Kurt Campbell: The Lobbyist As Diplomat

Last week, President Joe Biden (D-Israel) announced he would be nominating longtime Democratic foreign policy fixture Kurt Campbell to become deputy secretary of state, the number two position in the department.

Restrainers might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief that the acting deputy secretary, Victoria Nuland, didn’t get the nod, as many expected. Her appointment would certainly have been in keeping with the Biden administration’s penchant for putting unapologetic neoconservative hardliners in positions of influence.

Yet Campbell’s nomination is worrying for a couple of reasons, not least because it confirms the administration’s intent to continue to wage a two-front Cold War in Eurasia as laid out in the administration’s National Security Strategy of 2022.

Campbell is widely recognized as (along with former Senator Jim Webb) among the principal authors of the Obama administration’s ‘Asia Pivot,’ once also referred to as ‘the Rebalance.’ It is a policy that aims to strengthen bilateral security cooperation between the US and Asian states resting on China’s periphery. Officially, the Pivot seeks to “build an inclusive, high-standard, and rules-based economic architecture that advances shared prosperity.”

Yet, as Michael Lind has observed, “At some point, the perversity of stationing U.S. military forces in China’s major trading partners to protect them from a largely imaginary threat of Chinese invasion and occupation will be too obvious to be denied.”

And whatever one thinks of the idea of attempting to isolate China with the help of countries that rely on the Chinese economy, the policy has, if nothing else, redounded to the benefit of Mr. Campbell’s career. Indeed, the extent to which Campbell has capitalized on his public service in the furtherance of his business interests reveal him to be a ‘swamp creature’ extraordinaire.

Campbell has long ties to the Asia Group, a consulting group that he founded after leaving the Obama administration in 2013. According to the estimable Project on Government Oversight, The Asia Group, …bears all the hallmarks of a shadow lobbying” outfit, one that provides behind the scenes assistance to its clients to help secure government contracts and to otherwise bridge the gap between government and businesses.

Campbell is also co-founder of (yet another) hawkish Washington think tank, the Center for a New American Security, which he served as chairman of the board until 2021. According to a February 2021 report by the Revolving Door Project, CNAS … has exhibited a pattern of behavior in which serious conflicts of interest have gone unacknowledged and undisclosed. CNAS receives large contributions directly from defense contractors, foreign governments, and the US government; publishes research and press material that frequently supports the interests of its sponsors without proper disclosure.

After a lucrative spell in the private sector, Campbell returned to government in 2021 and immediately came under fire for failing to disclose tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from private equity giant Blackstone. At the time the White House also announced that Campbell, who joined the Biden administration as the NSC point man on Indo-China affairs, would recuse himself on matters that might constitute a conflict of interest due to his work with The Asia Group.

Yet, if there is one upside to Campbell’s forthcoming promotion, it is that he brings a kind of ballast and intellectual heft long missing from one of the more facile national security teams ever assembled by a modern US president.

Yet Campbell’s accession to the position of deputy secretary of state also shows, if nothing else, that in Joe Biden’s Washington, ‘The Blob’ remains undefeated.

James W. Carden is a columnist and former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the U.S. Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, The Los Angeles Times, and American Affairs.