If the incoming Joe Biden administration’s priorities can be gleaned from the president-elect’s choices for key advisory and Cabinet posts, the 46th president’s focus will be on the world abroad.
Biden is expected to select his former national security adviser, Tony Blinken, to serve as secretary of State. Jake Sullivan, Hillary Clinton’s protégé and top aid, will become Biden’s national security adviser. And Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Obama’s former assistant secretary of state for Africa, will be tapped to run the American mission to the United Nations.
The press is already speculating about the foreign challenges these figures will face. Blinken, Times reporters wrote, will be charged with re-establishing an international consensus around the containment of an increasingly ambitious China, which will involve “closer ties to India and other Asian countries to focus on trade and tech investments.” CBS News expects Thomas-Greenfield will have to navigate a dramatically altered geopolitical environment in the Middle East in what is expected to be the next administration’s push to reestablish a framework agreement with Iran amid the Islamic Republic’s rush to enrich fissile nuclear material. Sullivan—a reliable multilateralist—will help manage a global diplomatic offensive aimed at reintegrating the U.S. into the international institutions and conventions the Trump administration scorned, such as the World Health Organization and the Paris climate compact.
Of all the many challenges the Biden administration expects to face, the transition team is relatively silent about one near-peer competitor: Russia.
The incoming administration’s conspicuous lack of urgency on the matter is revealing. To the extent that the Biden advisers have discussed their priorities involving Russia at all, they are within the context of reestablishing frameworks around arms control, including a new START treaty. That is, however, hardly a departure from the Trump administration. The sitting president has spent the last several months working toward that same objective, though negotiations have stalled over Russia’s opposition to a freeze on the development of new nuclear warheads.
Can that be all there is? Is Russia’s atrophied nuclear stockpile really the primary threat to the United States sovereignty and interests represented by Moscow? If those are the Biden administration’s priorities, it is not a testament to this incoming president’s seriousness. Quite the opposite: It is a declared intention to look past the threats to European (and, therefore, American) security that Moscow represents and an indictment of the frivolity of Biden’s fellow Democrats.
For the better part of four years, Russia’s hidden hand all but consumed Democratic policymakers. The president himself was so conspicuously deferential toward President Vladimir Putin that it was often assumed his administration must be giving away the store to the Russian despot.
The Trump administration’s climate policies were thought to represent a “giveaway” to this kleptocratic petrostate, even as the Trump administration supported domestic energy production at a level that put negative pressure on the high oil prices Putin needs to fill his country’s budget gaps.
The 45th president’s antagonism toward NATO and its allies was described as an item on “Vladimir Putin’s wish list,” even if Trump did preside over NATO’s expansion. Pulling out of defunct Cold War-era compacts like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and “Open Skies” treaties represented a “gift to Russia,” even though the U.S. was the only signatory abiding by their terms.
And even if this president broke Barack Obama’s blockade on lethal arms shipments to Ukraine, where Russia is still prosecuting a low-intensity separatist conflict in the country’s East, Trump still supposedly takes his cues on security policy in Europe from Moscow.
Even when the president’s instincts on policy would have genuinely given Russia a free hand, as with Trump’s abrupt efforts to withdraw U.S. troops in Syria, a revolt of the administration’s more responsible members prevented the president from realizing his self-destructive impulses.
Now, at long last, Democrats have their chance to reverse all the alleged damage Trump’s deference to Putin has done to American interests, and their top priority is… an extension of an arms control treaty that doesn’t even expire until next year?
The signals coming out of the incoming Biden administration represent a tacit admission that the president’s talk of rapprochement with Moscow even on unfavorable terms was, while sordid, just talk.
The imposition of Magnitsky Act sanctions on Putin allies, the expulsion of Russian diplomats, the seizure of Russian consular property in the U.S., the pressure and occasional military strikes against Russia’s Iranian and Syrian allies; this was not the work of an administration that maintains a soft spot for the Kremlin. On balance, the Trump administration has adopted an admirably hawkish posture toward Russia, though the architects of these policies are now held in low esteem by this president’s biggest fans.
All this must be discomfiting for Joe Biden. He will be the first new president since 2001 to enter office without a plan to “reset” American relations with Russia under the predicate that his successor had needlessly antagonized Moscow. If that wasn’t revealing enough, the president-elect’s foreign-policy priorities quietly communicate what Democrats cannot say aloud. When it comes to America’s relationship with Russia, despite four years of liberal apoplexy, there is nothing to “reset.”