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REVIEW OF THE MONTH
The Council on Foreign Relations, the Biden Team, and Key Policy Outcomes
Climate and China
by Laurence H. Shoup
(May 01, 2021)
Topics: Climate ChangeEcology EmpireImperialismPolitical Economy
Places: AmericasAsiaChina United States

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, joined by the Presidential Cabinet members, pose for a Cabinet portrait Thursday, April 1, 2021, in the Grand Foyer of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz). By Adam Schultz - The White House, Public Domain, Link
Laurence H. Shoup is a California author and activist. He is the author of five books, including Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics 1976–2019 (Monthly Review Press, 2019).
The U.S. working class, led by people of color, has, at least temporarily, defeated the criminal Trumpian regime and the specter of the consolidation of gangster neofascism. Among its many crimes, this racist regime tried to overturn the results of a U.S. national election. Let us turn to an analysis of the new Joe Biden regime and the personnel and policies it is likely to follow, especially on the all-important questions of the climate crisis and U.S. grand strategy toward China.
By all accounts, President Biden entered office at a perilous moment in U.S. and world history. He faces massive challenges, including not only the climate emergency, conflict with China, a pandemic, a weakened alliance system, and economic decline, but also right-wing threats to destroy what little democracy still exists in the United States (and therefore its legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the population). In this situation, key leaders of monopoly-finance capital, the dominant sector of the plutocratic capitalist class, are worried and want to control key economic and foreign policy decisions going forward.
To try to address these huge challenges, Biden has chosen a top decision-making team of mostly professional-class people, the great majority of whom are closely connected to the plutocracy through participation in leading think tanks, strategic advisory policy groups, and large corporations. They are also mostly alumni of the top plutocratic-connected universities. Such well-trained and well-connected insiders have long played a key role in the system, devising solutions to the problems of monopoly-finance capitalism while always maintaining neoliberalism, such as the privatization of state functions to incorporate them into the capitalist profit and accumulation system. One key problem among many is their common educational and life experiences.
The Biden Team
Biden famously promised that his cabinet would be “the most diverse in history,” adding that his “administration will look like the country.” This goal set off a scramble resembling victors quarreling over the spoils of war, each group staking a claim and lobbying to get top roles in the new administration. Representation politics was the basis of each group’s claims, with race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation all in play. Representation (if not mere tokenism) is important; it offers a way for oppressed groups to possibly get a seat at the table, which they too often have not had. But this leaves out any consideration of the plutocratic class connections of those chosen, a central factor that has obviously been carefully considered by Biden and others making the decisions.
Most media accounts also ignore class as a key factor, focusing only on identity, usually divorced from larger social factors. There is not even a mention of the basics: that the United States is a class society and that people’s life chances – for health, education, success, prosperity, and happiness—to a significant degree depend on what class (as well as what race and gender) they are born into. Working-class people generally have the dimmest of life chances. Those of the professional class, if they work hard serving those in economic and political power, have a better chance. Above all, the plutocratic capitalist ruling class is in charge and grabs most of the benefits of society, creating vast inequality in the process. Looking at the close connections of most of the Biden team to the dominant U.S. ruling class, especially old wealth, clarifies the likely politics and economics of the coming Biden administration much more than the frequently highlighted racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities of this group. In sum, a diversity of identities disguise a very limited diversity of class alliances.
The top thirty members of the Biden team are best seen as a leadership group, including all of its top leaders, and not limited to only the cabinet. Their key connections to the powerful include familial ties. For this study, the Biden team will be divided into two groups, those connected to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and those not. The CFR group is the largest of the two and both groups have extensive connections to the larger U.S. plutocratic class (see inserted boxes on pages 3 and 4).
Team Connections to Key Institutions of the Plutocracy
The U.S. plutocracy, a ruling capitalist class with vast wealth and power, is small in number but extremely well organized to defend its own interests. Made up of families possessing at least tens of millions of dollars in assets, it is a class in itself and a class for itself. In order to delve into this class, we need to look at the four key types of organizations, their functions, the ones most linked to the U.S. plutocracy, and which Biden team individuals are connected to them.
The CFR Group on the Biden Team
  • Kamala Harris, Vice President (CFR through family; Harvard; DLA Piper; Uber through family)
  • Antony Blinken, Secretary of State (CFR member; Harvard and Columbia; WestExec)
  • Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury (CFR member; Yale and Harvard; Brookings)
  • Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense (CFR member; WestExec; Raytheon)
  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield, UN Ambassador (CFR member; Albright Stonebridge)
  • Cecilia Rouse, Council of Economic Advisors (CFR director; Princeton; Rowe Price)
  • Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security (CFR member; Wilmer Hale)
  • Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor (CFR author; Yale and Oxford; Carnegie)
  • Ron Klain, Chief of Staff (CFR through family; Harvard; O’Melveny and Meyers)
  • John Kerry, Special Envoy for Climate (CFR member; Yale)
  • Susan Rice, Chief of Domestic Council (CFR member; Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford)
  • William J. Burns, Director of Central Intelligence (CFR member; Oxford; Carnegie)
  • Kurt M. Campbell, Indo-Pacific Tsar (CFR member; Harvard and Oxford; Asia Group)
  • Thomas Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture (CFR member; Dairy Export Council)
  • Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce (CFR member; Oxford; Point Judith Capital)
  • Eric S. Lander, Director of Office of Science and Technology (CFR member; Harvard)
  • Jeffery Zients, Counselor to the President (CFR member; Cranemere)
Data is as of March 1, 2021. Council on Foreign Relations, Annual Report 2018 (Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 2018), 48–71; “Celebrating a Century,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 2021; biographies from websites of think tanks, corporations, and strategic policy groups.
Think tanks: The function of think tanks (together with the mainstream media) is advance planning, setting agendas, and creating consensus, with the resulting climate of opinion favoring certain government policies. They also propose specific policies and select and train people to carry them out. There are numerous think tanks in the United States, but three are the most central for the ruling class: the CFR, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Brookings Institution. Of these, the most important U.S. policy think tank, which has helped set grand strategy for the country for one hundred years, is the CFR, dubbed “Wall Street’s Think Tank.” Founded a century ago, the CFR is the high-command plutocratic body promoting U.S. imperialism. It is the world’s most powerful private organization, the central think tank of U.S. monopoly-finance capital. It is also a membership organization and the ultimate networking, socializing, agenda-setting, strategic-planning, and consensus-forming organization of the dominant sector of the U.S. capitalist class.
The CFR’s activities help unite the capitalist class into not just a class in itself, but also a class for itself. From its beginnings, it has been a behind-the-scenes organization and network led by well-connected financial capitalists of New York’s Wall Street. These capitalists are assisted by their expert allies in the professional class, especially from leading U.S. universities, but also from the nonprofit, government, law, and media sectors of society. From its founding, the Council has promoted an imperialistic conception of the capitalist class-based “national interest” of the United States, promoting a hegemonic “primacy” of the United States both regionally and globally. It has been very successful in its aims, setting agendas and policy as well as putting thousands of its members and leaders into high office.1
Other Connections on the Biden Team
  • Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence (Chicago; Carnegie; WestExec)
  • Katherine Tai, Trade Representative (Harvard and Yale; Miller & Chevalier)
  • Deb Haaland, Secretary of Interior (University of New Mexico)
  • Merrick Garland, Attorney General (Harvard; Arnold & Porter)
  • Marty Walsh, Secretary of Labor (building trades unions)
  • Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services (Stanford)
  • Marcia Fudge, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Ohio State University)
  • Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transport (Harvard and Oxford; Cohen Group; McKinsey)
  • Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy (Harvard; several corporations)
  • Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education (University of Connecticut)
  • Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Macro Advisers)
  • Neera Tanden, Office of Management and Budget (Yale; Center for American Progress)
  • Michael S. Regan, Environmental Protection Agency (Environ. Defense Fund)
Data is as of March 1, 2021. Council on Foreign Relations, Annual Report 2018 (Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 2018), 48–71; “Celebrating a Century,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 2021; biographies from websites of think tanks, corporations, and strategic policy groups.
The CFR is funded and led by members of the old plutocracy. For example, David Rockefeller was the CFR’s chair for fifteen years and has been its leading financial donor historically. No less than seventeen Biden team members (out of thirty total, or 56.7 percent) are members of, have close family ties to, or are otherwise connected to the CFR (see box on page 3). These include: vice president Kamala Harris; secretary of state Antony Blinken; secretary of the treasury Janet Yellen; secretary of defense Lloyd Austin; CIA head William J. Burns; national security advisor Jake Sullivan; secretary of agriculture Thomas Vilsack; secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo; secretary of homeland security Alejandro Mayorkas; chief of staff Ron Klain; climate envoy John Kerry; domestic council chief Susan Rice; Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt M. Campbell; ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield; chief of Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse; director of science and technology Eric S. Lander; and counselor Jeffery Zients.2 All have at least a minimum level of commitment to the CFR, in the sense of having the necessary connections, making the effort needed to become a member, and paying expensive annual dues. Several of this group are especially close to the Council. For example, Blinken is not only a CFR member, but his wife, father, and uncle are also members. Since 2004, Blinken has also often donated to the Council’s annual fund drive. Kerry, a Boston Brahman member of the old money plutocracy whose family wealth exceeds a billion dollars, has at least four other family members in the CFR. Rouse has been a director of the Council since 2018. Vilsack was the cochair of a CFR independent task force study group in 2007. Many have spoken at CFR meetings, such as Mayorkas in June 2011.
Vice President Harris and Chief of Staff Klain are the only ones of the seventeen listed in the box on page 3 who are not members but are tied to the CFR by family. Harris’s sister Maya, who was her campaign manager, has been a Council member since 2013. Klain’s wife, Monica Media, was elected to CFR membership in 2016.3
Although not currently a CFR member, National Security Advisor Sullivan also has close ties to the Council. In recent years, he has written no less than five articles for the CFR’s in-house journal Foreign Affairs, and spoken at the CFR’s New York headquarters.
Finally, Biden himself was allowed to write an article for Foreign Affairs during the presidential campaign. Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren were the only presidential candidates invited to advertise themselves and their ideas in Foreign Affairs during the 2019–20 election period.
Two other key think tanks of the old plutocracy, both closely interlocked with the CFR, are the Brookings Institution (founded in 1916) and the Carnegie Endowment (founded in 1910). Since 2002, the president of the Brookings Institution has always also been a member of the CFR, and Brookings’s largest contributors include leading Council individuals (such as CFR Chairman David Rubenstein) and institutions (such as the JP Morgan Chase bank, a founding corporate member of CFR). Three of Biden’s team have worked at Brookings: Yellen, Rice, and director of national intelligence Avril Haines. The Carnegie Endowment has also long been close to the CFR. Every Carnegie Endowment president since 1946 has been a member of the Council and the CFR’s current president, Richard Haass, was a senior associate at Carnegie prior to becoming Council president. Two of Biden’s team, CIA head Burns and National Security Advisor Sullivan, have served in leadership roles at Carnegie.4
A final think tank of relevance to the Biden team is the much newer Center for American Progress (founded in 2003). Neera Tanden is a director as well as the president and CEO of this think tank. A centrist Democratic Party think tank close to the Clinton-Obama wing of the party, it has been funded mainly by newly wealthy members of the billionaire plutocratic class, many of them associated with the CFR. These include George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and Glenn Hutchins. The old plutocratic Ford Foundation (founded in 1936) is another important source of funding.5 They and others from this ruling class give to the Center for American Progress in order to strengthen the more conservative elements of the Democratic Party in their struggles with the progressive wing, currently led by Bernie Sanders. It is noteworthy that the Biden team includes few representatives from the progressive wing of the party, despite it making up approximately 40 percent of Democratic Party voters.
Well over half (nineteen, or 63.3 percent) of the top thirty Biden team members are known to be closely associated with these four think tanks. These include most of the key economic and foreign policy decision makers for the Biden team.
Strategic advisory groups: Recent decades have seen a sharp rise in the number and power of what are best labeled private strategic advisory groups. Pioneered by Henry Kissinger’s firm Kissinger Associates, they use their expertise, connections, and networking ability to help (for a high fee) private corporations and their wealthy plutocratic owners benefit from government contracts and activities. The Biden team is most closely connected to a firm called WestExec Advisors, whose motto is “Bringing the Situation Room to the Board Room.” WestExec has a strategic partnership with a private equity firm called Pine Island Capital Partners. The idea behind the firms is to both invest in and offer geopolitical and policy expertise and connections to major as well as up-and-coming smaller corporations. Biden team members Blinken, Austin, and Haines are all part of WestExec and Pine Island. Blinken and Michele Flournoy founded WestExec in 2017. The idea is to combine, as Pine Island states on its website, “an experienced investment team with a group of deeply connected and accomplished former senior government and military officials. Each of our D.C. partners teams with the investment professionals to actively participate in sourcing deals, conducting analyses, winning bids, closing transactions, and directly advising companies in which Pine Island invests.”6
This represents one of the ways that ex-government officials monetize their insider connections by serving dominant corporations and their wealthy owners. Blinken’s disclosure statement lists the following as some of WestExec’s clients: Boeing, Blackstone, Bank of America, Alphabet/Google, ATT, Uber, Softbank, Facebook, Lazard, and McKinsey. Every one of these top corporate clients except Uber and Softbank are corporate members of the CFR. Blinken was reportedly paid over $1.1 million for his work at WestExec.7
Another of these strategic advisory groups is the Albright Stonebridge Group, named for founder and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who has also long been active in the CFR (she was a director for ten years). Albright is currently an honorary director emerita of the Council. The Albright Stonebridge website advertises how the group can help corporate clients “unlock global markets” with their sage advice. Prior to joining the Biden team, Linda Thomas-Greenfield was a senior vice president of the Albright Stonebridge Group.8
Another such outfit is the Cohen Group, founded by former defense secretary William Cohen, a former director of the CFR. Biden team member Buttigieg worked for the Cohen Group in 2004 and 2005. Both Rice and Buttigieg also worked for CFR corporate member McKinsey, which advises many multinational corporations on how to improve their bottom line. The Asia Group makes money advising corporations on their business strategy in Asia. Biden’s Asia tsar Kurt Campbell is the CEO and chair of this organization.
A final relevant strategic advisory group is Macro Advisory Partners, which focuses on offering geopolitical forecasting advice to its corporate and other clients. Uber and Lyft are two known clients. Biden team members Sullivan and Denis McDonough have worked for Macro, William Burns was part of its Global Advisory Board, and Sullivan represented the group and Uber in negotiations with labor unions.9
Ten of the thirty (33 percent) Biden team members are thus connected to strategic advisory groups.
Corporations: These institutions organize labor and natural resources to create commodities and services to generate vast wealth for their plutocratic owners. A number of Biden team members have advised, served on the boards of, or otherwise served major corporations. Yellen properly heads the list. Her disclosure statement reveals that in a period of a little more than two years, she received over $7 million from speeches given mainly to leading financial firms. These included Citigroup (almost $1 million for nine speeches), the hedge fund Citadel (over $800,000 for three speeches), Goldman Sachs, Barclays, UBS, Standard Chartered, Credit Suisse, BNP Paribas, and Google. Yellen was also a consultant for the Magellan Financial Group, receiving $350,000 in consultant and speaking fees. This monetization of her government service has made her quite wealthy; she now holds multiple millions in assets in investment funds and in at least thirteen major corporations.10
Vice President Harris also has close family ties to important corporations and other capitalist class institutions. Before she became vice president, her husband was a partner at DLA Piper, a top multinational corporate law firm. Her sister Maya was an analyst for MSNBC, worked at the Ford Foundation, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. Maya’s husband Tony West was general counsel for Pepsico and is currently the chief legal officer of Uber, titan of the gig economy. Uber has been criticized for its unethical practices, ignoring local laws, and undercutting unions and workers’ rights through the precarious employment practices at the heart of their business model.11
Cecilia E. Rouse, while a dean at Princeton, also was on the board of T. Rowe Price Equity Mutual Funds. This wealth management corporation had almost a trillion dollars ($991.1 billion) in assets under management in 2018, and likely exceeds that amount today. T. Rowe Price has directors connecting it to J. P. Morgan Chase, Lockheed Martin, and other major plutocratic corporations.12
General Austin retired from the army in April 2016. He lost no time joining the private sector, capitalizing on his government service by joining defense contractor Raytheon’s board of directors that same month. By 2020, his total compensation from this one position was reported to be $1.4 million annually. In addition, he became a director of Nucor Corporation (steel) in 2017 and Tenet Healthcare in 2018.
Although he has been a judge for most of his career, for a number of years Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland was a partner doing corporate litigation at the “white shoe” international law firm of Arnold & Porter. “White shoe” law firms are the most powerful and prestigious, representing the top corporations. His net worth is reported to be at least $7.6 million and could be as high as $25 million. Politically, he is reported to be a centrist, a “moderate liberal.”
Secretary of Energy Granholm has been a director of Marinette Marine Corporation, Dow Chemical, Universal Forest Products, and Talmer Bancorp.
Biden team member Raimondo was a venture capitalist prior to her election to public office in Rhode Island. She founded the state’s first venture capitalist firm, Point Judith Capital, backed by private equity firm Bain Capital. Her husband works for McKinsey.
Prior to government service, Biden team member Trade Advisor Tai worked at key international legal firms serving major corporations. Tai worked at Baker McKenzie and Miller & Chevalier. The latter legal corporation states on its website that their lawyers have recently represented over 40 percent of all Fortune 500 firms. The Miller & Chevalier firm adds that “a significant number” of its lawyers “have held senior positions in the U.S. government and have written many of the regulations they currently help clients navigate.”13
Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas also worked at two key global law firms. Before joining the Obama-Biden administration, he worked at O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, and in 2017 he returned to private practice at the international firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Washington DC, later heading up their COVID-19 task force. Wilmer Hale was recently ranked second in the nation in the American Lawyer’s A list of the top big law firms.
Environmental Protection Agency head Michael S. Regan worked for the agency for about ten years before joining the Environmental Defense Fund as associate vice president for clean energy, where he worked for eight years. The Environmental Defense Fund is a mainstream, market-based organization receiving large donations from plutocratic interests. To cite but one example, the Walton Foundation, controlled by the Walmart founding family, gave the Fund $71.8 million in 2010 alone, one of the same years that Regan was working there. The focus of the Fund is on forming partnerships with polluting corporations, like Walmart, bargaining with them, suggesting minor changes to reduce the harm these corporations cause. In exchange, these corporations get favorable publicity, a form of greenwashing.
More recently, Regan became head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. Taking a page from the Environmental Defense Fund, in this role he negotiated an important agreement with Duke Energy to clean up coal ash from its polluting plants. But in a possible quid-pro-quo he also approved permits for Duke Energy and Dominion Energy to build the planned approximately six hundred-mile Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline, clashing with environmentalists, Native Americans, and landowners who opposed the project. They organized lawsuits and direct action, and succeeded in stopping the Regan-approved pipeline.
For eight years, Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack was Barack Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture. During the Obama years, Vilsack became known as “Mr. Monsanto” because he approved more new genetically modified organisms than any secretary of agriculture before or since. These included poisonous products like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready.
Since leaving public office in early 2017, and up to early 2021, Vilsack has enjoyed a million-dollar annual salary as the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a lobbying organization representing 120 corporations and farming organizations looking to increase their exports. This is corporate agriculture, not small farmers who rightly feel oppressed and exploited by big agriculture. The big corporate monopolies get bigger as the small farmer gets crowded out and goes out of business. Vilsack has made a career out of serving corporate agriculture. Sustainable family farming and national food security needs to be the priority, not corporate profits and “Big Ag.” These facts make the Vilsack choice one of Biden’s worst. This promises more of the same, not “build back better.” Rural America is Donald Trump’s heartland and needs a new deal from the Democratic Party. These include fairer prices, limits on corporate consolidation, land access to excluded groups, and funds to rebuild rural communities. They will not get any of these from Vilsack.
Chief of Staff Klain was a partner at the corporate law firm O’Melveny and Meyers, a registered lobbyist for Fannie Mae, and executive vice president and general counsel at the venture capital investment firm Revolution LLC.
Immediately prior to becoming counselor to the president and COVID-19 coordinator, Zients was CEO of Cranemere, a private equity firm investing capital for old money families like the Rockefellers, Mellons, and Harrimans. Before that, he worked for Bain and Company, then was CEO and chairman of the Advisory Board Company, and also served on the board of directors of Facebook.
In short, thirteen out of thirty (or 43.3 percent) Biden team members are also closely connected to plutocratic corporations.
Universities: Top U.S. universities, those also ranked the highest and with the largest endowments (funded by the wealthy), train future members of varied elites. One key function is inculcating in students the values and ideology of the ruling class. Standing at the very top of U.S. universities—all private, with massive endowments, and very expensive to attend, as well as ranked among the top ten best in the world—are Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. Oxford University in England is also ranked among the world’s ten best.
Therefore, eighteen (or 60 percent) of the thirty top members of the Biden team received degrees from or worked for one of the world’s top ten universities, those with the biggest endowments. The group is expert and well trained by the most expensive, elite universities.
Representatives of the Working Class
While way too many (twenty-five out of thirty) of Biden’s appointments have close capitalist ruling-class connections and outlook, at least five appear to be professionals who are more representative of the working-class majority. These are secretary of education Miguel Cardona, secretary of housing and urban development Marcia Fudge, labor secretary Marty Walsh, secretary of health and human services Xavier Becerra, and secretary of the interior Deb Haaland.
Cardona, nominated for education secretary, holds a Bachelor of Science from a state university and a PhD from the University of Connecticut. He wrote his dissertation on achievement disparities and has worked to close achievement gaps between students of color and white students. He began his career teaching fourth grade, but was so outstanding that he was promoted to principal in record time, becoming the youngest in the state at 28 years old. He was appointed commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut in 2019. He will hopefully rapidly reverse the destructive antieducation policies imposed on the country by the Trump-appointed reactionary Betsy DeVos.
Ohio Congresswoman Fudge graduated from Ohio State (Bachelor of Science) and Cleveland State (law degree) Universities. An ally of Congressman James Clyburn, Fudge reportedly wanted the secretary of agriculture position so she could work on the issue of food supply for working people and the poor. Clyburn lobbied for this result but was rejected and Vilsack was selected instead. Fudge was given the housing and urban development position apparently as a compromise. She complained, stating that Democratic Party leaders should “stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in” (Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development was Ben Carson, also African American).
Labor Secretary Walsh is a long-time union leader who led the Boston Building Trades organization prior to his election as mayor of Boston. His appointment is strongly supported by AFL-CIO leaders, including secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka.
Health and human services nominee Becerra attended Stanford University for his Bachelor of Arts and law degrees, but otherwise has no clear connections to the dominant plutocracy. He was a member of Congress from the Los Angeles area when he was selected to be attorney general of California, a post he held when he was tapped to become secretary of health and human services.
A final positive nominee on the Biden team is Native American Deb Haaland for secretary of the interior. Haaland’s mother is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people of New Mexico and her father is a Norwegian-American who was career military (Marine Corps). As a member of a military family, Haaland moved often, attending thirteen different public schools as a child. A single mom, she did not enter college until she was 28, earning undergraduate and law degrees from the University of New Mexico. She became active in Democratic Party politics and was elected to Congress in 2018. She will be the first Native American to head the Interior Department, and has been a critic of the fossil fuel industry.
Exclusion and Diversity in Both Republican and Democrat Party Politics
Since the Republican Party has little to offer the multinational U.S. working class (its main reason for being is to serve the plutocracy with tax breaks, deregulation, corporate subsidies, and other benefits), it seizes on and intensifies cultural issues and resentments focused around white exclusionary politics. The problem is that this is often based on oppressing others (the long U.S. history of slavery, segregation, settler colonialism, and imperialism). This approach has the added advantage, from the plutocratic point of view, of using racism to divide and conquer the working class. At least since Richard Nixon, this has been the main way Republicans win and rule the country. The Democratic Party has answered, and is still answering with the opposite, stressing the necessary elevation of supposed representatives of diverse groups.
This review of the connections of the Biden team shows that fully twenty-five members of his team of thirty (or 83.3 percent) have a close connection to the billionaire plutocratic class. Many of the thirty have multiple connections, and those with the most plutocratic connections tend to have the most important and powerful positions, especially economic and foreign policy roles. Yet these team members are being sold to rank-and-file Americans as somehow representing diversity, everyday people—they “look like the country.” We are supposed to believe that, for most of them, a lifetime of personal career building and family wealth accumulation by serving the powers that be suddenly does not matter and they will now represent the people’s interests. The politics as practiced by the Democratic Party is thus very superficial; the reality is that plutocratic ruling-class politics have not changed.
A more radical approach would be for the Democrats (if led from the left by figures like Sanders) to switch from the politics of diversity to class politics. But this is not what Biden and his team are doing. Their emphasis on diversity (often mere tokenism) is superior to the Trump approach (a very low bar), but plays into the hands of the political right by stoking the rage and fear of the Republican base, based on cultural and class estrangement. This base is all too ready to act against its own economic interests due to its exclusionary white political perspectives. To overcome this there needs to be a focus on class politics, encompassing the broad economic and social injustices that working people have in common, as was done during the 1930s, while at the same time prioritizing the needs of front-line populations and communities oppressed on the basis of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other invidious distinctions cultivated by capitalist society. Such a class perspective is the way to win back and unify the masses of working-class people. The COVID-19 relief package is clearly a step in the right direction.
Key Policy Outcomes: Climate and China
In the aftermath of the disastrous Trump years, there are numerous needed foci for the Biden administration, including the climate crisis, growing geopolitical conflict with China, COVID-19, economic recession, the need for democratic renewal, and confronting the ongoing racism and misogyny in U.S. society. I will focus on two key existential threats, the climate crisis and the growing conflict with China.
The Biden Administration and Green New Deal Proposals
Almost fifteen years ago, the Green Party formulated the concept of the Green New Deal, aiming to achieve zero carbon emissions through creating sustainable green energy infrastructure while at the same time providing full employment at living wages, reducing economic inequality, and providing a “just transition.” Green candidates have had the Green New Deal as part of their platform in state and national elections since 2010. Due to the ongoing failure of the mainstream media to cover Green ideas and candidates, the Green New Deal concept only gained national attention when some Democratic Party officials recognized its value and began to advocate for a first-step version in 2018. But the Democrats, true to their neoliberal ideology, generally refused to go beyond advocating for market-based approaches.
The partial exception was Senator Sanders, who endorsed the idea of public ownership of utilities, correctly arguing that the country needed to remove the profit motive from the distribution of essential needs like energy. This approach pinpointed the problem: it is the expand-or-die capitalist system that is primarily responsible for the climate crisis, which, if not confronted, will soon result in a planet uninhabitable for humans and other forms of life. But most other Democrats and virtually all Republicans refuse to cross the borderline between private enterprise and public ownership. They recognize that to do so would mark the end of business as usual, an end to the markets-above-all capitalist system that created the climate crisis in the first place. Continued plutocratic rule would be placed in question.
Proper policy implementation of a robust Green New Deal must reflect the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to overcome the concentrated private power that caused it. Rather than market-based profiteering as a false solution, real answers are to be found in cooperation and collaboration to overcome the crisis and advance the common welfare through governmental institutions. There is a largely unknown U.S. history of public investment and government ownership to advance the public welfare during times of crisis, a history that can help convince people that it can be done again today as well as tomorrow. Just reviewing the history of nationalization in the United States since the First World War one can find numerous instances of government takeover, ownership, and management of enterprises in the national interest. For example, during the First World War, arms manufacturers, telephone, and railroad companies were nationalized by the Woodrow Wilson administration. During the Depression and the Second World War period, energy monopolies, railroads, coal mines, trucking companies, and even some department stores were all nationalized. Steel mills were nationalized during the Korean War. The savings and loan scandal during the 1980s provides yet another example. These governmental actions to put companies and industries under democratic control assured that production and distribution standards were met to serve the public interest. They involved a form of class politics; the interests of the corporate rich to make more profits were superseded by the needs of common welfare. Since the current mode of private ownership is incompatible with the need to prevent ecological collapse and assure the survival of humanity, it is urgently necessary to have a bold, robust Green New Deal, which would involve the nationalization and reconstruction of key parts of the U.S. economy along sustainable lines.
The most recent and fully developed iteration of the Green New Deal is represented by the 2020 Green Party presidential campaign of Howie Hawkins. He proposed a two-part solution to the climate crisis that he estimated would cost $42 trillion over ten years, funded by progressive taxation, reduced military spending, public borrowing, and public money creation. The first part is Hawkins’s Green Economy Reconstruction Program. This would result in a 100 percent clean energy system by 2030, and would involve a reconstruction of all economic sectors of the U.S. economy for sustainability. Implementation would require social ownership of key sectors of the economy in order to democratically plan an inclusive federal public works project for everything from agriculture to manufacturing to housing to transport. The second part is focused on social justice and is called the Economic Bill of Rights, which includes guarantees for full employment at living wages, income above the poverty line, a decent home, comprehensive free health care, good public education, and secure retirement for everyone.14
A smaller Green New Deal, but a still substantial program of public investment costing an estimated $16.3 trillion over ten years, was put forward by Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the 2020 campaign. Sanders’s program involves some social ownership only in the electric power sector of the U.S. economy. Unfortunately, Sanders falsely stated that “greed,” not capitalism, was “at the very heart of the climate crisis.” Sanders did, however, stress that his program would provide millions of green jobs, social justice for those previously left out, cuts in military spending, and sharp reductions in carbon emissions.15
In sharp contrast to Hawkins and Sanders is the Biden program, with only $2 trillion in spending projected so far. Nevertheless, Biden has been attacked by Republicans for his Green New Deal light program, which only proposes to eliminate coal, oil, and natural gas as electric energy sources by 2035. Another promise is to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by 2030. Biden aims for net zero emissions only by 2050 (almost thirty years from now, when an intensified climate crisis may make such promises moot); in contrast, the Hawkins and Sanders programs are focused on major changes by 2030. It is clear that Biden and his team are not taking the climate crisis seriously enough. The Biden plan is obviously not large enough to save our livable planet for humanity and other life forms. Also unclear is whether there will be enough activist and public pressure to force Biden and his team to expand their program to make it conform to the scale of the immense problem now facing humanity and our planet.
The Biden team wants to continue with a modified neoliberalism, at a time when this ideology has demonstrably failed. The vast spending to keep the economy afloat and the obvious shortcomings of a public health care system based on private ownership and private profit illustrate this in the starkest terms. The scale of infections and deaths from COVID-19 in the United States is a form of social murder by the private profit “health care” system. Countries with a more collectivist governmental approach to public health (for example China, Taiwan, Cuba, Vietnam, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand), and not encumbered by the myths of “freedom,” have done a much better job of keeping the virus under control and saving lives than the United States. A new public health approach in the United States would prize equality, social justice, and health care for all over private profit for the few.
The Biden Team, the CFR, and China
Since 1939, the CFR and its members have been very influential in setting the grand imperial strategy for the United States, and so bear significant responsibility for U.S. involvement in every one of its major wars during this era: the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.16 During the past few years, the Council has been active in setting what amounts to an alarming new U.S. grand strategy toward China, its chief competitor in today’s globalized world. It is clear that the U.S.-China relationship now looms over almost every other issue.
The analysis offered so far illustrates that the CFR will play an especially important role in the Biden administration. The list of CFR members in leading roles demonstrates the exceptional influence and unappreciated central role of this one organization (see box on page 3). The 2015 CFR report on its strategy toward China concluded that “preserving U.S. primacy in the global system ought to remain the central objective of U.S. grand strategy in the 21st century.” Since China, the only world power capable of challenging the U.S. hegemonic role, is now in the process of attempting to achieve primacy in Asia, viewed by U.S. power interests as an initial step toward world domination, the CFR planners concluded that a “fundamental” policy departure was now needed. This consisted of less cooperative, more confrontational U.S. policy to block China, even if it creates, in their words, “dangerous circumstances.” In other words, the CFR apparently believes that it is worth risking a catastrophic war to maintain U.S. hegemony.17
During the six years since the publication of the report, the views expressed by the CFR have been accepted as received wisdom by the wider U.S. ruling class. The pre-2015 era of optimistic engagement with China, aiming at influencing Beijing to change, is now clearly over. To deal successfully with the new situation, where China has rapidly advanced economically, technologically, militarily, and diplomatically, while the United States has become weaker and internally more divided, the CFR has put forward an updated perspective, both in a new report entitled Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China: Twenty-Two Policy Prescriptions and in at least one Foreign Affairs article.18
Robert D. Blackwill, the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the CFR, is the author of the seventy-three-page long Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China report, and is a leading figure in the promotion of what is known as an offensive geoeconomic strategy (a model of hybrid warfare), as propagated in his book War By Other Means, written with Jennifer M. Harris.19 A former government official, ambassador, and author, Blackwill credits Kissinger for assistance in the acknowledgments section of the report, quotes the former secretary of state often in the report, and adds that he is “especially grateful to Dr. Kissinger for his friendship, inspiration, and guidance throughout virtually [his] entire adult life.”20
In his introduction, CFR president Haass states that the U.S.-China relationship is central to the future: “no other bilateral relationship will do more to define the nature of this century.” The “central objective” of U.S. grand strategy in this century remains preserving “a crucial U.S. role in shaping the global system,” so the United States has to balance China’s growing power while working together to address common challenges like climate change.21
Blackwill begins his report with a startling admission, one that he clearly wishes were not true. Due to the “many impressive dimensions of rising Chinese power,” the United States no longer has the option of “broadly based primacy in Asia.” He recognizes that China is not just another big player; it aims to be the greatest power in modern world history. China “has bolstered its national power in ways that deeply threaten U.S. national interests in the long term.” But, at the same time, the United States can and should prevent Chinese primacy in the Indo-Pacific and worldwide. The U.S. response to “successfully address China’s systematic geoeconomic, military, technological and diplomatic challenge will determine the shape of the international order for decades to come.” The problem then becomes how to act regionally and globally in a system where no nation has hegemony. Blackwill then proceeds to outline six domestic and sixteen international policy recommendations. In line with the CFR belief that “foreign policy begins at home,” the six domestic policy suggestions begin with a catchall category of things needed to “address the serious political, economic and societal divisions” in the United States. These include modernizing infrastructure, reforming the immigration system, skillfully managing the economy, reducing entitlement spending, and improving education. Other domestic policy recommendations include protecting the U.S. democratic model, educating the U.S. people about the China challenge, controlling Chinese theft of intellectual property, and building up U.S. technological development with an effort on the scale of the giant Second World War Manhattan Project.22
Blackwill’s international policy recommendations begin with an imperative: China must be the focus, U.S. policymakers should not be diverted by the many other issues and problems of the world. Other imperatives follow. In its struggle with China, the United States potentially has an enormous advantage in its alliance system, which has been undermined by Trump. This has to be patiently rebuilt with close and frequent consultations and compromises as necessary. Additionally, U.S. power projection in Asia must be made much more robust and aggressive. As Blackwill puts it: “The United States should substantially strengthen its military power projection into Asia, shifting resources from the European and Middle Eastern theaters to improve the capability of U.S. military forces to effectively bring its power to bear within the first and second island chains despite any Chinese opposition.”23
Under this heading follow several pages of recommendations on improving military and policy coordination with Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and a number of Southeast Asian nations. Blackwill believes that such power projection will allow the United States to demand such things from China as “strict reciprocity” on trade, limits on state subsidies for industry, and an end to the “stealing” of U.S. technology. It will also help stop cyberattacks, control Chinese efforts to influence U.S. domestic politics, limit Chinese geoeconomic coercion, and foster bilateral diplomacy on “freedom of the seas,” especially the South China Sea. The goal of such diplomacy would be to stop further militarization of China’s artificial islands there. A stronger U.S. military power position is also seen as key to avoiding conflict with China over Taiwan, since it would further necessary “adroit” diplomacy on this issue. This could also make it easier to make deals with Russia’s Vladimir Putin since the United States “should aim for a better relationship with both Russia and China than they have with each other.” In consultation with allies, concessions that should be offered Russia include an end to North Atlantic Treaty Organization enlargement, a lifting of U.S. sanctions, and Russia’s readmission to the G8. In return, Russia would leave eastern Ukraine and end its interference in U.S. domestic politics.24
Almost at the end of Blackwill’s report, he recommends an “urgent and comprehensive bilateral dialogue with China regarding climate change.” Under Trump, he argues, the United States has “foolishly” allowed China to take the lead on green energy financing and some clean technologies, but, cooperating, the two countries could successfully address the problem of climate change. Ending his report, Blackwill again stresses the need for diplomacy backed by all-sided power:
For an intensified high-level bilateral dialogue between Washington and Beijing to be fruitful, the United States should first clearly establish that it is enhancing its military, diplomatic, and economic power projection into Asia, intensifying interaction with allies, partners and friends, and helping build up their economic and military strength. Successful diplomacy depends upon deployable assets, and Washington needs to increase its assets along the lines of the policy prescriptions in this report. Nothing less will convince Beijing—which pursues classic realist policies based on the balance of power—that it has reasons, based on its national interests, to negotiate seriously with the United States.25
At about the same time that Blackwill was writing his report, two other CFR-connected individuals—Council member Campbell, Biden’s “Asia tsar,” in charge of coordinating policy toward China, and Council author Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor—both destined to play key roles on the Biden team, were drafting an article on U.S.-China policy for Foreign Affairs. Their article “Competition Without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist with China” is important for insight into current and future policies.
The Campbell-Sullivan article illustrates that they accept the approach of Blackwill on the basics and focus more on implementation. For example, like Blackwill, they recognize how “formidable” China is and the impossibility of renewing U.S. primacy in Asia, thus the necessity of coexistence. They also accept the inability of the United States to determine long-term developments in China. The importance of military strength is likewise emphasized. Campbell and Sullivan stress that the competition between the United States and China is not a new Cold War as some establishment think tanks tend to characterize it (see the report The Longer Telegram, published by the Atlantic Council on January 28, 2021, which takes a harder line toward China). Rather, Campbell-Sullivan believe that this is a situation where both competition and cooperation need to be in play. On the competition side, a key great strength of the United States is its alliance system: “The combined weight of U.S. allies and partners can shape China’s choices across all domains—but only if Washington deepens all those relationships and works to tie them together. Although much of the discussion on U.S.-Chinese competition focuses on the bilateral dimension, the United States will ultimately need to embed its China strategy in a dense network of relationships and institutions in Asia and the rest of the world.”26
This will allow the reciprocity needed to coexist over the middle and long term. In the realm of cooperation, China is seen as a key collaborator on a number of central issues, especially climate change: “Even as China emerges as a more formidable competitor than the Soviet Union, it has also become an essential U.S. partner. Global problems that are difficult enough to solve even when the United States and China work together will be impossible to solve if they fail to do so—climate change foremost among them, given that the United States and China are the two biggest polluters. A host of other transnational challenges—economic crises, nuclear proliferation, global pandemics—also demand some degree of joint effort. This imperative for cooperation has little parallel in the Cold War.”27
The large number of CFR people in leading positions, together with Biden’s 2020 article in Foreign Affairs, offers strong indications about what China and other policies are likely to be followed in the months and years ahead. Biden’s article is in line with the approach of the CFR discussed. In his 2020 article, entitled “Why America Must Lead Again,” the future president argues that the United States must take leadership in the world. Toward China, he takes a hard line: “The United States does need to get tough with China…build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge.” Also characteristic of the Biden team’s approach is this statement by Biden:
The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table.… The world does not organize itself. For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations…until Trump. If we continue his abdication of that responsibility, then one of two things will happen: either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue. Either way, that’s not good for America.28
Conclusion
Together with private think tanks that reflect the needs and wishes of the plutocracy, the U.S. government constantly faces challenges at home and abroad. The Biden administration has brought in many well-trained professionals, “seasoned players” from the CFR, other private think tanks, strategic advisory groups, and corporations, to attempt to handle the perfect storm of problems that accumulated during the disastrous Trump years. Both the existence of a skeptical U.S. population and pressure from the large progressive sector of the Democratic Party has meant that Biden and his team have tried to hide their plutocratic nature with rhetorical flourishes about “diversity” using the Democratic Party version of representation politics as a cover.
A central problem is that the CFR and the plutocratic U.S. ruling class is much more interested in global domination than ecological sustainability. It has a long history of both refusing to recognize the seriousness of the climate crisis and an imperialistic posture toward other nations. Both tendencies are based on the requirements of the capitalist system and are likely to become manifest sooner or later, including a superpower arms race. This is true even though there are some indications that some members of the Biden team recognize that something like a serious Green New Deal is needed and China is now on par with the United States in overall power, and therefore new, more moderate and careful foreign policies are required. Ultimately, our movements need to more intensively organize on a class basis, independent of the Democratic Party, to force onto the Biden agenda both a strong, ecosocialist Green New Deal and a peaceful approach to China and other nations. Since the Biden team is dominated by “inside game” players whose forte is making deals and ignoring and attempting to bargain down movement demands, heavy pressure by the organized and united U.S. multinational working class will be required. Plutocratic politicians and their professional experts want the people to vote them in, then disappear so they can serve their corporate ruling-class masters in peace, forcing the people to become mere spectators. This is what Obama did, rapidly dismantling the movement that elected him. One result was that Trump captured a significant sector of a frustrated population.
Since the Biden team will likely need to be forced to do what is needed, and since they only respond to power, activists have to generate and apply maximum pressure. A tendency toward dismissive postures and contemptuous attitudes toward the working population—the very people responsible for their being in power—can be expected from an administration, already subject to plutocratic interests, both from within and without. Consequently, intense pressure from the democratic majority of working people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, constituting the most diverse sector of the U.S. population, is exactly what is now required if we are to avoid the immense dangers looming before us and the world as a whole.
Notes
  1. Laurence H. Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977); Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics 1976–2019 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019); Laurence H. Shoup, “Council on Foreign Relations and United States Imperialism,” in The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism, 2nd ed., vol. 1 A–F, ed. Immanuel Ness and Zak Cope (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
  2. Council on Foreign Relations, Annual Report 2018 (Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 2018), 48–71.
  3. Council on Foreign Relations, Annual Report 2016 (Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 2016), 52, 58.
  4. Brooking Institution and Carnegie Endowment websites.
  5. Center for American Progress website.
  6. WestExec and Pine Island Partners websites.
  7. Justine Coleman, “Yellen, Blinken Made More Than $1M from Corporate Speeches, Clients: Financial Disclosures,” The Hill, January 1, 2021; Council on Foreign Relations, Annual Report 2018, 72–73.
  8. Council on Foreign Relations, Annual Report 2020 (Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 2020), 10; Albright Stonebridge website.
  9. Macro Advisory Partners website; Markle website; Jonathan Guyer, “How a Biden Adviser Got a Gig with Uber,” American Prospect, July 8, 2020.
  10. Coleman, “Yellen, Blinken Made More Than $1M from Corporate Speeches, Clients.”
  11. Laurence H. Shoup, “Kamala Harris, Another Establishment Candidate,” CounterPunch, September 6, 2019.
  12. Rowe Price website.
  13. Miller & Chevalier website.
  14. Howie Hawkins website.
  15. Lisa Friedman, “Bernie Sanders’s ‘Green New Deal’: A $16 Trillion Climate Plan,” New York Times, August 22, 2019.
  16. Shoup, “Council on Foreign Relations and United States Imperialism”; Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank; Shoup and Minter, Imperial Brain Trust.
  17. Laurence H. Shoup, “’Dangerous Circumstances,’” Monthly Review 67, no. 4 (September 2015):12–22.
  18. Robert D. Blackwill, Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2020); Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, “Competition Without Catastrophe,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 5 (2019): 96–110.
  19. Robert D. Blackwill and Jennifer M. Harris, War By Other Means (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).
  20. Blackwill, Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China, vii.
  21. Blackwill, Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China, v, vi.
  22. Blackwill, Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China, 1–7, 12, 15, 17–21.
  23. Blackwill, Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China, 22–24.
  24. Blackwill, Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China, 25–32, 36.
  25. Blackwill, Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China, 37–39, 41.
  26. Campbell and Sullivan, “Competition Without Catastrophe,” 97–101, 104, 110.
  27. Campbell and Sullivan, “Competition Without Catastrophe,” 100.
  28. Joseph Biden Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 2 (2020): 70–71.
2021, Volume 73, Issue 01 (May 2021)
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Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism
May 2021 (Volume 73, Number 1)
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