“I have damn little respect for people who wrap themselves in the flag and then try to burn this country down.” — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (Montana)
Presidential inaugurations are traditionally seen as opportunities for a new start for the country — a kind of national reboot. But the inauguration of Joe Biden goes far beyond the norm. You have to go back to Lincoln and FDR to find an inauguration under such challenging, even harrowing, circumstances — 400,000 COVID deaths, an economy in deep recession, a violent insurrection, a China challenge and the climate crisis.
Before we turn to the global arena, we need a clear recognition of just what happened on Jan. 6. This was an attempted coup conceived and set in motion by the President of the United States. Trump refused to accept the result of the best run, most transparent, most secure and most accurately tabulated presidential election in U.S. history — one he lost by over 7 million votes. Instead, he claimed fraud (like every tinpot dictator faced with negative election results) and tried every possible maneuver from threatening local election officials to a blizzard of lawsuits to overturn the results. When all that failed, he was left with one possible option. We know he discussed with supporters the possibility of declaring “martial law” and nullifying the election. He purged the top civilian ranks in the Pentagon and installed political hacks and cronies in those positions. There was one problem — the senior uniformed military leaders took an oath to defend the Constitution and they, unlike Trump, take that oath seriously. Simply put, they would not obey an order to overturn American democracy.
Trump had one more card to play. He called upon his followers to assemble en masse by the thousands in Washington. He then incited them to attack the Capitol at the moment the official count was taking place that would formalize Biden’s victory. The result was an unhinged, screaming mob shouting “Kill Pence” among other battle cries. A Capitol Police officer was killed by these “patriots” and Pence and his wife narrowly escaped with their lives. All this was intended to disrupt and intimidate to a point where frightened members of Congress would declare that Trump, not Biden, had won. The American republic would be replaced by a Trump dictatorship and the Constitution would be trashed. [This, incidentally, is how communism came to Russia when a violent mob (the Bolsheviks) led by a cynical would-be autocrat (Lenin) stormed the seat of government in 1917.]
To say that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have taken the oath of office under difficult circumstances is, obviously, a huge understatement. But there is a flip side to this coin: the opportunities are also extraordinary just as opportunities in front of FDR were extraordinary. The obvious overarching priority is the pandemic. Over 400,000 Americans have already died. If the United States had performed as well as Canada in controlling the disease, we would have a death toll of 160,000. That adds up to 240,000 extra deaths due directly to the criminal incompetence of the Trump White House. Biden’s opportunity is to show what a real government can do in the face of a crisis like this.
The Biden foreign policy agenda will also be one of recovery and repair. It begins with the critical need to rebuild the institutions of government. The federal workforce has been battered and demoralized by an administration that went beyond disrespect to active hostility. It was ironic when a few days ago the acting head of Homeland Security, Ken Cuccinelli, assured a TV audience that the inauguration would be kept secure by all the dedicated professionals working in government agencies. Cuccinelli is a right-wing ideologue who has been part of the Trump chorus denouncing the “deep state” — comprised of those same civil servants he is now praising.
The one major thing Biden was able to do prior to taking office was assemble his team. That process is nearly complete and the results are striking. The nominees for Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts are uniformly impressive — experienced, smart and with real depth of character. Take two, relatively obscure, examples. The critical post of Asia director in the National Security Council will be the nerve center for Biden’s strategy for dealing with China and its ambitions to dominate Asia. Biden’s choice is Kurt Campbell, a former senior official at both the Pentagon and State Department. In those roles, he demonstrated an almost unique talent for assembling coalitions of East and Southeast Asian countries to work together with the United States to offset China’s aspiring hegemony. That approach will be at the heart of a Biden economic and security strategy for Asia. For the number two post at the State Department, Biden has selected Wendy Sherman, a superbly skilled diplomat who will be tasked with trying to undo the deep damage to U.S. interests and standing in the Middle East.
Other challenges that will command the highest priority in a Biden foreign policy can only be enumerated here. They include: (1) Rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and use that as a launch pad for perhaps the single most important international effort ever attempted — controlling (and ultimately reversing) global warming. (2) Build a new fabric of economic and security ties in Asia to preserve American access to the world’s most dynamic region. (3) Restore trans-Atlantic ties including, but not limited to, NATO. There will be a new leader in Germany and Britain will be in real trouble as the Brexit blunder takes hold. At the same time, the European Union will be subject to growing Chinese pressure and penetration. Russia will become more isolated and economically irrelevant — but also more resentful and hostile.
This list is barely a start — lots to do and to watch in the next four years.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.