Jake Sullivan is Joe Biden's national security adviser. Jake Sullivan is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was a deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2013 to 2014, as well as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department from 2011 to 2013.
Philippe Reines was sitting in a yurt in Mongolia during a trip with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sure that he’d finally done it: traveled to more countries than anyone else with Clinton as one of her top aides. And then Jake Sullivan strolled in.
“He’d literally just been in Oman for secret peace talks with the Iranians, and he managed to make it to this remote part of Mongolia,” said Reines, still floored by the feat seven years later.
All that work has clearly paid off: Sullivan, now 43, will be the youngest national security adviser in nearly 60 years when President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January — in what those who know him described as an almost-inevitable next step for a man who’s always seemed preternaturally older than his actual age.
Sullivan held top positions at the State Department and in the Obama White House and playing a key role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.
Sullivan grew up with four siblings in a middle-class home in Minneapolis. His father worked on the business side of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and later at the University of Minnesota’s journalism school, and his mother worked as a public school teacher. They were strict and determined that their kids prioritize education, said Sarah Rathke, who first met Sullivan at cross country practice at Southwest High School. All five Sullivan kids attended either Yale, as Jake did for undergrad and law school, or Cornell.
“Looking back at everything he did during those years, it’s clear he’s always had a plan,” Rathke, now a lawyer in Cleveland who still counts Sullivan among her best friends, said in an interview. She recalled Sullivan’s decision to learn two foreign languages — French and Spanish — as a teen and his unusual fascination with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, at the time the largest social reform plan in modern history.
During one of his first nights at Yale, a “spirited” evening debate about German versus American nationalism — which lasted until 7 the next morning — gave Sullivan’s roommates an early taste of what it would be like to live with him. “I challenged Jake once to see who could finish ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ first,” recalled his college roommate Sherlock Grigsby, referring to the book by Hannah Arendt that introduced the phrase “banality of evil.”
“I thought I was pacing myself pretty well and figured Jake was so busy he wouldn’t be able to keep up,” Grigsby said. “Turns out he beat me easily. I didn’t challenge him after that.”
Sullivan graduated from Yale in 1998 with a degree in political science and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, where he graduated in 2000 with a master’s degree in international relations.
Sullivan went back to Minnesota after law school to work at the law firm Faegre & Benson and later as chief counsel for Sen. Amy Klobuchar. It was Klobuchar who introduced him to Clinton, for whom he started working during her first run at the presidency in 2008.
Clinton’s upset loss to Barack Obama could have been a rare career setback, but as usual Sullivan landed on his feet: He went on to become the youngest director of policy planning in State Department history after serving as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff there and stayed on in government after Clinton stepped down as secretary, serving as then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser.
In the White House, Sullivan was known for his insistence on questioning the assumptions behind a given policy — “welcoming 'devil's advocate' discussions, gaming out third- and fourth-order effects, and reframing issues to bring new questions to light,” said Michael Carpenter, a former Biden foreign policy adviser who worked with him.
In 2016, Sullivan left his relative comfort zone of national security and global affairs to work for Clinton as a senior policy adviser to her campaign — an experience that exposed him to the politics of everything from health care to gun control to immigration. He has since homed in on a philosophy that happens to fit seamlessly with Biden’s political message: that the strength of U.S. foreign policy and national security lies primarily in a thriving American middle class, whose prosperity is endangered by the very transnational threats the Trump administration has sought to downplay or ignore.
Reflecting on his time in the Obama White House, Sullivan said he felt more could have been done there, too, to put the average American on the agenda in the Situation Room on a regular basis. And he paused for a long moment when asked how the rise of Trump and Trumpism had affected his worldview, attuning him more, for example, to the populist tide at home that he may have missed while focusing on international nuclear negotiations, peace deals and trade treaties.
“When you spend years in government working on the Iran deal, or working on the Asia-Pacific rebalance, or working on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it’s not that you completely lose sight of what’s happening on the home front — but your focus is more on other things,” Sullivan said. “I do think that the 2016 campaign had an impact on my thinking, but it wasn’t all about Trump. It was about the vigorous debate the Democrats had in the primary. It was about a recognition, as I left national security and entered a domestic political conversation, about how profoundly such a large segment of our country felt their government wasn’t working for them.”
Sullivan caveats that he doesn’t believe such economic anxiety was the sole driver of Trump’s 2016 victory, which he says was also fueled by appeals to identity and isolationism. But the campaign gave him a “crash course,” he said, in the importance of bringing issues of inequality, dislocation and a disconnect between working people and their government to “every table in the White House — including in the Situation Room.”
So what will a Sullivan-led National Security Council look like? It won’t be too big or micromanaging, Sullivan insists — criticisms that dogged the Obama NSC, which stood accused of stepping on the prerogatives of Cabinet agencies, be it by setting troop levels or insisting on signing off on individual drone strikes.
“I see my job as fundamentally about supporting and lifting up the work of the broader national security team in service of the president-elect’s mission and strategy,” he said. “My goal is to have a process that is able to give sufficient direction, but then empower the departments and agencies to be the tip of the spear to carry that out.”
“He is unlikely to be confined to traditional structures,” said former Obama NSC official Salman Ahmed. “He has long argued persuasively that these issues don't fit neatly within the bureaucratic lens.”
The early years of Obama’s NSC were often tense, particularly under retired Gen. Jim Jones, an outsider who often clashed with the coterie of political aides around the president and resigned just before the 2010 midterms.
Among the many challenges Sullivan will confront immediately, knowing colleagues like incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain won’t be one of them. “I’d argue no two people know each other better, have worked more closely, overlapped more or have a better working relationship on Day One than any chief of staff/national security adviser pair before them,” said Reines.
“They all worked together at one level down in the Obama administration,” another former Obama White House official said. “They are all friends — they’re not strangers, not rivals, and at the very least are all known commodities to each other.”
The “major focus” of the Biden NSC’s work, at least initially, will be on beating the coronavirus pandemic and restructuring the NSC to make public health a permanent national security priority, Sullivan said. China will also be put on notice, he added.
“The way you actually make sure this doesn't happen again is by sending a very clear message to China that the United States and the rest of the world will not accept a circumstance in which we do not have an effective public health surveillance system, with an international dimension, in China and across the world going forward,” Sullivan said. A key theme Sullivan repeatedly returns to is the restoration of alliances and partnerships that were neglected or spurned under Trump.
“Unlike the policy of the last few years, we will be able to rally the rest of the world behind us” on key foreign policy and national security issues, such as pressuring Iran to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal so that the U.S. can reenter negotiations, Sullivan said.
He is similarly optimistic about one of his loftiest goals: “to rally our allies to combat corruption and kleptocracy, and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for greater transparency and participation in a rules-based system.”
“It’s a different world now,” said Ambassador Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat who worked with Sullivan in the Obama White House. “But Jake brings experience and personal relationships that are indispensable.”
CLW approval of Biden team
From the Council for a Livable World website, December 20, 2020:
- This time next month will be the last minutes of the Trump administration, and like all those who value diplomacy over conflict and competence over chaos, we at the Council could not be more excited. President-elect Joe Biden has been a champion for nuclear risk reduction his entire career. In fact, the Council endorsed him in his first Senate bid in 1972, becoming his first endorsement from a national organization. The Council also endorsed him for President over the summer — our first ever endorsement at the Presidential level.
- So far, we at the Council are optimistic about the selection of many of Biden’s Cabinet picks whose focuses overlap with ours, including Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, Climate Change Envoy appointee John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, National Security Advisor appointee Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin and Secretary of Energy nominee Jennifer Granholm. We know that not everyone is thrilled about every pick, but we remain confident that the Biden administration will work to reduce nuclear threats, restore morale and purpose at the State Department after four years of damage, and try to rein in out-of-control defense spending.
- Meanwhile, while our team continues to focus primarily on Congressional work, we have met with various members of the Biden transition team to provide our expert analysis and insight on the most critical national security issues we’ll face over the next four years.
"Why Abandoning Paris Is a Disaster for America"
The Obama administration’s brain trust on how Trump’s rejection of the global climate change agreement is a monumental blunder.
BY Daniel Baer, Daniel Benjamin, Hal Brands, Reuben Brigety, Sharon Burke, Derek Chollet, Sheba Crocker, Dan Feldman, Jon Finer, Nina Hachigian, Colin Kahl, Kelly Magsamen, Tom Malinowski, Jeffrey Prescott, Ely Ratner, Vikram Singh, JJulie Smith, Jake Sullivan, Jim Townsend.
June 1, 2017.