President-elect Joe Biden has named his national security team. Antony Blinken will be nominated for secretary of state; Jake Sullivan for national security adviser; Avril Haines for director of national intelligence; and Alejandro Mayorkas for secretary of homeland security. All but Sullivan will require Senate confirmation. How that goes depends on how the two runoffs in Georgia go; if Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, win control of the Senate, all of Biden’s nominees will face more scrutiny than they would from a Democratic Senate headed by Sen. Charles Schumer.
But there was something missing from Biden’s big national security rollout: a nominee for secretary of defense. That’s a pretty important job on the national security team, isn’t it? There was talk that Biden wasn’t completely sold on the person thought to be his leading candidate, former Obama defense official Michele Flournoy.
The delay is more than just a personnel issue. Biden is reportedly re-thinking the role of the military in the way the U.S. deals with the world. The president-elect wants to “de-emphasize the military as an instrument of national power,” Axios reported recently. But being an instrument of national power is what the military does. It is why the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine — and the new Space Force — exist.
Beyond Flournoy, Biden is reportedly considering Lloyd Austin, a retired Army four-star general who was commander of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016. Austin now serves on several corporate boards, among them the defense contractor Raytheon.
It is unclear whether Austin, who served 41 years in the Army, will be more amenable to Biden’s plans than Flournoy or other candidates. But a “source close to Biden” told Axios that leaving the defense secretary out of the national security team announcement was intended to send a specific message.
“So having DOD rollout front-and-center sends one message,” Axios quoted the source saying. “Not doing so sends another message. There has always been the intent to signal from Day One that this is not an administration that is going to put the Pentagon at the center of things.”
But the fact is, a strong military is an instrument of national power. Along with economic strength, it is what puts the United States in a powerful position in diplomacy. When the United States manages to shape diplomatic affairs, it is not because the rest of the world thinks we’re so nice. It is because the United States is a military and economic superpower.
A strong military deters challenges to U.S. authority and to order in the world. The idea of peace through strength has been an important concept in U.S. foreign relations since the country’s founding. Its most famous recent adherent was President Ronald Reagan. Today, President Trump has built his approach to diplomacy on the idea, with impressive results most recently in the Middle East. “America is fulfilling our destiny as a peacemaker, but it is peace through strength,” Trump told the United Nations in September.
Biden has other ideas, although what they are is not yet clear. Yes, he has other considerations, like race and diversity, in choosing a secretary of Defense. Axios reported that Biden’s top advisers “feel pressure to announce an African American to a prominent Cabinet role.” Gen. Austin is black, while Flournoy is white. But there is something much more fundamental going on in Biden’s search for a defense chief. The president-elect wants to downplay the greatest instrument of U.S. power in the world. When people say elections have consequences, this is what they mean.