Q&A

What Georgia’s Senate Results Mean for Biden’s Foreign Policy

As Congress hangs in the balance, Obama’s national security advisor explains how a president can deal with a less than cooperative legislature.

By , a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon speaks at a luncheon by the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, D.C. on Sep. 16, 2011.
U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon speaks at a luncheon by the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16, 2011. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 5, voting concluded in a runoff election for the U.S. state of Georgia’s two Senate seats. These ballots will decide not just who represents Georgia in Congress’s upper house but which party controls the Senate as a whole: If both Democratic candidates win, as seems increasingly likely, their party will hold 50 seats—enough, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, to run things there. But only barely; given the razor-thin margin, both progressives and a few center-right senators (Joe Manchin, Suzanne Collins, and Mitt Romney) could hold the institution hostage and complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s plans. On Tuesday evening, with the Georgia results still uncertain, Foreign Policy’s editor-at-large Jonathan Tepperman spoke to Tom Donilon, who served as former President Barack Obama’s national security advisor from 2010 to 2013—another period when Democrats lacked congressional control—about how the incoming president can navigate the challenge and find ways to push through his agenda without legislative support. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Jonathan Tepperman: If Democrats don’t win both Georgia Senate seats and Republicans maintain control of the Senate—or even if Democrats do win, but we end up with a 50-50 split—what kind of obstacles will it create for President-elect Joe Biden when it comes to foreign policy?

Tom Donilon: Senate control can make a big difference in foreign policy when it comes to the ability to get key personnel confirmed in a timely way. In general, though, congressional control matters somewhat less on foreign and national security issues than it does on domestic issues. Under the Constitution, the president has broader powers and the ability to act with dispatch in the areas of foreign policy and national security. Just look at the Trump administration. President Donald Trump acted unilaterally—without congressional support—in a long list of areas: on North Korea, and the JCPOA, and suspending participation in the World Health Organization, and pulling out of Trans-Pacific Partnership.

On Jan. 5, voting concluded in a runoff election for the U.S. state of Georgia’s two Senate seats. These ballots will decide not just who represents Georgia in Congress’s upper house but which party controls the Senate as a whole: If both Democratic candidates win, as seems increasingly likely, their party will hold 50 seats—enough, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, to run things there. But only barely; given the razor-thin margin, both progressives and a few center-right senators (Joe Manchin, Suzanne Collins, and Mitt Romney) could hold the institution hostage and complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s plans. On Tuesday evening, with the Georgia results still uncertain, Foreign Policy’s editor-at-large Jonathan Tepperman spoke to Tom Donilon, who served as former President Barack Obama’s national security advisor from 2010 to 2013—another period when Democrats lacked congressional control—about how the incoming president can navigate the challenge and find ways to push through his agenda without legislative support. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Jonathan Tepperman: If Democrats don’t win both Georgia Senate seats and Republicans maintain control of the Senate—or even if Democrats do win, but we end up with a 50-50 split—what kind of obstacles will it create for President-elect Joe Biden when it comes to foreign policy?

Tom Donilon: Senate control can make a big difference in foreign policy when it comes to the ability to get key personnel confirmed in a timely way. In general, though, congressional control matters somewhat less on foreign and national security issues than it does on domestic issues. Under the Constitution, the president has broader powers and the ability to act with dispatch in the areas of foreign policy and national security. Just look at the Trump administration. President Donald Trump acted unilaterally—without congressional support—in a long list of areas: on North Korea, and the JCPOA, and suspending participation in the World Health Organization, and pulling out of Trans-Pacific Partnership.

JT: But you also need the Senate’s agreement if you want to pass any new treaties.

TD: I think that the intense polarization of the country and Congress has already led to fewer and fewer international agreements being sought as treaties by the executive branch, and they’re making agreements by executive order instead.

JT: Are there any disadvantages to that approach?

TD: It can work pretty well in terms of achieving goals. The downside, however, is that if you have a dramatic change in outlook from one administration to the next—if you’re succeeded by an administration like Trump’s, which placed very little value on continuity—then the executive agreement can be unilaterally withdrawn by the next president.

JT: And that does damage to how reliable and dependable other countries think the United States is.

TD: It does, it does. It can lead the world to have less confidence in the United States and its state actions. That has been the case during the Trump administration.

JT: Do you think there are areas where Biden could win bipartisan support in the next Senate? Or do you think McConnell’s policy of “no” is so absolute that no cooperation will be possible?

TD: I think there are areas where you can reach agreement across the aisle. Number one, I think there is a real possibility of cooperation on an investment agenda for the United States to increase American competitiveness in the context of China.

JT: Are you talking about investment in domestic R&D and things like that?

TD: Yes, domestic investment. On China, I think you could get a bipartisan agreement on the need for substantial investment in an American competitiveness to meet the China challenge. Biden talked about that in his campaign. But people like Republican Senator Marco Rubio have also talked very seriously about the need for additional investment in research and development and in education and in infrastructure—the things that the United States needs to invest at home in order to compete with China.

I think another example would be Europe and NATO, where Trump had a profoundly different relationship with allies than his predecessors. Biden has said it’s a priority of his to reestablish and strengthen relationships with allies, and I think you’ll have congressional support for that.

Cyber is a third example. There were a lot of cyber provisions in the Defense Authorization Act this time around. I think there’ll be a substantial review on U.S. cyber posture.

JT: Do you think SolarWinds [the 2020 Russian hack of U.S. government computer systems] will have a galvanizing effect in mustering bipartisan support for more action and funding for cyber defense?

I think you could see bipartisan cooperation on a policy of more accountability toward Russia.

TD: I do. SolarWinds showed that the United States is still not in a position to protect federal networks. In truth, this was never a priority for the Trump administration. And I think it will be a priority for the Biden administration. I think you could see bipartisan support for that. I also think you could see bipartisan cooperation on a policy of more accountability toward Russia. As you know, the most inexplicable element of Trump’s policy has been his reluctance to, refusal to, confront or critique or even criticize President Vladimir Putin.

I also think you’ll see common ground on human rights. The Trump administration was never very interested in human rights. But I think the Biden administration will be—you’ve already seen that in some of the statements made by Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, on Twitter.

JT: What advice would give the incoming Biden administration on how to adapt to and manage a Congress it doesn’t control

TD: There will be critiques and disagreements over things like Iran. But the Trump approach was so inconsistent with the prior bipartisan history of U.S. foreign policy that there will be plenty of ways to restore that history and cooperate.

JT: Would you advise the administration to work to change the tenor of the relationship by reaching out to Republican senators early?

TD: You have to be realistic about where you can find agreement and where you can’t. As I said earlier, one area to focus on is China and the need for an intensive domestic investment in American competitiveness, combined with working closely with allies to effect behaviors and establish rules and standards in the world. Those are areas where we could get broad support. There will be disagreements over things like Iran, and over climate—although there was quite a bit of climate-related stuff in the last stimulus package. But you take what you can get.

Jonathan Tepperman is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy and the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman

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