When former Vice President Joe Biden presented his vision for “rescuing” U.S. foreign policy in Foreign Affairs, his grim performance in the early election contests suggested he would never get the chance to put his ideas into practice. But now that Super Tuesday has propelled his candidacy to frontrunner status, it’s time to take a second look at what Biden is proposing.
Biden offers a proudly restorationist foreign policy. His main pitch is to bring back U.S. global “leadership” after its supposed Trumpian aberration, rather than to deliver what the American people need and increasingly demand: a clean break from decades of policy failure, to which Biden himself has contributed.
Ignoring Obama’s failures
One would expect Biden to defend the overall foreign policy record of the administration in which he served as vice president. Yet one might also expect him to tell voters a few ways in which he intends to do things differently. Biden declines to do so. His essay ignores the debacles of the Obama administration, if he recognizes them as such.
Biden does not reference the chaos in Libya to which the administration contributed by bombing the country and prolonging its civil war, still raging to this day. He says nothing about how the administration armed unaccountable, allegedly moderate Syrian fighters for years, compounding the country’s humanitarian nightmare. He does not acknowledge U.S. complicity in the 2009 military coup in Honduras that destabilized the country and sent thousands fleeing as refugees. To the contrary, Biden boasts of his success in helping to secure “a $750 million aid program to back up commitments from the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to take on the corruption, violence, and endemic poverty driving people to leave their homes there.”
Biden deserves credit for stating flatly that he would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. But he does not acknowledge how such support began — under what he now likes to call the “Obama-Biden” administration. Nor does he grapple with the basic reason for U.S. involvement in a place like Yemen: Washington’s desire to dominate the region by force, including by closely aligning with one set of repressive states in the region and making enemies of the rest.
Biden does more than miss an opportunity to acknowledge the mistakes of the Obama administration and explain how he would do better. He extends his nostalgia even further, and to less defensible terrain. “For 70 years,” he writes, “the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity — until Trump.” Does Biden really believe that President George W. Bush conducted a responsible, constructive, rule-abiding foreign policy?
Forever war, forevermore?
Almost all the contenders in the Democratic primary have pledged to bring America’s endless wars to a close. Biden is no exception: he vows in his Foreign Affairs essay to “end the forever wars.” Yet in the very next sentence, Biden pledges to bring home only “the vast majority” of troops from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East. That is, he signals that he will leave thousands of ground troops in Afghanistan and beyond. Nor does he convey any sense of how he might try to win the nearly two-decades-long war in Afghanistan that he intends to continue. The dying will go on, even in the pursuit of defeat.
In addition to failing to promise the full withdrawal of ground troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, Biden staunchly defends forms of warfare that carry smaller domestic political costs but kill people and create blowback. Few foreign policy experts would reject Biden’s advocacy of “using a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners against a common enemy.” But rather than lay out a vision to reduce the United States’ proliferating counterterrorism operations, Biden makes a blanket endorsement of them. “Those smaller-scale missions are sustainable militarily, economically, and politically, and they advance the national interest,” he writes. The word “drone” does not appear in the essay. One is left with the impression that a Biden administration would bring continued if smaller-scale ground wars and unlimited drone strikes and special operations raids.
On the whole, Biden threatens to repeat the pattern of the Trump administration of promising to end endless wars while waging them all the same.
Status quo in the Middle East
When it comes to the Middle East, Biden extends fewer rhetorical concessions to his left than some centrists would. He says nothing about America’s intimate partnership with Saudi Arabia, even though this is the one area of Mideast policy most ripe for change given support across party lines for reducing arms sales to the kingdom and demanding accountability for Saudi human rights abuses. Biden’s one line on Israel — “We need to sustain our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security ” — shows that he will maintain the status quo of aiding the country’s annexationist march. He makes no mention of Palestine or Palestinians.
On Iran, Biden renders an ambiguous verdict on the assassination of Qassem Soleimani that nearly plunged the United States into a new war. He praises the U.S. strike for removing a “dangerous actor” while expressing concern about an “ever-escalating cycle of violence” in the region.
Importantly, Biden supports the nuclear deal with Iran, the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. Still, his rhetoric arguably seems designed to appeal to hawks more than those who support moving toward a normal diplomatic relationship with Iran. “Tehran must return to strict compliance with the deal,” Biden writes. “If it does so, I would rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”
This formulation allows Biden to claim he cleanly supports the nuclear deal but would also get tougher on Iran by “more effectively” countering its influence. Biden might instead have acknowledged a willingness to make concessions to Iran given that it was the United States that breached the agreement and continues to impose strangling sanctions on a country that was living up to its end of the bargain.
A missed opportunity
A bright spot is Biden’s treatment of China. As my Quincy Institute colleague Rachel Esplin Odell argues, Biden avoids Cold War-style inflation of the China threat, which politicians and pundits from both parties have hyped over the past three years. At the same time, neither does Biden entertain ways to deescalate militarily over issues like disputes in the South China Sea that mean little to U.S. interests and risk antagonizing major powers.
Indeed, Biden does not wish to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy in any structural sense. He expresses no desire to cut the Pentagon’s trillion-dollar-a-year budget, even though surveys have found that the single most popular foreign policy stance among the American public is to spend less money fighting wars in order make more investments at home.
The United States is currently obligated to defend approximately one-third of the world’s countries, and informally dozens more. As long as the United States divides the entire world into protectorates and, implicitly or explicitly, enemies, it will struggle to cut its military spending significantly. That is apparently the way Biden wants it. His stance toward military alliances is nothing short of reverential: NATO, Biden writes, is “sacred.”
For all the investment in war and weapons that Biden proposes, he is disappointingly shallow about the biggest global threat of all: climate change. Biden seems stuck in a Paris-style framework that has struggled to create positive-sum cooperation among nations. If the United States wants to lead, it ought to provide solutions to the rest of the world, whether by offering green technology at low or no cost, investing in the Green Climate Fund, or creating a Green World Trade Organization. By contrast, Biden’s outlook is punitive and short-sighted: make sure other countries don’t undercut America economically, and pressure China to stop promoting fossil fuels abroad. While the United States should pressure China in this regard (and, more importantly, to replace coal-fired plants within China), Biden disregards the greater need for bilateral cooperation in order to develop and utilize clean technology and limit the intensity of a security competition that could thwart the green transition.
\As a candidate for president, Biden has an opportunity to put forward plans that confront the failures of decades of foreign policy made by Democrats and Republicans alike. Hopefully he will do so as the campaign proceeds. So far, however, it looks like he will not only prolong the endless wars but also restore and revive the ideas that generated them in the first place.