Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief, and we hope you are spending your week booking your coronavirus vaccine appointment and not trying to define what “infrastructure” is.
The highlights this week: The Biden administration is not embracing Open Skies, the White House eyes a new envoy to counter Russian pipelines, and new details on U.S. hostage talks in Syria.
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Joe Biden has been U.S. president for nearly three months, but a few big things still haven’t changed from the Trump administration.
The State Department is still talking tough on China. Most of the senior national security positions at the Defense Department and in Foggy Bottom remain unfilled. Iran remains under paralyzing U.S. sanctions despite efforts to restart negotiations on the nuclear deal. And Biden doesn’t seem eager to get back into the 34-nation Open Skies Treaty that once allowed unarmed surveillance flights over much of Europe and Russia for most of the past two decades.
As the old saying goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Same as the old boss. In an internal memo to U.S. partners at the end of March, first reported this week by Defense News, the State Department said it would send the “wrong message” to Russia by rejoining the Open Skies Treaty. Biden already extended the New START treaty with Russia in February that limits the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers, missiles, bombers, and deployed warheads that each side has.
But the argument that the State Department made for not rejoining Open Skies had a distinctly Trumpian ring to it: Doing so would weaken U.S. efforts to bring Moscow to the table for other future arms control talks. Former Trump administration officials were skeptical of the five-year New START extension, with some hoping to use a shorter extension to gain leverage over Russia for a more expansive deal in the future.
A State Department spokesperson told Defense News that no final decision had been made on the future of U.S. involvement in Open Skies.
Lying in wait. Former President Donald Trump famously said having acting officials in place gave him more flexibility, a trend that intensified in November 2020, when he promptly fired his defense secretary and cleaned house of most of the Pentagon’s senior ranks. And while the Biden administration has said it’s facing tougher security clearance requirements and residual delays from the Trump team’s refusal to certify the election results, it has still been slow to staff up some 300 Senate-confirmed national security positions throughout the cabinet, as Robbie previously reported.
While the White House rolled out a few new picks last week (see below), with the Biden administration still focused on the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine and unveiling the new budget, some of those nominees could still be on hold—or sitting on ice—for a while.
Who Is Joining Team Biden Next?
New global vaccine czar. Biden has named Gayle Smith, the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, as the new coordinator for the global COVID-19 response and health security at the State Department.
Famous Amos. The White House is reportedly eyeing plans to tap Amos Hochstein, a former senior envoy for energy issues under the Obama administration, as a special envoy to lead negotiations on halting the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as Politico’s Natasha Bertrand and Andrew Desiderio report.
Three for DoD. Biden plans to formally nominate three more Defense Department and intelligence community vets for top jobs at the Pentagon, the White House announced last week. CIA and Air Force veteran Ronald Moultrie is Biden’s choice to serve in the DoD’s top intelligence job, Michael Brown has been selected to serve as the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, and Michael McCord would reprise his job as the Pentagon’s comptroller, a position he first held during the Obama administration, if confirmed by the Senate.
April 12-13: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is scheduled to visit Egypt and Iran.
April 13: Former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner is set to release a new tell-all Washington memoir.
April 15: Texas Rep. Kevin Brady speaks on the future of the Republican Party’s global trade agenda at a virtual event with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Inside Syria hostage talks. In October, the Trump administration acknowledged that officials traveled to Syria for a high-level meeting with counterparts from Bashar al-Assad’s regime about the recovery of Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist and former Marine missing in the war-torn country since 2012, but said little else about the encounter.
In a meeting with the head of Syrian intelligence, after the U.S. delegation demurred on major changes to Syria policy, Assad regime officials offered little help, the Associated Press reports, including proof of whether Tice is even alive.
Time keeps on slipping. Into the future, for the Pentagon’s hefty budget, that is. Breaking Defense reports that the rollout could be heading toward June, with the U.S. Navy potentially poised to gain the most in what looks to be a flat year for the Defense Department, with the agency’s top line coming in at around $704 billion to $708 billion, a figure that could be announced as early as Friday.
Last woman standing. Relations between Turkey and the rest of the West are on a downward spiral, and attempts to salvage that relationship aren’t going so well. Two top European Union leaders, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week to try to smooth over long-simmering tensions between the EU and Ankara. But there was one significant problem: Apparently there weren’t enough chairs for the meeting, leaving von der Leyen awkwardly standing by while Erdogan and Michel took a seat to get down to business.
The protocol snafu has sparked charges of sexism and snowballed into a diplomatic scandal, with EU and Turkish leaders trading barbs and EU lawmakers accusing Erdogan’s team of deliberately slighting von der Leyen—though Turkey insists it followed protocol directions laid out by the EU team. The incident adds another layer of tensions to relations between Brussels and Ankara.
Cuba broadcasting. The U.S. Agency for Global Media has tapped Sylvia Rosabal as the director for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, a U.S. government-funded media agency.
Think tank moves. A former top Pentagon policy official during the Trump administration, Kathryn Wheelbarger, is joining the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as a visiting fellow.
The Center for a New American Security has named Paul Scharre as vice president and director of studies.
“Why in the world would we entertain a brutally expensive idea when we don’t, as the [Defense] Department, have the money to go do that? … I’ve had a few congressmen ask me. And you know what? Honestly, I think it’s stupid.”
—U.S. Air Force Gen. Timothy Ray, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, on the U.S. Army’s plans to base long-range missiles in the Pacific
Missing in action no longer? The U.S. military is exploring how DNA-based technologies, now used to help crime solvers track down serial killers, could help identify remains of American service members from World War II. The New York Times has the story.
It’s all fun and games. Nerds and wonks rejoice. The U.S. State Department is rolling out a new diplomacy program based around video games. The department is issuing grants for a program called “Games for Change” that will connect young gamers from the United States and the Middle East.