The gay former ambassador to Denmark and likely head of protocol for the State Department discusses the challenges ahead.
“…so, help me, God.”
At 11:48 a.m. on January 20, 2021, with those words above, America and the world, breathed a collective sigh of relief. The grandeur of the inauguration of President Joseph Biden, Jr. on a glorious sun-soaked day (following a few flurries) on the west portico of the United States Capitol was desperately needed. The sight of smiling former presidents, vice presidents, first ladies, members of Congress from both parties, Supreme Court justices, and other dignitaries mingling and celebrating felt like a balm. Biden’s healing, inspiring, hopeful words as he faced the “Field of Flags,” representing all the COVID-19 victims, was a contrast to the denial and doom of recent presidential speeches.
Who could ever have imagined that a battle-worn 78-year-old career politician with an insurmountable personal loss would finally reach the pinnacle of his career and be the president that America, and the world, so desperately needs? This humble leader, a father who lost a wife and a child, then a son, then came close to death himself, has fallen and risen again and again, now rises to the top of global leadership.
In the wake of a jarring insurrection at the same building, where Biden built his four-decade career, the world saw an America that is like its new president. We have fallen and risen again and again. And during the last four years, America has fallen mightily. Biden said during his inaugural address that democracy is “precious and fragile,” and in the face of all we have withstood during the last four years, we remain on this day one nation. Biden pledged to return this one nation, America, “…as a leading force for good in the world.”
Biden has an immense amount of work to do, namely to heal our country both physically and psychologically. There is so much to clean up. Among everything else that Biden must somehow fix and rescue domestically, he is tasked internationally with revitalizing relationships with our allies, reestablishing the United States as a world leader, and at long last, confronting America’s adversaries.
These are daunting undertakings for a man who first walked up those U.S. Capitol steps 48 years ago. Where, so help him, God, does Biden start to find America’s place in the world again?
I reached out to one of Biden’s confidantes, gay ambassador Rufus Gifford, who was America’s top diplomat to Denmark during the Obama administration and most recently served as Biden’s deputy campaign manager. Gifford is also rumored as the president’s choice for the high-profile position as chief of protocol for the State Department.
For someone who worked in the diplomatic corps, and counts friends and acquaintances across the globe and overseas governments, I asked Gifford the obvious question: where does the president start in order to bring America back?
“The work both domestically and globally in the early days for the incoming administration is profound,” Gifford said. “Trust in key people in government and our institutions is at an all-time low.”
Gifford pointed out that globally, the American brand has taken a big hit. “Our allies have been treated with disrespect for four years. Multinational institutions like NATO and the United Nations, which have been responsible for peace and prosperity for the last 75 years, have had their legitimacy, relevance, and roles questioned. These last four years have been a dangerous and tumultuous time. And President Biden returning American leadership to the World Health Organization by announcing that Dr. Tony Fauci would be the U.S. representative was a very bold and symbolic move."
Gifford added that Biden and his team must build back trust between U.S. allies and return to calling out dangerous behavior by authoritarian and anti-democratic governments. “The previous administration blurred the lines in many ways, complimenting world leaders like Putin and Kim Jong-un, who are fundamental adversaries of the U.S., and criticizing leaders of our great allies, like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Australia’s Malcom Turnbull.”
In order to begin to heal and repair the damage, the right words and actions are critical. “The U.S. brand starts with what we say and how we act. We have to return to an American foreign policy that disregards political parties, and by doing that reestablish world order and a sense of normalcy where American leadership is vital. During the last four years, the U.S. globally has retreated, engaged less, had less of a presence, and become more nationalistic. All of that is very concerning to allies.”
Gifford explained that Biden’s years of in-depth foreign policy experience is an attribute appreciated and welcomed by our allies. “President Biden understands the global stage perhaps better than any incoming president in our lifetime, and he totally gets the need for a strong America, and how America should act and react to world affairs.”
As an example, Biden was quick to speak out when the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was detained by the country’s government on his return from treatment abroad after a suspected poisoning attempt on his life by Russia’s FSB spy agency.
“Again, it’s taking actions like this, and speaking out and being clear about what is right and what is wrong. As a contrast to Biden’s statement, there was a muted response from the previous administration.”
Similarly, Biden is reversing actions by the previous administrations that were antithetical to American leadership, by returning the U.S. to the Paris Climate Accord and ending the travel ban of people from predominately Muslim nations. Further, according to Gifford, Biden will be re-engaging our allies about the Iran nuclear agreement. “All of these steps signify that we’re back and ready to be part of the conversation.”
Adding to that conversation will be, according to Gifford, an all-star cast of players.
“We now have remarkable pros at the top of our State Department and diplomacy. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, as well as Wendy Sherman, Samatha Power, and Susan Rice among many others are returning to public services, and they have devoted their lives to American foreign policy. Their presence should give Americans, and the world, lots of hope.”
One area where America will return to a leadership position is upholding LGBTQ rights around the world. “We just elected the most pro-LGBTQ president and vice president in the history of our country. They believe in our community with all their hearts. The new administration will take a long hard look at what the detrimental effects of the previous administration and roll back anti-LGBTQ programs and move forward promoting human rights and LGBTQ rights.”
Finally, I wanted Gifford to talk about the person Biden is. “He is exactly the same in person as he is in public; thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic. The president thinks about humanity first. He fundamentally believes in our system of government and wants the United States to be the best it can be. His idea of unity, bringing the country together, is not some pie in the sky notion. It is only unrealistic if you believe it can’t get it done. We now have a president who firmly believes he can get it done and unite this country. And, he also believes in ensuring that America is once again the beacon of democracy around the world.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.