President-elect Joe Biden has now tapped his most important deputies on foreign policy: Tony Blinken for the State Department, Lloyd Austin for the Pentagon, Avril Haines as his director of national intelligence, and Jake Sullivan as his national security adviser at the White House. Next comes the crucial question of who their deputies will be, a matter that is almost as important as Biden’s Cabinet-level choices because of how many decisions at key agencies are made below the level of the top boss.
Those selections will also provide another important sign of how likely the new administration is to craft a more progressive approach to global affairs, as Biden has repeatedly promised to do ― one that prioritizes diplomacy, rejects interventionism and uses U.S. global influence toward priorities like fighting climate change and protecting human rights.
On Friday, a coalition of left-leaning activists working on global affairs sent Biden a list of 100 potential appointees they hope he chooses from for these positions. The dossier was organized by Yasmine Taeb, the senior fellow on Congress and foreign policy at the Center for International Policy, and Alex McCoy, political director at Common Defense, and supported by the Progressive Change Institute, the Project on Government Oversight, the Quincy Institute, Win Without War and other groups. HuffPost viewed the document just before it was sent to the transition team.
The goal is twofold: to ensure critical posts are filled with qualified people who have Washington’s respect but are willing to challenge national security orthodoxy, and to make it more likely powerful government jobs go to people who represent modern America more than the historic foreign policy establishment ― breaking with stereotypes like the idea of a “pale, male and Yale” State Department.
More than 65% of people on the list, termed a “Progressive Foreign Policy Talent Pipeline,” are women and people of color. Additionally, it promises none have corporate ties that could create conflicts of interest. Ethics watchdogs and liberal critics have raised that concern about many of Biden’s nominees, including for foreign policy jobs; opponents of his onetime favorite for defense secretary, Michèle Flournoy, highlighted her links to defense contractors for months, and she ultimately didn’t get the offer from Biden. (Still, Austin, who beat out Flournoy, sits on the board of directors of the defense contractor Raytheon.)
Stephanie Taylor, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Institute, said the effort would help ensure “well-credentialed, diverse, progressive leadership is represented in the next administration.”
When asked about the list, a Biden transition official suggested their team had common ground with the activists.
“President-elect Biden’s transition and administration will prioritize the following core values: diversity of ideology and background; talent to address society’s most complex challenges; integrity and the highest ethical standards to serve the American people and not special interests; and transparency to garner trust at every stage,” the official wrote in an email to HuffPost.
Most of the suggested appointees fall into one of three categories: figures who have previously worked in government but could take on bigger roles; people who have built influence in Congress, where progressives have made significant headway on foreign policy; and prominent experts who haven’t yet served as U.S. officials.
That first group includes Bonnie Jenkins, a retired Naval Reserve officer who worked in the State Department under President Barack Obama and now runs an organization called Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security; Obama-era Middle East official Rob Malley; and two well-respected State Department officials who were targeted by President Donald Trump, Iran analyst Sahar Nowrouzzadeh and China hand Susan Thornton.
The second category comprises foreign policy advisers to lawmakers who have pushed high-profile efforts to question and reform America’s role in the world: Sasha Baker and Matt Duss, who respectively work for Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as well as Cole Bockenfeld and Jessica Elledge in the office of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Kate Gould, an aide to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). Such staffers rarely get much public attention, but it’s their work and choices that drive shifts on issues like U.S. participation in the vicious Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, and many entered those congressional positions after developing significant experience lobbying Capitol Hill, which could be particularly useful for the Biden administration.
In the third set are veterans of major Washington policy debates who would bring the new administration a deep understanding of pushing the U.S. government to change from the outside, like Suzanne DiMaggio, a prominent Carnegie Endowment fellow who helped develop unprecedented diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, and Noah Gottschalk, a well-connected humanitarian advocate at Oxfam America.
The briefing for the Biden team includes suggestions of the little-noticed but vital positions where these people could have the greatest impact, like tapping Gould for a United Nations policy job or Gottschalk to help run refugee issues at the State Department.
The activists behind the push want Biden’s circle to seize the moment to enact change ― as they take their own chance to push back against the common argument that progressives spend too much time condemning the foreign policy status quo without outlining what to do differently.
“President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have an opportunity to change course and deploy a fresh, innovative policy playbook,” said Alexander Main, the director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research think tank. “To do this they’ll need a team of smart, creative people with bold ideas, a deep understanding of and respect for other cultures, and a record of thinking outside of the box. And that’s exactly the kind of candidates that are being proposed in this book.”