Welcome, Madam Ambassador—but please not ‘The Best and the Brightest 2.0’

Daniel Warner |While the Biden administration immediately proclaimed it was back on the multilateral circuit after the Trump years, the lack of a U.N. ambassador—because certain Republican senators held up confirmations—has weakened the American position in International Geneva.

One of the most unreported events of the Biden/Putin summit of June 16, 2021, was the lack of an American Geneva ambassador on the tarmac to greet President Biden when he stepped off Air Force One. Since January 2021, there has been no United States ambassador to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva. But that has now changed, with the Senate confirmation of Bathsheba Crocker on December 18, 2021. Welcome, Mme. Ambassador.

While the Biden administration immediately proclaimed it was back on the multilateral circuit after the Trump years, the lack of a U.N. ambassador—because certain Republican senators held up confirmations—has weakened the American position in International Geneva. The previous ambassador, Andrew Bremberg, was certainly no fan of international cooperation. Nominated by President Trump, Bremberg was best known as a buddy of the firebrand, coatless MAGA representative from Ohio, Jim Jordan. Bremberg had no previous international experience. He was sent to Geneva to push a conservative social agenda, having previously been a special assistant to Trump and director of the Domestic Policy Council. Bremberg’s current position is President and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Ambassador Crocker’s credentials are markedly different from Bremberg’s. She has considerable experience in foreign affairs and the State Department, including serving as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs from 2014 to 2017. She also has experience with philanthropy—at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—and the United Nations—in the UN Peacebuilding Support Office.

Unlike Bremberg, who has a B.A. from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and a law degree from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Crocker boasts an outstanding academic background at the top American universities—Stanford, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Harvard Law School—as well as having taught at major universities in the Washington area—Johns Hopkins, George Washington, American University, and Georgetown. And one might say the job is in her blood: Her father, Chester Crocker, was a highly respected Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
In sum, the differences between Andrew Bremberg and Bathsheba Crocker could not be more radical. But before celebrating these differences and her confirmation, a caveat is needed.

We have seen how even the most qualified can err. One of the most damning books on the Vietnam War was David Halberstam’s 1972 title, The Best and the Brightest. In it, Halberstam traces the decision-making in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leading up to the start of the Vietnam conflict and beyond, to show how top policymakers and academics made the wrong choices. His point, which has become an oft-cited mantra, is that people like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and McGeorge Bundy might have had all the best qualifications, but their judgments were flawed when it came to Vietnam—because they lacked common sense.

Similar to Halberstam’s ‘best and the brightest’, we see people around President Biden’s foreign policy team with, like Crocker, outstanding qualifications. Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Robert Malley have similar backgrounds. Secretary of State Blinken: Father was U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, fluent French speaker after studying in Paris, Harvard undergraduate having co-edited the Harvard Crimson, Columbia Law School. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor: Yale undergraduate, Rhodes Scholar Oxford University, Yale Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Judge Stephen Breyer. Robert Malley, U.S. Special Representative and lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action): same elite Parisian school as Blinken, Yale undergraduate, Rhodes Scholar Oxford University, Harvard Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Judge Byron White.  

So far, the Biden foreign policy team has made no major errors—certainly none on the scale of Vietnam. However, tensions with Russia continue to rise, with over 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, and the relationship with China has had no major breakthroughs, as fighter planes are seen flying over Taiwan. Meanwhile, the Middle East, including the Iran nuclear deal, is bogged down, and the Taliban are patrolling the streets of Kabul. For all the qualifications of the current team and Biden’s years of Senate experience, the new administration has not yet had a major foreign policy success.
Granted, the pandemic, infrastructure bill, and Build Back Better have been time- and energy-consuming. Nevertheless, given their experience, one might have expected better results on the international scene from Biden and his team.  

But beyond the lack of marquee successes, the Biden team has also made elementary diplomatic errors. The uncoordinated, chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as the tone-deaf, undiplomatic trilateral security pact (AUKUS) between Australia, the UK and the U.S. that caught the French unaware are serious diplomatic faux pas. Blinken and Malley may speak perfect French, but their surprise submarine deal showed little common sense and caused the French to recall their ambassador to Washington for the first time in modern history.

How does one measure common sense? It’s not simple to define. And the lack of it among educated elites is not limited to Democrats, of course. Updating Halberstam’s ‘best and brightest’ with those who championed the disastrous Iraq War would see inclusions for Republican neoconservatives Paul Wolfowitz (Ph.D. University of Chicago), Richard Perle (M.A. in political science from Princeton), and Eliot Abrams (Harvard, Harvard Law School). Current overeducated, common-sense-challenged Republicans are led by Senators Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard Law School) and Josh Hawley (Stanford, Yale Law School).  

The Vietnam and Iraq tragedies under the best and the brightest must never be repeated. Here's hoping Ms. Crocker and the Biden foreign policy team have common sense, and that The Best and the Brightest 2.0 remains unwritten.

- Daniel Warner