Feb 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's shadow diplomats sweep back to power

Illustration of a pair of hands coming out from the shadows.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Members of President Biden's foreign policy brain trust are shifting back into the highest levels of government after spending the Trump era working together in many of the same powerful policy groups and lucrative business ventures.

Why it matters: The overlap points to a more coherent ideological approach to foreign policy than was evident in President Trump's notoriously fractious State Department. But there are some notable liabilities as well.

  • Think tanks that have employed senior Biden officials such as the Center for New American Security and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace accept large contributions from foreign governments and multinational companies that will undoubtedly be affected by Biden administration policy.
  • And firms that have employed some of those officials, like business consultancies WestExec Advisors and the Albright Stonebridge Group, generally do not disclose their clients.
  • Such financial ties have prompted questions about potential conflicts of interest for incoming senior administration officials, even as they begin to individually disclose their own past sources of income.

The big picture: The many points of overlap in disclosure forms for senior members of Biden's White House, State Department, Defense Department and intelligence community show how closely Biden officials have worked of late, both in their business and policy ventures.

  • CIA director-designate Bill Burns runs the Carnegie Endowment, which provided nonresident positions to Biden climate czar John Kerry, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
  • Burns, McDonough and Sullivan also worked with Macro Advisory Partners, which advises multinational companies on geopolitical and financial issues.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken was a director at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. Counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti was the center's managing director. Colin Kahl, Biden's pick for undersecretary of defense for policy, was a strategic adviser.
  • Three senior National Security Council staffers also are Penn Biden Center alumni.
  • Blinken's work at WestExec and the investment firm Pine Island paired him with Biden Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.
  • Haines also sat on the board of the Center for a New American Security, whose former CEO, Victoria Nuland, is nominated to serve as Biden's undersecretary of state for political affairs. Former CNAS fellow Peter Harrell is advising the National Security Council on international economic issues.
  • Wendy Sherman, in line for second-in-command at the State Department, was a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge. Biden's pick for U.N. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also was a senior vice president at the firm.
  • Two senior NSC officials, Sumona Guha and Roberta Jacobson, also are Albright Stonebridge alums.
  • Thomas-Greenfield and Burns co-led a panel last year on "Revitalizing the State Department and American Diplomacy" for the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • Cecilia Rouse, chair of Biden's Council of Economic Advisors, was a member of the board of trustees and deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer was an adjunct fellow.

Between the lines: It's not surprising like-minded public officials would so frequently collaborate and come into professional contact.

  • Those frequent points of contact underscore the cohesiveness of a Biden foreign policy apparatus that largely continued to operate in a private capacity after its members, many of them alumni of the Obama administration, were consigned to the political wilderness.
  • "Individuals with these kinds of backgrounds and credentials are always sought by think tanks, for good reason," a spokesperson for the Biden transition said. "The president chose deeply qualified, tested experts."

But, but, but: The president's nominees for top foreign policy posts have focused attention, particularly from good government groups and Republican critics, on the sources of funding for their non-governmental ventures.

  • "Long before [the Biden presidency] started, the president committed to this administration being the most ethically rigorous in our history," the transition spokesperson said.
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