Grading Jake Sullivan

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Feb 26 2021


Sullivan, 44, is the youngest person to serve as the president’s national security adviser since McGeorge Bundy served in the Kennedy administration. He is more hawkish than Biden, but he brings, from his Obama administration days, experience that could prove valuable, especially as the Biden team tries to revive the Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned.

For our grading criteria, click here.

Military restraint (D+)

While serving in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, Sullivan pushed for proxy intervention in Syria and direct intervention in Libya, both of which fueled humanitarian crises and were regionally destabilizing. Subsequently, while serving as national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden, he recommended sending weapons to Ukraine in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. Obama aide Ben Rhodes has said of Sullivan: "On the spectrum of people in our administration, he tended to favor more assertive US engagement on issues" and "responses that would incorporate some military element."

Of particular relevance to the Biden era of US foreign policy, Sullivan favors an assertive  approach to China. He has advocated increasing naval operations in the South China Sea as a way of “demonstrating that the world rejects China’s claims to these waters and forcing Beijing to decide whether to stop us.”

On the plus side, Sullivan had opposed America’s role in the war in Yemen even before the announcement that Biden would end support for Saudi offensive actions there. And he has expressed a desire to bring the war in Afghanistan “to a responsible close.” But the word “responsible” provides a lot of wiggle room. And Sullivan has said that ending “forever wars” like the one in Afghanistan “doesn’t mean abandoning the region or shutting down the counterterrorism mission.” That leaves the door open for ongoing involvement in a lower-profile war on terror that could leave American soldiers (not to mention the citizens of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, and various other countries) in harm’s way. 

Cognitive Empathy (B-)

Sullivan sometimes attributes to other nations more threatening aspirations than can confidently be inferred from their policies. In an essay in the Atlantic, he warned of “China’s long-term strategy to dominate the fastest-growing part of the world, to make the global economy adjust to its brand of authoritarian capitalism, and above all to put pressure on free and open economic and political models.” In truth, it’s not clear that China objects to free market economies or liberal democracies so long as it can structure relations with them in ways it finds commercially and strategically profitable. (Also unclear is how its aim to “dominate” its neighborhood differs from America’s longstanding insistence on dominating its own neighborhood.) Similarly, Sullivan’s assertion that Russia is pursuing a “strategy to spread neofascist ideology” overstates Vladimir Putin’s discernible goals. 

Sullivan’s assessment of the perspectives and aims of leaders in other countries—most notably Iran—seems more acute. He helped negotiate the Iran deal and later dismissed Mike Pompeo’s demands of Iran’s leaders—which included ending support for proxies in Lebanon and Syria and getting rid of their ballistic missile program—as “simply unrealistic and unreasonable.” And Sullivan is more willing than some in the foreign policy establishment to acknowledge Iran’s natural role as a significant regional player. “Ultimately, a solution to the Middle East is going to have to involve some grappling with the existence of Iranian power and influence in some parts of the region,” he said last year.

Respect for international law (C)

Sullivan is a proponent of multilateralism and had harsh words for Trump’s withdrawals from treaties and other agreements. But he tends, like many in the foreign policy establishment, to be more sensitive to foreign violations of international law than to American violations. 

On the one hand, he emphasizes the importance of getting China to comply with international law, especially on issues related to trade and human rights—a laudable goal. But he has supported interventions that violate the sovereignty of nations, such as the provision of weapons to Syrian rebels and the stationing of US forces in Syria—both highly dubious under international law. 

Sullivan’s interventionist inclination may grow out of his unabashed American exceptionalism—and, like other exceptionalists, he may not realize how often the zealous promotion of American values leads to their violation. He was involved, for example, in the Obama administration’s attempt to orchestrate a transition of power in Ukraine that culminated in the coerced ouster of its democratically elected president. 

Support for international governance (B)

Sullivan has a strong record of pursuing multilateral efforts to address non-zero-sum challenges. He was an architect of the Iran nuclear deal and loudly called for the Trump administration to return to that framework. He also argues for prioritizing climate change and using trade deals to target tax havens.

And Sullivan gets credit for recognizing the need to establish international norms to govern the use of nascent technologies that could prove problematic if allowed to evolve in a context of unrestrained international competition. “From artificial intelligence to biotechnology, autonomous weapons to gene-edited humans, there will be a crucial struggle in the years ahead to define appropriate conduct and then pressure laggards to get in line,” he wrote in 2019. “Washington should start shaping the parameters of these debates without further delay.” It would be nice to hear him add that in some cases norms won’t be enough, and binding treaties will be in order.

Sullivan recently proposed an interesting (if nebulous) strategy for addressing some problems facing the Middle East. In Foreign Affairs, he and Middle East specialist Daniel Benaim made the case for a “structured regional dialogue” aimed at getting Saudi Arabia and Iran to the negotiating table with a very limited American role in the ensuing talks. The hope is that this would allow for an informal version of regional diplomatic forums like the Organization of American States or the African Union. (A formal version would bring up the dicey question of whether to include Israel.) 

But one major issue prevents Sullivan from getting an A in this category: his hawkish stance toward China and Russia. This could complicate the task of enlisting their cooperation in dealing with various international problems that affect America’s national security—many of which, such as climate change, Sullivan recognizes as important.

Universal engagement (C+)

Let’s start with the positive: Sullivan has consistently pushed for diplomatic ties with some traditional adversaries like Iran and Cuba. As Biden’s national security adviser, he may well pursue policies that ease sanctions on these countries and ease tensions with them. 

But he falls short in other areas. 

He has endorsed “doubling down on sanctions” against Venezuela with a “focus on breaking off China, Cuba and Russia from Venezuela through whatever means we have available to us because those, effectively, are the lifelines.” The brutality of the US sanctions regime against Venezuela, coupled with the country’s weak governance, has already helped create one of the worst refugee crises that Latin America has ever seen. Sullivan seems to favor regime change, and this approach could well turn Venezuela into a full-fledged failed state, whether or not President Nicolas Maduro is still around to stand atop the ruins.

Also concerning is Sullivan’s tendency to favor like-minded countries when orchestrating international cooperation, an approach that can not only exclude countries whose cooperation is needed but create tensions with them. Like others in the Biden administration, he favors a “global summit of democracies.” And he wants to join with like-minded countries—some of which felt spurned by Trump—to counter Chinese influence and address international problems (though he does acknowledge that we need to be able to work with China on climate change and nuclear weapons). Multilateral efforts aimed at preventing China from, for example, pressuring international institutions into pushing undemocratic norms are, of course, laudable. At the same time, focusing unduly on strengthening relations with nations we have natural affinities with could lead to an ideologically fragmented world, complicating the challenge of addressing climate change and other international problems.

To be clear, Sullivan has explicitly said that he does not want a new cold war. But some of his policy preferences could lead in that direction. He has called for a limited decoupling of the American and Chinese economies through “enhanced restrictions on the flow of technology investment and trade in both directions” when such restrictions serve national security or human rights. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of thinking. But:

Many analysts argue that the interconnectedness of the US and China make a new cold war unlikely; the post-World War II Soviet Union had few economic links to America, which made it easy for tensions between the two powers to grow. Though there’s logic behind, for example, a long-term plan to reduce reliance on China for certain vital inputs (rare earth minerals, say, or some pharmaceuticals), the pacifying power of economic interdependence should always be kept in mind.


In his time out of government, Sullivan worked for a strategic consultancy firm called Macro Advisory Partners, whose clients “include mining companies in developing countries, sovereign wealth funds, and the rideshare company Uber,” according to the American Prospect. This isn’t the worst variety of revolving-door behavior—Sullivan didn’t consult for Raytheon or other arms makers—but it does raise ethical questions. Before he severed ties with the firm upon joining the Biden campaign, his biography on the company’s website touted his “unparalleled insights on tech policy, US domestic and national security policy and on new economy issues” before listing his various high-level government roles. A prospective client could have been excused for hoping that Sullivan might use the connections and insider knowledge gained during his government service to help their bottom line.

Overall grade: C

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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