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What Do the Confirmation Hearings Tell Us About Biden’s Foreign Policy?

With Avril Haines and Lloyd Austin confirmed, key officials are starting to offer hints of what’s in store.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Antony Blinken testifies at his confirmation hearing to become the U.S. secretary of state before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Jan. 19.
Antony Blinken testifies at his confirmation hearing to become the U.S. secretary of state before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Jan. 19. Graeme Jennings/Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma! It has been another big week in foreign policy, and the issue on everyone’s mind for our discussion this week should be quite obvious.

Emma Ashford: Yes, it’s Foreign Policy’s 50th birthday! Congrats to our host for these debates.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma! It has been another big week in foreign policy, and the issue on everyone’s mind for our discussion this week should be quite obvious.

Emma Ashford: Yes, it’s Foreign Policy’s 50th birthday! Congrats to our host for these debates.

MK: Ha! FP has had an impressive run covering some of the biggest events over the past half century. I remember being fascinated by Foreign Policy’s articles on the run up to the Iraq War while a graduate student. And it is an honor to write for the publication today.

But there was another minor item in the news this week you may have heard about: Trump left office and there’s been a transition to a new Biden administration.

EA: I watched the inauguration—not in person, of course. Even if our Washington, D.C., office weren’t closed for the pandemic, it’s also behind 10 security fences. It unfortunately wasn’t a peaceful transfer of power, but we finally had a small, COVID-appropriate inauguration ceremony, and can now look forward to the Biden administration.

I must admit, it’s a relief. No more waking up in the night wondering what foreign-policy crisis former President Donald Trump might have instigated now. Instead, I get the reassurance of reading Biden and his advisors’ words and knowing exactly where they intend to start foreign-policy crises.

MK: I certainly think we can expect more consistency between word and deed from new President Joe Biden.

But the Trump administration did leave one last gift for Team Biden on the way out the door. In a major move on his last day of office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared China’s actions against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province to be genocide and a crime against humanity. It is the right determination in my view, but it did come a bit late in the game.

EA: Well, that’s the big question. Why now? At this point, it’s fairly clear that China is making a concerted effort to wipe out a minority, even if it is through forced assimilation rather than actual killing. So the genocide designation may well be the right choice. But why didn’t the Trump administration do so years ago? After all, they claim to have been very tough on China in all areas.

MK: You are right that the genocide in China is not as swift or brutal as the killings in Rwanda, but China’s methodical and patient extermination plan is, in some ways, more chilling and just as evil.

EA: You’re right. I think we agree entirely that what is happening in Xinjiang is wrong. But where we might disagree is what to do about it. It’s unfortunate, but there is very little Washington can do to prevent it. And the genocide designation may end up tying the U.S. government’s hands elsewhere.

The Trump administration took a variety of steps in their final weeks just to make things hard for the Biden administration.

MK: The United States has already taken steps, such as placing sanctions on the Chinese officials involved in the genocide. I think the hope was that this public announcement will make it harder for the rest of the world to turn a blind eye, and galvanize a broader international response.

EA: But why now? It seems to fit a broader pattern, where the Trump administration took a variety of steps in their final weeks just to make things hard for the Biden administration. Look at the terrorist designation of the Houthis. That’s problematic for humanitarian reasons, and because it will make it harder to end the conflict in Yemen. I suspect that the Trump administration did it just to force Biden to undo it, and so they can criticize him for it later. They put Cuba back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, and even made changes to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

MK: The State Department claimed the reason for the late genocide designation was that the lawyers needed time to gather evidence. This may seem implausible to some given the substantial evidence of China’s atrocities, but substantiating that genocide was the Chinese Communist Party’s intent, as required to meet the definition of genocide, is not straightforward.

But if the motivation was to force the Biden team to stumble, it didn’t work. In response to a question from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken endorsed the move without hesitation. Graham was visibly pleased with the response.

I took it as hopeful evidence that, compared to Team Obama, the Biden administration will be more clear-eyed about, and hardline on, the challenge from autocratic rivals, like Russia and China.

EA: I worry you might be right—and I worry even more about anything that makes Lindsey Graham happy. To be clear, I’m thrilled to see so many qualified candidates appointed to national security posts after four years of nepotism and Trump flunkies. But I do worry that the balance inside the Biden administration doesn’t accurately reflect the Democratic party’s internal debates on foreign policy.

Some of his appointees are really quite hawkish, particularly on issues like China. The inclusion of Samantha Power in the cabinet—from her newly elevated perch at the United States Agency for International Development—gives me pause. She has been one of the most consistent advocates for military intervention in government in recent years and has shown no real sign of reconsidering her views in the light of failures in Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere. Yet it’s only been a year since the Democratic primary, where the debates had largely rejected that kind of worldview.

MK: But Biden did win the primary and the election, not Senator Bernie Sanders. So, it makes sense that his appointments are more hawkish than would be expected from a more progressive president.

EA: Fair point. But if I could venture a quick prediction, I don’t think the progressive wing of the party will let Biden get away with it quite as much as they did during the Obama administration. I expect to see pushback in Congress, in particular on the war on terror, on Yemen, and on arms sales. Any other thoughts on the confirmation hearings so far?

MK: I was impressed by Antony Blinken and Avril Haines. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Blinken a bit and he is usually the smartest person in the room. Haines is a highly competent, centrist, and experienced public servant who has vowed to fix the politicization of intelligence.

EA: I was also impressed with Haines, who gave good answers clearly condemning torture and some other progressive hot-button topics. And though we haven’t seen his confirmation hearings yet, I’m particularly pleased that she’ll be complemented by Bill Burns as the CIA director. He’s a thoughtful man who prioritizes diplomacy over the use of force, and he will be able to help his agency play a key role in things like reentering the nuclear deal with Iran.

MK: I am a bit more troubled by the Austin hearings. He is clearly very good, but the norm that retired military officers should be granted a waiver to serve as defense secretary only in “extraordinary” circumstances seems to have flown out the window.

EA: Well, that’s the problem with granting exceptions. Soon, they become the norm. I’m not thrilled about the Austin nomination either on that score. But I am happy to see him nominated, as I suspect one reason he was chosen was his time working with Biden on the Obama administration’s Iraq withdrawal. As Biden himself noted, he and Austin “share a commitment to empowering our diplomats and development experts to lead our foreign policy, using force only as our last resort.” That’s a welcome change. If Biden is looking for a secretary of defense who will implement his agenda rather than push back on it, then Austin may well be a better candidate than the more status quo suggestions for secretary of defense.

I’m also mindful of Meg Guliford’s excellent recent article on Austin, in which she pointed out that his nomination means a lot to African Americans and other minorities who work in the lily-white defense policy community. It would have been a shame to let hypothetical civil-military questions torpedo a historic nomination.

MK: The hearings also gave us insight into some of the administration’s policy priorities and Biden has already taken action in his first days. I support the decision to reenter the World Health Organization (WHO). The United States helped create the WHO and needs to make it work again. The body needs to be reformed, but if Washington stays out altogether, that will cede influence to Beijing.

Reentering the Paris climate agreement helps with the optics of U.S. global engagement, even if it doesn’t really do much to address climate change. After all, greenhouse-gas emissions fell faster in the United States than in China and Europe, while the country was out of the treaty and they were in.

EA: Biden is doing exactly what we predicted: reentering all the treaties and organizations that Trump tried to leave. I agree with you about the Paris agreement: It’s toothless. But some of the other policies are more important. For example, I’m guessing you aren’t a fan of the just-leaked decision by Biden to extend the New START Treaty with Russia for the full five years?

MK: I think that is a mistake. Almost all of America’s nuclear weapons are constrained by New START, compared to only about half for Russia. With New START in place, U.S. hands are tied, while Russia can continue to build up “exotic” (like nuclear-armed underwater drones) and battlefield nuclear weapons not covered in the treaty.

There is bipartisan agreement that Washington needs to put limits on all these Russian nuclear weapons. If Biden extends the treaty for only one or two years, then he can keep the pressure on Russia to discuss new limits on these other weapons. But, if there’s an agreement to extend for the full five years, Russia will have no incentive to agree to any additional limits.

This might be the first and last arms control agreement of Biden’s presidency.

EA: I feel like you’re always looking for the perfect at the expense of the good. Yes, there are problems with current arms-control treaties, not least the fact that most of them focus too heavily on numerical criteria over qualitative questions like the exotic weapons you mention. These treaties are imperfect, but that doesn’t make them worthless. Signing onto a five-year extension allows the United States to get back into dialogue with Russia about other arms-control restrictions, while not giving up the benefits of the existing treaty. It’s a no-brainer.

MK: There are some who are hostile to all arms control because they believe the United States shouldn’t constrain itself in a deal with an enemy it can’t trust. There are some who think that arms control is a virtue in and of itself, almost regardless of the terms, because it represents cooperation between hostile states.

I am in the middle. I like arms control when it suits U.S. interests, but I don’t think granting Russia a quantitative nuclear advantage for the next half-decade is a good deal for Washington.

EA: Nobody’s granting them anything! They are a country with agency that chose to develop these weapons! We have to deal with the world as it is, not argue about exactly how we want things to be in our perfect universe. And that means that the United States ought to try to improve its position vis-a-vis Russia—on arms control and on other things—while preventing the relationship from getting even worse.

MK: But Americans have agency too! Nobody is forcing the Biden team to extend what has become a one-sided agreement. And improving the relationship is not only a U.S. responsibility. What exactly is Putin doing to try to make things better?

EA: Well, I vastly prefer to be in a position where there are some existing arms control agreements, with all the associated verification and consultation measures, than to live in the Wild West. After all, let’s not forget where arms control initially came from: The superpowers were so concerned about nuclear crises after Berlin and Cuba that it was felt that it was in everyone’s interests to come to an arrangement. I think the Biden administration is simply following that logic to its obvious conclusion.

MK: I am sure we will continue to debate this and other issues over the next four years of the Biden administration. And—if our health and the editors will allow—for the next 50 years of Foreign Policy’s history.

EA: I’m not sure, Matt. Despite your youthful appearance, that would make you almost as old as Henry Kissinger! Let’s see if we make it through the roaring twenties first, shall we?

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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