Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Is All About Relationships

December 1970 must have seemed an inauspicious moment to launch a new magazine on international affairs. The fighting in Vietnam ground on, even expanding into Cambodia and Laos, with little to show for U.S. President Richard Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s moves toward detente with the Soviet Union and the opening with China had not yet borne much fruit. Humanitarians had been shocked and disillusioned by the multiyear civil war over Nigeria’s Biafra region, which had resulted in half a million to 2 million civilian deaths by 1970. Amid anxiety over inflation, Washington was just months from suspending the dollar’s full link to the price of gold—a pillar of the Bretton Woods institutions that had sustained U.S. postwar economic primacy.

If it was an odd moment for the creation of Foreign Policy, it was just as strange a time for a young lawyer only just elected to county council in Delaware to begin telling colleagues he wanted to run for the U.S. Senate—to work on foreign policy and oppose the Vietnam War.

But Foreign Policy is very much still with us—and so is Joe Biden. Fifty years after the U.S. president-elect assumed his first elective office on the New Castle County Council, he is at once the most widely traveled, and best known to his fellow world leaders, incumbent in the history of the presidency. (Yes, Thomas Jefferson also traveled a lot but only on one continent.) Unlike many of his predecessors, Biden has been looking to engage more in U.S. foreign policy, rather than less, throughout his life in politics. Yet he is not generally regarded as a hero, or even a central player, in our retelling of the last 50 years of U.S. national security.

Perhaps that is because Biden comes to office at a moment of nostalgia for the great strategists of U.S. foreign policy. The media produces a seemingly endless stream of papers, op-eds, and tweets asking where the next Kissinger, George F. Kennan, or Zbigniew Brzezinski is and why the United States is failing to produce one. But rather than ask which Biden appointee will become the next Klemens von Metternich, we should instead ask whether we are framing the modern history of U.S. foreign policy correctly—and whether Biden’s qualities, which at first seem atypical, actually help with a reset.

Americans tend to view the years after 1970 through the lens of U.S. hegemony—its decline during Vietnam, subsequent restoration, Cold War victory, apotheosis in globalization, and its descent starting on 9/11 into a possibly irreversible decline. This narrative can be told from the perspective of ardent Cold Warriors or their critics on the left or the right, but its telling shares the same core features. The actors are the great strategists, or great villains, and U.S. dramatic choices are always about doctrine and will: Could Washington have prevailed in Vietnam? Is there, or is there not, a “liberal” in the liberal international order? In this telling, Washington is a unitary actor, though sometimes an unsuccessful one, with a single goal—the amassing of power and influence.

But the combination of qualities and choices that Biden brings to the presidency suggests that there’s another story to tell about the foreign policy of the last half-century. It is the story of a society growing, maturing, and reshaping itself, debating its core aims and values barely ahead of, and sometimes behind, the goals it projects onto the world. And not unlike the way Biden tells his own story, it is a tale of repeated reinvention, of major successes, and of catastrophe.

Rather than singular intellects and schools of thought, this narrative is dominated by relationships: the rise and fall of different interest groups and power centers within the United States and leaders’ success or failure in understanding and forging meaningful connections with their counterparts abroad.

It’s about a country, not so different from other countries, that wore uneasily the mantle of world leadership, that learned to live with the twin fears of communist domination and nuclear annihilation but erupted regularly over the contradictions between its founding values and the lives its people led. And it’s about national leaders, in and out of government, who inherited and built up the instruments of world power and the language of security while at home they fought over a fundamental question: What kind of security for whom?

From this vantage point, three themes illuminate the last 50 years in U.S. foreign policy and will tell us much not just about the Biden presidency but about what we should look for from the next 50 years. First, doctrine and ideology are rarely the best tools to analyze presidential policy choices, but relationships are an undervalued tool to understand the appeal and limitations of U.S. strategy. Second, reluctance to use force serves a leader at least as well as eagerness. Last, however many times analysts declare it dead and Donald Trump jumps on its grave, the idea of U.S. foreign policy having higher purposes lingers on. Biden is its enthusiastic champion.

Biden is famous, or infamous, for his personal connections to world leaders. “You can drop him into Kazakhstan or Bahrain, it doesn’t matter—he’s gonna find some Joe Blow that he met 30 years ago who’s now running the place,” Julianne Smith, a Biden advisor, told his biographer Evan Osnos. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell described welcoming foreign leaders to the Senate. “I’d say, ‘Here’s Senator Smith, here’s Senator Jones.’ When I got to Joe, the leader would look out and say, ‘Hi, Joe.’”

Biden’s attention to personal relationships implies a valuing of the softest of soft powers: individual experience. It points to one of the achievements of U.S. foreign policy that experts have the hardest time compassing and measuring: the attractive power of the United States to others around the world. Lists of U.S. achievements seldom note how two generations of Cold War-era and post-Cold War leaders’
worldviews were shaped by programs that brought them to the United States, or Americans to them, and what a triumph that was for U.S. interests.

While relationship-before-task may be dogma in some management consulting circles, it doesn’t count as a foreign-policy strategy. Biden is not noted for either contributions or attachment to one of the major schools of U.S. foreign-policy thought. Indeed, when asked by Osnos to name Biden’s major foreign-policy contribution to his administration, Barack Obama credited his vice president’s ability to focus on concrete U.S. goals, and specific means for achieving them, “rather than get caught up in broader ideological debates that all too often end up leading to overreach or a lack of precision in our mission.”

As Obama’s quote suggests, this is a trait that Biden shares with many of his predecessors in the Oval Office, often to the despair of policy analysts looking for ideological consistency. Jimmy Carter sought to center U.S. policy on human rights—and then ignored violations by allies and toned down criticism of the Soviets. While Carter vigorously pursued arms control and espoused detente, what came to be known as the Reagan military buildup began on his watch. Ronald Reagan, in turn, delighted the most aggressive Cold Warriors with his rhetoric and his willingness to turn up the volume in U.S.-Soviet proxy conflicts, only to extend friendly recognition to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform efforts and enthusiastically join him in attempting to put the superpowers on the path to nuclear abolition. George W. Bush famously campaigned on the soft realism implied by his then-advisor Condoleezza Rice’s statements that the United States should not be “the world’s 911” and that “we don’t need the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

Biden has been skeptical or outright opposed to many, though not all, U.S. military interventions. He first ran for higher office, and defeated a popular incumbent, with support from anti-Vietnam student organizers in 1972. He voted against the first Gulf War, as did most Senate Democrats, but was a strong supporter of the interventions in the Balkans in the early 1990s, telling reporters that after the failure of international peacekeeping operations, Washington owed a moral debt to besieged civilians in Bosnia. He voted for the Iraq War, though only after teaming up with Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar to propose an alternative that would have made any U.S. use of force contingent on U.N. approval and limited the war’s focus to weapons of mass destruction. And within Obama’s cabinet, he was a frequent, but loyal, voice of skepticism. These views—for which he has routinely been mocked by the foreign affairs establishment and journalists—place him pretty much in the center, not of foreign affairs thinkers but of U.S. public opinion.

Biden sits in a sometimes lonely center on another issue as well: Today’s great-power realists and America Firsters share a skepticism about whether Washington’s actions should be motivated by a desire to help others; among parts of the left, that translates into an intense belief that Washington in fact is unable to be a force for good.

Joe Biden at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2016, with China’s Xi Jinping in Washington in 2012, and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013.

Joe Biden at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2016, with China’s Xi Jinping in Washington in 2012, and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; Steffen Kugler/Bundesregierung via Getty Images

This climate is perhaps not so different from 1970, when the idea that democracy could expand to become the norm around the globe seemed laughable. Coups were a fact of life in Europe as well as the global south, among U.S. allies as well as foes. Doomsayers, with what now seem clearly racist overtones, looked at world population growth and proclaimed that the planet was headed to ever greater poverty. The realism and pragmatism that would soon bring Kissinger and Nixon success in China also dictated that Washington should back away from schemes aimed at bettering the lives of others.

Then, and in the decades that followed, the idea that the United States should champion democracy’s promise around the world—and that to do so, it needed to make good on democracy’s promise to all its citizens at home—was vigorously contested.

In 2021, the voices vying to shape U.S. foreign policy include both the straightforward self-dealing that characterizes Trump’s approach and the Kissinger renaissance, which offers a more sophisticated self-interest in which ideals surrounding human rights and solidarity must be sacrificed in order to sustain the core of the U.S. democratic experiment.

Biden believes otherwise. But he combines the moral focus of a liberal internationalist with a realist’s skepticism of grand interventionist schemes—and a rhetoric about the needs of Americans at home that gets often reflexively classified as isolationist.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden repeatedly sounded two themes that struck many pundits as contradictory. He pledged to pivot toward a greater focus on economic self-
sufficiency, with renewed attention on domestic manufacturing and government procurement, supply chain security, and trade. At the same time—often in the same speeches—he committed over and over to reengage with the world and to partner with allies and others to write new global rules for trade, health, and technology.

Pundits, having difficulty reconciling these two constructs, tended to assume that Biden was being insincere about one or the other. In fact, the idea that both are essential, and even related, has a strong history in U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, a bloc of organized labor and human rights activists together enabled both Democratic and Republican coalitions—supporting detente, arms control, and humanitarian assistance as well as alliances and military might.

Biden’s career has been one of consistent investment in the idea that democracy and prosperity should be shared but also one of seeing the United States as a country like any other, whose internal prosperity and social cohesion ought to be paramount. This set him apart from the foreign-policy establishment as it moved further and further toward seeing itself as a force apart from the petty realities of allotting economic gains and considering social welfare at home—even as those questions became more visibly linked to a globalized world. But they may be habits of thought that prepare him well to kick off the next 50 years.

In this, he will be like most of the presidents who came before him. George W. Bush’s decision to take the global fight against HIV seriously, partner with other countries to provide treatment, and reform the U.S. foreign assistance architecture represents one of his foreign-policy initiatives that has survived time and partisan polarization. And it was Bill Clinton, not Bush, who first defied the U.N. Security Council to use force, in Kosovo. Reagan managed to occupy both positions over his eight years in office. He first presided over an enormous military buildup and then signed a treaty with the Soviet Union that eliminated an entire category of nuclear weapons (until Russia violated it and Trump abrogated it last year). The other nuclear negotiations he began produced another treaty, signed by his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush, that eliminated 80 percent of the nuclear weapons in existence at the time.

The best way to predict what the next four years will bring in U.S. foreign policy is to understand that not only will Biden not feel bound by foreign-policy schools and theories but that the schools themselves will have to be reinvented.

Foreign-policy commentators might already have learned this lesson from endless debates over whether Trump’s calls to end U.S. involvement in conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria make him a dove. While troop levels abroad have fallen, the use of drone strikes—and estimates of civilian deaths—more than doubled under Trump.

Biden may be a skeptic, but he is no pacifist. He will use force more selectively. Some of his most famous skepticism has come in response to uses of force that were heavily laden with symbolism—exactly the opposite of Trump’s fondness for the occasional well-publicized cruise missile. Biden will likely return to Obama-era standards of transparency, making it easier to document and critique his decisions. The hawk-dove dichotomy doesn’t begin to explain the difference.

Similarly, the field is quick to label any international economic policies that make use of tariffs, or step away from multilateral regimes aimed at liberalizing investment, as Trump-like isolationism. Biden has said repeatedly, however, that he wants to partner with allies to build a higher-standards global economy with rules that support aggressive action on climate change, labor rights, and middle-class jobs. It so happens that those international aspirations run counter to the existing global economic architecture. The isolationist-
internationalist dichotomy is thus not much of a guide.

As Biden’s career foreshadows, and as he forecast with an extensive and carefully choreographed set of early calls with world leaders, he and his team will lean heavily on personal relationships to make their way in international affairs. This emphasis will likely lead, as well, to a major effort to reboot programs and policies that seek to attract foreigners to U.S. institutions, culture, and values. This agenda has traditional forms, such as the Peace Corps and programs that identify future leaders for study in U.S. universities, that Biden will seek to reinvigorate. But it also has newer manifestations—such as pursuing racial justice, democracy reforms, and equal rights across gender and sexual identity.

Many traditional foreign-policy measures don’t account for the value of this attractive quality, but U.S. competitors do. As Samantha Power, a former U.N. ambassador during the Obama administration, has noted in proposing international students as an area of focus for the Biden administration, Beijing has done the math. In an article for Foreign Affairs, she quotes the Chinese government advisor Wang Huiyao: “There are more than 300 world leaders, including presidents, prime ministers, and ministers around the globe, who graduated from U.S. universities but only a few foreign leaders who graduated from Chinese universities. So we still need to exercise effort to boost academic exchange and educate more political elites from other countries.”

Perhaps no U.S. president since George H.W. Bush has entered office with as extensive a knowledge of world leaders, or as much comfort engaging with them, as Biden will. Bush leveraged that knowledge and a certain ideological flexibility to achieve a string of successes that all his successors should envy: building the alliance that successfully prosecuted and limited the first Gulf War, partnering with Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to a victorious close and with Europeans to reunite Germany. Yet Bush was unable to make his international achievements relevant to Americans’ daily lives and found them even something of a liability in his ultimately failed bid for a second term.

Biden thus has two unenviable tasks: He needs to transcend the foreign-policy paradigms that formed him. But he must also inspire a new set of categories by which Americans can judge him and around which a new coalition can assemble that outlasts the animosity to Trump that elected him. Ideally, it would outlast the presidency of its creator, as each of the coalitions that gave us the Cold War, detente, the Reagan buildup, and globalization did. Biden, who told Delaware Democratic Party officials more than 50 years ago that his interests ran to foreign policy and history and not “local politics,” may be just the man for the job.

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