H I G H L I G H T S

•   Biden Government Takes Shape
•   New Old Cabinet
•   Russian Hacking
•   Hunter Problem
•   Books On Trump

Biden Government Takes Shape

The cabinet of United States President-elect Joe Biden is largely in place barring a few positions, including the attorney-general and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. He has placed record numbers of women and minorities in the cabinet, but Biden has been careful to choose people who align with his policy priorities. These include a more nationalist trade policy, a manufacturing-oriented industrial policy and a cautious foreign policy vision. As of mid-December, Biden has chosen 19 cabinet members, of whom 11 are people of colour and 10 are women. If they are all confirmed, Biden’s will easily be the US cabinet with the largest number of women. 

President Donald Trump’s quixotic quest to overturn the results of the US presidential election is on its last legs. Biden won the electoral college, 306 to 232, on December 14 and now has only one last constitutional step, a symbolic approval of the electoral college results by the US Congress on January 6, before officially becoming the next president. 

Trump and his allies have launched over 60 legal challenges, at the federal and state level, all unsuccessful. Even judges appointed by the outgoing president have declined to support him. Trump reportedly continues to discuss with a shrinking circle of aides ever more absurd ways to get even local results annulled, but the Republican Party leadership is already preparing for handover. However, Trump has succeeded in ensuring his base is firmly sceptical of the results. The number of Republicans who believe the elections were not free and fair has risen from about 40% in October to 68% today. 

Biden’s first governance issue will be handling the Covid-19 pandemic which had claimed 315,000 lives as of December 18 and continued to register 250,000 plus cases a day in the US. The good news for the president-elect was that the first vaccines, by Pfizer and Moderna, have begun to be distributed across the country. With more such vaccines being approved, the national psyche is expected to be much less apprehensive when Biden takes his oath of office next month. Equally uplifting for the national psyche is the passage of a $ 900 billion stimulus package for the pandemic-affected US economy.

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New Old Cabinet

A set of sketches on the most senior Biden appointees, many of them drawn from the Barack Obama administration, and what they tell us about the goals of the new administration.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will seek to put into practice Biden’s call for a “foreign policy for the middle class.” Sullivan has argued for a foreign policy that is less ambitious in its reach, less tied to neoliberal principles like free trade, and much more integrated with the economic needs of the wider US population. He is expected to oversee a national security council with more representation from the economic ministries than usual. 

In the years before the elections, Sullivan was part of a bipartisan team that travelled across the country and met a wide swathe of Americans to get a sense of how much American view of their engagement with the world had change. It found Americans did not mind playing a global role, but wanted their foreign policy to address their local and individual economic insecurities. Many felt US policy should lower the “risks of living in a more open and integrated world,” risks caused by technology and trade. The report warned, “There is no evidence America’s middle class will rally behind efforts aimed at restoring US primacy in a unipolar world, escalating a new Cold War with China, or waging a cosmic struggle between the world’s democracies and authoritarian governments.” A new US policy agenda should focus on pandemics, cybersecurity, protecting critical supply chains and developing means to help US workers adjust to a changing global economy. The report called for a national competitiveness strategy that would closely link US foreign and domestic priorities.

Biden has called for creating jobs in infrastructure and “Buy American” government procurement strategies. But the report differs here, saying the future lies in middle-class jobs coming out of the digital economy and low-carbon technologies. However, it warns against shutting down oil and gas facilities or slashing defence expenditure drastically given how badly this would effect rural areas and small towns. 

One strand of Sullivan’s past is the key role he played, on the ground, in negotiating the original US-Iran nuclear agreement, often flying to Tehran on secret missions to talk to Tehran’s mullahs. There is an expectation that issues like trade and immigration would be among the new national security areas where Sullivan would be influential. 

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Secretary of State Tony Blinken will be the next US secretary of state at a time when Biden will seek to repair what the president-elect sees as the damage done to US foreign policy by four years of Trump. Among his priorities will be to reposition US as a multilateral player by rejoining the Paris Accord and the World Health Organisation, reviving the Iran nuclear deal and restating US support for NATO and other alliances. “Blinken has been described as having a ‘mind meld’ with Biden on a range of issues that will be important in his early tenure,“ said one commentary. Biden also appointed a career Foreign Service officer, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as US ambassador to the United Nations, the only ambassadorial position that has cabinet rank in the US system.  

Blinken is seen as pragmatic and prudent, with good consensus-building skills at a time when the US will find major diplomatic action difficult thanks to distractions at home and much-reduced influence abroad. A number of US analysts have argued the US will have to work out arrangements with its major rivals, notably Russia and China, with areas of convergence and differences staked out. Blinken will also be inhibited by the fact one major policy area, climate change, will be dominated by the president’s special envoy, John Kerry. 

Much of the new secretary of state’s initial work will be about restoring the morale and staff strength of the State Department. 

Blinken shares the view of Sullivan and others in the Biden team that foreign policy is today more deeply interwined with economics and technology than before. He also supports the view that tackling China, for example, will require the US government to invest more in domestic industrial and technological revival. Ensuring Beijing will not be left unchecked while Washington is busy fixing things at home will be Blinken’s key task. The new administration’s solution is to leverage US diplomacy and its alliances. Biden has said, “The best China strategy, I think, is one which gets every one of our allies on the same page.” Blinken is no supporter of a full economic decoupling which he has called “unrealistic” and “counterproductive.” 

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Secretary of Defence General Lloyd Austin’s appointment as Pentagon chief, supplanting other favourites for the job including Michelle Flournoy, is partly a consequence of public pressure on Biden to appoint more black Americans to senior cabinet positions. However, it is also evident Austin strongly shares Biden’s views on the future of US defence policy. The points of convergence include a deep scepticism about US interventionism in West Asia and a belief alliances must be revived as an anchor of US diplomacy. Biden was reportedy attracted to Austin’s use of the phrase “strategic patience” – a critical response to those who have argued for the US to take a harder line against competitors like China. His wariness on confronting China head-on has been the primary source of criticism of his appointment though a few have mourned the lost opportunity to appoint a female head of defence for the first time in US history. 

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US Trade Representative Katherine Tai is not a public name and this has led some to say Biden will not place much emphasis on trade. Others, however, note she has an unusually strong record as trade lawyer and congressional trade staffer of handling China. Tai, a Taiwanese-American, speaks fluent Mandarin and worked in China for six years. While working as a congressional staffer she helped put in labour provisions into the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement. More recently, she was part of a team that worked out trade sanctions against China over the use of forced labour in Xinjiang. Before that she was chief litigator for Chinese trade cases in USTR where she helped put together the case at the World Trade Organisation against China’s export restrictions on rare earths. 

What seems more important is that Tai represents a new Democratic view on trade that argues for the US to pursue an industrial policy attitude towards strategic economic sectors. She has criticized the Trump administration’s use of tariffs as not “strategic” enough and argued tariffs were, at best, a “defensive” instrument. “Her experience successfully litigating trade disputes with China is unmatched. She intimately understands the challenge to the global trading system posed by China, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the WTO as a tool to advance US interests,” said Lauren Mandell, a trade lawyer with law firm Wilmer Hale. However, in an interview in the New York Times, Biden indicated tariffs on China would not be lifted in a hurry. 

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One understated element of Biden’s international economic agenda, and one that is a good fit with the Indian government’s policies, are international agreements against corruption and tax evasion. While the US has been a world leader in acting against corruption and pushing transparency in cross-border business in the past, under the Trump administration it began moving in the opposite direction. Biden has said he will seek multilateral action against companies seeking to use offshore tax havens and shell companies to evade paying taxes. The US Congress is presently considering the passage of a bill that would end the domestic use of opaque shell companies to hide ownership. In 2017, the US withdrew from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a global effort to reduce corruption and bring improved governance to the oil and mining sector. It is assumed the Biden administration will seek to rejoin this initiative. 

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Climate and Energy In appointing John Kerry special envoy for climate change and Jennifer Granholm energy secretary, Biden placed two politicians at the helm of US climate policy. A special envoy helps underline the chief executive’s personal commitment to a policy. Choosing former Michigan governor Granholm, a person with strong ties to the US automobile industry, signals his equal determination to put the US on a green energy and mobility path. 

Kerry has been a vociferous climate advocate as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. As secretary of state he served as lead negotiator for the Paris Accord and the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The Kigali agreement seeks to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas. Kerry has already called for countries to look beyond the Paris agreement but is also expected to push for the US to honour its financial commitments to the UN Green Climate Fund. India’s former special envoy on climate, Shyam Saran, in a recent article mentions Kerry’s past hostility to the idea developed countries have a responsibility for their historical carbon emissions. Others have noted Kerry’s zealotry regarding climate makes him prone to seek engagement with China, irrespective of Beijing’s behaviour in other areas.

Granholm has considerable experience with the US automobile industry, much of it headquartered in Michigan, which will prove crucial if Biden is to fast track the rollout of electric vehicles and charging stations in the US. She has positioned herself as a person who can help the industry and its workforce transition to a green energy future. She wrote in an op-ed, “The private sector needs greater support and political will from our policymakers to help us fully realize the potential of a zero-carbon future…The economics are clear: The time for a low-carbon recovery is now.”

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A former US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, co-authored an article calling on the Biden administration to “create the political space” to resume US-Russia engagement down to the “scientist-to-scientist” level based on a recognition of shared interest in preventing the use of nuclear weapons. He wrote the new administration must “confront the sobering fact that the potential for nuclear weapons use shadows more of the world’s conflicts than ever before. A single accident or blunder could lead to Armageddon.” While the US and Russia represent 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, seven other nuclear powers “share the stage” today. 

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Russian Hacking

A massive hacking of dozens of US government agencies and US corporations this month by what is suspected to have been the Russian external intelligence agency, the SVR, has led Biden to promise a strong response to cyberattacks. Trump, downplayed any Russian role and said the attack may have been by China. Dozens of US media reports, however, cited US intelligence and other sources as pointing the finger to Moscow. The attack included the non-classified email systems of the US Treasury, the National Nuclear Security Administration which oversees the nuclear arsenal, and US firms like Cisco and Microsoft. While Biden referred to the hack as a cyberattack, US intelligence experts said it was closer to an act of espionage as information was stolen but not destroyed. They also admitted it was the sort of activity the US National Security Agency also carries out. The hack may have been a response to the October charging of six Russian military intelligence officers, dubbed the Sandworm team, who carried cyberattacks between 2015 and 2020 including against the South Korean Olympics, the US and French presidential elections. 

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Hunter Problem

Hunter Biden, the president-elect’s son, announced he had been officially notified he was under investigation by federal prosecutors over the finances of several overseas business dealings, especially a number involving Chinese firms. The investigation does not implicate Joe Biden in any way. Hunter Biden said he was confident the investigations would clear him of criminal charges. Among the more prominent cases are his role as a member of the board of a Chinese investment management firm called BHR from 2013 to 2019 for which, Hunter Biden claims, he never received any compensation. The second charge is that in 2017 he worked to get a Chinese energy firm, CEFC, to invest in some US companies during which he received a 2.8 karat diamond from CEFC’s CEO. Hunter Biden does not deny the gift, but said he did not keep the diamond. Last year, his laptop was seized by the FBI as part of their own investigations. Since the final decision on his investigations may end up with the next attorney-general, who his father appoints to that position will be an unusually sensitive decision. 

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Books On Trump

Some 1500 books have been written about Donald Trump, his administration and his political rise. So many that the Washington Post’s nonfiction book critic, Carlos Lozada, wrote a book titled What Were We Thinking about the 150 Trump books that he read and the different points of view they represented. Many of the volumes describe the unusual character of the Trump administration. Lozada believes two books, The Unmaking of the Presidency by Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessy and The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis, “put the other Chaos Chronicles in proper context; they get at the meaning and the consequences of the disorder the others detail.” He also recommends political scientist  Jennifer Silva’s We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America to understand how racism and white working class angst came together to form the base of Trump’s support. 

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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.