Kurt Campbell
(Image: EPA/Shamshahrin Shamsudin)

He might be one of the most important foreign policy figures in the incoming Biden administration, but you’ve probably never heard of him.

Kurt Campbell, a career diplomat who led Barack Obama’s Asia policy, has been tapped as Joe Biden’s co-ordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council. It’s a job more colloquially described as the president-elect’s “Asia tsar”.

Campbell’s appointment is crucial because it could be a sign of the United States taking a more consistently hawkish approach to China, which could in turn have big consequences for Australian foreign relations.

Who he is

Campbell has the textbook background of a career foreign policy wonk. He’s got a doctorate from Oxford, done his time as a US Navy officer, and had a stint as an associate professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s written six books, all with titles like Hard Power and Difficult Transitions. After leaving the White House, he went on to create a think tank called the Center for a New American Security. His wife Lael Brainard is a Federal Reserve governor who almost became Biden’s treasury secretary. You get the picture. 

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Initially a Russia specialist in the final days of the Cold War, Campbell pivoted to Asia. And years later, as an official in the Obama administration, Campbell would urge the United States to do the same. Campbell is considered one of the driving forces behind Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, a concerted effort to draw foreign policy resources away from the forever wars in the Middle East toward the Asia-Pacific, in part to counter the rise of China.

A decade on, the pivot seems like a bit of a flop. China’s power in the region has only grown. Given that, it’s little wonder Campbell was brought in to help focus the Biden administration’s foreign policy, and send a message that the new president would be taking the region seriously. 

What he believes in

In 2018, Campbell was appointed Kissinger fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, which should say a lot about his approach to international relations. He’s generally thought of as pretty hawkish, in favour of a tough line on China.

Campbell believes American foreign policy has historically gotten China wrong, by operating under the assumption that economic liberalisation would bring democracy to the Middle Kingdom. More recently, he’s argued that “rising to the China challenge” will help the United States arrest its own decline.

“The arrival of an external competitor has often pushed the United States to become its best self; handled judiciously, it can once again,” Campbell wrote.

“During the Cold War, US politicians endeavoured to leave foreign policy differences at ‘at the water’s edge’. In this time of partisan gridlock, domestic consensus may once again begin beyond America’s shores.”

What it means for Australia and the region

Writing in Foreign Policy, Bush-era national security official Michael Green said Campbell’s appointment would “supercharge the incoming administration’s standing in Asia”.

Campbell’s appointment seems to have been met positively in Australia. Former foreign minister Julie Bishop and ex-US ambassador Kim Beazley both spoke highly of him to The Australian. Campbell’s approach to the Asia-Pacific, which involves deepening alliances with regional allies like Australia and Japan, would probably please many in Canberra, given our current tense relationship with China.

Australia’s own increasingly hawkish stance on China can be linked in part back to fears among Canberra’s national security community during the early days of the Trump administration that the United States would abandon the region. While Trump became more assertive on China as his time in the Oval Office progressed, there was still an unsettling volatility and a tendency to leave regional allies feeling left out in the cold.

A recent leak of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy suggests despite the president’s at times incoherent ramblings, the national security apparatus had a relatively cohesive commitment to keeping China in check, and maintaining American hegemony in the region.

Campbell’s appointment reflects a desire for that to continue.