Jake Sullivan’s Revolution

Jake Sullivan’s Revolution

On April 27, 2023, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank that for years has served as a beacon of Democratic establishment thinking, was about to be the site of a major reshaping.

One of the party’s leaders, Jake Sullivan, was about to challenge long-held beliefs and lay out a road map for the nation’s ideological future. The times were changing, and America had to change with them.

Brookings is a legendary place, among the most famous think tanks in the world. It’s the kind of institution presidents visited to give great speeches and senior officials went to for outside policy counsel, and where the capital’s elite waited out an opposing party’s administration while itching to serve with a like-minded team. Now it would serve as the birthplace of a quiet revolution.

For weeks, Jake Sullivan and his team crafted an address that was nominally about the administration’s views on economics. But it would really serve as a critique of orthodoxy in America’s capital, a bludgeon to U.S. foreign policy thinking that was so prominent in the gilded halls of Brookings and among Washington’s well-heeled.

The speech reflected the journey Sullivan himself had been on for six years. Down and out after Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, he sought to understand why the modern-day traditions of U.S. foreign policy weren’t resonating with the kind of people he grew up with in Minnesota. He helped craft a new vision that took root among Democrats and formed the backbone of the Biden administration’s thinking about the world after the scarring scenes of Jan. 6, 2021.

And buoyed by the success of Washington’s support for Kyiv amid Russia’s invasion, he now had confidence to offer a different vision for U.S. policy at home and abroad. It was Bidenism, fully embraced by the president, but a brainchild of the national security adviser who, due to his young age, could serve as an ideological leader within the Democratic Party for decades to come.

The Bidenism that Sullivan helped define has infused every corner of this administration’s foreign policy. A focus on the home front was one reason Biden chose to withdraw from Afghanistan. A rock-ribbed belief in keeping U.S. forces out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has helped shape America’s response. And China’s decades of cheating in global economics led Team Biden to adopt some elements of Donald Trump’s trade war. The elements of Trumpism that Biden and Sullivan adopted — though they would probably prefer the term “populism” — could help Biden fend off Trump’s ideological challenges to his foreign policy heading into the 2024 election.

To arrive at this new outlook, Sullivan first had to dismantle establishment orthodoxies within himself — the same orthodoxies he now sought to undo at Brookings: That globalization and free trade were an unalloyed good, growing economies and improving people’s lives in the process. What was good for the stock market, in effect, was great for everybody. Given enough time, swelling wallets would produce a steady middle class, one that demands its political and human rights from its government. Even the most repressive regimes, the thinking went, would eventually crumble under the weight of inflowing capital. Consistent pressure via greenbacks did the most good for the most people.

Those theories had decades to prove themselves right after World War II. At Brookings, where that thinking took hold and was championed for years, Sullivan was about to assert that it was time to move on.

On the surface, Sullivan was an unlikely candidate to deliver the message. Years earlier, while at law school at Yale, Sullivan sought out Strobe Talbott, who had recently been named the director of the university’s Center for the Study of Globalization. Talbott — an archetypal patrician who had attended the best schools, campaigned for George McGovern, and was Time magazine’s lead writer on Soviet-American relations before joining the State Department during his friend Bill Clinton’s administration — became a mentor.

The two men shared an ideology that was mainstream among the Democratic and Republican parties. “Those were the heady days when the mainstream foreign policy consensus was that globalization was a force for good,” Sullivan recalled in a 2017 interview. There was, of course, reason to think this. Capitalism helped keep the Soviet Union at bay, China still wasn’t a major power and building the economies of enemies turned them into friends. Globalization, per its champions, had the benefit of making many people rich while making the world safer in general and U.S. foreign policy less costly.

Talbott, one of those champions, would go on to lead and then serve as a distinguished fellow at Brookings. Whether Sullivan meant to distance himself from his beliefs during those “heady days” may have been intentional, or may have been a happy accident of the calendar.

As he strode up to the think tank, perched prominently on Massachusetts Avenue in downtown Washington, D.C., flanked by other prestigious institutions and embassies, Sullivan looked like any U.S. official at the upper echelons of power. His straw hair was matted down, swept to the right. He wore a typical dark-blue suit and a bright white shirt, muted by a gray tie. The national security adviser looked like he was about to give a speech like any other, like thousands before it by D.C.’s elite. Not this time.

“After the Second World War, the United States led a fragmented world to build a new international economic order. It lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It sustained thrilling technological revolutions. And it helped the United States and many other nations around the world achieve new levels of prosperity. But the last few decades revealed cracks in those foundations,” Sullivan said to a crowd of journalists, government officials and well-known experts. In other words, the Marshall Plan and the tech boom during the 1990s were products of their time and place. They wouldn’t necessarily have the desired effects in a modern context.

“A shifting global economy left many working Americans and their communities behind. A financial crisis shook the middle class. A pandemic exposed the fragility of our supply chains. A changing climate threatened lives and livelihoods. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscored the risks of overdependence.”

That was the problem. What was the solution? Instead of rampant globalization, Sullivan’s pitch was that a reenergized American economy made the country stronger. It was time to remake the Rust Belt into a Cobalt Corridor, to establish industries that led not only to blue-collar work but to azure-collared careers. If that was done right, a strengthened America could act more capably around the globe.

“This moment demands that we forge a new consensus. That’s why the United States, under President Biden, is pursuing a modern industrial and innovation strategy — both at home and with partners around the world,” he said.

Sullivan would go on to list why America needed to take this new path. Manufacturing in the United States had lost out to cheaper labor abroad. Growth for growth’s sake was inherently unequal, not benefiting everyone. The economic rise of other countries and their integration into the world economy didn’t automatically make them more democratic — some, namely China, simultaneously grew more powerful and despotic. And the free market at home and globalization’s effects wrought havoc on the climate while failing to incentivize greener means of production and industries.

Implicitly, Sullivan said the main assumptions undergirding America’s foreign and economic policy had been wrong for decades. China, and the Washington belief that liberalized markets would eventually lead to democracy within the halls of power in Beijing, was the most glaring example.

“By the time President Biden came into office, we had to contend with the reality that a large non-market economy had been integrated into the international economic order in a way that posed considerable challenges,” he said, citing China’s large-scale subsidization of multiple sectors that crushed America’s competitiveness across industries. Making matters worse, Sullivan continued, “economic integration didn’t stop China from expanding its military ambitions.” It also didn’t stop countries like Russia from invading their neighbors.

Sullivan, the accomplished debater, was dismantling, point by point, the dominant worldview that Biden held for decades and that the national security adviser grew up believing until Trump won the election in November 2016. He was, wittingly or not, offering a mea culpa for once being an acolyte of the foreign policy establishment. Now, cloaked in power, he was trying to right his perceived wrongs.

Righting wrongs was a throughline during Sullivan’s first two years at the helm alongside Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the rest of the team. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, despite the deadly chaos, was the right decision, he believed. The war was unwinnable, and there were other priorities to pursue. But, having missed the warning signs leading up to the takeover of Kabul, and with the trauma of seeing Russia take Crimea and a bite out of eastern Ukraine in 2014 still fresh, Sullivan vowed not to be steps behind as the Kremlin plotted to seize the whole of Ukraine.

Standing in front of the esteemed audience, Sullivan was telling them he didn’t want to be caught flat-footed as the global economy reshaped around them. The U.S. government would be proactive, prepared and proud in search of an industrial strategy to undergird American power. Without saying the words, he was offering a plan to make America great again.

The speech served as the grandest example of the significant rethink that occurred in the Biden administration’s first half of the first term. A self-proclaimed “A-Team” came together to move beyond the Trump era, but in some ways they embraced elements of it. Not the nativist demagoguery, but the need to return to fundamentals: a healthy middle class powered by a humming industrial base, a humility about what the U.S. military alone can accomplish, a solid cadre of allies, attention to the most existential threats and a refresh of the tenets that sustain American democracy. Sullivan proposed an old road map to a new future.

“This strategy will take resolve — it will take a dedicated commitment to overcoming the barriers that have kept this country and our partners from building rapidly, efficiently, and fairly as we were able to do in the past,” Sullivan said at Brookings. “But it is the surest path to restoring the middle class, to producing a just and effective clean-energy transition, to securing critical supply chains, and, through all of this, to repairing faith in democracy itself.”

America was ready for renewal. The world was there to remake. There were at least two more years to get it done.

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