Au revoir 'America First': Biden team ditches Trump-style nationalism with foreign policy picks

Bye-bye, 'America First'. We now have a good sense of what Joe Biden's administration will look like, what its early moves will be and its attitude toward international affairs. And it's a dramatic shift from the Trump era.

President-elect's team shows move to international alliances, importance of climate

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden announces his foreign policy and national security nominees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday. He said his team 'reflects the fact that America is back' — a sharp departure from the approach taken by U.S. President Donald Trump. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Let's cast a gaze forward to the first few days of Joe Biden's presidency for a glimpse at how dramatic a departure we're about to witness from the "America First" era.

We know a fair bit now about Biden's incoming administration, based on his platform and on the slew of top foreign policy officials he introduced on Tuesday.

Of immediate note for foreign countries: Biden has chosen true believers in international alliances. It's evident in a lengthy paper trail ranging from their past writings to their congressional testimony to various past interviews.

Lest the change in tone has gone unnoticed, Biden himself drove home the message about an impending U.S. shift from nationalism to internationalism at an event that felt like a ritual burial of the Trump era in foreign policy. 

"[This team] reflects the fact that America is back," the Democratic president-elect said on Tuesday, using a turn of phrase Canadians might find familiar.

"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. This team meets this moment. They embody my core belief that America is strongest when it works with its allies."

What Week 1 looks like

So here's what it looks like in practice.

Eight weeks from now, after he assumes the presidency, the first acts in office Biden has promised include rejoining the Paris climate accord, re-entering the World Health Organization and reversing some immigration policies put in place by Republican President Donald Trump.

Top administration officials will at some point thereafter communicate that Paris news in Parisians' own language.

Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for secretary of state, started his career at the U.S. State Department during Bill Clinton's administration and served as deputy secretary of state under former president Barack Obama. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is a well-known Washington foreign policy hand who grew up in France and speaks the language impeccably. He started his career at the U.S. State Department during Bill Clinton's administration and served as deputy secretary of state under former president Barack Obama.

Ironically, he wouldn't be the only French-speaking top official on Biden's team carrying the title of secretary of state in his biography. The other is John Kerry, the former secretary of state for whom Biden created an entirely new position of presidential climate envoy.

Kerry served a heads up to other countries on Tuesday: At the next United Nations climate summit, the U.S. will not only be back in the Paris accord but will be pushing countries to do more.

"Paris alone does not get the job done," Kerry said. "All nations must raise ambition together — or we will all fail, together. Failure is not an option."

Former secretary of state John Kerry has been appointed by Biden as his special presidential climate envoy. Kerry said on Tuesday that at the next United Nations climate summit, the U.S. will not only be back in the Paris climate accord but will be pushing countries to do more. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The United Nations will also get an elevated status in the incoming administration.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. ambassador to the UN is a non-cabinet job, held by a prominent Republican donor.

It will now be restored as a full cabinet position, held by a woman who represented the U.S. as a diplomat on four continents in a 35-year foreign service career.

As she accepted the nomination, Linda Thomas-Greenfield saluted her fellow foreign service officers.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield is Biden's choice to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a post that will be restored as a full cabinet position. Thomas-Greenfield represented the U.S. as a diplomat on four continents in a 35-year foreign service career. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

"On this day, I'm thinking about the American people, my fellow career diplomats and public servants serving around the world," she said.

"America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back."

Gentler attitude on immigration

A new attitude is also coming on immigration.

And it's not just that the secretary of state pick once spoke with compassion, about refugees, in a video with a Sesame Street character — or that Blinken also co-signed a letter criticizing Trump's policies for building a border wall with Mexico.

Further change was signalled in a Spanish-language news release from Biden about the choice to lead U.S. border and immigration agencies.

He's Alejandro Mayorkas, nominated to become secretary of homeland security.

He alluded to his own family finding refuge in the United States from his homeland of Cuba. And he played a lead role in designing an Obama-era program to help other migrants.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) protected hundreds of thousands of young people from deportation if they arrived in the U.S. as minors.

The program was ended by Trump but will be reinstated early in Biden's term.

Mayorkas would become a key point of contact for Canada if Biden makes good on his promise to negotiate a new regional agreement on migration.

That internationalist spirit spills into various security roles.

Avril Haines, a former deputy director of the CIA and Obama's deputy national security adviser, has been nominated to be the first female director of national intelligence. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Unlike Trump's most recent national intelligence director, who frequently bashes foreign allies on Twitter, Biden's pick, Avril Haines, has spoken at length about how she values international organizations and believes they have served the U.S. well. The former deputy director of the CIA, who was Obama's deputy national security adviser, would be the first female director of national intelligence.

The current president himself apparently detected the change in attitude, tweeting, "AMERICA FIRST!!!" on Tuesday afternoon.

Canada expects challenges, too

Foreign allies have also taken notice.

Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, said the Canadian government has good connections with the Biden team.

The No. 2 official in the next White House — Biden's future deputy chief of staff, Jen O'Malley Dillon — worked on the 2015 election campaign for the Trudeau Liberals.

Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., says the Canadian government has good connections with the Biden team. (

Hillman said official Biden staffers aren't yet talking to foreign countries, but she added that Canada has common connections with the incoming team to help it assess its future plans.

"President-elect Biden and his team have said openly that international relations, relations with allies, are very important to them," Hillman said Tuesday, speaking in French to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

"They want to work together to solve the most difficult challenges in the world — like climate change and security issues. That's also a very good sign because Canada very much shares that philosophy."

But that doesn't mean Canada won't face challenges.

Hillman listed her top priorities for dealing with the next administration, and one of them is a potential irritant: Biden's support for Buy American policies.

Internationalism yes, neo-liberalism no

To understand the apparent contradiction in Biden's policies — on the one hand, praising international co-operation, while on the other promoting some protectionism — it's worth reading the writings of one future White House official.

They espouse a philosophy that could be characterized as internationalism, without neo-liberalism.

Jake Sullivan will be the No. 1 foreign policy official in Biden's White House as the new national security adviser. And as Biden introduced him Tuesday, he said they share a view that foreign policy should serve the middle class.

Jake Sullivan, a former aide to Biden and to Hillary Clinton, is the president-elect's choice to be his national security adviser. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Sullivan, a former aide to Biden and to Hillary Clinton, explained those twin views in a 2017 CBC News interview.

He told CBC News that the world is safer — and better off — if the U.S. helps international alliances tackle global problems.

At the same time, he said, working-class communities are unhappy with current trade deals and are demanding a new approach to trade.

Sullivan spelled out his view of post-Trump alliances in far more detail, two years ago, in a nearly 5,000-word essay in Foreign Affairs magazine titled, "The World After Trump."

He's also said the U.S. needs to work more closely with allies to confront China on certain issues involving trade abuses, technology and human rights, without being unnecessarily belligerent.

Yet on trade, he's co-written lengthy pieces suggesting the U.S. prioritize working-class interests, and he's even half-complimented Trump.

"It's not just Donald Trump who feels that way [about trade]. And it's not just the Republican Party," Sullivan told CBC in 2017, discussing the renegotiation of NAFTA.

"There is a deep strain in the Democratic Party that feels that the trade policies of both Democrats and Republicans over the last 30 years have not worked out for the United States.... I think it is fair that there have to be revisions to NAFTA."

On balance, however, one prominent Canadian foreign policy expert says he expects improved relations now between the U.S. and most of the world.

'"I think of these appointments as a return of competence," said Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"[These people] are all predisposed and well equipped to repair relations with America's allies and partners, including Canada. It's a real counterpoint to 'America First.'"


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?