Biden Won't Reverse All Of Trump's Foreign Policy. Here's What He'll Keep

Jan 29, 2021
Originally published on January 30, 2021 4:54 am

A constant theme of President Biden's campaign for the White House was his sharp criticism of the irreparable damage to U.S. alliances, reputation and security that he argued came from the policy and actions of the Trump administration.

So it was perhaps a bit surprising to hear Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, praise several aspects of former President Donald Trump's international agenda during a joint appearance with Robert O'Brien, Sullivan's predecessor at the helm of the White House National Security Council.

Fittingly, the panel was sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace: the latest in a 20-year tradition of a joint conversation between the outgoing and incoming national security advisers after a transfer of power.

One of the Trump initiatives Biden plans to build on is the series of Abraham Accords, economic agreements between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan brokered by the Trump administration. Biden views the agreements as "positive for security in the region, positive for economic development in the region and positive for America's national interests," Sullivan said.

"Then-candidate Biden made no bones about coming out and saying, 'I think this is a good thing, I think this is a positive thing,' " when the first wave of agreements were finalized during the 2020 campaign, Sullivan noted.

Sullivan said the Biden administration aims to "deepen the cooperation between the countries that have signed the accords, make real the normalization that has taken root" and add additional countries as well.

Sullivan, who has been on the job for a little more than a week, also said the new administration plans to build on the Trump administration's partnership with Japan, India and Australia under what's known as the "Quad" — the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

The informal talks on security and regional issues — particularly issues where China is involved — is "a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Pacific region," Sullivan said.

For his part, O'Brien said he thought Biden and Sullivan were "off to a great start on China."

Even though he stuck to diplomatic language in his friendly conversation with O'Brien, Sullivan also noted clear differences with the previous administration, and warned that Trump-era policies had worsened what he called an "escalating nuclear crisis" with Iran.

"Iran's nuclear program has advanced dramatically over the course of the past couple years," he said. "They are significantly closer to a nuclear weapon than they were when the previous administration withdrew from the [Iran nuclear deal]. Their ballistic missile capability has also advanced dramatically."

Sullivan helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal for the Obama administration, where he was national security adviser for Biden, then the vice president. The Trump administration pulled the United States out of the multinational agreement under which Iran agreed to stop working toward developing nuclear weapons in exchange for eased sanctions and steps toward more normalized relations with the U.S. and Europe.

Throughout the campaign and transition, Biden and Sullivan have insisted that some sort of return to the landmark deal is possible despite four years of breakdowns in the U.S.-Iran relationship, and Iran's renewed progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

On Friday, Sullivan said the Biden team would work to "get back to diplomacy" to try to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions with allies and regional partners.

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Much of President Biden's first week in office has been trying to undo work done by the Trump administration, so it may have been a surprise yesterday when Mr. Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the new administration will also work to build on several key areas of Trump's foreign policy.

NPR's White House correspondent Scott Detrow joins us. Scott, thanks for being with us.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Scott. Good morning.

SIMON: During the election, Joe Biden talked a lot about the damage that he thought Trump's approach to world affairs had done to the U.S. What do he and Jake Sullivan see as positive?

DETROW: One specific thing is the series of agreements that the Trump administration brokered in the Middle East last year, what they called the Abraham Accords. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan all recognized Israel, among other aspects. And Sullivan said Biden sees the deals as positive.


JAKE SULLIVAN: He would like to carry forward this initiative to deepen the cooperation between the countries that have signed the accords, make real the normalization that has taken root, as well as, as Robert referenced, in additional countries as well.

DETROW: And you heard him mention Robert. That's Robert O'Brien, who was President Trump's last national security adviser. This was at a joint appearance that the two made at a panel that was sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace.

SIMON: And I gather there were some other areas that Mr. Sullivan singled out for acclaim, if not praise.

DETROW: Yeah. Among other things, he had positive words for how the Trump administration partnered with Japan, India and Australia to sort through security issues in the Pacific, particularly related to China. He said that would be a foundation the Biden administration builds on.

Though to be clear, broadly speaking, Sullivan and President Biden have huge problems with huge chunks of President Trump's foreign policy. Just one area - Sullivan was a key player in the Obama administration's effort to put together the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump, of course, pulled out of that, ramped up sanctions on Iran. And Sullivan said things have just gotten worse since then in what he called an escalating nuclear crisis. He and Biden have said that they want to get back to diplomacy, even though that's going to be a pretty tall order.

SIMON: And, of course, another area where President Biden has a huge difference with the Trump approach is on Russia. President Biden, Vladimir Putin had their first phone call this week. What do we know about it?

DETROW: It did not sound like the warmest of phone calls. According to the White House, Biden brought up, among many other things, Russia's alleged major hacking of U.S. government computer systems, the country's attempts to interfere in U.S. elections. But Sullivan did say, at the same time, he is confident the U.S. and Russia are about to renew a major nuclear arms control treaty, New START.


SULLIVAN: The Biden administration reached out to Russia and said, we would like to do a full extension of the New START agreement by five years and to get it done before the treaty expires on February 5.

DETROW: One other thing hanging over all U.S.-Russia relationship right now is, of course, the widespread protests after the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the high-profile dissident. And that is another thing that Biden made sure to bring up in this week's call with Putin.

SIMON: President Biden's been making a lot of calls to world leaders. Do you get any sense of when there will be some in-person meetings?

DETROW: You know, Biden is someone who sees most problems are solvable in one-on-one discussions, but he is also, of course, someone who prioritizes pandemic safety. He has been vaccinated at this point. Most other world leaders have as well. But the White House is not making any commitments to travel anytime soon.

Biden did announce this week that the U.S. is going to host a climate-focused summit on Earth Day. But it was interesting. I noticed when he and White House officials talked about it, they were careful not to specifically say it would be an in-person event. So I think just like the rest of the world, they're waiting to see how this pandemic plays out.

SIMON: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow, thanks so much.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.