Biden’s selection of well-regarded, veteran foreign policy professionals points to an important but often underestimated element necessary for a successful foreign policy: stability. The challenges and threats we now face, and will face in the future, are neither constant nor necessarily predictable. The team that we field to deal with them therefore must be. Entertaining as the dramatic diplomatic gesture is, in my experience it rarely achieves its end. Even the most audacious act — Nixon’s surprise visit to China or Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” challenge—required careful spadework and choreography.
So I cheered Biden’s foreign policy team. I worked alongside many of them in my final years as a Foreign Service Officer, first as Ambassador to Haiti and then as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. I don’t claim close friendship with any of them and in retirement I’m a rank outsider. But I sat in Situation Room meetings with them, shared notes, and briefed some of them on a regular basis during the early years of the Obama administration. We didn’t always agree on issues and I hope we would all acknowledge that the Obama years had its share of foreign policy failures and blunders. But let me offer some thoughts as to why I am enthused about those whom Biden has called to our nation’s service.
They are deeply experienced public servants. They don’t need to be “read in”. They won’t be training on the job. Beyond their CVs, they bring a wealth of contacts, networks, and perspectives to the table. Their individual backgrounds may be varied but they share a vision of America’s role in the world and how it can best serve the American people. I am confident that they will learn from the foreign policy miscalculations of the past and question assumptions as they go along. Jake Sullivan was particularly adept at that in the State Department: I vividly remember one exchange on U.S. democratization programs in the Middle East in which he pushed a recalcitrant bureaucracy to reexamine its assumptions about long-established policies.
This team is close to the president-elect. When I was posted in the Middle East, Tony Blinken was known to us as the guy behind Joe Biden on the congressional plane, notebook in hand. Later, when I was shepherding senior Middle East visitors to the White House, it was no surprise to see him popping up at meetings, whispering in the vice president’s ear. It certainly answers the question Ambassadors always get from their host government: how close is the new Secretary of State really to the president?
They care about friends, allies and institutions. If their first statements are any indication, the new team will rebuild relationships with old friends and recommit the United States to those international institutions that best serve our interests. Biden’s decision to re-enter the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization, his insistence on orderly outreach to world leaders in the transition period (chronicled in the regular release of press announcements), and his decision to re-establish the UN ambassadorial portfolio as a Cabinet position serve notice that U.S. will seek a more engaged relationship with the world. The Biden team is unlikely to simply revert to past habits, however. The world has changed greatly since many of them left office; how well they adapt, adjust and respond to those changes will help determine the success or failure of the new administration’s foreign policy.
Institutions at home matter as well. My old home, the Department of State, is in shambles. The presence of career Foreign Service Officer Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield who, as Director General of the Foreign Service pushed the Department to become more open, responsive and representative of America, assures me that the Biden Administration will follow through on its promise to reinvigorate the Department. Failure to do so, and to address the systemic personnel and bureaucratic impediments that have long hobbled our premier foreign affairs agency, would be diplomatic malpractice. Only a total rethink of the Department will allow it fully step up to support America abroad.
Process Matters. Almost every major government agency and department have foreign policy equities which the bureaucracy must serve. Keeping all those players involved and interacting makes better, more transparent, more effective policy. Something as simple as senior-level travel abroad can have broad foreign policy implications: when I worked with Sullivan and his staff to prepare for the Secretary of State’s visits to the Middle East in the wake of Arab Spring, Secretary Clinton’s agenda included press freedoms, counterterrorism funding issues, human rights meetings, military assistance packages, Iranian sanctions policy, women’s rights, renewable energy, nuclear safeguards, military cooperation. Now, consider the hundreds of pressing foreign policy issues the U.S. confronts. It’s herding cats, yes, but demonstrates the centrality of the NSC in organizing the government’s foreign policy.
They care about public service and the people that serve. I truly believe public service is a difficult, if personally rewarding, calling. And good public service is essential to our health of our democracy. So it’s reassuring to see leaders who share that view. You’ve heard about Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Gumbo Diplomacy, but LTG stories are legion in the State Department. She’s one of our stars: forthright, funny, smart. Supportive of her people. And passionate about making the State Department more representative of America. She does the unexpected. Her staff at our embassy in Monrovia still talk about her picking up trash outside the embassy gates in the morning. Not what ambassadors usually do. I confess I didn’t. Leadership matters.
Blinken, Sullivan, Thomas-Greenfield, DNI Director-Designate Avril Haines and the others, working alongside colleagues at home and abroad, will do the foreign policy spadework. But make no mistake: that policy will be driven by Joe Biden. He won’t contract it out or delegate it. He has an abiding interest in promoting America’s interests abroad, in building and nurturing partnerships, in connecting with people. I saw that on his congressional travels to the Middle East. He knew his brief. He asked smart questions. He listened. He was a hit with his hosts, even when delivering a difficult message. And he always thanked our Embassy staff, both American and local, for their support of his visit. That gesture was rarer that you might suppose.
One last note on President-Elect Biden. In February, 2009, when I was U.S Ambassador to Haiti, President René Préval of Haiti asked that I organize an Oval Office meeting with President Obama. Préval had apparently told his fellow Caribbean leaders he would be the first among them to meet the new president. Now, it’s axiomatic in Washington that the first months of a new president’s term is focused on domestic issues so I was not surprised when the White Houses took a pass. But Joe Biden immediately stepped in. Mindful of the relationship that we were cultivating with the Préval and the importance of the U.S./Haitian relationship, Biden hosted an intimate meeting in his private office. Préval talked at length; Biden never rushed him. The Haitian President left charmed. It certainly made my job easier. Grace notes sometimes matter as much as competence and vision. The most successful leaders combine all three. That’s what Joe Biden and his team now bring to the White House— and to the American people.
Janet Ann Sanderson is a former American diplomat and an adjunct professor of international relations at Georgetown University. During her 34-year career as a foreign service officer, she served as U.S. Ambassador to Haiti and U.S. Ambassador to Algeria, among other assignments.