'America is back': Biden's picks for Cabinet signal that days of 'America First' are over

US President-elect Joe Biden introducing six top officials he wants in his cabinet, in Delaware, on Nov 24.
US President-elect Joe Biden introducing six top officials he wants in his cabinet, in Delaware, on Nov 24.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - US President-elect Joe Biden's picks for the top foreign policy and national security spots in his administration sent a clear message: the days of America First are over and America will take up the mantle of global leadership again.

"America's back. We're at the head of the table once again," said Mr Biden in an interview with NBC, aired hours after he introduced six top officials he wants in his Cabinet on Tuesday (Nov 25), the most senior among them being his nominee for Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

His picks, who will have to be confirmed by the Senate next year, will build coalitions and work with allies to counter terrorism and extremism, deal with the climate crisis, and combat nuclear proliferation and other threats, said Mr Biden.

They include Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden's former adviser when he was Vice President, for National Security Adviser; former diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield for Ambassador to the United Nations, and former US Secretary of State John Kerry for Special Presidential Envoy on Climate, who if confirmed would be America's first full-time climate change tsar.

Mr Biden also unveiled his Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, who would be the first woman to lead the intelligence community, and his nominee for Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be the first Latino and immigrant to lead the department.

"It's a team that reflects the fact that America is back. Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Ready to confront our adversaries, not reject our allies. And ready to stand up for our values," said Mr Biden at the media appearance in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.

"They embody my core belief that America is strongest when it works with its allies."

Their selection reflects a return to a more traditional multilateralism, but Mr Biden was also careful to note in his NBC interview that his administration would not be "a third Obama term", pointing out that the world they faced now was different than in 2009 to 2017, when he served as Vice President under President Barack Obama.

Political watchers said the selection made clear that Mr Biden would be a liberal internationalist president, a departure from the more isolationist foreign policy of the incumbent Donald Trump.

Stanford University professor Michael McFaul, a former US Ambassador to Russia, noted on Twitter that American foreign policy has historically been shaped by two debates: isolationism vs internationalism, and realism vs liberalism.

Isolationists avoid alliances that entangle and tend to see free trade as unfair, while being sceptical of international institutions as constraints on American power.

In contrast, internationalists view alliances as enhancing US security, free trade as beneficial to the American economy, and international institutions as strengthening American power.

"Trump was an extremist on both of these policy debates - an extreme isolationist (America First) and an extreme realist (he did nothing to advance democratic and human rights values)," Prof McFaul tweeted.

"Biden made clear today that he is an internationalist and a 'liberal'... someone who will bring values back to American foreign policy. He is the opposite of Trump. And so too are Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan," he added.

The shift back to multilateralism will be welcomed by parts of the Republican and military establishment who have pushed back against Mr Trump's America First policy. These include top officials who served under Republican presidents - even under Mr Trump himself.

In a Foreign Affairs commentary on Monday (Nov 23), Mr Trump's former Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis along with other co-authors wrote that "America First" in practice had meant "America Alone" and urged the Biden administration to reverse it.

They wrote: "We hope they will quickly revise the national security strategy to eliminate 'America first' from its contents, restoring in its place the commitment to cooperative security that has served the United States so well for decades."