After weeks of the Trump administration’s delays and lawsuits, a decision by a key administration official set into motion the official transition process to President-elect Joe Biden. Biden’s aides have held no less than 20 meetings with Trump officials, and engaged in intensive discussions with each federal agency as well as with the White House in order to prepare the ground for Biden to assume the responsibilities of head of state.
Naturally, the foremost priorities of the incoming administration will to reverse the economic deterioration and to oversee the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine. In this regard, the Biden team has been in touch with Dr Antony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leader of the White House Corona Task Force, whom Biden has said he wants to retain as the country’s top infectious disease expert.
Biden has also begun receiving the President’s Daily Brief, a classified report containing some of the most sensitive information affecting the nation, and the secure facilities that the Biden team set up in Washington and in Wilmington, Delaware, can now be used to review classified material. The Washington Post also reports that the Biden team got new email addresses in the hours after the transition became official, along with a new website domain affiliated with the federal government. The team then “prepared to go over voluminous briefing books that provide updates on budgets, upcoming projects and nascent regulations, and the FBI can now begin conducting background checks on Biden’s nominees”.
Soon after these steps were taken, the president-elect announced his six picks for his national security and foreign policy teams. Previously, he had announced his choice of Janet Yellen (74), former chair of the Federal Reserve, as his nominee for US Secretary of the Treasury. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to serve in that senior post.
In general, women will feature prominently in the Biden administration, starting with Kamala Harris, who made history as the first woman, Black American and South Asian American to serve as vice president. The more inclusive attitude towards minorities has also been signalled by the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas, who had served as deputy secretary for Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, as Biden’s Homeland Security secretary.
If confirmed, Mayorkas will become the first Latino to hold this post. Biden’s choice for director of National Intelligence, former deputy director of the CIA Avril Haines, will be the first female leader of the US intelligence community, if confirmed. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, an African American woman, will be the US ambassador to the UN. If representation of minorities is one hallmark of Biden’s selections, another is the inclusion of long-serving Biden aides, such as Antony Blinken, who has been tapped to be secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser-designate.
Blinken and Sullivan epitomise another common denominator of this team in that they are both career professionals who have worked their way up the executive ladder. So far, the forthcoming administration does not appear to have figures of the stature and ingenuity of Henry Kissinger or James Baker. The only person in the team who has an established political renown is former secretary of state John Kerry who led the US delegation in the negotiations that resulted in the Paris Agreement on climate change and who has been tipped as US special presidential envoy for climate change in the Biden administration, which would make him a member of the National Security Council.
Like a successful paratrooper, Biden has hit the ground running as he gears up his duties. But if the elections brought him to the Oval Office, he will face the challenge of managing a country very different from the one he had been familiar with throughout his five decade long political career. New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman may have been rather harsh when he wrote, on 4 November: “We still do not know who is the winner of the presidential election.
But we do know who is the loser: the United States of America.” He proceeds from the commonly held premise that Donald Trump is and will remain an anomaly among US presidents. Trump managed to rise to power and remain in office for four years despite how he locked horns with the US establishment as embodied in government institutions, “deep state” organs, the serious media and late-night comedy shows that lampooned the president even before he entered the White House.
Trump succeeded in keeping himself in the spotlight and at the centre of public attention through his tweet binges from the crack of dawn to the midnight hours, delivering one surprise policy decision after another to public opinion at home and abroad. Despite his electoral defeat, he won more than 72 million votes, about eight million more than in 2016. This, alone, will make the task of reunifying Americans, which Biden has set as his foremost priority, an extremely difficult one, and perhaps unattainable before the 2024 elections.
Biden will also face problems related to implementing a foreign policy vision riddled with contradictions. Several months ago, he published in article in the Foreign Affairs with the title, “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing US Foreign Policy After Trump.” One problem with this is that it makes Trump the frame of reference that needs to be contradicted and reversed, as though the past four years should be the base of foreign policy design as opposed to realities and developments that need to be addressed during the next four years.
Secondly, Biden has made liberal democracy an ideology to be translated into action through a worldwide alliance of democratic and liberal thinkers, even though he recognises, in his article, the extent to which Western democracy has declined during recent years and how international balances have shifted since the first decade of this century. World leadership is not attained by shuffling and dealing out concept cards like dictatorship, authoritarianism and autocracy, but by dealing with the realities of how different states have evolved and how liberal democratic ideology, itself, has engendered sharp divisions that sometimes escalated into civil wars whose flames have scorched the US itself in recent years.
Thirdly, Biden sees the reunification of the West, as defined by NATO and countries with which the US has defence pacts, such as Japan, Australia and South Korea, as the means to restore global power balances in Washington’s favour. However, this tack is precisely what spurred more aggressive behaviour from Russia, and it certainly will not go over well with China, which Biden wants the US to beat economically, after which he wants to use it to open the paths to trade and a just agreement with North Korea. Fourthly, Biden does not seem to appreciate how mixed-up Europe has become since Brexit.
One day they are speaking about the “new Europe”, the next day about reviving the old one. One day Europe is conservative, xenophobic and Trumpist without Trump; the next day it is liberal, rejoicing at the Biden victory and looking forward to his entrance to the White House. Fifthly, the US, itself, no longer has the status and influence it once had, which is a subject in and of itself.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly