Joe Biden’s fans like to emphasize his decades of foreign policy experience; he’s served as both the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president. His critics like to point out that, despite that experience, he’s been dead wrong on almost every key national security decision of the past thirty years, from opposing the first Gulf War and supporting the Iraq war, to advising against President Barack Obama’s raid to take out Osama bin Laden.
To be fair, Biden has been right on some issues, notably the need for America to advocate for human rights, strengthen international alliances, and advance arms control, especially with Russia. Still, the essential question now is whether a 78-year old President Biden would be up to transforming the nature of American foreign policy, or would he serve more as a mere placeholder to restore normalcy and pave the way, as he likes to say, for the next generation of leadership. In short, what would be the Biden Doctrine?
While it’s easy to see Biden marking a dramatic departure from the current president, it’s hard to imagine him taking a radically different approach from past Democratic presidents Obama and Clinton. And though there are plenty of calls for “new ideas,” especially from the more progressive wing of party, it’s very hard to find any.
Fifty liberal and progressive organizations, for example, have sent a letter to Biden calling for reducing military spending, opposing foreign intervention, and curtailing support for Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and other governments that violate human rights. Elizabeth Warren has called for an end to the “forever wars” and for strengthening the State Department. But in terms of a new foreign policy framework, these are discrete proposals which, while worthy, display little in the way of vision and originality.
It’s unclear whether the scarcity of visionary thinking is due to what University of Washington professor of foreign policy Daniel Bessner described to me as an “institutional and intellectual inertia” or to Trump sucking the oxygen out of foreign policy thinking with his hysterics and histrionics. “The left needs a foreign-policy vision of its own, and comprehensive plans for making that vision a reality,” Bessner said.
Clearly, it will take at least four years to even begin to repair the damage Donald Trump has wrought on America’s national security and global standing. On the pandemic alone, he has abandoned U.S. leadership roles in the G-7 and G-20 groups of leading industrialized nations; kept the country out of a global vaccine summit; and has ordered an end to U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, even as we’ve surpassed the 100,000 threshold of Americans who have fallen to COVID-19.
What’s more, his needless dissing of friends and allies, waging a dangerous trade war with China, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, and making the United States vulnerable to Russian meddling are just a few of the actions he has taken to endanger our security. Reversing the damage will need to be done before any new grand strategies can be launched.
At the same time, new leadership will require a new vision for how to navigate a rapidly changing world. Twenty years into this century, we’re still running on the intellectual fumes from the previous one and lack a real vision for a multipolar, post-pandemic future.
Biden’s articulated foreign policy platform checks all the right boxes: a vaguely defined internationalist agenda that would entail strengthening alliances, restoring the Unites States’s moral leadership, and rebuilding the State Department. What’s missing is a comprehensive plan for redefining America’s place in the world.
A smart and effective approach to managing American foreign policy will be necessary, just as it was for Harry Truman, who drew on diplomat George Kennan’s containment concept to build a new post-WWII foreign policy strategy and architecture with the National Security Act of 1947.
Truman relied on Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George Marshall for big ideas; Richard Nixon had Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Jimmy Carter had National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; Ronald Reagan had Heritage Foundation scholars.
Who has Biden’s ear? Mostly, a loose group of former Obama and Clinton officials, some congressional staffers and prominent academics. The average age of his top advisers is 62, according to POLITICO’s Ryan Lizza. How much fresh, innovative thinking can one expect from a commander in chief who is pushing 80 and who relies on advice from a cohort that qualifies for social security benefits?
A budding group of millennial thinkers chafe at what they see as a glass ceiling keeping them and their ideas from entering the corridors of power. “There are structural impediments in the Democratic Party that are hindering young leaders,” Bessner told me. He expects that, once the Boomer generation passes from the scene, there will be quick shifts in the political discourse, focusing on putting interventionism in the past, and stepping up multilateralism and power-sharing as key elements in America’s national security doctrine.
“The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to finally move past the post-WWII era,” said Bessner, himself a millennial. Biden, on the other hand, strikes him as “very much a creature of the Cold War, a world of great power conflict,” an anachronism.
A Boomer academic agrees. Stuart Brown, a specialist in American foreign policy at Syracuse University, told me he sees Biden as “a transitory figure who has never had a good instinct on foreign policy and has never been a visionary.” The problem, Brown stressed, is that “we cannot resurrect Obama on foreign policy.” In other words, Biden will need to develop a new model of American national security.
The former Delaware senator has already signaled he would only serve one term. Assuming, then, that he would be a single-term president, who would essentially right the ship, he could prepare a younger generation of leaders for how to meet the challenges of a new era while also coming to grips with the constraints of American leadership—as Obama painfully learned himself.
That may not shake the left’s foreign policy thinking up right away, but it could ultimately lead to a new dawn. The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright believes Biden’s foreign policy “certainly will not be revolutionary, but if the 2021 Democrats have their way, it may bring about a quiet reformation.”
Perhaps. There will be growing pressure from younger, progressive leaders in Congress, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, who will want more than a return to a pre-Trump status quo. They will want serious, substantial change. It’s time for Biden to articulate what that would really mean. If he’s up to it.