President Joe Biden spent his first few weeks in office opposing much of his predecessor's foreign policy. But it's not just the decisions he made that separate him from Donald Trump – it's how he made them.
Biden has previously relied on the results of policy reviews and inter-agency meetings, where key members of different departments gather to discuss options for their managers and the president before deciding what to do next. As a result, after weeks of discussion, he changed America's stance on Yemen and his government described Myanmar's military takeover as a "coup d'état" a day after it entered.
But Trump seldom stuck to such a process, preferring to guide foreign policy by dictation. Often times, after speaking with an aide or a foreign leader, Trump would make a statement or tweet, forcing his team to either retrofit or scrap an evolving policy. This ever-looming possibility has created confusion, consternation and chaos throughout his government.
"It was an absolute joke," said Olivia Troye, who acted as advisor to former Vice President Mike Pence before publicly breaking up with the government over Covid-19's botched response. "Trump's whims would outweigh the actual process."
By drawing on the historical formulation of politics in the US, Biden is implicitly sending a message to his staff and the country: He will take action based on advice from experts and officials, not just because an idea crossed his mind is.
Biden and his team are examining, among other things, what to do with Russia, US troops around the world and sanctions. These efforts are as normal as they are unnoticeable on their face. But it was precisely Trump's sloppy style that made Biden's predilection for a traditional process of policy review seem like innovation.
"He demonstrates at every review and meeting that America is back on foreign policy and that someone is vigilant, making decisions, thinking things through and acting responsibly," said John Gans, author of White House Warriors: How the National Security Council changed the American war route. "That's a big change from the last four years."
Biden administration officials I spoke to did not go into specific political details, but did emphasize the president's desire to benefit from a functioning system under him.
The first signs are encouraging. National security adviser Jake Sullivan held the first meeting of all National Security Council (NSC) staff in over a year on Jan. 28, three officials said. Cabinet members such as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Tony Blinken were invited to attend Biden's daily intelligence briefing.
And it is important at an early stage that government agencies work closely with one another. White House officials told me they were encouraged to see Austin want to work with Blinken on a Department of Defense project during a recent NSC meeting.
That's the kind of teamwork that Biden wants to see. "It's hard to name a big problem where there is no overarching stock across the board. Look at Covid, look at the climate, look at China," said Yohannes Abraham, the chief of staff at the NSC. "They require the breaking down of barriers between political decision-making machines wherever you can."
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during a news conference at the White House on Feb.4.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
A good process cannot guarantee good policy, Biden officials admit. And any administration risks over-centralizing decision-making or holding meetings for the sake of the meeting, freezing the bureaucracy until something is decided. That was an indictment often brought against the Obama-Biden White House, and some fear the problem may return in the current administration.
Still, the biggest difference between Trump and Biden is arguably the most important: where Trump made critical foreign policy decisions on a whim, Biden initially embraced and promoted the system designed to help leaders make responsible and deliberate foreign policy decisions.
There is a process that helps presidents make smart decisions. Trump ignored it.
The NSC, the White House directorate responsible for coordinating foreign policy throughout the government, was founded in 1947. Its creation was in part in response to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's personalist treatment of World War II.
"He conducted foreign policy at the seat of his pants," said Gans. The FDR fought America's wars in two theaters while keeping its own US vice president, advisor and ally in the dark about its plans.
When he died in April 1945, the FDR took with it political knowledge that few in government possessed, leaving its successor Harry S. Truman somewhat clueless about his legacy. Most importantly, Truman did not find out about the Manhattan Project until two weeks after his appointment as president – the US efforts to build the first atomic bomb. America would drop two of these bombs on Japan four months later, which would end the war.
Few in Washington wanted to see an FDR-to-Truman scenario again. With the NSC, officials hoped that the White House would share the foreign policy guidelines with government agencies, which in turn would help those bodies give the president their best political advice. It was cumbersome, but it kept those responsible for implementing the President's decisions on the same page and provided some continuity between the administrations.
Therefore, since 1947, all commanders in chief, Republicans and Democrats, have largely adhered to this process during their tenure.
Well, every president except the last.
"The Trump administration was litigation from the start," said Tom Shannon, who served as State Department number 3 in 2017. "There were a lot of things that were done on the fly."
The main reason, experts and former Trump administration officials said, was that Trump rarely dealt with political details and created problems in the process. That frustrated his employees very much.
Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listened as former President Trump met Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the White House on July 18, 2019.
Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images
"Trump doesn't make facts, he doesn't make chess moves. He does what his gut tells him to do," said John Bolton, Trump's third national security advisor. "You can't deal with a man like that."
It didn't help that Trump was undecided and erratism made it difficult for the government to implement measures that it had already agreed to. For example, the government announced its support to replace Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro with a pro-democracy leader in 2019 – but Trump waffled it.
“On the first day, he wants Maduro to be removed. Day two he's not so sure. On day three, he wants Maduro to be removed. Day four he's not so sure, ”Bolton told me, who wrote a scrapbook in which he criticized the president's understanding of foreign policy. "That's a problem: that he doesn't know what he wants."
And there was the ever-present concern of the Trump years: whoever spoke to him last often had the greatest influence on the president's decision-making. Sometimes that person ruled another nation.
"Foreign heads of state and government interfered all the time," said Kirsten Fontenrose, who oversaw golf issues on Trump's National Security Council. "A call from Egypt (President Abdel Fattah) al-Sisi or Turkey (President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan could change things completely."
The Erdoğan example is instructive. The Turkish President called Trump in December 2018 and said American troops could leave northern Syria and let Ankara's armed forces take over. Erdoğan's was not a selfless act: control of northern Syria would give Turkey more leverage in the war and more opportunities to kill US allied Kurdish anti-ISIS fighters, whom Erdoğan views as terrorists and a threat to the stability of his country.
Trump relented as he had long wanted US troops out of wars in the Middle East. "It's entirely up to you," the president told Erdoğan. "We're done." Trump then publicly announced his decision against the advice of his aides in a now-deleted Twitter video: "Our boys, our young women, our men – they're all coming back and they're coming back now." He never got through, and today several hundred US soldiers remain in Syria.
Still, in a split second, Trump's decision dismantled employees who had worked on Syria policy for months, Fontenrose said. "There was a feeling," Why are we bothering each other? "When that stuff happened."
None of this means that Trump was completely disconnected from his own foreign policy. In his first year he discussed with advisers whether or not more troops should be sent to Afghanistan. And throughout 2020, according to the then officials, Trump spoke extensively and at length with aides about efforts to contain the nuclear arsenals of Russia and China.
But overall, Trump has left Biden with a stunted political process – one that the new president is dying to revive.
Biden wants to return to "good order". But that also has a disadvantage.
In his first interview as Secretary of State on February 1, Blinken announced that the Biden government was in no hurry to announce new foreign policies.
Should the US punish Vladimir Putin for arresting opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the regime’s actions against protesters inspired by him, asked MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell? "We are reviewing. In fact, we are reviewing a number of Russian actions that are deeply worrying," said Blinken.
How about lifting the tariffs imposed by Trump on China? "We're checking all of this," replied the secretary, saying that each step must benefit the Americans more.
A New North Korea Policy? Will be checked. The future of US-Saudi Arabia relations? Will be checked. Keeping Yemens Houthis on the terrorist list? You guessed it: in retrospect.
It was amazing to hear. After all, Biden had spent much of his campaign claiming that what Trump had done in the world was "unpredictable" and a "threat" to national security. The then Democratic candidate also had a large brain trust that advised him and drafted detailed foreign policy papers that he could use the second he took office. Why not just dust off and make changes immediately?
Biden did it to a certain extent. On his first day in office, he rejoined the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization with the stroke of a pen. It is one thing, however, to bring existing businesses and global bodies back together. The formulation of new strategies and strategies against large countries and sensitive problems is another.
To find the right guidelines, the Biden administration tried to use the old process. "There is a real thirst to get back on track," said Matan Chorev, deputy chief director of the State Department's policy planning staff.
Plans developed during the campaign and transition served as starting points, Biden officials said. But it wasn't until Biden's team had read the briefing books left by their predecessors, talked to foreign colleagues and US lawmakers, researched applicable laws and digested information that they actually knew how precise or wild these plans were.
"There is a whole world of guidelines and information that cannot be seen from the outside," said Fontenrose, now with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, DC. "There are a lot of surprises too." Several Biden employees repeated this feeling in interviews, telling me they wanted to be humble and realize that they didn't know what they didn't know.
This is in part why the Biden administration repeats over and over again that its earliest foreign policy decisions were the result of thorough scrutiny. This is to reassure US staff and the public that the course chosen by Biden and his team, now familiar with all of the information, was well considered.
"After verifying the facts," a senior State Department official told reporters on February 3, the US assessed that the actions of the Myanmar military over the past week "after the duly elected head of government was deposed, constituted a military coup" . “As a result, the US will stop aid to the now military-run regime.
Two days later, a state official told me that the US would remove Yemens Houthis from America's terrorist list – to reverse a last-minute decision by the Trump administration – after conducting a "quick" and "comprehensive review".
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama held a strategy review on Afghanistan in the White House Situation Room.
Photo 12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
That's all well and good, say experts, but a heavy reliance on the process could bring any administration to a standstill. Meeting after meeting, strategy paper after strategy paper can turn into intellectual rather than functional policy making. Sometimes it is better, especially in fast-moving situations, to avoid the bureaucratic rigamarole and have a few top helpers who can find an answer quickly.
This is a problem that plagued the Obama-Biden administration a lot. The NSC was then "widely regarded as the place where politics is immobilized by indecision and trudged through months and sometimes years of repeated meetings at the White House," reported Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post in 2015.
A Defense Department official complained to DeYoung that the process would then be "sclerotic at best, and worse, clogged." … time seems to be all that this process produces. More time, more meetings, more discussions. "
Obama's 2009 review of Afghanistan policy is a case in point. It took months and 10 endless, drawn-out meetings before the president decided to send 30,000 US troops into the country. "I'm deeper in the weeds than a president should, and now you have to solve this," joked the then president. After all, the American war effort in Afghanistan has been a bloody mess and the US remains embroiled in that conflict 20 years later.
The fear is that the Biden administration may get used to holding endless meetings, especially since many of the same officials from the Obama days are back in administration. However, Biden's staff deny these concerns.
"There is a determination not to conduct a review for review's sake, but to advance decisions and actions," said Foreign Ministry Chorev.
It's too early to know if Biden and his team will stick to it, even though NSC officials I spoke to pointed to Sullivan, the national security adviser, and the first meeting he chaired a minute earlier , ended on purpose.
But after four years of tweeted foreign policy, it is remarkable that Biden’s government is even considering and emphasizing a decision-making process. This underscores the gaping gulf between this President's dealings with foreign policy and that of the last one.
In those early days, that's what really separates the two men.
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