Advice to National-Security Republicans as Biden Takes Office
Republicans should start off on the right foot as we transition into the opposition.
Today, we Republicans take on our role of loyal opposition. The peaceful transfer of power—a pillar of constitutional democracy—has in the last three months been put to its most severe test in more than 150 years. The pillar shook, but held. As President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris raise their hands to take the oath of office today, we offer them our congratulations. We wish the incoming team well as they face the work ahead.
We urge all our fellow Republicans to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s win. And to recognize the appalling treachery of Jan. 6, when outgoing President Donald Trump incited a mob of acolytes to attempt to bring down the republic by attacking the U.S. Capitol, preventing the peaceful transition of power, and perhaps even kidnapping or murdering members of Congress who were fulfilling their constitutional duties. A movement can only sink to that level of depravity through a series of incremental steps and the refusal, each time, to speak the truth to one’s own side.
That we even need to write this shows how difficult it has been for many in our party to reject lies and conspiracies. For the sake of both the country and the Republican Party, they must. We agree with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse’s strong words about the need to expunge the conspiracies peddled by QAnon and its supporters from every corner of the party.
Given the Trump administration’s appalling dereliction of its transition obligations, Republicans have a special obligation to start off on the right foot. As of this writing, Trump still has not conceded his loss to Biden, like a pathetic Mar-a-Lago version of Hiroo Onoda, the surrender-denying Japanese soldier who hid in the Philippine jungle for 29 years. We owe the Biden team the benefit of the doubt and the presumption of goodwill. There will be plenty of time for tough criticism of their policies. But Biden, Harris, and their team deserve much better than they have received from most Republicans so far.
With the transition from a Republican to a Democratic administration, Foreign Policy’s Elephants in the Room—a forum for Republican national-security experts—is being relaunched as Shadow Government, a rubric where the future of Republican foreign policy can be debated, and the Biden administration’s policies scrutinized.
Foreign Policy first launched Shadow Government after the 2008 U.S. election as a forum for thoughtful, expert, and experienced Republican commentary on the foreign-policy challenges the new team of President Barack Obama would face. Both of us joined that founding effort, and for the next eight years helped lead dozens of specialists who had served in various Republican administrations in offering our insight, opinion, criticism, and even the occasional applause for the Obama administration’s foreign policies.
Following the 2016 election, we handed over the reins of Shadow Government to the exiting Obama team as they took on the role of the opposition. But because Trump hadn’t just campaigned against the Democrats, but also against the Republican establishment—of which many of the foreign-policy experts who had been writing in our forum were part—Foreign Policy launched a second forum, Elephants in the Room, as a place for Republicans not serving in the Trump administration to weigh in on policy.
Many high-caliber Republicans served in the Trump administration, but not enough did. A combination of Trump’s repugnance and vindictive personnel policies kept much talent on the sidelines. For some, conscience prevented them from serving under a president they regarded as unconscionable. The net result was a Trump national-security team that was, on balance, the most uneven and least capable group in the modern era. For the past four years, Elephants in the Room have been giving applause to Trump and his team when it was due and calling them out when they misfired.
Trump’s post-election treachery should not blind us from the fact that the Trump team got some significant things right. We described many of these successful policies here, and the Biden-Harris team would be wise to continue them. The most important is at the strategic level: As laid out in the 2017 National Security Strategy, ours is a new era of great-power competition, something that the Obama administration did its best to ignore.
With the country divided on so many issues, it will be in the Biden-Harris administration’s interest to engage with the responsible parts of the Republican opposition. If they doubt that, they need only look at the chain of events leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection—and how toxic and damaging an irresponsible Republican opposition can be. In many areas, including foreign policy, Biden’s success will often depend on securing bipartisan input and support. There are many responsible Republicans able to provide that.
The Republican Party’s center of political gravity now shifts to Congress, where the Democrats hold one of the slimmest majorities in U.S. history. In the coming days and weeks, Republican senators should exercise responsible oversight in the confirmation process. Thus far, the vast majority of Biden’s picks for national-security posts have been commendable and merit a swift confirmation. For Republican senators, this means resisting gratuitous recriminations and instead using confirmation hearings and votes to press nominees on policy and resource commitments. This might include: commitments to reinvigorated civilian control of the military; Taiwan’s security; human rights and religious freedom; squeezing China on its industrial espionage, influence operations, and economic predation; defense spending and force modernization; upgrading the nuclear arsenal; fixing government-funded international broadcasting programs; preserving the Abraham accords; keeping up the pressure on Iran; and responsible policy on Afghanistan.
While the Biden team inherits a very tough geopolitical legacy from their predecessors, some humility on the part of the Democrats may be in order. Most of Biden’s incoming foreign-policy staff are veterans of the Obama team that did not pass a strong hand to their successors in 2017. During Obama’s two terms, the United States made scant and reversible progress in Afghanistan, lost most of the hard-won gains of the surge in Iraq, faced a terrorist menace in the Islamic State that was at least equal to that posed by al Qaeda, saw the collapse of Syria and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, witnessed the return of a revanchist Russia that threatened peace and stability in Europe and held NATO allies at risk, and, most ominously, watched the rise of a hypernationalist, hyperassertive China bent on disrupting the global order.
Today, the geopolitical situation is more daunting in almost every respect. China is an even more assertive challenger to U.S. interests. Its ongoing economic resurgence shows that Trump’s trade war has achieved little beyond taxing American consumers. Russia is a different kind of threat from China, but Putinism is even less contained now than it was in 2016. With multiple potential flashpoints from Taiwan to Baltic states, from the Arctic circle to the South China Sea and Malacca Strait, and across multiple issues and domains including trade, technology, cybersecurity, ideology, as well as air, land, sea, space, and soft power, this is the most daunting environment of great-power conflict that any Democratic administration has faced since the days of former President Jimmy Carter.
The list of urgent challenges goes on: North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are as unconstrained as ever, after Trump’s gambit of war threats followed by meaningless summitry and appeasement only elevated the status of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In Afghanistan, Trump’s unconditional troop reduction was a lame-duck poison pill for Biden that hands the Taliban more than a lifeline and raises serious questions about the prospects for peace negotiations in the United States’ longest war. Biden likewise must manage Iran’s nuclear and other malign activities with all U.S. strategies seemingly exhausted. There is a very real possibility that the United States will receive, on Biden’s watch, the response for the setbacks Iran suffered at the hands of the Trump administration. This could be the first national-security crisis of the Biden era.
The Biden team will find the geopolitical situation more complex and novel in other ways as well. Decades of conventional wisdom about the Middle East have been upended by Israel making significant peace strides with the Gulf States—a welcome development—even as the peace process with the Palestinian Authority has gone into reverse—a decidedly unwelcome development. While the Britain’s Brexit referendum happened on Obama’s watch, the ongoing negotiations between Britain and the European Union have been a slow-rolling train wreck creating a level of transatlantic complexity that none of the Biden team have managed before. There have been incremental improvements in NATO defense capabilities in response to Trump’s browbeating of alliance members, but at the enormous cost of fractures in the political and trust relationships within the bloc. And democratic backsliding across the alliance went from being an isolated concern to an ominous trend involving a growing list of countries.
We Republicans would do well to remind ourselves that as Biden and his team address these challenges, they do so with a damaged set of tools and institutions they inherited from the Trump administration. These include weakened alliances, demoralized diplomats and intelligence professionals, frayed civil-military relations, and the United States’ global credibility severely eroded.
All that said, the most important priorities for the new administration will be navigating the way out of the COVID-19 pandemic and putting the U.S. economy back on its feet. The country is fortunate that Biden has opted for competence and experience rather than ideology in picking his foreign-policy team. They will have their hands full from day one, and those of us in the loyal opposition will do our part to help them advance U.S. interests at home and abroad.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.