Wine and Wisdom: Former State Department Appointee Offers Insight into Biden Administration

Cogent Strategies’ Managing Director David Adams served in the U.S. Department of State under former Secretary Hillary Clinton. First appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for House Affairs in 2009, Adams later became Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs. Today, Adams guides Cogent clients on their foreign policy priorities from his virtual office amid the pandemic at Capstone Vineyard in Linden, Virginia. I recently caught up with the political appointee turned winemaker to get his take on the Biden State Department over a glass of Capstone wine.  

Pappas: This is really good! What am I drinking?

Adams: This is our 2016 Fielder’s Choice. It’s a merlot-based blend with some cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. We built it to have a bit more structure and delineation on the palate. There’s the nice ripeness and accessibility you expect from a merlot but also acidity to give it a clean finish. We’re hopeful that it will grow in complexity as the years pass.

Pappas: You know I love wine but growing it and making it is another story. Why did you decide to become a vintner?

Adams: My wife Andrea and I were regular visitors to Napa and Sonoma and would always return wondering how we could do that. At the same time we started visiting Virginia wineries more frequently and saw that folks out here were really upping their game in terms of quality. So we figured we could do that and keep our day jobs.

Pappas: Be honest – what do you like more, your grapes or team Cogent?

Adams: …

Pappas: Okay, okay. I’ll let that one slide but answer this for me: how will the State Department under President-elect Biden be different from previous administrations? 

Adams: I think a Biden administration will restore the role of career foreign and civil service employees.  Sure, there will be political appointees at the top, but those appointees likely will make greater use of the experience and expertise that career employees bring to the table.

Pappas: What will be the Department’s immediate priorities?

Adams: There seems to be a crisis everywhere you look, but President-elect Biden and his team have been clear about restoring traditional alliances and working more with multilateral organizations. That will be the foundation of a Biden foreign policy and they will leverage those alliances and/or organizations as appropriate depending on the circumstance. I have to think that China will occupy a great deal of their time. There are just too many places where that relationship has to be put back on an even keel.

Pappas: What’s a realistic timeline for standing up and staffing this State Department?

Adams: Traditionally the nominee for Secretary of State is among the first few announced as their appointment signals to the international community where the incoming administration is headed. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, I think Health and Human Services could jump to the front of the line, although there is clearly an international component to addressing the pandemic. Beyond that, I think it will take a month or two to get second and third-tier appointees in place; the positions that don’t require Senate confirmation could be filled more quickly.

Pappas: Who do you have money on to be the next Secretary of State?

Adams: Well, there’s an embarrassment of riches from which President-elect Biden can choose. Susan Rice is often mentioned as the frontrunner. Former National Security Adviser, former U.N. Ambassador – clearly she’s near the top of the list. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) has been mentioned frequently, although I wonder if the Biden team might think he has more value to them remaining in the Senate where he can help shepherd the president-elect’s agenda. Tony Blinken needs to be on the short list too. Former State Department and National Security Council deputy and a longtime Biden staffer. I’d add Bill Burns to the list as well. He’s another former State Department deputy and currently is running the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Pappas: So, if you had to pick one…

Adams: If you’re going to make me choose, I’d say Ambassador Rice is the favorite. She was shortlisted for vice president so that suggests to me that the president-elect sees her as someone whose judgment he respects and trusts. While she will likely face tough questions from the Senate, I took note of Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) recent comments suggesting that if President-elect Biden is sworn in on January 20, 2021, he deserves the cabinet he wants.

Pappas: Given how divided Washington is these days and how contrasting Trump and Biden are, do you see anything carrying over from Trump’s State Department?

Adams: I think some things will carry over but the rhetoric on virtually every issue will most certainly be different. On China for example, I don’t think rolling back tariffs is a day-one priority. I think the new team will want to see what they can get from the Chinese in return for lifting tariffs. I also think a Biden administration will look at China differently – sometimes confronting them in the South China Sea, sometimes as a competitor in, for example, setting the rules of the road for the 21st century and occasionally as a collaborator on issues where we share mutual interests. There has also been discussion of rejoining the JCPOA but I don’t see that as an early priority. I think the new administration will first have to figure out how to reign in Iran’s uranium production among other things. 

Pappas: What are you watching for?

Adams: What does a Biden administration do about trade? The campaign was very quiet on the topic for understandable political reasons, but there are issues that will require early attention. The British are keen to conclude a trade deal. There have been on-again, off-again talks with the EU, and there remains the dispute between Airbus and Boeing and moves by European countries to impose a digital tax. In Asia, China has rolled out a new trade regime and there are several American treaty allies participating.  It’s the first time the U.S. has not been at the center of a new multilateral trade regime. How do we respond to that?

Pappas: Speaking of trade, how about I hand you my credit card and you grab me a case of wine?

Adams: DEAL!

David Adams is a managing director at Cogent Strategies. In addition to his time in the State Department under former Secretary Clinton, David also has a distinguished record as staff director for the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia and as professional staff for the Committee on International Relations. Emily Pappas is a managing director at Cogent. She specializes in strategic communications and marketing. Both enjoy wine.