Biden Names Former U.N. Envoy to Head USAID, Beefs Up Asia Staff

Samantha Power, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., will seek to revive a troubled agency, while Obama-era veterans Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner get top Asia jobs.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power speaks during a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on the situation in Syria, at the United Nations September 25, 2016 in New York. 
(Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)
United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power speaks during a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on the situation in Syria, at the United Nations September 25, 2016 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)

President-elect Joe Biden has tapped former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to head up the U.S. Agency for International Development, putting the high-profile former journalist in charge of the foreign-aid agency that has been crippled by budget cuts and mismanagement over the past four years. 

NBC News first reported that Power, an Irish immigrant who first came to prominence for her Pulitzer Prize-winning study of U.S. responses to genocide, had been named to the job, which has since been confirmed by the transition team. The move signals that foreign aid could be a significant part of the incoming team’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, as the new administration will elevate the USAID chief to membership on the National Security Council. 

Biden is shoring up his NSC by creating so-called coordinator positions that will oversee broader regions and functional areas of the world. The czar-like positions at NSC are being filled rapidly, and Biden’s latest appointments suggest continued U.S. focus on strategic competition with China. 

The Financial Times reported on Wednesday that Biden will tap Kurt Campbell, a former Obama administration State Department official who advocated for the United States to turn its focus toward the Pacific, as Indo-Pacific coordinator, with Brookings Institution expert Rush Doshi serving as his China director. The FT also reported that Ely Ratner, a former deputy national security advisor to Biden, is set to serve as assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, the Pentagon’s top senate-confirmed role for Asia.

In announcing the selections, Biden called Power “a world-renowned voice of conscience and moral clarity” who would stand up for dignity and humanity. 

“I know firsthand the unparalleled knowledge and tireless commitment to principled American engagement she brings to the table, and her expertise and perspective will be essential as our country reasserts its role as a leader on the world stage,” the president-elect said in a statement. 

As U.N. ambassador, Power led the Obama administration’s response at the institution to the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and the Ebola crisis. A self-described idealist, Power was deeply affected by her experiences as a journalist in the Balkans in the 1990s. (To get her first press pass in the region, a young Power forged a letter of endorsement from Foreign Policy magazine, which at the time was owned by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where Power was an intern.)
Power was a vocal advocate who wrote about the need to use American might to stop spiralling humanitarian crises in Syria and Libya in the Obama administration. In her 2019 memoir, The Education of an Idealist, Power describes how during a tense situation room debate on Syria in 2013, the president snapped “We’ve all read your book, Samantha.”

Power will take over the reigns of an agency which has been sidelined and demoralized during the Trump administration, as a raft of political appointees have been appointed to top jobs at USAID. The day after the 2020 election, the White House fired Bonnie Glick, the Senate-confirmed deputy administrator of the agency. The move came the same day as the tenure of the acting head of the agency, John Barsa, was set to expire under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act and enabled Barsa to move down to Glick’s position while remaining at the top of the agency. 

After the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, the agency’s White House liaison Catherine O’Neill, who served on the Trump campaign, criticized officials who resigned in the wake of the riot.

Power, whose writing first got the attention of former President Barack Obama during his time in Congress, would bring name recognition to advocates for the atrophying agency inside the administration and on Capitol Hill. The Trump administration has repeatedly sought to cut funding for foreign aid and last year proposed to cut the agency’s budget by 22 percent, but the move was halted by lawmakers. The administration has slashed full-time aid officials in some hotspots, like Iraq, down to a skeleton crew. 

But though she has direct relationships with Biden, Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken, and a track record of advocacy on human rights issues, Power does not have a background in development. Her selection caps a search that saw the Biden-Harris transition team consider Ertharin Cousin, a former chief of the U.N. World Food Program, and Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior USAID official under Obama who emerged as a popular critic of Trump’s pandemic response on Twitter, among others.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack