Last week’s attempted coup by strident supporters of President Donald Trump sullied America’s image in the world, and it also drowned out other significant news regarding American foreign policy during the Biden administration.
At the end of November, President-elect Joe Biden showed that personal familiarity and experience were at a premium in his administration as he rolled out a foreign policy and national security team including Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of homeland security, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US ambassador to the United Nations, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, and John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate.
This week, this cast was expanded to include even more familiar faces. Three appointees are of particular interest to the Hellenic world: Victoria Nuland, who is Biden’s designee for undersecretary of state for political affairs, the State Department’s third highest ranking official; Dr Amanda Sloat for senior director for Europe, and Brett H. McGurk for coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
The overall message that can be taken from the Biden appointments is obvious: The most experienced incoming president in US history (in terms of foreign policy) is going to be surrounded by the most experienced national security team. Biden promised the 2019 Munich Security Conference that “we will be back”; his appointees come with a level of familiarity with issues and foreign officials that may give the impression that “we never left.”
The presence of Nuland and Sloat is a clear reaffirmation of the US commitment to Euro-Atlanticism. Given their previous government service and their work in academia and think tanks, one can safely expect that they will lead the charge in treating NATO and the European Union as valued partners again.
Biden’s “we will be back” pledge, however, should include the explanation of “back to what”? These and other foreign policy appointments (including Samantha Power, Wendy Sherman and Colin Kahl) are raising legitimate questions of whether on many fronts the Biden administration is simply going to be a third Obama term. It is fair to ask if 2016 is the reference point for all these appointees, and if so whether they are ready for a vastly different international environment.
Nuland’s appointment was widely reported as a signal to Russia. Yet when she served as assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs, there was still the hope of reversing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and of expanding the EU or NATO further into the former-Soviet sphere. Nuland even approached Hellenic issues via this Russian lens – sending Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt from Ukraine to Athens because the US feared the incoming SYRIZA government might have been in play for Vladimir Putin and acting as if Turkey’s role in a reunified Cyprus would serve as a check on Russian influence.
There is no longer a threat of Greece entering a Russian sphere of influence. Indeed, whether it be Greece’s energy diplomacy, the Prespes agreement, or the development of the port of Alexandroupoli, it is Athens – not Ankara – which is the more effective partner for Washington on this front. The security relationship with Cyprus has also substantially changed – Cyprus is now in the Pentagon’s International Military Education Training (IMET) program; the Republic of Cyprus finally has a defense attaché in Washington; and the US has begun to lift its arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus. Russian influence is no longer the biggest problem for the US in Greece and Cyprus.
Dr Sloat was also intimately involved in US-Greece and US-Cyprus relations at a key juncture – but also in a different world. Sloat can remember great hope over a Cyprus reunification and must remember her and Nuland’s admonitions to the Greek-American community that Turkey’s incursions into Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone was just “tweaking,” despite our protests that Turkey was executing what would turn out to be the “Blue Homeland” doctrine. There is also the concern that Sloat has not come to terms with Turkey becoming more foe than friend and giving Turkey every benefit of the doubt in order to not completely “lose” Ankara. In May, for example, while moderating a Brookings Institution webinar with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Sloat described Turkey’s well-known provocations and weaponization of migrants at Evros as “removing some of the restrictions on people’s ability to travel.”
Yet if Ankara is cheered by Sloat’s history of treating Turkey with kid gloves, it is doubly concerned by the role of Brett McGurk. The editor of TRT World – Erdogan’s English language propaganda arm – reacted to the appointment with this tweet: “Brett McGurk has probably done more damage to the US-Turkey relationship than any other US official in recent history. This would be viewed as a very provocative appointment by Ankara. A bad start for the Biden era on the US-Turkey relations front if this is realized.”
The Biden team is familiar with the region and its players. It remains to be seen whether they have all adjusted their world view to reflect the significant changes in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Turkey, Greece, Cyprus – and in all their bilateral relationships with the US. Most importantly, it remains to be seen whether they are ready to deal not with the world as they remember it, not the world as they would like it, but the word as it is.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.