Washington’s Foreign Diplomats Frozen Out by Team Biden
Biden’s foreign-policy gatekeepers tell diplomats to hold their calls—until they’re in charge.
There is a new parlor game that Washington’s diplomatic circles are playing with increasing frustration. It’s called: “Can you crack the Biden foreign-policy team’s cone of silence?”
With the U.S. presidential election a week away, foreign envoys are struggling to breach Biden’s inner sanctum of foreign-policy advisors. Even America’s closest allies are finding the door has been slammed shut when they reach out for conversations.
Team Biden has made it clear to foreign diplomats in Washington for the better part of a year that the Democratic nominee’s top foreign-policy advisors, including Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, are off-limits for briefings on the campaign’s foreign-policy plans, according to four Western diplomats.
The reticence reflects concern that Biden advisors could expose themselves to even hints of allegations that they are meddling in the foreign policy of a sitting president, as Donald Trump’s team infamously did four years ago.
During the last transition, Trump’s top national security advisor, Michael Flynn, faced charges of trying to undermine the Obama administration’s foreign policy by leading an effort to block the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Israel. He was also paid to lobby for a firm that represented the Turkish government’s interests while he advised Trump’s campaign—an affiliation he did not disclose until after he was fired from the White House. Flynn’s secret December 2016 phone conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak became the subject of a wide-ranging investigation into Russian interference in U.S. elections by special counsel Robert Mueller and the subject of Flynn’s firing after a month on the job.
“There is a strict prohibition against talking to foreign officials,” said one official familiar with the Biden campaign’s policy. “There is a real obsession with just wanting to look different than Trump and not wanting to give the administration any opportunity to say, ‘Look, they did the same things that we did.’”
“If someone is working full time for the Biden team, then they say explicitly [they] cannot meet with foreign officials,” a European diplomat said.
The Biden campaign counters that much of the former vice president’s record is already out in the open, given his decades of work in Washington. “Joe Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was Vice President of the United States. He has written articles focused on foreign policy, answered candidate questionnaires and has spoken, publicly, at length in this campaign about his foreign policy priorities if he is elected President: restoring America’s role on the world stage, rebuilding our alliances, and rallying the world to confront our common challenges including climate change,” Biden campaign spokesperson Bill Russo said in a statement.
“For the next 8 days, our campaign will remain fully focused on speaking with the American people about what is at stake in this election,” Russo added.
The cautious approach marks a dramatic shift from Trump’s 2016 campaign team, which hosted meetings with foreign leaders, including then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at Trump Tower in New York City during the transition and which actively sought to undercut President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy agenda during his final months in office.
Democrats anticipate the Trump campaign would cite any contact between foreign government officials and the Biden campaign as evidence they are trying to undermine his foreign-policy agenda—even if those claims were false.
Foreign diplomats said it is routine for embassies to reach out to political parties in allied countries to learn about their policy priorities before elections—which is not the same as Flynn’s secretive lobbying for Turkey’s interest while on the campaign trail or conversations with the ambassador to one of the United States’ top global adversaries.
“There should be a distinction between preparing for when you come into office by having consultations [with foreign officials] than actually lobbying foreign officials to undermine the current president,” one foreign diplomat said.
The Biden campaign’s policy—which was previously reported by Politico—has proved frustrating for Washington’s foreign diplomatic corps, which has been struggling to coordinate on foreign-policy priorities with the campaign during the final stretch of the election season.
Several European diplomats said conversations with presidential campaigns in past election seasons have helped their governments prepare to adapt to new foreign-policy priorities. This is particularly important for European allies, some of which have troops deployed alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East and are trying to gain insight into how a Biden administration’s foreign policy could impact those deployments.
The foreign diplomats said they understood why the campaign wouldn’t want to invite such criticism but felt slighted at the campaign shutting out closely allied governments the same way it would the Russian or Chinese government. “Allies are not Sergey Kislyaks,” one said.
Biden and his team, meanwhile, have found other ways to communicate with foreign governments, through public statements and its Twitter feed. In September, Biden warned the U.K. on Twitter that any action undermining the Good Friday Agreement, which ended Northern Ireland’s decades-long political conflict, could jeopardize future negotiations on a U.S.-U.K. trade deal.
The prohibition on contacts has not been absolute, but most of the interaction with foreign delegates has involved surrogates who are not officially members of the Biden campaign but remain close to the former vice president. They include Democratic foreign-policy experts attached to think tanks that have routine contacts with foreign officials. Senior lawmakers who are being considered for top jobs in a Biden administration, including Sen. Chris Coons, who has been floated as a potential secretary of state under a Biden administration, routinely meet with foreign ministers and other senior officials (though meetings with lawmakers are not unusual for foreign officials visiting Washington and public readouts from the meetings make no mention of politics or the election cycles).
“They are extremely cautious: People like Blinken are essentially not talking to or meeting with foreign diplomats,” one Washington-based diplomat said. “It’s a policy there. We’ve talked to other diplomats. It’s the same thing.”
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is a category of people “who are not officially on the campaign but whom you would expect to have influence on Biden. Those people are in touch.”
Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to the United States, said he has reached out to Blinken numerous times during the election campaign, though not on behalf of foreign governments. He said he asked if officials would be prepared to brief European journalists on Biden’s foreign-policy plans should he make it to the White House. The answer, he said, has been a polite no.
“The challenge for diplomats in 2016 was that they didn’t know Trump’s inner circle well,” he added. The Republican foreign-policy mandarins who had worked under the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations were Never Trumpers banished from the corridors of power.
But that didn’t stop Trump’s team from reaching out across the Atlantic. Araud recalled that he and his British counterpart at the time, Kim Darroch, were summoned to a meeting at Trump Tower with Jared Kushner; David Friedman, who would go on to become Trump’s ambassador to Israel; and Jason Greenblatt, a former Trump lawyer who served as his Middle East envoy, after the election, in late November or early December 2016.
“They requested strongly not to vote for the resolution,” he recalled. “We had some unpleasant phone calls from Jared Kushner afterwards because we didn’t cave in.”
“They considered it was unfriendly that we had not taken into account the opinion of the incoming administration,” Araud said. The rift, Kushner and his colleagues suggested, might impact the new administration’s relations with European allies.
Araud noted that U.S. constraints on diplomatic outreach are not entirely new. After Obama was elected president, Araud approached an old contact in the Obama campaign to discuss the new president’s priorities. The American official, whom Araud declined to name, expressed concern that a meeting might land him in trouble if someone discovered it. Instead, they agreed to meet discreetly but only at a bar away from downtown Washington—in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Interactions with foreigners with the aim of undercutting an administration’s foreign policy have been fraught with potential legal ramifications for years. The Logan Act, which was passed in 1799, bars any U.S. citizen from directly or indirectly carrying out “any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”
No one has ever been prosecuted under the law. But not for a lack of trying.
“The Trump transition team members’ actions in 2016 with respect to undermining the Obama administration’s policies ran afoul of the Logan Act,” said Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University and founding co-editor of the website Just Security. “So the Biden team would be well advised not to engage in similar actions, including sanctions policies and U.N. Security Council votes.”
“The principle is that there is only one president at a time,” he added. “A clear line for the Biden team is not to engage in negotiations with foreign governments in an effort to defeat existing Trump policies.”
But Goodman said cutting all contacts with foreign governments “would be excessive. From congratulatory calls in the event of winning the election to routine diplomatic engagements, a lot of goodwill can be established in direct contacts with foreign counterparts, even though no business or negotiations may be done in these exchanges. The Biden team could also listen to allies and other countries’ views, needs, and concerns in these exchanges without worrying that such actions are inconsistent with the Logan Act.”
“The watchword here is discipline and control,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East troubleshooter for successive Democratic and Republican administrations and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There will be a lot of people knocking on your doors. You can’t have a lot of officials sending all kinds of signals and messages to foreign governments.”
Update, Oct. 26, 2020: This article was updated to include a response from the Biden campaign.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch