"The work that we do abroad fundamentally has to connect to making the lives of working people better, safer, fairer" in America, Jake Sullivan tells NPR in an interview.



President Trump ran for office arguing for big changes in U.S. foreign policy. He contended that the United States was wasting money on allies and aid, among other things, and many voters plainly agreed. Now a new administration aims to return to a more traditional foreign policy, but President-elect Biden's choice for national security adviser says the administration must get the politics better.

JAKE SULLIVAN: The work that we do abroad fundamentally has to connect to making the lives of working people better, safer, fairer.

INSKEEP: Jake Sullivan talked with NPR's Scott Detrow about how the Biden administration aims to make foreign policy choices.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Jake Sullivan has been pretty clear in recent years - he thinks the U.S. foreign policy establishment doesn't spend as much time as it needs to thinking about how policies affect the U.S. middle class. After the inauguration, Sullivan will be in a position to change that.

SULLIVAN: What Joe Biden is proposing and what I am reinforcing as the national security adviser is that every element of what we do in our foreign policy and national security ultimately has to be measured by the impact it has on working families, middle-class people, ordinary Americans.

DETROW: Sullivan has been frank about the fact that the Obama administration that he was a part of did not do this enough, particularly when it came to economic policies. He was a top adviser to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state and had a front-row seat for her surprising loss to President Trump in 2016. I asked Sullivan whether that lack of focus on the American middle class opened the door to Trump's nationalism.

SULLIVAN: What produced Donald Trump was a broad amalgam of factors, and so I wouldn't point to any one thing. But I would say this - I believe that the fact that we did not elevate and center middle-class concerns in our foreign policy and national security meant that we were not delivering for the American people as well as we should have, that we can learn from that, and then we can do better as we go forward.

And frankly, I also think that we can have a more decisive and sustained rebuttal to Trumpism by showing that engagement in the world can deliver the kinds of tangible results - by protecting people from pandemics, reducing the worst effects of climate change, increasing the protection against the kinds of abuses we see from China and other economic actors. We can do these things.

DETROW: So how will that focus on the middle class actually work when Sullivan is sitting in the situation room beginning next month? He talked about China, starting with the Trump administration's tariffs and trade war.

SULLIVAN: What were their negotiating priorities? What did they push for? Well, one of the things they pushed for was access for major U.S. financial institutions to do business in China. And the question I would pose is, what does that have to do with jobs and wages here in the United States - making it easier for the likes of J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sachs to be able to carry out financial activities in Beijing or Shanghai?

DETROW: Though on the tariffs, I think the president-elect got a lot of attention when the other week he told The New York Times that they won't be immediately revoked. Is that an acknowledgement that some of President Trump's policies do give you more leverage with China next year?

SULLIVAN: We just have to do it the right way - by investing in our sources of strength. So his objection to Donald Trump was not trying to seek leverage against China; it was doing it in a way that actually hasn't produced results.

And one of the major examples of that is that the United States has gone it alone in its trade fight with China, rather than rallying other like-minded democracies, other market economies that collectively comprise 50% to 60% of the world's economy, where if we got all of them lined up and went to China with a common agenda to say we won't accept these subsidies, this intellectual property theft, this dumping, we would be in a position to get China to either change its behavior or we could collectively impose costs on China for not doing so.

DETROW: But before the Biden administration can begin coordinating with other countries, Sullivan says it needs more coordination with the current administration. Sullivan criticized the Department of Defense for throwing up roadblocks during the presidential transition. The Pentagon has said it's fully cooperating with the incoming administration, but Sullivan says the Biden team's last meeting with the Department of Defense came December 18.

SULLIVAN: In those 11 days, there has not been a meeting granted to the transition team. And, you know, we're looking at - as I said before - a substantial number of very specific, important requests for information that they are not responding to.

DETROW: Sullivan says the delays are hurting their planning on the pandemic and how to respond to a massive government computer hack that's been tied to Russia. And he says it could slow down planning on one other area where he says the Biden administration will want to make policy decisions with America's middle class in mind - drawing down the extended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and other areas of the Middle East.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.