Books & the Arts / April 9, 2024

The Great Humbling

How did Joe Biden’s foreign policy go so off course?

How Did Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Go So Off Course?

The president set out to chart a more pacific and humane foreign policy after the Trump years but at some point he and his team of advisers lost the plot.

David Klion
Joe Biden disembarking from Air Force One this January. (Kent Nishimura / Getty)

Anyone who writes about current events knows how cruel the gap between final edits and publication can be. Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, certainly does. On October 2, 2023, Foreign Affairs closed a print issue that included a 7,000-word article by Sullivan intended to offer a comprehensive overview of the global situation on Biden’s watch. In it, Sullivan boasted that the Middle East “is quieter than it has been for decades” and that “we’ve de-escalated crises in Gaza.” Five days after those lines went to press, and 17 days before their publication, Hamas launched a sneak attack on southern Israel that resulted in some 1,200 Israeli casualties and the capture of more than 200 hostages. Over the ensuing months, Israel has retaliated with a merciless war on Gaza that has killed or injured tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians and that has expanded into a wider regional struggle between the United States and Iran, incorporating military exchanges from Yemen to Syria to Iraq. Notwithstanding Sullivan’s unfortunately timed assessment, the Middle East under Biden is anything but quiet. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently put it, “We’ve not seen a situation as dangerous as the one we’re facing now across the region since at least 1973.”

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The Internationalists: The Fight to Restore American Foreign Policy After Trump

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The Internationalists, the new book by the Politico national security reporter Alexander Ward, suffers from similarly awkward timing. An account of the first two years of Biden’s foreign-policy team, The Internationalists closes with a speech that Sullivan gave in April 2023, some 10 months before the book’s publication, meaning that it does not cover the October 7 Hamas attack or its ongoing, cataclysmic aftermath. Ward, as he explains in the book’s acknowledgments, set out “to write a story of a team that came in with immense confidence, lost it during the withdrawal of Afghanistan, and found their mojo again with the defense of Ukraine.” He delivers that exact arc, and also delivers on his expressed intention to produce “a helpful second draft of history for those seeking to go deeper,” but the book’s resilient-comeback narrative has already been undermined by global events.

This is in no sense Ward’s fault—unlike Sullivan, he bears no responsibility for the state of US policy in the Middle East or anywhere else—but it does cast the principal subjects of his book in a different light than he presumably wanted or expected. Written with what was clearly extensive access, The Internationalists reflects the weaknesses as well as the strengths of Biden’s foreign policy advisers. Team Biden members see themselves as a group of sober-minded yet idealistic professionals who took office intending to end wars and to repair America’s ailing body politic at home and its damaged reputation abroad in the wake of Donald Trump. Nevertheless, on their watch the United States has been drawn into a set of major new wars whose unintended consequences threaten to prematurely end the Biden presidency and transfer the reins of global power back to Trump. Like Ward, they had set out to tell an uplifting story about American global leadership, but at some point they lost the plot.

Along with Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken, the key figures on Biden’s foreign-policy team include Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and, of course, Biden himself. Of these, Sullivan features most prominently in Ward’s book—both the first chapter and the epilogue are structured around him, and we learn more about his personal background than anyone else’s. One gets the sense that Sullivan and Ward spoke often and that Ward identifies with him. Though the main role of any national security adviser is to advise the president, each individual to hold the job brings their own unique approach, and Sullivan’s particular talent seems to be as a crafter of narratives designed to appeal to journalists.

Sullivan, who’s 47, is an earnest meritocrat out of central casting. He’s the son of a professor and a guidance counselor and the product of Minneapolis public schools, where, Ward informs us, he was named “Most Likely to Succeed,” where “teachers fawned over his ability to hand in flawlessly written assignments,” and where “he led the student council while winning debate tournaments and quiz bowls.” After this almost idyllic Midwestern upbringing, Sullivan headed east and charted a swift path through the most prestigious institutions, earning BA and law degrees at Yale. He also became a Rhodes scholar and a Supreme Court clerk before his stints campaigning and then working for Senator Amy Klobuchar. Soon enough, Sullivan was advising Hillary Clinton on her first unsuccessful run for president in 2008 and then as she took the helm at the State Department under Barack Obama. Had Clinton won the presidency in 2016, Sullivan very likely would have been tapped as national security adviser before his 40th birthday.

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Instead, Sullivan spent the Trump years in the wilderness, trying to understand what went wrong and how Democratic foreign policy might be reimagined in response. Along with fellow wunderkind and Obama foreign-policy adviser Ben Rhodes, Sullivan established a shadow policy team, dubbed National Security Action, with the goal of crafting a new doctrine for whichever Democrat ended up facing Trump in 2020. Some of the group’s big ideas were intended as responses to Trump’s populist rhetoric and its rough counterpart on the left flank of the Democratic Party, both of which argued in different ways that the domestic economic needs of ordinary Americans had been neglected during the endless post-9/11 wars.

Trump’s victory had made Sullivan mindful of the economic challenges facing “everyday Americans,” who “reminded him of the folks he grew up with in Minnesota”; now he wanted “to look at strategic decisions”—that is, national- security policies—“through the lens of how they would affect the well-being of Americans at home.” That could mean a tariff-driven industrial policy that prioritized domestic manufacturing, in a departure from the reigning neoliberal trade consensus; it could mean reinvigorating America’s democratic institutions in the wake of Trump’s authoritarian moves at home and embrace of autocrats abroad; it could mean ending the post-9/11 “Forever War” and finally winding down the US presence in Afghanistan. Sullivan called his proposals a “foreign policy for the middle class,” and they soon found their way into the Biden transition team’s position papers (“basically carbon copies,” as one official described them).

Meanwhile, a larger team began to take shape. Blinken, the stepson of a Holocaust survivor who advised presidents, grew up “discussing everything from geopolitics to music and art in [his family’s] spacious home in Paris’s 16th arrondissement” and carefully evolved from a left-leaning Harvard Crimson opinion writer to a more moderate champion of democracy promotion and the “rules-based international order.” He also, Ward notes archly, “knew how to make a buck” in the private sector, having founded a lucrative political consulting firm during the Trump years. Biden liked him because he “was loyal and shared a similar love for corny jokes.”

Lloyd Austin, the first African American to run the Pentagon, was likely chosen in part because he had served in Iraq with Biden’s beloved son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden valued Austin for being empathetic and spotlight-
shy and for prioritizing loyalty over bureaucratic infighting. And then there was Avril Haines, the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence (who, Ward notes not once but twice, had once run a bookstore that hosted regular erotica readings). Haines is credited for her dispassionate briefings and analytical mind; her management of the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine, during which US intelligence repeatedly outfoxed its Russian counterpart, might be the most impressive thing anyone does in The Internationalists. Together, this motley crew became known as the “A-Team,” after the action series that at least some of them probably grew up watching in the 1980s.

Biden’s own biography has been recounted in many other places, but suffice it to say that he makes for a striking contrast with this A-Team—from Sullivan, the academic whiz kid, to the worldly, almost aristocratic Blinken. Biden’s administration may be staffed with the best and the brightest, but the president himself was a mediocre student who attended his local state university and a lower-tier law school. He comes from an era before the political class was fully professionalized, when prestige and polish counted for less and folksiness counted for more. Biden’s gut instincts sometimes align naturally with the policy prescriptions of Sullivan and Blinken, but other times, it’s as if they are trying to shape policy around what they know the boss wants.

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This temperamental gulf between Biden and his advisers is illustrated most dramatically in the debates about the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Biden insisted had to be completed within his first year in office and ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. To the anti-war left, Biden’s stubbornness on this point could be read as one of his greatest strengths. As Obama’s vice president, he had famously dissented on the decision to surge troops into Afghanistan in 2009, which prolonged the war by more than a decade. But for Biden, the matter was as much personal as political: Because of Beau’s service, he had a particular sensitivity to military families and an overriding desire to bring the troops home from what he had judged long ago to be a futile war.

With regard to Afghanistan, there was little daylight between Biden and progressives like the Marine veteran Alexander McCoy, the leader of the anti-war group Common Defense, who features prominently in The Internationalists as one of the activists the West Wing coordinated with on the withdrawal. Much of the Beltway foreign-policy establishment and the military elite—in particular Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—disagreed. They were invested deeply in salvaging some sort of military victory in Afghanistan; the sunk-cost fallacy weighed powerfully over Washington. The A-Team ended up having to implement the president’s will in the face of institutional resistance, and the outcome was a fiasco—what Ward calls “the Great Humbling.”

Anyone who followed the news in the summer of 2021 will recall what made this moment such a humbling one: As US troops started pulling out, Taliban forces seized control of the whole country far more rapidly than the Biden team had anticipated. The US-trained Afghan Army melted away, Kabul surrendered to the Taliban, and the hapless President Ashraf Ghani fled abroad. The evacuation of US personnel and the Afghan citizens who had cooperated with them was hastily improvised, in part through a mass volunteer effort by heartbroken US national-security professionals. Defenders of Biden’s decision argued that the speed of Afghanistan’s collapse proved he was right all along; critics countered that the small remaining force Biden inherited when he took office could have been maintained in the country indefinitely as a low-cost investment in regional stability. Either way, the withdrawal itself went disastrously, and the president’s approval numbers plummeted.

Ward recounts how Biden faced demands to make some heads roll in the aftermath of the pullout, and perhaps that might have been the politically savvy move. But Biden stood by his A-Team: “Leaving Afghanistan was always going to be messy,” Ward writes, summarizing the White House’s internal consensus. Still, everyone felt chastened by what had happened, and Sullivan perhaps most of all. “More than anyone,” Ward notes, Sullivan “was looking to get the administration a much-needed win.”

The idea of “getting a win” for the Biden administration is representative of a larger problem with how the A-Team views US foreign policy. Their decisions have real and often bloody consequences on the ground, but wins and losses are tallied in terms of the political consequences for Biden and the professional standing of his advisers. What these wins and losses might mean for the rest of the world is rarely remarked upon. Sullivan and his colleagues are instead concerned with how a failure (stipulating that’s what it was) in Afghanistan can be redeemed by a success (if that’s what it is) in Ukraine. But does a triumphant outcome in one country offset a dismal outcome in another? Sullivan and his colleagues seem to think so, and Ward seems to agree, but what about the Afghans and Ukrainians—which policies are wins and which are losses for them?

The narrowness of The Internationalists’ framing is noticeable in Ward’s section about the run-up to the war in Ukraine. Ward casts US support for Ukraine as redemptive for Team Biden: He describes, as they would, how America successfully stood up for a beleaguered democracy invaded by its far larger authoritarian neighbor. Even so, much of this section reads like a series of cascading disasters—from the failed diplomatic campaign to prevent Vladimir Putin from doing the unthinkable to the frustrating efforts to persuade Volodymyr Zelensky that an invasion was imminent. In Ward’s telling, Biden and his team never sought war and tried at every opportunity to avert it, and this is probably correct as far as it goes, but of course the backstory of the Ukraine war didn’t begin under the Biden administration; it was the result of years of escalating tensions between the US and Russia, tensions that were sometimes stoked by hawks in Washington. The war that resulted hasn’t been an unmitigated success either, especially after last summer’s failed Ukrainian counteroffensive; proclaiming it a redemption story for American foreign policy is premature at best.

Ward might have framed the Ukraine war a little more skeptically had he focused more on one of the key figures shaping US policy toward Russia and Ukraine both before and during the Biden administration: Victoria Nuland, the outgoing under secretary of state for political affairs, whom Ward himself describes, in one of the few times he refers to her, as “notorious for her years as a staunch Russia hawk.” Nuland’s consistently aggressive posture toward Russia in the lead-up to the war, which Ward notes initially put her in a minority within the Biden administration, has drawn intense scrutiny from Moscow; her many years as a Russian policy hand, in a career spanning the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, point to a deeper backstory to the current crisis. However one feels about Nuland or her policy preferences, she is an example of how US foreign policy operates on a longer timeline than any one presidency; had Ward emphasized her a bit more, he might have also been able to shed some light on how Team Biden came to be so deeply enmeshed in Ukraine.

An analogous figure who appears only briefly in The Internationalists is Brett McGurk, who in recent months has become widely recognized as a key player shaping Biden’s increasingly controversial Middle East policy. Like Nuland, McGurk is a hawk and a veteran of multiple administrations under both parties (though unlike Nuland, he even served during the Trump years). McGurk has been primarily responsible for the Biden administration’s overriding priority of brokering a normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel—an extension of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s “Abraham Accords”—and it has also been under his watch that the status of the Palestinians has remained a marginal issue in US Middle East policy, at least until Hamas forced it into international headlines last fall. McGurk comes up only briefly in The Internationalists, when an anonymous source in touch with administration officials blames him for how the administration was caught flat-footed by the war between Hamas and Israel that broke out in May 2021. Had Ward followed McGurk’s story more closely, and had the Middle East taken up more than one chapter, his book might have cast the overarching priorities of US foreign policy in a more cynical light. By centering the A-Team and replicating its de-emphasis on the Middle East, Ward is instead able to tell a more sympathetic story—albeit one that already feels dated.

Sullivan’s speech at the Brookings Institution at the end of The Internationalists makes for an odd coda. It returns to the themes of a “middle class”–oriented, post-globalization foreign policy that Ward emphasizes in his introduction, even as most of the book has been focused on the management of long-standing national-security issues and geopolitical crises that are only secondarily connected to such a policy. (According to its index, the term “middle class” comes up multiple times in the book’s first chapter and epilogue, but is barely mentioned anywhere in between.) Yet in Ward’s view, Sullivan’s speech, and his tenure in office, marked an important break: In criticizing the Washington consensus on globalization, Sullivan “was dismantling, point by point, the dominant world view that Biden held for decades and that the national security adviser grew up believing until Donald Trump won the election in November 2016.”

It’s certainly true, as Ward notes, that Sullivan and the Biden team broke with the Beltway consensus on their divisive decision to leave Afghanistan and that they paid real political costs for doing so. It’s also true that on domestic economic policy, Biden took significant cues from the Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren wing of the party, in a departure from the Clinton and Obama administrations. On the other hand, in Eastern Europe, the administration has been pulled into a hellish quagmire that has put significant strain on the global economy, and by extension the American middle class, threatening Sullivan’s own political vision along with Biden’s reelection.

In the Middle East, too, the policies of the administration have damaged Biden’s popularity and thus put his domestic accomplishments at risk. The A-Team inherited and maintained a dysfunctional status quo policy that, mere months after Sullivan’s speech, would deteriorate into a calamitous war in Gaza and implicate Washington in the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians—a policy that horrifies large numbers of key Democratic constituencies while doing nothing to materially benefit most Americans. And this is to say nothing of a potential confrontation with China over the Taiwan Strait, which looms in the background of The Internationalists as it does over US foreign policy in general. Given all this, Ward’s anodyne, Sullivan-channeling conclusion—“America was ready for renewal. The world was there to remake. There were at least two more years to get it done”—reads as more than a little off.

Sullivan comes across in the book as bright, competent, and well-intentioned, even if his thinking remains far more conventional than he wants it to seem. But good intentions will get you only so far when your job is to steer an imperial superpower through the multiple crises that it spent years getting itself into. Ward likewise does a capable job of recounting how Sullivan and the Biden team have tried to navigate those crises, but The Internationalists would be more compelling if it looked deeper into the underlying contradictions that make US foreign policy so crisis-prone in the first place. One has to squint pretty hard to see what most of these overseas entanglements have to do with the well-being of the American middle class, however one defines it, and one has to squint even harder to see how any of them might be considered wins.

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David Klion

David Klion is a Brooklyn-based writer for various publications. He is working on a book about the legacy of neoconservatism.

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