Biden Eyes Adding Top Foreign-Policy Strategist

Thomas Wright of Brookings has made a career studying the international order. Now he might get to fix it.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Vice President Kamala Harris (left), President Joe Biden (center) and US Secretary of State Tony Blinken (right) participate in a virtual bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris (left), President Joe Biden (center) and US Secretary of State Tony Blinken (right) participate in a virtual bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris (left), President Joe Biden (center) and US Secretary of State Tony Blinken (right) participate in a virtual bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. photo by Pete Marovich for The New York Times

The White House is considering adding a prominent foreign-policy scholar to the National Security Council (NSC) to manage U.S. national security strategy as it grapples with the ongoing war in Ukraine, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. 

Thomas Wright, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations and foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, is being considered for a top White House job on the NSC as senior director for strategy. Several current and former officials familiar with the matter cautioned that no formal offer or announcement on the post has been made. 

The NSC is moving into crisis mode to respond to Russia’s massive military offensive in Ukraine, a war that has the potential to spiral into the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. The invasion threatens to hijack U.S. President Joe Biden’s broader foreign-policy agenda, including extricating the United States from the Middle East and pivoting to focus on geopolitical competition with great-power rival China. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already prompted Defense Department planners to delay and revisit a long-planned National Defense Strategy, which was supposed to be rolled out in February, as Politico reported. 

The White House is considering adding a prominent foreign-policy scholar to the National Security Council (NSC) to manage U.S. national security strategy as it grapples with the ongoing war in Ukraine, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. 

Thomas Wright, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations and foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, is being considered for a top White House job on the NSC as senior director for strategy. Several current and former officials familiar with the matter cautioned that no formal offer or announcement on the post has been made. 

The NSC is moving into crisis mode to respond to Russia’s massive military offensive in Ukraine, a war that has the potential to spiral into the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. The invasion threatens to hijack U.S. President Joe Biden’s broader foreign-policy agenda, including extricating the United States from the Middle East and pivoting to focus on geopolitical competition with great-power rival China. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already prompted Defense Department planners to delay and revisit a long-planned National Defense Strategy, which was supposed to be rolled out in February, as Politico reported. 

The NSC senior director for strategy would have to balance Washington’s competing global priorities as the administration works to respond to the immediate crisis in Ukraine and the broader threat to European security while maintaining a focus on China. Wright, who leads Brookings’s practice on Europe, has tweeted that the invasion is the “[m]ost dangerous moment in Europe since 1962,” after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a so-called peacekeeping operation in Ukraine’s Donbass region last week that served as a pretext for a full-scale Russian military invasion of the country. 

Both Wright and the NSC declined to comment.

The selection of Wright would fill a gap left by the departure of Sasha Baker, former NSC senior director for strategic planning, who left the White House to join the Pentagon earlier this month as deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.

Long close to some top Biden administration foreign-policy officials, Wright has spent much of his time outside of government grappling with how to strengthen the American-led postwar international order from challenges by resurgent authoritarian powers like Russia and China. Wright saw the election of President Donald Trump as accelerating a trend toward nationalism and competition in power politics, and he advocated a more cooperative international alternative to the emerging military and economic challenges from China and Russia under the bumper-sticker-like slogan of “responsible competition.” 

“Americans have a strategic choice to make as consequential as the decision to create the liberal order in the late 1940s,” Wright wrote in his popular 2017 book All Measures Short of War, which became a mainstay on think tank bookshelves.

“The United States can reduce its role in the world and allow a spheres-of-influence system to emerge, one in which revisionist powers like Russia and China share power with the United States in Europe and East Asia. Or the United States can compete responsibly with these powers to revive and uphold the liberal order.”

Notably, Wright would be the latest in a line of younger, more competitive-minded China hawks who have entered the Biden administration from the Brookings Institution, a noted Washington foreign-policy think tank, putting another key advisor next to Jake Sullivan, U.S. Biden’s national security advisor. Those include Tarun Chhabra, the NSC’s senior director for technology and national security, and Rush Doshi, the NSC’s China director. Wright also recently published a book with Colin Kahl, currently the Defense Department’s top policy official and a close Biden aide during the Obama administration.

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

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

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