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Biden’s National Security Team offers a sharp turn. But in which direction?

WILMINGTON, Del. –President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday officially introduced a national security team designed to repudiate President Trump’s nationalist isolationism.

His candidate for secretary of state said in his remarks that Americans need “humility and confidence” to depend on their allies. His choice to execute the nation’s immigration policy is a Cuban American whose parents were refugees from Castro. And her new intelligence chief warned Mr Biden when she spoke that she would bring him news that would be politically “embarrassing or difficult.”

They were joined by a career Foreign Service officer who will serve as Ambassador to the United Nations and John Kerry, who unsuccessfully ran for President 16 years ago and then became Secretary of State to President Barack Obama. Mr Biden appointed him to a new role on the National Security Council to put “climate change on the agenda in the situation room,” after four years in which the Trump administration tried to strike out the words from summit communiques and international agreements.

But it was in Avril Haines’ speech to the intelligence community – which Mr. Trump often saw as a group of “deep state” renegades who wrongly linked him to Russia – that the contrast with outgoing administration became clear. “For our intelligence professionals, the work you do – often under the most austere conditions imaginable – is simply indispensable,” said Ms Haines, who would be the first woman to hold the post of director of national intelligence, overseeing 16 separate agencies.

Mr. Biden has barely created a team of rivals. Many of its candidates have worked together for years and as “Members of Parliament” for the Obama administration who ran the cogs of government in the White House, the State Department and the CIA This also includes the Department of internal security, where Alejandro N. Mayorkas, who will oversee immigration policy, served as deputy secretary before Mr Biden appointed him head of the department.

Several are close friends. And most would be seen as “liberal interventionists” who led the charge against Mr. Trump’s rejection of America’s traditional role as the keystone of the Atlantic and Pacific alliances.

All of this made Tuesday’s announcement at Mr Biden’s headquarters in Wilmington seem like a makeover, or at least a class reunion.

Yet in his comments, Mr. Biden also appeared to acknowledge that the dangers his team would face were quite different from those they faced during the Obama presidency. “While this team has unparalleled experience and accomplishments, they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits,” he said.

Mr. Biden spoke of the need for “new thinking”. But achieving that balance will be his biggest challenge, noted his own collaborators and outside experts.

“His presidency is perhaps the last and best opportunity for the establishment to demonstrate that liberal internationalism is a superior strategy to populist nationalism,” Thomas Wright, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, recently wrote in The Atlantic.

It means resolving a subtle but clear debate within the Democratic establishment, a debate on which Mr. Biden has yet to choose sides. It comes down to whether Mr. Biden should pursue the kind of foreign policy one would expect in a “third term” from Obama – a term marked by caution, mending alliances and avoiding. to talk about the new cold war – or one that pursues new, more confrontational paths in recognition of the magnitude of global competition developments over the past four years, starting with China.

Jake Sullivan, the 43-year-old pick of Mr Biden for the post of national security adviser, which Mr Biden also introduced, has come to embody the new thinking the president-elect has alluded to. “He’s a once-in-a-generation intellect with the experience and temperament for one of the most difficult jobs in the world,” he said, noting that when he was in his 30s Mr. Sullivan had led the discussions which led to a shutdown. – a fire in Gaza in 2012 and the secret opening of negotiations with Iran which led to the 2015 nuclear deal.

It was Mr. Sullivan who advocated most vigorously for new approaches from China that recognize the changed nature of the challenge. And some of the appointees who shared the Delaware stage with Mr Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have made it clear lately that they have regrets from the Obama years.

These regrets include under-reacting to the plight of Syrians attacked by their own government, failing to recognize the scope of Russian interference in the 2016 elections until it is too late, and act too slowly to meet China’s challenge.

“Anyone of us, and I’ll start with myself, who had any responsibility for our Syrian policy in the last administration must recognize that we failed,” said Antony J. Blinken, the candidate for the post. Secretary of State, in May, in one of the most blatant of these admissions. “We have failed to prevent a terrible loss of human life,” he said. “It’s something I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.” He then criticized Mr. Trump for pulling US troops out of Syria and making the problem “arguably even worse”.

Obviously absent from the Wilmington scene, there was one major player who should have the biggest voice in the upcoming debate on Syria: the choice of Mr Biden for the post of Secretary of Defense. He has yet to name one, although the main candidate is said to be Michèle A. Flournoy, who served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under Obama and, during the Trump years, established a consultancy firm in foreign policy with Mr Blinken, WestExec advisers.

Ms Flournoy, who has held a number of senior positions at the Pentagon and was a co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, could be appointed next week, alongside Janet L. Yellen, former Federal Reserve Chairman, who is widely reported as Mr. Biden’s choice for Secretary of the Treasury. If selected and confirmed, Ms Flournoy and Ms Yellen would be the first woman to fill either role.

Like Mr Blinken, Ms Flournoy tended to take a more interventionist approach to the use of American power – and at times found herself on the other side of Mr Biden’s problems, which to the end could prevent his selection. This included the debate over when the United States should “bail out” its troops in Afghanistan, where Biden, yesterday and today, argued for a single small counterterrorism force.

Mr Blinken called for robust NATO military action in Libya when Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi was ousted from power in 2011; Mr. Biden was skeptical. (Colonel Gaddafi was overthrown and ultimately killed by the rebels, but the chaos that followed reinforced Mr. Biden’s instinct for caution.)

Preparing for what could be brutal confirmation fights two months from now, Mr Biden’s candidates avoided any political discussion on Tuesday and focused on their personal stories.

Mr Blinken said his grandfather “had fled the pogroms in Russia”, and he repeated the chilling story of his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, who was the only one of 900 schoolchildren from a town in Poland to survive the Holocaust, fleeing a death march in Bavaria. . He was saved by an American soldier who opened the hatch of his tank. Mr. Pisar, Mr. Blinken said, said the only three words he knew in English: “God bless America”.

Mr. Mayorkas spoke of his parents, Jewish emigrants who fled Castro’s Cuba in 1960 and took him to the United States as a baby. He described the Department of Homeland Security’s mission in terms that supposedly state that the era of Mr. Trump’s wall-building and immigration bans is over: the department is supposed to “protect us and advance our proud history. as host country ”. he said.

And perhaps the most powerful story came from Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the black woman who was chosen by Mr Biden for the UN ambassador. She was one of the senior diplomats who left the State Department during the time of Rex W. Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, two Secretaries of State who instigated near-rebellion within the diplomatic corps.

“Her father couldn’t read or write, but she says he was the smartest person she knew,” said Mr Biden, describing how Ms Thomas-Greenfield, who has served across Africa and in Pakistan, Switzerland and Jamaica, was the first in her family to attend high school or college.

It’s the kind of story Mr. Biden likes to tell and compare to his own working class roots. Ms Thomas-Greenfield ended the story with a description of how Southern cuisine is a source of soft American power: in her diplomatic posts, she said, “I would invite people from different backgrounds and beliefs” into his kitchen to prepare the signature dish of his native Louisiana. “I called it okra diplomacy.”

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