The complexity of the new footing with China that Mr Sullivan and other reformists envision underlies that uncertainty. While many in Congress, from both parties, hanker after the simplicity of an old-fashioned cold war, they want closer co-operation with China on some issues—including public health and climate change, a priority that unites the Democratic coalition—while checking or pulling away from it in other areas, including supply-chains, technology transfers and trade. Mr Biden is, for example, therefore likely to retain some of his predecessors’ tariffs.
That is also where the Democrat’s long-promised push to rebuild alliances comes in. As an alternative to new trade agreements or joining what remains of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which his team appears to think politically impossible, he is expected to pursue more ad hoc agreements, issue by issue. Whether that will impress America’s allies must also be seen. The EU’s decision to go ahead with its investment agreement with China, after Mr Sullivan hinted it should hold off, points to their scepticism.
Mr Biden’s and his advisers’ other big ambition is to bring foreign policy and economic policy more into alignment. This is a familiar idea; Warren Christopher once vowed to put an “America desk” in the State Department. But the focus on national competitiveness has made it newly relevant. So has growing enthusiasm for industrial policy in both parties, rooted in loose monetary policy, scepticism about globalisation and a desire to address the economic grievances that have contributed to the rise of populism— another new problem Mr Biden must take into account. It is notable that Mr Sullivan, who as Hillary Clinton’s former policy chief carries the scars of Donald Trump’s election, has embraced much of the anti-globalism critique of the Sanders-Warren left.