Inside the Massive Foreign-Policy Team Advising Biden’s Campaign

If Joe Biden wins, here are some of the top foreign-policy experts who could be tapped for senior and midlevel jobs in the administration.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Iowa.
Former Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks at a campaign press conference in Burlington, Iowa, on Aug. 7, 2019. Tom Brenner/Getty Images

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s team of informal foreign-policy and national security advisors has expanded to over 2,000 people, including 20 working groups spanning issues from diversity in national security to arms control, defense, intelligence, and homeland security, according to campaign officials and an internal list of the co-chairs of those groups obtained by Foreign Policy

The organization of the group offers insights into how Biden would seek to mold his foreign-policy agenda and turn back some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s most controversial foreign policies, including the demonization of refugees and the curtailing of women’s sexual and reproductive rights around the world, should he win the November presidential election. It also sheds light on the coterie of behind-the-scenes advisors, such as the East Asia expert Ely Ratner and Daniel Benaim, a Middle East specialist with deep ties to Biden, who are likely to take up top and midlevel posts in the Pentagon, State Department, intelligence community, and other agencies if Biden is elected. 

Ratner and Benaim are among 49 working group co-chairs who act as gatekeepers for a broader community of foreign-policy, defense, homeland security, and national security experts who are feeding ideas, policy papers, and resumes into the Biden campaign’s maw. Officials familiar with the advisory groups say they are not an official part of the campaign but work in parallel with the campaign to provide informal advice to Biden and his key decision-makers on a volunteer basis. Most have sought to keep their activities under wraps.

The co-chairs’ backgrounds span government, consulting, think tanks, and the defense industry, and they include former senior Obama administration officials in the State Department, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security. Politico previously reported that the Biden camp had built a team of at least 1,000 national security experts working in the 20 working groups. Foreign Policy reviewed an internal document that identifies the specific names of the working groups and the chairs who lead them.

Each of those working groups oversees multiple subgroups addressing such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, humanitarian relief, and refugees. For instance, the Defense working group, which is led by Frank Kendall III, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics; Rosa Brooks, a former senior Pentagon advisor who previously wrote a column for Foreign Policy; and Christine Wormuth, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, oversees between 100 and 200 specialists and includes about a half a dozen subgroups focused on the budget and regional commands.

The Europe team has over 100 people on its roster, according to several people familiar with the matter. It is co-led by three former national security officials in the Obama administration: Julie Smith, who until recently co-edited Foreign Policy’s “Shadow Government” column; Michael Carpenter; and Spencer Boyer.

The ideas and advice are then sent up to a small inner circle of Biden loyalists, including Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Avril Haines, Brian McKeon, and Julie Smith, who are likely to serve as the national security brain trust for a Biden administration. What happens with that advice is a mystery to many of those who supply it, with one official saying it seems like much of the policy initiatives disappear into a black hole.

“The working groups have no real decision-making authority, but they oversee this massive machinery that is churning stuff out all the time,” said one official who has interacted with the working groups.

Many of those volunteering for Biden’s campaign don’t advertise it or speak to the media about it, save for a few influential advisors at the top. Others who volunteer for the campaign have been prompted by their employers, including think tanks, to disclose the affiliation in their online biographies. This means that most of the work they do is behind the scenes and shrouded in secrecy—a practice that was not uncommon for past presidential campaigns.

Foreign Policy reached out to more than two dozen people who have been officially or unofficially proffering advice to Biden’s campaign for this story. Many did not respond to requests for comment; several only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

The Biden campaign did not respond to several requests for comment. 

The structure of Biden’s foreign-policy team in many ways seeks to mimic the traditional interagency decision-making process run out of the National Security Council that Trump’s White House has dismantled, instead delegating key decisions to a close circle of loyalists, outside associates, and family members. 

But several Democratic foreign-policy experts who have been in contact with the Biden campaign say the process remains opaque, and it’s hard to know whether the advice they provide is being heeded by Biden’s top advisors or if the massive advisory structure is a way to make everyone, including potential critics, feel included.

“It’s organized like a government, and it’s hierarchical and bureaucratic like a government,” said one working group member. “One primary purpose is to make people feel like they are included. Another purpose is that it creates a proving ground for people who might be hoping to be considered for various jobs in a Biden administration. It’s a chance to show your work.”

The sprawling structure of the working groups acts in part as a “motivator to get people theoretically feeding ideas to the campaign so they are not dumping on them from the outside,” said one Democratic foreign-policy advisor. “It’s not that it isn’t genuine, but there is a tactical element of getting people on board from the progressive camp.”

Some foreign-policy experts who have become disenchanted with American foreign policy under the Trump administration described an eagerness to help whoever won the Democratic primaries; experts who advised former presidential hopefuls such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have since joined Biden’s team of volunteer foreign-policy advisors.

Trump currently trails Biden by at least six points nationally, according to polls released this month, and the Democratic candidate is leading by several points in key swing states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If Biden wins, many in the working groups are expected to jockey for positions in the administration, according to several people involved in the working groups. 

There are working groups that cover each region of the world led by veteran foreign-policy experts, including the group on Europe; a group on Africa led by Nicole Wilett, Allison Lombardo, and Michael Battle; a group on the Middle East led by Mara Rudman, Daniel Benaim, and Dafna Rand; a group on East Asia led by Ely Ratner and Jung Pak; a group on South Asia led by Sumona Guha and Tom West; and a group on Western Hemisphere affairs led by Dan Erikson, Juan Gonzalez, and Julissa Reynoso, according to a roster of experts advising the campaign seen by Foreign Policy

The team has also added two new working groups: One on the challenges of pandemic response, and another in the wake of nationwide protests for racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody this spring.

The working group responsible for a COVID-19 task force to coordinate international efforts is led by Beth Cameron, who helmed the White House pandemic office under President Barack Obama; Brad Belzak, a business consultant and former national security official; and Linda Etim, a former assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Biden’s presidential campaign has also established a working group to promote diversity in America’s national security apparatus. It is chaired by Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, an African American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Malta, and Shawn Skelly, an LGBTQ rights advocate who served in the Defense and Transportation departments as the first transgender veteran appointed by the Obama administration. 

The creation of the group reflects concern in the Biden camp about long-standing diversity challenges in America’s national security establishment—issues that predate Trump but have been exacerbated by the president’s largely homogenous group of top advisors and cabinet members. It’s an acknowledgement that minorities, with some prominent exceptions, have long been underrepresented in top government echelons under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Biden is considering a number of prominent African American women for vice president, including Susan Rice, who served as Obama’s national security advisor and U.N. ambassador, and Sen. Kamala Harris, who competed with Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

Some outside advocates and Biden supporters are looking to the 2020 election to help break the glass ceiling in the national security establishment and boost the number of women in senior administration posts. Just over half of the 49 co-chairs of the working groups in Biden’s foreign-policy team are women. A working group on women’s and girls’ issues is led by Carla Koppell, former chief strategy officer at USAID; Anne Witkowsky, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability and humanitarian affairs in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; and Julia Santucci, a former CIA and State Department official.

Biden’s priorities also illustrate his focus on reversing some of Trump’s most controversial policies, with working groups dedicated to slowing climate change, protecting refugees, and reinforcing human rights. There is also a U.N. working group, headed by Isobel Coleman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform, and Peter Yeo, the president of the U.N. advocacy group Better World Campaign, aimed at rebuilding relations with the U.N. and other international organizations. 

The working groups appear crafted to win over progressive followers of Sens. Warren and Bernie Sanders, who have been working with the Biden team. The Democratic Party platform, which was produced with input from the Sanders camp, includes a series of pledges sought by progressives. It calls for scaling back open-ended counterterrorism conflicts and ending the so-called forever wars, abandoning the Trump administration’s pursuit of regime change in Iran and elsewhere, and ending U.S. military support for the Saudi Arabian-led military campaign in Yemen.

“There are good commitments,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’ top foreign-policy advisor. “There is no denying the fact that the party is moving in a very positive direction on these questions.”

Staff writer Jack Detsch contributed to this report. 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Darcy Palder is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @DPalder

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