Nothing tells us more about an incoming President’s foreign policy agenda than her pick for Secretary of State. Indeed, even more important than the actual pick is the short list, which gives a sort of overview of the administration’s foreign policy agenda. The shortlist reported by Politico and clearly leaked by the Clinton campaign, is therefore of considerable interest.
The press has focused on Joe Biden. The inclusion of Joe Biden is probably just a publicity stunt. Given the man’s name recognition Biden’s inclusion is aimed at generating positive media coverage. Even if he is seriously being considered that tells us little about Clinton’s agenda beyond the obvious nod to the Obama White House.
First consider who is not on the list. Secretary John Kerry: Despite all the talk about extending Obama’s work, by ruling out Kerry, Clinton is sending a clear signal that the new administration will be turning over a new leaf. Jake Sullivan: The name of the campaign’s unofficial foreign policy lead has not been floated. This doesn’t mean he is not being considered. Clinton may simply not wish to air the name of campaign insiders. Whether in State or in the White House, Sullivan is going to be a foreign policy principal. He is a known liberal interventionist who’s views are entirely congruent with Clinton’s. In the unlikely event that he is appointed SecState, he’ll be no more than a yes man. Tom Donilon: Obama’s former National Security Advisor is now attached to the Clinton camp. But his appointment as SecState is a very unlikely. The man has status issues with his boss.
Who’s actually on the list? Two names are obviously placed there for the sake of appearances. Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator on the Iranian nuclear talks, is a sop to the doves. She simply doesn’t have the gravitas for the job. Admiral James Stavridis is a bureaucrat who’s vision for the American navy is centered on feel-good talking points and photo-ops. Neither is a serious contender.
So who is actually in the running that’s on the list? There are four serious contenders. Kurt Campbell, a key architect of the “pivot to Asia.” Bill Burns at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, known for his moderate liberal institutionalist views. Strobe Talbott, a personal friend of the Clintons and the president of the Brookings Institution, the think-tank recently criticized by the Times for close ties to foreign governments including gulf states. And most importantly, Nick Burns at Harvard, a foreign policy hawk who has promoted a hard line against Russia and Iran including imposing safe zones in Syria, and who has been a prominent critic of Obama’s foreign policy.
The real short-list reveals the full spectrum of the admittedly narrow liberal hegemonist world view. Campbell’s inclusion says that Clinton is committed to the pivot to Asia. If he is actually appointed that would reflect favorably on Clinton’s priorities. Bill Burns is the resident dove who is least likely to be appointed. But if he is, that would mean that Clinton is backing away from her hitherto hawkish agenda. Talbott would’ve been a front-runner but his appointment would now be quite controversial. Floating his name seems like a personal compliment.
In the Policy Tensor’s view, Nick Burns is the most likely pick. He will, of course, sail through the Senate confirmation process. His appointment would signal a return to a much more muscular US foreign policy.
The central flaw of the Clinton-Burns view is their assumption that the United States has permanent allies (Europe, Japan, Turkey, Sunni Arab states) and permanent adversaries (Russia, China, Iran, Syria). Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievements, Iran and Cuba, came from an outright rejection of this frame of reference. If Clinton appoints Nick Burns, she would be effectively burying Obama’s experiment with foreign policy realism. The United States would get dragged further into the Middle East cauldron and necessarily ignore the much more important arena further east (since there is, after all, limited bandwidth in DC). In light of the loss of the Philippines to China, this would be a grave mistake indeed.