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McCain Institute Hosts POLITICO’s Alex Ward for Book Talk on Biden Foreign Policy

Click HERE or the image above to watch the latest Authors & Insights event.

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Upon the recent publication of his book “The Internationalists: The Fight to Restore American Foreign Policy after Trump,” author and POLITICO National Security Reporter Alex Ward joined McCain Institute Executive Director Dr. Evelyn Farkas for the latest installment of the McCain Institute’s Authors & Insights book talk series.

This discussion centered on the first years of the Biden administration’s foreign policy – beginning with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s intent to pursue a foreign policy that delivers for middle-class Americans. The question-and-answer session traced the policy arc from rebuilding alliances, halting the 2021 war in Gaza, withdrawing from Afghanistan, and managing the prelude and response to Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As he did so Woodward-like in the book, Ward described members of the Biden administration applying lessons-learned from past mistakes to reset its foreign policy narrative.

Click HERE to view the full conversation.

Excerpts from the conversation:

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sought to bring foreign policy to everyday Americans.

“Jake Sullivan is right next to Hillary Clinton as she’s conceding to Trump, and he’s thinking, ‘Okay, Trump didn’t win necessarily on his foreign policy views, but he didn’t lose because of them either,’” said Ward. “And [Sullivan] spends four years with colleagues, going around the country trying to figure out – what did we miss? What did the traditional foreign policy establishment miss? He and colleagues came up with ‘foreign policy for the middle class,’ which means any foreign policy decision taken has to be easily explained and sold to everyday Americans.”

The Trump and Biden foreign policies shared a focus on great power competition.

“When you think of a Biden doctrine, their main goal really was a continuation of Trump – focused on the great powers – keep ‘smaller,’ marginal issues to the side, and find ways to update traditional foreign policy in a way that can be sold to the general public,” said Ward.

Biden applied lessons learned in Afghanistan to managing the Ukraine invasion.

“After Afghanistan, the Jake Sullivans, the Tony Blinkens, the Lloyd Austins, and the President Bidens of the world were worried that that’s what history would remember them for – what they saw in Afghanistan,” said Ward. “It’s not that they were asking for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they were looking for an opportunity to prove themselves in whatever form that came.”

The administration would count several successes in managing Russia’s war against Ukraine, including China’s curtailed support to Russia.

“If you ask the nuclear wonks… they say the Chinese have been helpful because they said no one should be threatening use of nuclear weapons, which was clearly pointed at Putin and the Kremlin… they [China] don’t want their economy to fall apart and they don’t want to be sanctioned by us,” said Farkas.

More women are needed in foreign policy leadership roles.

“As a woman reading the book, I noticed I was reading a book with a lot of male actors.  Can you talk about how that struck you when you were writing the book?” asked Farkas.

“I have to write about the characters who are there, the national security advisor, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the president: they are men,” said Ward. I expected when I started, I would have a lot more of Vice President Harris, but she just didn’t come up so often – not to say that she’s a nonfactor, just in a lot of these decisions that I cover, she wasn’t in the room. Wendy Sherman is covered, of course, Amanda Sloat, the NSC director for Europe, is there, but in terms of the main characters, Biden chose men.”

The United States is in a new era of foreign policy that has yet to be defined.

“One of my big views in the book is American foreign policy was kind of one way—from the end of World War II to somewhere in the middle of the Obama administration—and we’re kind of in this new era now that—depending on what happens in November—that Trump or Biden will really end up defining,” said Ward.

Young journalists should start small.

“What advice and what observations do you have as a journalist—has it become easier or harder to cover the White House, to cover national security? Do you have any advice for young people who want to be journalists?” Farkas asked.

“Start low, that’s not just because one should at the beginning, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening at the lower levels, and a lot of those early conversations that filtered their way up to the situation room, they start low. So, start meeting some new folks at the NSC, start meeting new folks at the State Department, they like talking to journalists, it’s flattering,” said Ward. “One of the questions I tend to ask is, ‘Do you think there’s anything happening that the American people should know?’ I always try to center all my reporting on ordinary people doing extraordinary things that ultimately are going to impact ordinary people.”

About the McCain Institute’s Authors & Insights Series

McCain Institute leaders interview authors of important books on American politics, policy, and leadership with the intention of engaging the American people in a dialogue that affirms the importance of character-driven leadership and America’s role in the international community. Previous authors have included the late former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper, CBS News’ Major Garrett and elections expert David Becker, World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain, CNN’s Jake Tapper, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and more.

About the McCain Institute at Arizona State University

The McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization inspired by Senator John McCain and his family’s dedication to public service. We are part of Arizona State University and based in Washington, D.C. Our programs defend democracy, advance human rights and freedom, and empower character-driven leaders. Our unique power to convene leaders across the global political spectrum enables us to make a real impact on the world’s most pressing challenges. Our goal is action, not talk, and like Senator McCain, we are fighting to create a free, safe, and just world for all. 

About Arizona State University

Arizona State University has developed a new model for the American research university, creating an institution that is committed to access, excellence and impact. ASU measures itself by those it includes, not by those it excludes. As the prototype for a New American University, ASU pursues research that contributes to the public good, and ASU assumes major responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality of the communities that surround it.

McCain Institute Press 
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Publish Date
March 1, 2024