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Nobody expects President-elect Joe Biden’s centrist foreign policy views to shift radically once he’s in office. Not after almost five decades in Washington, most of which have been spent with international affairs as his bailiwick. But for progressives grumbling about some of Biden’s Cabinet picks, I offer good news: This administration can still deliver on some of your biggest foreign policy goals.
Much of the focus since the election has been on whom Biden will install to run the federal bureaucracy. That’s fair, given the challenge of rebooting the nation’s operating system after four years of President Donald Trump and his haphazard staffing. The problem is that some of Biden’s picks come with baggage of their own.
Antony Blinken, the president-elect’s choice to become secretary of state, and Michèle Flournoy, reportedly the lead contender to run the Pentagon, are under increasing scrutiny for their post-government work. That includes founding WestExec, their consulting firm, whose client list is secret and which has diligently kept its staff from being called “lobbyists.” Flournoy’s close ties with defense contractors are also getting major pushback.
A look at some of the main foreign policy priorities for the progressive movement shows some major opportunities on the horizon.
Meanwhile, one of Biden’s top choices for CIA chief, former Deputy Director Michael Morell, has been accused of defending the Bush-era torture program. He could face opposition from Senate Democrats if nominated. Avril Haines — who has been tapped to become director of national intelligence — has also been criticized for her role in redacting the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture and supporting current CIA Director Gina Haspel’s nomination. (Haines worked at WestExec, too, by the by.)
All of that having been said, it’s a mistake to focus solely on the people at the top. For all the centrists being put in place, a look at some of the main foreign policy priorities for the progressive movement shows some major opportunities on the horizon:
Considering domestic and international economics in foreign policy. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both argued during their presidential runs that the U.S. needs to develop a foreign policy that keeps the economic well-being of all Americans in mind. Heather Hurlburt, a policy researcher with New America, wrote in 2018 that “ensuring the basic health and sustainability of the U.S. economy, addressing inequality, and attacking absolute poverty both at home and abroad” should be central to a progressive foreign policy.
Jake Sullivan’s pending appointment as national security adviser should be seen as a promising development. Sullivan, who praised Sanders’ focus on crony capitalism and corruption abroad in 2018, recently worked with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on a series of reports examining how to make foreign policy work for America’s middle class.
Putting climate change front and center. Former Secretary of State John Kerry is on track to be appointed to a Cabinet-level role focused on international climate efforts, a decision that lends weight to Biden’s ambitious climate plans. As fellow MSNBC columnist Emily Atkin noted, though, progressives need to be ready to be critical of Kerry and Biden, leaning on them to follow through with action instead of just rhetoric.
Accepting the limits of U.S. military power. Biden’s not exactly what anyone would call a peacenik, but after going on 20 years of constant war, he literally can’t afford to deploy forces overseas like his predecessors. Trump, for all his misguided logic, wanted to roll back some of the U.S.’s overseas military commitments that have left the armed services stretched thin. Biden should at least consider the same, with an acknowledgment that a military presence doesn’t always guarantee success.
Defending democracy without going on the offense. Both neoconservatives and progressives believe the U.S. should advocate for democracy abroad. The difference is that the former believes the military needs to foster new democracies, while the latter is typically more interested in shoring up those that already exist. And as we head into 2021, democracies need help to keep from becoming nationalist oligarchies. We’ve already seen this backslide happen in Hungary and Turkey. Halting — and, ideally, helping reverse — these transformations should be a priority for the Biden administration.
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Rethinking U.S. alliances. Biden campaigned on restoring some of America’s most crucial alliances after years of Trumpian mishandling. He now has an opportunity to determine what “crucial” means — especially when it comes to ignoring human rights abuses from allies like Saudi Arabia. While the Trump administration turned a mostly blind eye to Riyadh’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden’s team can afford to be a bit pickier about who gets called a friend.
Ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen. On a similar note, in the short term, progressives can count on Biden and his Cabinet to call off American support for the six-year war in Yemen. Both houses of Congress passed a resolution in 2019 that would constrain U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led campaign, which has at times targeted civilian facilities and prevented humanitarian aid shipments; Trump vetoed the legislation. A new version is sure to pass in the next session of Congress, and Biden will sign it.
If progressives want not just to have a seat at the table but also to sit at its head, now is the time to lay their own groundwork.
There will undoubtedly be foreign policy fights between the left wing of the Democratic Party and the liberal internationalists who have dominated the Democratic establishment since the end of the Cold War. No matter who winds up as defense secretary, slashing military spending will be a major lift. Through a combination of Trump’s demands and congressional inertia, this year’s National Defense Authorization Act is likely to appropriate over $740 billion for the current fiscal year to the Defense Department and other national security projects. Getting Flournoy to trim that number could be difficult.
The same goes for U.S. policy toward Israel, still one of the deepest divides among Democrats. Relatedly, Biden and his team are facing what could be an early test in the Middle East. Iran’s top nuclear scientist was killed over the weekend in an assassination that showed the hallmarks of an Israeli operation. How Biden threads the needle of discouraging Iran’s nuclear program, avoiding war and supporting Israel without encouraging international lawbreaking is likely to be a preview of the rest of his term.
Biden is prioritizing staffers who have years of experience in foreign affairs. If progressives want not just to have a seat at the table but also to sit at its head, now is the time to lay their own groundwork. The Biden administration needs new foreign policy hands to revitalize the ranks, from top to bottom. Now is the time to seed lower-level staffers who eventually guide the U.S. in the next decade and beyond, building on the work that will be done over the next four years.
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Hayes Brown is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily, where he helps frame the news of the day for readers. He was previously at BuzzFeed News and holds a degree in international relations from Michigan State University.