Under the new structure, Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell’s domain will grow, while the directorate overseen by Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk will be more restricted, several current and former officials said.
The changes essentially affect the structure of the Obama-era NSC, in which the directorate for the Middle East was much larger than it is today and the Asia portfolio was managed by a handful of junior staff. Obama’s second term in office was marked by an onslaught of national security threats and priorities, ranging from the Middle East to the Islamic State and the Iranian nuclear deal to the Libyan and Syrian conflicts and the resulting migration crisis in Europe.
But Biden and his team now believe the biggest security challenges will emerge from the so-called great power competition between the US, China and Russia, say current and former national security officials, and are shifting resources accordingly.
“What we’ve seen in recent years is that China is becoming more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary said on Monday. “And Beijing is now a major challenge to our security, prosperity and values, which requires a new US approach.”
Biden’s team also wants to avoid another swamp in the Middle East and strengthen the core alliances in Asia and Europe that they claim were neglected or scorned under former President Donald Trump, current and former officials noted.
“Given the structure of NSC staff, I think they are pretty determined to stick to their positive priorities rather than being drawn into the Middle East,” said a former Obama official. Sullivan’s professional credo – making foreign policy work for the American middle class – is also a factor given the huge stakes the US and Asia make in each other’s economic prosperity.
“The transfer of political resources from the Middle East to Asia better reflects the economic realities of America,” said Karim Sadjadpour, Middle East expert at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Asia policy is directly relevant to American farmers, businesses and technology companies in ways that the Middle East does not, especially given America’s domestic energy resources,” noted Sadjadpour. “After two painful decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is also little support from either party to do more in the Middle East.”
The new priorities emerged from the Biden team’s initial contact with key European and Asian allies. Sullivan’s first calls the day after Biden’s inauguration were of conversations with his colleagues in France, Germany, the UK and Japan, according to NSC readings, and he has also spoken to South Korea’s national security adviser. Biden’s first calls were to the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom. This week he spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (he also made an irritated phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin). While Sullivan has spoken to colleagues in Afghanistan and Israel, Biden has yet to reach the leaders of those countries, according to a review of the White House ads.
The Middle East portfolio is currently managed by McGurk and a senior director under him, Barbara Leaf. Campbell’s Indo-Pacific portfolio includes three senior directors – Laura Rosenberger as Senior Director for China, Sumona Guha as Senior Director for South Asia and Andrea Kendall-Taylor as Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia. On the Obama NSC, the China portfolio was not at the senior director level and the Asia portfolio did not have a higher-level coordinator, a former official noted.
“This is basically a continuation of the fulcrum of Asia without saying so in public,” said the former Obama official, referring to the expansion of the Asia portfolio by the new NSC.
in the In 2011, Obama declared publicly that he had directed his national security team to “make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority” when he signaled that after failing to do so, the United States must shift its focus away from Europe and the Middle East to face China’s rapid rise. The relocation became known as the “linchpin to Asia” according to the then Foreign Minister Hillary Clinton’s statement that the US was “at the center of a pivot” as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came to an end.
Campbell, who now heads the Indo-Pacific portfolio, was a key driver of the new strategy as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Obama administration. However, success has been mixed and viewed with skepticism by allies in the Middle East and Europe.
The former official said the silent restructuring – without fanfare or major proclamations of a new foreign policy direction – seemed deliberate. “We saw the reaction when Obama spoke publicly about the ‘linchpin to Asia’,” he said. “We probably got less credit in Asia than in the Middle East. Better to just do it than just talk about it. “
The apparent shift is not limited to the NPC. Asia experts will be deployed in the new government, including in the Department of Defense, where former Biden advisor Ely Ratner was appointed Chief Advisor to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for China and Kelly Magsamen was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs was appointed to Austin Chief of Staff appointed.
Austin, a former Centcom commander, is well aware that the Biden administration wants to shift the focus of the Pentagon to the east. “Globally, I understand that Asia must be the focus of our efforts,” Austin said during his confirmation hearing. “China is the greatest threat to the future as China rises.”
One of Austin’s first steps in his new job was to install three special advisors on key issues – China, the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate. The Middle East was particularly absent.
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Asia-Pacific expert Mira Rapp-Hooper was appointed Senior Policy Planning Advisor to China, and Jeffrey Prescott, Deputy National Security Advisor and Senior Asia Advisor to then Vice-President Biden, was appointed Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations .
The increased emphasis on Asia comes after a presidential campaign in 2020 in which China was heavily represented. Trump and Biden struggled to outstrip each other on who would be tougher in Beijing.
“China is a particular challenge,” wrote Biden in a foreign policy journal last year about how he would “save” post-Trump US foreign policy. “I’ve spent many hours with his guides and I understand what to expect.”
However, there is only so much that Biden can control. For example, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not expect the Iraq war or the Arab Spring when they set out their foreign policy priorities for the first term.
“Every foreign policy agenda begins with a fulcrum to Asia and ends with divots in the Middle East,” noted one foreign policy expert. “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. It’s not surprising to me that this is how they begin, but things are extremely unpredictable. “