Reflecting on his time at the Obama White House, Sullivan said he felt that more could have been done there to put the average American regularly on the agenda in the Situation Room. And he paused for a long moment when asked how the rise of Trump and Trumpism had affected his worldview, setting him in the mood, for example, more about the populist tide at home that he might have missed than he was treaties focused on international nuclear negotiations, peace agreements and trade.
“When you spend years in government working on the Iran deal, working on the Asia-Pacific balance, or working on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it’s not that you lose sight completely what’s going on on the home front – but you’re focusing more on other things, ”Sullivan said. “I think the 2016 campaign influenced my thinking, but it wasn’t just about Trump. It was about the heated debate the Democrats had in the primary. It was about recognition when I left national security and in a domestic conversation broke out about how deeply such a large part of our country felt that their government wasn’t working for them. ”
Sullivan says he doesn’t believe that such economic fears were the only driver of Trump’s 2016 victory, which he believes was fueled by appeals to identity and isolationism. But the campaign gave him a “crash course,” he said, to bring issues of inequality, confusion, and division between workers and their government to “every table in the White House – including situation room.”
What will a Sullivan-led National Security Council look like? Sullivan insists it won’t be too big or too micromanaging – criticisms that haunted the Obama NSC, who was accused of stepping on the prerogatives of cabinet agencies, whether by setting troop levels or signing off individual drone strikes .
“I see my main task in supporting and promoting the work of the broader national security team in the service of the mission and strategy of the president-elect,” he said. “My goal is to have a process that is able to give sufficient instructions, but then enable the departments and agencies to be the tip of the spear to do it.”
“It is unlikely to be limited to traditional structures,” said former Obama NSC official Salman Ahmed. “He has long argued convincingly that these issues do not exactly fit into the bureaucratic lens.”
Obama’s NSC’s early years were often tense, particularly under retired General Jim Jones, an outsider who often clashed with the president’s group of political aids and resigned just before mid-2010.
Of the many challenges Sullivan is about to face, it will not be knowing colleagues like the new White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. “I would argue that no two people know each other better, work more closely together, overlap more or have a better working relationship on the first day than any pair of chiefs of staff and national security advisors before them,” Reines said.
“They all worked together on one level in the Obama administration,” said another former White House official. “They are all friends – they are not strangers, not rivals, and at least all goods are known to one another.”
One could argue that this could make the team insular, prone to the kind of groupthink that can lead to mistakes and missed opportunities. Mike Pompeo, the outgoing Secretary of State, has already ridiculed his successors for allegedly living in a “fantasy world” and “practicing multilateralism to hang out with your friends at a cool cocktail party.”
The former Obama White House official said the pre-existing relationships between the Biden crew would make them effective – unlike the early days of the Trump presidency, which was plagued by rivalries, competing media leaks, backstabbing, and constant turnover.
Despite all of Sullivan’s innate caution, he seems inclined to break sharply with his predecessors’ emphasis on a traditional definition of US national security: tanks and missiles, grand peaks, and spy satellites.
The “primary focus” of the Biden NSC’s work will, at least initially, be on tackling the coronavirus pandemic and restructuring the NSC to make public health an ongoing national security priority, Sullivan said. China will also be notified, he added.
“You are actually making sure this doesn’t happen again by sending a very clear message to China that the US and the rest of the world will not accept a circumstance where we do not have an effective public health surveillance system. with an international dimension in China and around the world, ”said Sullivan. A key topic that Sullivan comes back to repeatedly is the restoration of alliances and partnerships that were neglected or spurned under Trump.
“In contrast to the politics of recent years, we will be able to rally the rest of the world behind us” when it comes to important foreign policy and national security issues, such as pressure on Iran to comply with the nuclear deal again US can resume negotiations, Sullivan said.
He is similarly optimistic about one of his highest goals: “To gather our allies to fight corruption and kleptocracy and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for more transparency and participation in a rule-based system.”
These efforts must start at home – as before well documentedThe world’s kleptocratic regimes are heavily dependent on money laundering networks that typically extend into western centers of global finance like New York and London, aided by lax incorporation rules in places like Delaware.
But as a former Obama administration official put it, the toughest job for Biden, and more broadly for Sullivan, will be to clean up the “broken glass” left by the Trump administration, along with an international community that is whiplash that is caused by America’s politics was caused, tired of drama.
“It’s a different world now,” said Ambassador Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat who worked with Sullivan in the Obama White House. “But Jake has experience and personal relationships that are essential.”