Conflict and Leadership
Staff Composition and Priorities of the Joe Biden Administration

The transitioning of presidential power in the US has turned out to be especially "hot" this time: volatile and filled with intrigue, behind-the-scenes deals and leaks. This is thanks to Donald Trump's attempts to review the election results, legislative leapfrogging and the struggle for the Senate. Amid such conditions, the issue of vacant roles to be filled in the new administration which usually dominates the run-up to a new presidency has faded into the background in the United States. Meanwhile, very soon a new team with new political priorities will make media headlines.

The logic of the selection of candidates for the future administration clearly shows a combination of two principles. On the one hand, the backbone of the team are people from the inner circle of the next president, especially in the context of Joe Biden's political career (in the Senate, at various times, he chaired the committees on legal affairs and foreign policy). They grew professionally during the Barack Obama administration, and are champions of the ideas of neoliberalism, with its freedom of trade, strengthening of alliances, the primacy of democratic values ​​and American leadership.

On the other hand, Joe Biden was forced to adhere to the canons of identity politics, which dictated the ethnic and gender diversity of the future team. In addition to a symbolic tribute to the customs of modern American society, this approach had a practical context. The appointment of representatives of ethnic minorities not only created a "progressive" image suitable for the establishment, but was also a response to the request of the ethnic caucuses of the House of Representatives; good relations with which are necessary both for winning elections and passing legislation in the future. As a result, in addition to the well-known officials of the Barack Obama administration (Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Victoria Nuland, Jen Psaki, John Kerry, Avril Haines), the key positions are occupied by candidates who until now were not decision-makers, but who still have to prove themselves in leadership positions (Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, trade representative Katherine Tai).

In addition to belonging to the Democratic Party establishment, the new team shares a common destiny. After preparing to enter the White House with Hillary Clinton in 2016, the top officials of the Obama administration lost access to the US government overnight. As a result, they, firstly, became ardent critics of Donald Trump.
So one of the leitmotifs of the Biden administration will be to "undo" Trump's legacy and repair the damage caused by him.

In practice, this task will be realised by restoring alliances and returning to international institutions, as well as reviving the landmark initiatives of the Obama presidency both in foreign policy (JCPOA, START-3) and within the United States (Obamacare reform, legalisation of children of illegal migrants, "DACA").

Second, one of the central areas of criticism of Trump was that he was accused of being too soft towards Russia, as well as the search for "Russian connections" and "hackers". Although Trump's departure should seemingly reduce the toxicity of Russian topics, it is difficult to imagine that people who have been convincing the country and the whole world of the reality of the Russian threat for four years will easily give up their words. In this regard, limited cooperation with Moscow on the global agenda is likely to be combined with a sharp reaction to the presumed (albeit quite far-fetched) "violations" of Moscow, especially in such sensitive areas for Democrats as human rights, and interference in elections, in information or the digital space.

Third, after leaving the Obama government, many members of the future administration, following the Washington revolving door tradition, have moved to the private sector and are now returning to the White House with the baggage of close ties with companies where they either worked or represented their interests. So, Jake Sullivan, collaborating with Macro Advisory Partners, defended the interests of Uber and Lyft in negotiations with the California government when discussing legislation to protect the rights of so-called "gig workers". Tony Blinken co-founded WestExec, a consulting firm for IT companies wishing to provide services to the public sector. Former employees of the largest technology companies fill less visible, but no less significant, positions in various committees and working groups, where the drafting of specific policy initiatives will take place. Four members of the future administration (Wally Adeyemo, Brian Dees, Mike Donilon and Mike Pyle) have ties with BlackRock, the largest player in the global financial market, which manages $7.8 trillion. In January 2020, BlackRock management announced a revision of its investment strategies and began to avoid investments in companies associated with environmental risks. This underpinning of policy by specific business interests will provide additional incentive for larger and more proactive actions for the future climate protection.

The abundant representation of the technological and financial sectors in the administration of the Democrats, on the one hand, is not surprising, given that they constitute one part of the American elite, largely formed and strengthened thanks to the processes of globalisation. On the other hand, it reduces the likelihood of a critical understanding of the distortions that have arisen in the American economy and society during this time, and the adoption of overdue reforms to break IT monopolies and regulate Wall Street.

Despite the large number of "old faces" in the next administration, the "return to normal" promised by Joe Biden during the presidential campaign may be a very hard task.
First, the world has not stood still for the past four years, and issues that the Obama administration could afford to ignore still are on the agenda. Perhaps the most obvious example of such transformations is the country's consensus on the need to revise relations with China. Under the influence of this consensus, a mechanism was launched to create an institutional and legislative framework for confronting Beijing, which embraced the entire US state apparatus. In addition to an unprecedented number of bills affecting China (336 such bills have been introduced since 2018, 12 of which have become laws), the 2021 defence budget is funding the Pacific Containment Initiative, and Congress has pushed through the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernisation Act (FIRRMA) reforms and Export Control Reform Act (ECRA) . Although the PRC is not directly mentioned, the general context of the debate during the adoption of these bills was clearly anti-Chinese. Unlike political attitudes that change with each new administration, such mechanisms are extremely inertial. Biden may soften the tone of the US-China conflict, but he will be forced to stay within the determined framework.

Second, Obama administration officials are returning to Washington in a weaker position. If in 2008 the Democrats burst into the White House on the wave of popularity of the young and promising Senator Barack Obama, now the same people come to power as the "better of the two evils" under the slogan "nothing will fundamentally change." So-called progressive Americans, who voted not so much for Biden as against Trump, have promised from the early days of the new administration to pressure the party leadership to promote social reform. The practical implementation of these threats has not been long in coming, and already in December, Senator Bernie Sanders (independent, Vermont) threatened to block the adoption of the budget, and managed to include direct payments to citizens in the economic assistance package.

The minimal Democratic majority in both houses of Congress increases the room for manoeuvre of the future administration, allowing it, for example, to appoint judges, determine the legislative agenda, and simplify the task of approving candidates. At the same time, however, the voice of only one Democrat in the Senate will be enough to sabotage the vote, which means that no large-scale or long-term initiatives should be expected. Most likely, in the next two years, in US foreign policy, we will see many "accords", "action plans" and "road maps" to avoid the need to ratify international treaties.

Finally, Biden's presidency will begin amid deep social divisions and economic crises, which the new administration will have to spend significant political capital to manage.
Despite a massive campaign against Trump by American media and digital platforms, he received 11 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016, and, despite persistent accusations of racism, expanded his base to include more voters from minority groups.
By calling Trump a "failure" of the US political system, the Biden administration, instead of looking for avenues for dialogue, simply turns its back on large strata of the population of the country and provokes further discontent.

At the same time, domestic political stability will largely depend on the situation with the coronavirus. Prolonged economic stagnation, which has assumed a "K-shape" in the United States, will contribute to the growth of social inequality and the radicalisation of protest sentiments. By contrast, effective government policies and positive economic news can temporarily ease social tensions and boost confidence in the Biden administration, even among Trump supporters. Until then, the on-going internal political fever will seriously undermine the credibility of the United States in the international arena and its ability to act as a world leader.

Thus, from January 20, familiar faces will be at the head of the country, who will try to return the US to leadership positions, and re-direct the world onto the path of globalisation. But they will have to act in a changed America and in a changed international environment, which may be less susceptible to such political attitudes.

President Biden’s Foreign Policy: What Should the World Expect? An Expert Discussion
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