Biden’s National Security team offers a sharp turn. But in which direction?

By Annie Karni and David E. Sanger

President-elect Joe Biden formally introduced a national security team on Tuesday custom-designed to repudiate President Donald Trump’s nationalistic isolationism.

His nominee for secretary of state said in his remarks that Americans needed the “humility and confidence” to depend on allies. His choice to execute the nation’s immigration policy is a Cuban American whose parents were refugees from Fidel Castro. And his new intelligence chief warned Biden when she spoke that she would bring him news that would be politically “inconvenient or difficult.”

They were joined by a career Foreign Service officer who will serve as ambassador to the United Nations and John Kerry, who ran for president unsuccessfully 16 years ago and then became President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Biden appointed him to a new role inside the National Security Council to put “climate change on the agenda in the Situation Room,” after four years in which the Trump administration tried to have the words struck from summit communiqués and international agreements.

But it was in Avril Haines’ paean to the intelligence community — which Trump often regarded as a group of “deep state” renegades who wrongly tied him to Russia — that the contrast with the outgoing administration became clear. “To our intelligence professionals, the work you do — oftentimes under the most austere conditions imaginable — is just indispensable,” said Haines, who would be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence, overseeing 16 separate agencies.

Biden has hardly created a team of rivals. Many of his nominees have worked together for years and as the “deputies” in the Obama administration who ran the gears of government at the White House, the State Department and the CIA. That also includes the Department of Homeland Security, where Alejandro Mayorkas, who will oversee immigration policy, had served as deputy secretary before Biden named him to lead the department.

Several are close friends. And most would be considered “liberal interventionists” who led the charge against Trump’s dismissal of America’s traditional role as the keystone in both Atlantic and Pacific alliances.

It all gave the Tuesday announcement at Biden’s headquarters in Wilmington the air of a restoration, or at least a class reunion.

Yet in his comments, Biden also seemed to acknowledge that the dangers his team would confront were starkly different from the ones they dealt with during the Obama presidency.

“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,” he said.

Biden talked about the need for “fresh thinking.” But achieving that balance will be his biggest challenge, both his own aides and outside experts have noted.

“His presidency may be the establishment’s last, best chance to demonstrate that liberal internationalism is a superior strategy to populist nationalism,” Thomas Wright, the Brookings Institution foreign policy scholar, wrote in The Atlantic recently.

That means resolving a subtle but clear debate within the Democratic establishment, one on which Biden has not yet chosen sides. It boils down to whether Biden should pursue the kind of foreign policy one might have expected in an Obama “third term” — one marked by caution, repairing alliances and an avoidance of talk of new Cold Wars — or one that pursues new, more confrontational paths in recognition of how much global competition has changed over the past four years, starting with China.

Biden tried to dispel the idea that he was restoring Obama’s policies in an interview with Lester Holt of NBC News on Tuesday. “This is not a third Obama term,” he said, because “we face a totally different world than we faced in the Obama-Biden administration.” He added: “President Trump has changed the landscape. It’s become America first, it’s been America alone.”

Jake Sullivan, 43, Biden’s choice for national security adviser, whom Biden also introduced, has come to embody the new thinking the president-elect referred to. “He is a once-in-a-generation intellect with the experience and temperament for one of the toughest jobs in the world,” he said, noting that when he was in his 30s Sullivan conducted the talks that led to a cease-fire in Gaza in 2012 and the secret opening of negotiations with Iran that led to the 2015 nuclear deal.

It is Sullivan who has argued most vociferously for new approaches to China that recognize the changed nature of the challenge. And some of the appointees who shared the stage in Delaware with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have made clear in recent times that they have regrets from the Obama years.

Those regrets include underreacting to the plight of Syrians being attacked by their own government, not recognizing the scope of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election until it was too late and moving too slowly in responding to the China challenge.

“Any of us, and I start with myself, who had any responsibility for our Syria policy in the last administration has to acknowledge that we failed,” Antony Blinken, the nominee for secretary of state, said in May, in one of the starkest of those admissions. “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life,” he said. “It is something I will take with me for the rest of my days.” He went on to criticize Trump for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, and making the problem “arguably even worse.”

Conspicuously missing from the stage in Wilmington was one major player who is likely to have the biggest voice in the next Syria debate: Biden’s choice for defense secretary. He has not named one yet, though the leading candidate is believed to be Michèle Flournoy, who served as the undersecretary of defense for policy under Obama and, in the Trump years, created a foreign policy advisory firm with Blinken, WestExec Advisors.

Flournoy, who has served in many senior roles in the Pentagon and was a co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, could be named next week, alongside Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, who is widely reported to be Biden’s choice for Treasury secretary. If selected and confirmed, Flournoy and Yellen would be the first woman in either role.

Preparing for what may be some brutal confirmation fights in two months, Biden’s nominees avoided any discussion of policy Tuesday and focused on their personal stories.

Perhaps the most powerful story came from Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Black woman who is Biden’s choice for U.N. ambassador. She was one of the senior diplomats who left the State Department in the era of Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, two secretaries of state who incited near rebellion among the diplomatic corps.

“Her dad couldn’t read or write, but she says he was the smartest person she knew,” Biden said, describing how Thomas-Greenfield, who served across Africa and in Pakistan, Switzerland and Jamaica, was the first in her family to go to high school or college.

It is the kind of story Biden likes to tell, and to compare to his own working-class roots.

Thomas-Greenfield ended the tale with a description of how Southern cooking is a source of American soft power: At her diplomatic posts, she said, “I would invite people of different backgrounds and beliefs” to her kitchen to make the signature dish of her native Louisiana. “I called it gumbo diplomacy.”

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