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Rights Advocates Rejoice as the New Biden Team Is Assembled

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, addressing Mandela Washington Fellows, Aug. 3, 2016. President-elect Joe Biden will nominate her to be the next US ambassador to the United Nations. TIM BROWN/STATE DEPARTMENT

Advice is pouring into President-elect Joe Biden from around the United States and across the world on how to turn around the damage the Trump administration has inflicted in key policy areas. Advocates for public health, women’s rights and a semblance of restored American leadership are among those hoping for quick action starting the day Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20.

Hopes for a new style of leadership and a better image of the US in the world will rest on Biden’s campaign promises and the qualifications of the appointees he is placing in government posts. His White House staff is falling into place, and Cabinet members are being announced.

Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state from 2015-2017 in the Obama administration, will be Biden’s secretary of state. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, will become the US ambassador to the United Nations. John Kerry, a former US secretary of state, will be a National Security Council official focusing on climate change. Alejandro Mayorkas has been nominated as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the first Latino to head the agency. Avril Haines, a former top CIA official and deputy national security adviser, has been nominated for director of national intelligence. Jake Sullivan will be the national security adviser; and Michèle Flournoy could be secretary of defense.

Cabinet-level appointments require confirmation by the US Senate, but the posts held by Haines, Kerry and Sullivan will not need such approval.

For the UN ambassadorship, Thomas-Greenfield will arrive with a long resume in prestigious public-service posts. That includes not only as an assistant secretary of state but also as US ambassador to Liberia and director of the Foreign Service, which she retired from in 2017 when Rex Tillerson was US secretary of state.

She then worked for her mentor, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, at the Albright-Stonebridge consulting firm, and she now leads Biden’s agency review team for the State Department. One person familiar with Thomas-Greenfield’s work told PassBlue that “she’s very respected” and that she has an incredible personal story as well, having grown up in the segregated South — near Baton Rouge, La. As the oldest of eight children, she said in an interview with a Louisiana news site, “I always had a strong sense of responsibility and curiosity.”

Molly McKew, the lead writer at GreatPower, an independent news-analysis website, tweeted on Nov. 22 that Thomas-Greenfield “became Ambassador in Liberia when I was working there. Pretty much the 1st thing she did was walk outside the gates of the (spectacular) embassy compound — startling the Marine guards to no end — and start picking up the trash that lined the road. She viewed it as her job.”

In these crucial days for the Biden team in assembling a credible administration, Donald Trump is still seeking revenge for his loss in the Nov. 3 election. The defeated president has filed dozens of lawsuits — virtually all thrown out or withdrawn from the courts. He is focused solely on trying to overturn a near-flawless election, according to the judgment of his own cybercrime experts, who were later purged.

Amid the worst national health crisis the US has ever faced, with more than a quarter of a million people dead from the coronavirus, the lame-duck president, who is widely seen as responsible for failing to stem the pandemic, refused for weeks to let his health officials brief the incoming administration. He asked them to report to authorities any colleague who may have talked with the Biden team. [On Nov. 23, a report in The Hill said Trump was ready to end the prohibition on briefings.]

In early November, Bonnie Glick, the deputy administrator of Usaid, was fired for no stated reason. It was assumed that she had been judged disloyal to the president. But some history suggests it was an act of delayed revenge by the archconservative, anti-abortion Republican right predating Trump. This was a chance to put their grievance on his agenda as he sought to hold on to the loyalty of conservative voters.

In 2002, Glick was part of a fact-finding group organized by President George W. Bush to travel to China to inspect the UN Population Fund’s possible involvement in national forced-abortion campaigns, the basis for defunding the agency. The team reported that it did not see any proof of such coercion. By then, Bush had ended contributions to the fund.

Legal experts say that Trump cannot win this private war against Biden with his unconstitutional behavior, department purges and intimidation of politicians, including Republicans who refuse to follow his illegal demands. But he can achieve what is apparently his second-best goal: to severely complicate the ascent to office of Biden and his running mate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

At a news conference on Nov. 20, the president-elect called Trump the “most outrageous . . . irresponsible president in American history.” Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican critical of Trump in the past, said in a statement, “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.”

Trump’s history of illegal or at least very questionable behavior led to his impeachment in December 2019 for abuse of power. His offenses included blocking aid for Ukraine to force its newly elected government to provide political “dirt” on Hunter Biden, the president-elect’s son, who was employed by a Ukrainian company. Trump was spared removal from office by the Republican-controlled Senate and is still being protected by many Republican senators as he tries to undo the 2020 election.

Attention is turning to what authority Biden could use in his first days in office to create momentum despite Trump’s undermining efforts.

With no bipartisan discussion permitted for two weeks after the election on not only the health disaster but also the crippled economy at “main street,” not Wall Street, level, a normal presidential transition could not begin. Apart from no access to valuable background government documents, the new Democratic team could not tap into funds set aside by law for that purpose.

Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democratic politician personally close to Biden, who had been considered a possible secretary of state, said in a virtual town hall speech on Nov.16 to the United States Global Leadership Coalition, a group of more than 500 business and former government leaders, that he is raising his concerns privately with Republican colleagues.

Coons also said that advocates for quick adoption of new social policies need to better convince the American public that more investment is needed in public health on a global scale.

“Donald Trump was not an aberration in the extent to which his America first ideology of isolationism and nativism and protectionism has had a willing audience nationwide for some time,” he said. “We need to engage in that conversation domestically, urgently, in this year ahead.”

Before the November election, a coalition of more than 90 diverse nongovernmental organizations released a five-page list of recommendations for an incoming administration, titled “First Priorities: Executive and Agency Actions,” based on their “Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice,” adopted in July.

The list calls for quick exercising of executive power to rescind all previous measures, based on anti-abortion demands that now restrict US support for global health programs. It advises working with partners in Congress to revoke all amendments to legislation that hobble the use of American funding nationally and globally.

It also advocates reinstating and increasing US contributions to the UN Population Fund — which Biden has repeatedly said he would do at the earliest opportunity — and abolishing programs advocating abstinence-only birth control in preference to modern contraceptive methods.

Biden has pledged not to enforce the “global gag rule” (also known as the Mexico City policy), which bans American funds to foreign NGOs engaged in any activity even remotely connected to abortion, including counseling. Trump tightened the restrictions substantially in recent years.

“Biden has a long history on issues like domestic violence and violence against women,” Sarah Craven, director of the Washington office of the UN Population Fund, said in an interview with PassBlue. “He introduced the [1994] Violence Against Women Act, and that has been one of his signature issues.” The law lapsed earlier this year.

As vice president under Barack Obama for eight years, Biden kept an interest in gender concerns.

“In the White House, he worked with Cathy Russell, ambassador for global women’s issues in the last four years of the Obama administration,” Craven said. “Russell’s prior role was chief of staff to Jill Biden,” the president-elect’s wife. “I’ve seen her name multiple places as part of the transition as an advisor. She would be someone who would be very well versed in global women’s issues.”

In fact, on Nov. 20, Russell was appointed director of the White House office of presidential personnel by Biden, responsible for evaluating applicants for administration roles.

The prospect of an American administration that feels at home in the world was greeted with not only formal congratulations but also suggestions on where US relations with battered allies and institutions could be restored and grow productively in the future.

Secretary-General António Guterres indirectly congratulated the Biden-Harris team after its election victory was confirmed on Nov 7. In a statement on Nov. 9, he congratulated the “President-elect and Vice President elect” and the American people for a “vibrant exercise of democracy” and described the US-UN partnership an “essential pillar of the international cooperation needed to address the dramatic challenges facing the world today.”

European allies, some of whom Trump has personally insulted, seemed relieved. Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, which Trump accused of taking Americans for “suckers,” said: “I know Joe Biden as a strong supporter of our Alliance & look forward to working closely with him. A strong NATO is good for both North America & Europe.”

Messages also arrived from Africa, where Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, said he hoped for greater cooperation with the US in economic, diplomatic and antiterrorism work and urged “greater US engagement with Africa as a whole.”

From Fiji, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama asked for more US leadership in a “climate emergency . . . ASAP,” noting that Biden had vowed to bring the US back to the 2015 Paris agreement. “Together, we have a planet to save,” he said.

Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, put a human face on the results of the US election. She described the prospect of the first-ever woman as vice president as “a hugely uplifting moment” for women and girls worldwide, “especially for women of color.” Harris is of Jamaican and Indian descent.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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