and alienated our democratic allies. The Trump administration’s national security strategy made no mention of advancing human rights. Biden and Blinken won’t hesitate to condemn the appalling human rights record of Russian leader Vladimir Putin; they won’t “fall in love” with North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jong-un, or call Egypt’s authoritarian strongman “my favorite dictator.”
  • Avril Haines will be a similarly welcome change as director of national intelligence. A former deputy director of the CIA and deputy national security adviser, she is well prepared to be Biden’s principal intelligence adviser and to lead the intelligence community. One of her top priorities will be to restore morale and reverse the damage done by her predecessors Ric Grenell and John Ratcliffe, who politicized the intelligence community and selectively declassified intelligence to serve Trump’s political interests.
  • We both worked with Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the State Department and expect her to be an outstanding ambassador to the United Nations. As a career foreign service officer for 35 years, she has vast knowledge and experience representing the United States. We are glad that Biden will restore the position, downgraded under Trump, to cabinet-rank.
  • Jake Sullivan, who will become national security advisor, has been a close advisor to Biden for years. He has extensive foreign policy knowledge, respects the role of the cabinet departments, and understands that his job is to gather and distill the best options for the president to make informed decisions.
  • Alejandro Mayorkas, the nominee for secretary of Homeland Security, was an immigrant from Cuba who served as deputy secretary under President Obama. He represents a repudiation of the Trump administration’s mean-spirited approach to immigration, including its separation of immigrant children from their parents and attacks against foreigners and asylum-seekers.

Although we disagreed with many of the foreign policy decisions made by the Obama administration, we believe it is premature to criticize Biden’s national security team based on the policies of President Obama. As we await more announcements for top national security positions, including CIA director, none of the ones announced so far is unqualified for the positions to which they are being nominated, and they should be given an opportunity to show what they can do.

Trump used to brag that we will get “tired of winning so much.” We are exhausted, but not from winning. The past four years have been a train wreck, and Trump has been the conductor. Biden has vowed that the next administration will emphasize American leadership together with revitalization of our alliances—and just as importantly, that it will return to decency, normalcy, compassion, and predictability, none of which we have seen over the past four years. Republicans should welcome that and so should the rest of the world.

Editor’s note, Dec. 9, 2020, 9:40a.m.: This article was updated to reflect the formal announcement of Gen. Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense-designate.

John B. Bellinger III and David J. Kramer

John B. Bellinger III, a partner with Arnold & Porter and Adjunct Senior Fellow in International and National Security Law at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as the Legal Adviser for the Department of State and for the National Security Council in the George W. Bush Administration. David J. Kramer, a Senior Fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in the George W. Bush administration.