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  • Matthew C. Mai

Old Illusions: Biden's Foreign Policy


AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

For all of Biden’s talk of a “return to normalcy” domestically, foreign policy is not an area where turning back the clock is desirable for the world’s leading power. While the Trump presidency has seen a substantive recalibration of American foreign policy and what expectations for America’s role in the world should be, Joe Biden has yet to be thoroughly questioned on how he would conduct the nation’s foreign affairs. In the age of the imperial presidency, it is a question that increasingly demands more clarity and less ambiguity.


Biden’s advisors understand this but have failed to come up with any sweeping proposals beyond critiquing not what the current president does but how he does it. For example, when Trump green-lighted the raid to kill ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last fall, the Biden campaign argued that the Syria troop pullout unnecessarily complicated the operation and “endangered” the possibility of future intelligence cooperation with local partners. Similar complaints were repeated after the strike that killed the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January.

Nevertheless, despite the minor role foreign policy has played in his campaign so far there are some assumptions, found in the few policies he has already voiced support for along with his record as vice president, that one can use to outline the approach Biden would take as president.


Broadly speaking, Biden has an instinctually liberal outlook on international politics. His long political career was marked with key moments such as supporting the use of an international coalition to enact regime change in Iraq while boosting the Iran deal as a successful diplomatic initiative that “unite[d] the whole world behind our approach”. At the core of liberal thought in international relations is the belief that humanity is on a linear trajectory of moral progress that, unless impeded by illiberal forces, will bring about near-permanent peace and security. In concrete terms, this means he supports the missions of multilateral institutions and collective defense alliances while also leaving space for human rights and democracy promotion abroad. It means valuing multilateralism over unilateralism, olive branch diplomacy over economic sanctions, and mutual concessions over hard-nosed deterrence. The goal is to harmonize the international system in order to establish arrangements that increase magnanimous forms of mutual cooperation among all states and help great powers avoid direct confrontation.


Therefore, it is likely that Biden would eschew close relationships with nationalist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro while emphasizing deeper ties with more conventional figures such as Germany’s Angela Merkel or South Korea’s Moon Jae-In. Biden is unlikely to threaten withdrawal from NATO if member states don’t pay their fair share or slap tariffs on allies if they subsidize domestic firms and block foreign competition. Instead, he might look to institutions like the World Trade Organization to assist in opening up protected markets or call for a new trade pact that synchronizes the rules of the international economy.


In this sense, “American leadership” is when the United States promotes democratic norms by, for instance, making the most of the United Nations diplomatic mechanisms or being the first to sign onto agreements like the Paris Climate accords. Maintaining the alliance system is seen as a welcome burden that if left neglected could leave the United States isolated. It also means that smaller countries led by illiberal leaders run the risk of being alienated from the democratic order unless they change their tune to meet Washington’s preferences. To its beneficiaries, American leadership is often a free lunch while those who pursue their own interests outside of this framework run the risk of being punished for their self-interested behavior. One example could be found during the Obama administration when Turkey’s Recep Erdogan pushed back against U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, most of whom belong to a Kurdish organization known as the PKK which Ankara has long considered a terrorist organization, during the civil war in Syria. For its strenuous objections, the administration decided to remove its PATRIOT missile batteries and leave Turkey without any NATO air defense system.


Unfortunately, Biden’s liberal instincts on the subject of great power competition do not yield the firm resolve that most Americans would prefer these days. To counter China and Russia, Biden wants to work within the limits of the international order and disseminate American power through traditional alliance structures. In a recent Foreign Affairs article laying out his campaign’s foreign policy he writes that


“[T]he most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”


If elected, he said that he would renegotiate the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, this time to include stronger environmental and labor protections, in order to establish a regional trading bloc comparable in size to China’s economy. In stark contrast to President Trump’s unilateral trade war, Biden favors a multilateral and accommodationist strategy in dealing with China. Institutions like the WTO or World Health Organization (WHO) would likely be used to find collective solutions on shared problems like climate change.


While more bellicose in rhetoric, his stance towards Russia is also indicative of a desire to reduce confrontation through reciprocal understanding. Along with affirming his commitment to NATO, Biden has said that he will seek an extension for the New START Treaty which limits the amount of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), nuclear warheads deployed on ICBMs and heavy bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) the U.S. and Russia are allowed to have. He also admonished the Trump administration for withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty; an agreement that allows Europe, Russia, and the United States to fly unarmed observation aircraft over each other’s territory. While the State Department has reported that Moscow has not been in compliance with the treaty since 2005, Biden’s top foreign policy advisor asserted that he “would very much be in favor of staying engaged with Open Skies.” Biden would much rather work from within the international order than outside of it even if it’s mechanisms are broken.


In addressing the challenges posed by rogue states Biden again falls back on his conception of American leadership in order to restore some form of predictability as an antidote to Trump’s less nuanced and more rhetorically inflammatory strategy. While claiming that he is “under no illusions about the Iranian regime”, he has made clear his intention to re-enter the nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama if Tehran were to fall back into compliance with the agreement. The idea would be, as Biden’s top foreign policy advisor Anthony Blinken argues, to bring the Europeans into the fold before implementing a “stronger and longer deal working with our partners”. This despite the fact that Iran never fully accepted the inspections regime and has, for better or worse, torched the foundations of the agreement. Similarly, denuclearizing North Korea would be a collective diplomatic effort undertaken by “our allies and others, including China”. What he would do beyond that to counter Pyongyang’s habitual missile testing is unclear. This is because what ultimately matters for Biden is reducing the instability inherent to America’s relationship with these regimes. Following the right diplomatic process by including third parties is a way to reinforce collective security which, even if it forestalls unilateral progress in the pursuit of the national interest, is more important.


Biden’s views on the war in Afghanistan and the overall focus of his Middle East policy calls for a continued American presence in the region which, after $6.4 trillion spent and thousands of lives lost, is not what the public wants to hear. In the aforementioned Foreign Affairs article, Biden attempts to align himself with Trump’s rhetoric while simultaneously embracing the policies his former boss carried out.


“It is past time to end the forever wars… As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS)... There is a big difference between large-scale, open-ended deployments of tens of thousands of American combat troops, which must end, and using a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners against a common enemy.”


This is essentially a call for maintaining the status quo. A minimalist presence in Iraq or Syria would ward off accusations of a “global retreat” while avoiding any further American involvement in the sectarian rivalries that drive the region’s politics. Recalling the bloodshed that ensued in Iraq after the 2011 troop pullout (which he supported) and the subsequent spillover from the Syrian civil war, Biden does not to be held responsible if another malevolent force fills an empty power vacuum.


On these signature issues, Biden’s foreign policy doctrine can be summed up as an ex post facto attempt to counter the Trump administration’s recalibrations by restoring a vision of the world that accepts the conventional wisdom of the past as a salient way to craft policy in an emerging multipolar world. It is neither revolutionary nor inspiring and it minimizes the role of the national interest in favor of a global order contingent on geopolitical realities that no longer exist. The calls for mutual cooperation as the basis for relations with China and Russia, re-entrance into treaties like the Iran deal or Open Skies, and maintaining various footholds in the Middle East sound uninspiring if not impractical. However, given that his campaign’s pitch is being the vice president to uber-liberal Barack Obama, maybe that’s the point.


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