The conventional wisdom has it that this year’s presidential election is Joe Biden’s to lose. And it’s not only Americans who are watching the polls closely, hoping and praying for one outcome or another. European leaders who have been repeatedly flummoxed by Donald Trump are eager for a return to an America they feel they better understand. Certain Asian allies long for the days when Washington behaved predictably, and didn’t, for example, try to extort billions in exchange for a continued U.S. troop presence. Beijing and Moscow doubtless also have a preference, as do Israel and Iran. But will Biden be the president they’re hoping for?
The former vice president and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has been in Washington for a very long time. He was first elected in 1972. His foreign policy views, many believe, are an open book. And for most with an internationalist bent, it’s a good book. Pro-NATO, pro-U.S. global leadership, pro-human freedom, tough on bad guys. Indeed, for a select few, even his “yes” vote authorizing the Iraq war is a sign of a principled commitment to an expansive view of U.S. national security.
Certainly, Biden had his share of foolish moments, opposing the surge in Iraq that won the war being the most notable. But on balance, the senator was very much in the Scoop Jackson school of pro-Israel, pro-human rights, pro-intervention policy. Of course, that’s Senator Joe Biden. Then there’s Vice President Joe Biden, whose record is decidedly different.
As vice president, perhaps appropriately, Biden fashioned himself less as the eminence gris advising a novice in the White House, more as Obama amanuensis. Biden was reportedly eager for withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, as was his boss. If he disagreed with Obama’s infamous uninterest in Russia (“the ‘80s called, they want their foreign policy back”), he kept it quiet. And on China, while it is true that the Obama administration executed a much-ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia (and away from the Middle East), it was clear even at the time that Asia would not be getting much more than rhetoric from Obama/Biden.
So now that Biden has improbably landed atop a greased slide to the presidency, what would his foreign policy be? In theory, Uncle Joe will be the anti-Trump. In practice, what that will mean appears to be very little. Consider the president’s signature policies: Not only does Biden agree with Trump’s decision to draw down troops in Afghanistan, he promises to “bring American combat troops in Afghanistan home during [his] first term.” On China, where Trump has arguably led the world in a major shift in perceptions and treatment of the Communist regime, Biden says, “The United States should be pushing back on China’s deepening authoritarianism, leading the free world in support of the brave people of Hong Kong as they demand the civil liberties and autonomy promised to them by Beijing. The same is true for the unconscionable detention of over a million Uighurs in western China.” Well, OK. So, the same policy then.
On Russia, Biden promises to talk tough, but doesn’t suggest he’ll impose even more sanctions than the Trump administration, which has tightened the economic noose around Putin and his cronies. Biden does seem committed to salvaging the New START arms control agreement, which Trump is prepared to let expire, but don’t hold your breath for the conclusion of new arms control agreements under a Biden administration (Russia’s not interested). He promises to be nicer to Europe than Trump, a low bar for sure, but doesn’t suggest he’ll recommit troops to Germany, where Trump intends to draw down, countering lamely that he will only “review” Trump’s decision.
He will also recommit to NATO, which in practice means nothing (though it is more appealing that the prospect of a Trump withdrawal in his second term). Indeed, Biden doesn’t even say he’ll pursue a different policy on North Korea – one of Trump’s signal failures—allowing that he, too, would pursue negotiations with Pyongyang. He’ll also keep in place Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In short, it’s not easy to find areas of substantive disagreement between Trump and nominal Biden foreign policy. Sure, Biden insists he will rejoin the Paris Accords and press for ambitious new targets in reducing emissions, though before COVID, few were actually, ahem, meeting Paris’s voluntary emissions targets.
One area that would seem to afford Biden an obvious way to distance himself from Trump is Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as the Iran deal) was arguably the signature achievement of the Obama administration, and Trump withdrew in 2018. But Biden promises to get back in only “if Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations.” There’s a lot of water under that bridge, and the odds of a rapid return to even the limited standards of nuclear compliance in the original Iran deal are far from assured.
At least as far as national security is concerned, a Biden presidency may well on balance represent continuity with the Trump administration – a more pleasant, less mercurial, but fundamentally the same U.S. foreign policy. The only question for most is whether the rest of the Democratic Party will permit Joe Biden to decide America’s place in the world. The mainstream of his party has shifted away from him, the left wing radically so, on everything from Iran and Israel to trade and the military. And that, ultimately, is the question voters must consider: At 78, will Biden be the commander in chief, or will others dictate his administration’s policy? As the nation looks for answers from the candidate sequestered in his basement, at the moment it’s hard to say.
Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.