Remnant snow from an icy blast across Washington DC still sits on the trees and gardens at the US State Department’s headquarters.
The storm that delivered it disrupted everyday life in the capital so severely that it forced Joe Biden to delay a visit to the department’s imposing headquarters that serve as the nerve centre for America’s global diplomatic empire.
When his motorcade eventually swept into the driveway a few days later, the President brought a long, frosty winter at Foggy Bottom to an end.
But as with everything in his first few weeks in office, to comprehend why Biden’s doing things, it pays to consider what came before him. At the State Department, the answer is not much at all.
Donald Trump, diplomacy’s disruptor-in-chief, had a problem with the folks who run America’s foreign policy.
It started early, when he appointed Rex Tillerson as his first Foreign Secretary and it dragged on for four long years.
Biden attempts to bring America out of the cold
Once he announced “America First” — the overarching Trump approach to foreign policy — it seemed to follow that the foreign service was relegated to secondary importance at the White House from 2017 to January this year.
The-then president’s disdain for career public servants can be measured in his words and deeds.
As he railed publicly against a general ‘deep state’ bureaucracy in Washington, replete with “radical unelected bureaucrats”, at the State Department, Trump left dozens of the most senior positions unfilled, either because the White House wasn’t nominating people to fill them, turnover and attrition, or because of a government-wide hiring freeze.
Australia wasn’t immune either.
It went two-and-a-half years without an Ambassador to Canberra until Arthur B Culvahouse was posted in March 2019.
Plunging the department into a silent but civil form of cold war, Trump rarely ventured down the road to the Harry S Truman building.
The first time he did was in May 2018 — 16 months into his presidency — to witness close ally Mike Pompeo swear his oath as Secretary of State.
The upper echelons at State weren’t liking the freeze-out either.
With a reputation for intellectual prestige, and even elitism according to critics, the frustration among its officers was palpable.
At its depths, one deflated official — who wouldn’t be named — quipped disapprovingly to the ABC: “It’s all very well draining the swamp. But why start at the alps?”
From ‘America First’ to ‘America’s Back’
Trump’s “America First” doctrine died when his presidency did.
From the outset, Biden is intent on remaking foreign policy on the principles he’s always lived by in public life.
“America’s Back,” he promised.
That’s why, weather permitting, he put State Department at the top of his list of departmental destinations and to deliver his first major speech on how its 75,000-strong workforce should approach foreign policy.
He called out Russia, announced America would pull back on its participation in the war in Yemen, and vowed to protect the rights of LGBTQ people around the globe.
“I made clear to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions … are over,” he said.
Biden’s belief in alliances and engagement as the cornerstones of US global leadership is unshakeable. But the world he has to work in as president has changed substantially from the one he observed as a senator or even as vice-president only four years ago.
Tony Blinken, himself a 28-year veteran of the US Foreign Service acknowledged as much on his first day back in the Truman building, this time as Secretary.
“I know the State Department that I’m walking into today is not the same one that I left four years ago. A lot has changed,” he told staff.
China has changed more than any.
The US and Australia grapple with a rising China
Australia’s bearing the brunt of Beijing’s economic coercion, and the President’s aware of it.
Not only because it’s obvious, but because Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed it with him in their first chat since Biden moved into the Oval Office.
“They discussed how we can work together to address global and regional challenges, including dealing with China,” is all the official White House ‘read-out’ records of the conversation.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has elaborated a little more on how the administration plans to counter the many forms of Chinese expansion; military, economic and technological.
The strategy Sullivan outlines is to restore a “position of strength” for the US, whether by rejoining institutions like the World Health Organization and Paris Agreement on climate change, or by “revitalising alliances”.
Diplomacy only goes so far, of course, which is why the world’s only military superpower is also reviewing the position of its forces across the globe.
The planned withdrawal of up to 12,000 US troops based in Germany is on hold and the Pentagon has this week sounded wobbly on questions about whether it will stick rigidly with the drawdown in Afghanistan meant to be completed by May.
A specially commissioned Afghanistan Study Group ordered by Congress is urging reconsideration of the timeline embedded in the peace deal with the Taliban.
“A precipitous US withdrawal is likely to exacerbate the conflict, provoking a wider civil war,” the report warns.
Biden’s honeymoon might be short
None of Biden’s thoughts or actions on the world stage will amount to much if he can’t convince most Americans that their interests come first.
It’s early days, but the scoreboard is looking favourable so far.
Polling of just over 1,000 people by Association Press and the NORC Center suggests 61 per cent approve of the President’s performance in his first two weeks.
In a country endlessly described as divided, around one in five Republican voters polled were prepared to acknowledge their approval so far.
The figure may even improve, if COVID-19 infection rates continue to plateau or fall and if the administration gets the bulk of its economic stimulus package passed by Congress in quick order.
But Trump won’t be edged off the stage quite yet.
His second impeachment trial looms next week, and even without access to social media, he still managed to go viral with an extraordinary letter to the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG).
Facing expulsion over his role in the riot at the Capitol on January 6, the former president swiftly resigned his membership of Hollywood’s union.
Who knew that throughout his presidency, Trump maintained a link with his pre-political life as a television producer and one-time star?
“I write to you today regarding the so-called disciplinary committee hearing aimed at revoking my union membership. Who cares!” Mr Trump wrote to SAG president Gabrielle Carteris.
The contrast between Biden the policymaker and Trump the showman has never been more stark, but these are two men who may be forced to share the spotlight.