Butterfly Effect: Message Behind Biden’s Picks — From Trump to Trust - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Message Behind Biden’s Picks — From Trump to Trust

Butterfly Effect: Message Behind Biden’s Picks — From Trump to Trust

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

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Old wine in a new bottle might be just what America needs.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

“America is back.” That’s what President-elect Joe Biden is telling world leaders calling to congratulate him on his victory. It’s a reference to President Trump’s approach over the past four years of pulling the U.S. back from its traditional global role, one that Biden wants to restore.

On Tuesday, Biden sent his clearest signal yet on the actual change in American foreign policy he’s aiming to bring once he’s sworn in on Jan. 20 — in the form of the personnel he has chosen to lead his engagement with the rest of the world.

Biden has picked former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken as his secretary of state nominee; veteran diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the U.N.; former Hillary Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan as his national security adviser; and former Secretary of State John Kerry as climate envoy.   

The four — all Obama administration alumni — belong to different age groups and have varied areas of expertise. But they share a set of qualities that are at the heart of what Biden’s trying to tell the world: They’re steady hands and experienced minds that won’t flip-flop on positions much and can collectively try and undo Trump policy choices.

That Biden message has implications for America’s friends and rivals, and for nations and regimes that might witness a sharp shift in approach from Washington.

In four years, Trump never once visited Africa. A little less than three years ago, he reportedly referred to the continent’s nations as “sh*thole” countries. Biden’s sharpest diplomatic signal is to Africa. Thomas-Greenfield was Obama’s top diplomat for Africa, and her appointment as ambassador to the U.N. is a message that a continent Trump ignored — allowing China to deepen its footprint there unchallenged — will be front and center and a priority for the incoming administration.

This isn’t just posturing: There are specific changes that are on the anvil. The Trump administration has opposed the selection of the Nigeria-born Ngozi Okonji-Iweala as the head of the World Trade Organization — every other nation has backed her. Expect that position to be reversed. Thomas-Greenfield has publicly indicated support for Okonji-Iweala’s candidacy.

Meanwhile, Blinken has made clear the Biden administration will not stand by as Egypt jails human rights activists and Ethiopian forces target the people of the Tigray region in their war against rebels there.

Going by Biden’s nominations, America’s sights is not just on Africa. Blinken and Sullivan have both publicly articulated how the single greatest priority of the incoming administration will be to repair frayed relations with traditional allies in Europe, NATO and the Indo-Pacific region. It isn’t as though America is — or needs to be — on the same page as all its allies on everything; that wasn’t the case before Trump, and it won’t happen now. But Blinken and Sullivan belong to the traditional school of diplomacy, where threats are issued and disagreements aired behind closed doors — not on Twitter — allowing for solutions to be found without also having to deal with angry public sentiments.

What about China and Russia? Blinken and Sullivan are unlikely to soften American rhetoric against China and are expected to amplify U.S. criticism of Russia, especially over its regional hegemonic ambitions. But both are pragmatists who recognize that there are areas where Washington gains from cooperating with Beijing and Moscow. A U.S.–China trade war hurts both nations, and Biden will need Chinese President Xi Jinping’s help if global climate change goals are to be met. The Biden administration will likewise want to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on continuing with their weapons-control treaties.

Finally, Biden’s choice of Kerry as climate czar is an unambiguous statement that he will seek to get America back into the Paris climate change agreement as soon as possible. Kerry was secretary of state when the pact was inked, and was closely involved in the negotiations that led to that historic moment.

To be sure, for all these efforts, Biden and his team can’t turn back time. Blinken in particular hasn’t always been consistent in the past. He was Biden’s adviser when the then-senator voted for the Iraq War, though he later became a critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the conflict. He has in recent weeks been unclear about whether the Biden administration will demand further concessions from Iran to return to their nuclear deal, which Trump reneged on.

And a predictable foreign policy comes with its own downsides: It robs America of the element of surprise that Trump frequently overused, but it ensured that U.S. rivals often didn’t know what was coming next on Twitter.

Still, Biden’s gamble is evident: He’s betting that old wine in a new bottle will taste delicious to a world that for the past four years has had to adjust to a new flavor — often unpleasant — with every sip. His foreign policy choices suggest that a man Trump derided as “Sleepy Joe” has a different moniker in mind for himself internationally. World, meet “Steady Joe.”

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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