Security Brief

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Delivered Thursday. Available only to FP subscribers.

Biden’s National Security Council Sharpens Focus on China

The council’s Indo-Pacific Directorate is set to be the largest, and one of the most influential, arms of Biden’s national security team, administration insiders say.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief, and friendly reminder for readers who have had a long work week: Today is National Drink Wine Day

What’s on tap for today? Biden keeps adding more China experts, Team Biden makes their debut appearance with Europe, and fallout from rocket attacks in Iraq.

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Biden’s NSC Bulks Up on China

As the new U.S. president builds out his national security team, one region of the world is getting more attention (and personnel) than the rest. The Biden National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific team is set to be the largest in the NSC, with up to 20 officials in the directorate once it’s fully staffed, current and former officials confirmed to Foreign Policy

Personnel is policy, as the age-old Washington aphorism goes, and the new president has made clear that China is the top national security challenge for the United States. 

“Just as transatlantic NSC bureaus were at the center of the action during the Cold War, the Middle East teams on the NSC have been dominant, and occasionally domineering, especially since 9/11,” John Gans, author of White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War, told Foreign Policy. “In some ways, the bureaucratic emphasis on China, and the broader Indo-Pacific region, is overdue: for more than a decade it’s been the center of gravity of U.S. foreign policy, even if that was not always reflected in Washington’s bureaucratic structures.”

So who’s leading the team? Kurt Campbell, the former top State Department envoy for East Asia under President Barack Obama, leads the team as NSC’s Indo-Pacific affairs coordinator. Campbell is widely credited with orchestrating Obama’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. Laura Rosenberger and Rush Doshi joined the NSC as senior China directors, and Julian Gewirtz as China director. (Rosenberger formerly served as chief of staff to Antony Blinken—now Joe Biden’s secretary of state—when he was deputy secretary of state under Obama.)

Biden and his foreign-policy team have worked to project a hard-line approach to Beijing during their first month in office, addressing such issues as defense, trade, and China’s worsening human rights record, including its massive crackdown on ethnic minorities that both the Trump administration and Blinken have said constitutes a genocide. 

In short, Biden’s China playbook could look a lot like former President Donald Trump’s—though his style and tone are sure to be starkly different. Most administration insiders also say that Biden will work more closely with Europe to coordinate a trans-Atlantic approach to China and Indo-Pacific security. 

In some ways, Biden’s approach to China will be hemmed in by domestic political pressures. If he wants to work with China on areas of mutual interest—namely climate change and reviving the Iran deal—he’ll face sharp backlash from Republicans in Congress. 


Who’s Joining Team Biden

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former senior diplomat Nicholas Burns are on the shortlist to be ambassador to China, sources tell Bloomberg

The Biden administration is eyeing plans to create a new special envoy for the Horn of Africa post, a sign of how alarmed U.S. officials are at developments in the region given the brewing conflict in northern Ethiopia, Robbie reports

Spencer Boyer, a former intelligence and State Department official, is joining Biden’s Pentagon as the new deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO Policy, FP has confirmed. (Hat tip to Defense News’ Aaron Mehta for first reporting.) 

Margaret Taylor, a former senior Democratic staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and State Department attorney, is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s new general counsel.

Julianne Smith, a top Biden foreign-policy advisor for the presidential campaign, is now listed on the State Department’s website as a member of the Policy Planning Staff. Smith, who was formerly Biden deputy national security advisor when he was vice president, is likely to ship off to a more senior post in the not-so-distant future, insiders tell Foreign Policy.

Ariane Tabatabai is joining the State Department as senior advisor in the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. 

Just in time for the NATO Defense Ministerial this week, where the U.S. peace talks with the Taliban are front and center, Rebecca Zimmerman has joined the Pentagon as the agency’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is also getting two new top aides: Joseph Bryan, who joined as a special assistant to the secretary for climate, and Bishop Garrison, who started on Monday as senior advisor for human capital and diversity, equity, and inclusion, a role that will help spearhead efforts to diversify the Pentagon workforce. 


Pop Quiz

Alright, Security Brief readers, it’s pop quiz time. Sticking with our NSC theme, here is this week’s question: 

Over two dozen people have served as national security advisor since the post was first established in 1953. Who are the only people who have served in the role twice during their career?

Hint: There are two.

The first reader to reply to us with both correct names gets a shoutout in next week’s newsletter!


What We’re Watching 

Biden’s big Europe reunion tour. Is the brief, Trumpy era of “Westlessness” over? That’s what Europeans are asking as Team Biden prepares for a (virtual) tour across the Atlantic. NATO defense ministers are scheduled to meet virtually, with Afghanistan as a top agenda item. It’s set to be Austin’s debut as defense secretary with NATO allies. And something to look for with Biden’s appearance at the upcoming Munich Security Conference on Friday: He could tell European partners of the new administration’s intention to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, Laura Rozen reports. 

“Time and place of our choosing.” The Biden administration is insisting that it will respond to the rocket attacks against a base hosting U.S. troops in Erbil, the biggest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, earlier this week. First it was State Department spokesman Ned Price who made the comments on Tuesday, followed by his Pentagon counterpart John Kirby Wednesday. Interestingly, it’s similar to the language then-President Barack Obama used to take on Russia after election-related hacking in 2016. 

Navalny fallout. The European Union is expected to impose some sanctions on Russian officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the detention of leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Reuters reports. The measures could include asset freezes in Putin’s inner circle and travel bans in the runup to the 27-nation bloc’s summit in Brussels next month, and set the stage for further tensions between Moscow and the West.


Movers and Shakers

First in Security Brief: Stuart Symington, the U.S. special envoy for South Sudan, has stepped down from his post and retired, officials confirm to Foreign Policy. Symington was in the job for just over a year. (Read more on the stalled diplomatic efforts to get South Sudan’s leaders to adhere to a peace deal from Brian Adeba in Just Security.) Interesting factoid: Symington’s grandfather (and namesake) was a famous Missouri senator, first secretary of the Air Force, and joined the Truman administration before unsuccessfully challenging for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.

Back in the tank. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker and Andrew Tabler, who was NSC director for Syria before moving to NEA, have returned to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Also heading to think tank world: Anthony Ruggiero, who was most recently deputy assistant to Trump for national security affairs and NSC senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense. 


Quote of the Week

“Simply put, the regime has become a criminal syndicate with a flag, which harnesses its state resources to steal hundreds of millions of dollars.”

—John C. Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, on North Korea

His comments came as the Justice Department unsealed charges against North Korean intelligence operatives alleged to have orchestrated a global hacking campaign that included efforts to steal and extort over $1.2 billion. 


What We’re Reading 

Not just for China hawks anymore. Taiwan is actually one of the biggest powers in the world’s semiconductor market, even as supply chains have tightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. One recommendation from our friends at FP Analytics to improve things: boost the U.S. relationship with Taiwan through the Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue and with China through the Strategic Economic Dialogue.  


The Week Ahead

Reps. Joe Courtney and Rob Wittman speak at a Hudson Institute event on Feb. 19 about the future of U.S. sea power.

The European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell speaks at an Atlantic Council online event on Feb. 23.


That’s it for today. 

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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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