The Biden Agenda: Would He Stand Up to Dictators?

There is reason for skepticism.

Good morning and welcome to the latest in our series, “The Biden Agenda.” We've invited some of the smartest thinkers and subject-matter experts we know to contribute to our series on what a Biden presidency might look like. Matthew Kroenig, national security adviser to several presidential campaigns and deputy director of the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council, investigates how Biden would handle relations with geopolitical foes like Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China.

As we look to the November presidential elections, many in the United States and around the world are asking what a Joe Biden presidency would mean for the future of U.S. national security policy. Robert Gates, the widely respected former secretary of defense to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, famously said that Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” 

That is not a ringing endorsement, but it was a backward looking statement. What would a Biden national security policy look like going forward? 

Last month’s Democratic National Convention gave us a sense of how the Biden campaign is thinking about its foreign policy agenda. The constant refrain from speakers was that Biden would be good to America’s friends and hard on its enemies. Indeed, in the only passage of Biden’s acceptance speech that touched on foreign policy, he declared:

I will be a president who will stand with our allies and friends. I will make it clear to our adversaries the days of cozying up to dictators are over. Under President Biden, America will not turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers. Nor will I put up with foreign interference in our most sacred democratic exercise – voting

The line was, of course, meant primarily as a reference to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and a jab at President Trump, who has shown a puzzling refusal to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin in public even as his administration’s policies have been pretty strong against Russia (more on that latter).

The friend-enemy distinction is a helpful one for making sense of U.S. foreign policy. The United States has more than 30 formal treaty allies, including the 29 other members of NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and many other informal security partners. Combined, America’s friends make up nearly two-thirds of global GDP. Together, they have constructed the post-World War II, “rules-based international system” that has contributed to decades of peace, prosperity, and freedom. 

The major challenges to U.S. national security today come primarily from autocratic, revisionist countries and terrorists who are disadvantaged by this system and would prefer to revise it or tear it down. These challengers include: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and international terrorism.

A good starting point for any U.S. national security policy, therefore, is to plan to support U.S. allies in the free world and stand up to revisionist autocrats. Is this how Biden would actually behave in office? 

There is reason for skepticism. Let us consider each of these national security challenges in reverse order. 

With ISIS deprived of its previously held territory in Iraq and Syria, international terrorism is (fortunately) not the front-burner topic it was in the 2016 campaign. But Biden’s record does not inspire confidence that he would be a resolute counterterrorist if this threat re-emerges. He was among the minority in Obama’s cabinet to oppose the raid to take out Osama Bin Laden. And the hasty Obama/Biden troop withdrawal from Iraq and the willingness to stand by as civil war raged in Syria contributed to the vacuum of power that allowed ISIS to emerge and establish a terrorist state in the first place. 

Turning to Iran, the Obama/Biden administration viewed a nuclear deal with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as its crowning foreign policy achievement. Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of the deal, but I was strongly opposed because it granted Iran a de facto right to enrich uranium, a sensitive nuclear technology that Washington routinely denies to all other states, including its closest allies. Why trust the world’s largest state-sponsor of terrorism with this technology but not our democratic allies in Seoul? 

Moreover, America’s security partners in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf States, were opposed to the accord. Nevertheless, the Obama/Biden administration prioritized a deal with autocrats over the concerns of its friends.

The Trump approach to Iran has flipped this script and placed “maximum pressure” on Iran. It has not succeeded in its primary stated objective of forcing Iran to return to the negotiating table and strike a better deal, and it has also alienated our allies in Europe. But withdrawing from the agreement eliminated the double standard in U.S. nonproliferation policy. The “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran has also brought unprecedented financial pain to bear and, with recurring domestic unrest, the clerical regime is more vulnerable now than at any time in its history. 

Trump has also worked to repair relations with traditional partners in the Middle East and the effort has produced remarkable late-stage diplomatic breakthroughs, including historic peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Israel and Bahrain. 

Despite the mixed successes of the Trump approach, however, Biden is eager to return to a Middle East policy that prioritizes rapprochement with Iran. He recently promised the mullahs “a credible path back to diplomacy,” assuring them that if “Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” A new agreement that eliminated Iran’s uranium enrichment capability would be a major breakthrough indeed, but it is almost certain that Biden would settle for weaker terms that mirrored those in the previous, failed agreement.

On North Korea, there is plenty of bipartisan failure to go around. The Obama/Biden approach of “strategic patience” did not work, but neither has the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy. It is likely that a Biden administration would follow the only tenable path forward: a continued mix of sanctions and diplomacy in the slim hope that we can convince Kim Jong-un to eventually give up his nuclear and missile program, even as we prepare our military and alliances to deter and defend against the growing threat.

When Biden and Democrats talk about Trump being unwilling to stand up to dictators, what they really mean is that the Trump administration did not do much to punish Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and that Trump shows a strange deference to Russian president Vladimir Putin. It is a fair point.

But Obama and Biden were not tough on Russia, either. They made striking arms control agreements with Moscow the centerpiece of their Russia policy. They were unwilling to hold Russia accountable when it cheated on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; to provide arms to the Ukrainians to help them defend themselves from Russian invasion; or to strike Putin’s ally Bashar Al Assad in Syria when he gassed his own people. Trump reversed all of these policies. Moreover, he built two new types of low-yield nuclear weapons, specifically to counter Russia’s “escalate-to-de-escalate” nuclear strategy. Looking at the underlying defense policy, and not the headlines, the Trump administration has undoubtedly taken a tougher stand against Putin than Obama/Biden.

How would a Biden administration handle these issues going forward? Biden would likely need to do something to punish Russian election interference given that this has been a rallying cry among Democrats for four years. But Democrats in Congress have tried to kill off Trump’s low-yield nuclear weapons and a Biden administration might grant them this wish, which would certainly please Putin. Moreover, the New START arms control agreement with Russia expires in February 2021, so it is quite possible that Biden’s first major foreign policy act as president could (ironically) be making a deal with the very dictator Democrats have accused Trump of cozying up to.

All of these challenges, however, pale in comparison to China. The rise of Chinese power poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security and economic well-being. Biden was part of the failed bipartisan consensus that ruled U.S. policy toward China since the end of the Cold War. The hope was that by cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and enmeshing it in the global economy, China would grow wealthy, democratize, and become a “responsible stakeholder” in the rules-based system.

The bet did not pan out. 

Instead, Premier Xi has launched China in a new more assertive direction. Xi is cracking down on the rule of law at home, setting himself up to become dictator for life and engaging in ethnic cleaning of China’s Muslim population. He is backtracking on promised economic reforms and preying on the global trading system. And he is building up his military and taking territory from his neighbors in the South China Sea and on his contested border with India. The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy Commission report ominously warned that World War III with China is possible and that the United States might lose. 

The stakes could not be higher.

President Trump deserves credit for standing up to Beijing. It would have been easy to let everyone continue to get rich by doing business in China, but instead he put in place tough tariffs. His national security team, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has made competition with China its overriding national security policy priority. 

Some of Biden’s statements lead one to question whether he gets the severity of the threat. On the campaign trail, he said “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man.” He continued, “they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”

His top advisers, however, see the challenge clearly. Indeed, this is an area of striking bipartisan consensus. They argue that a Biden administration would bring more coherence to China policy, by working more closely with allies. This is possible, especially for the European allies with whom Trump has had a decidedly strained relationship. But the Trump administration has made genuine progress in forming an anti-China coalition on defense matters in Asia, working to bring together the leading democracies in the region, the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, into a new body known as “The Quad.”

So, in sum, what can we expect from a Biden administration’s national security policy? Is it true that “days of cozying up to dictators are over?”

Biden is a decent man and his election would bring some normalcy back to the White House and the national security decision-making process. But the central plank of his foreign policy platform, that he will be resolute in standing up to dictators, does not stand up to scrutiny. 

Previous articles from “The Biden Agenda”:

Matthew Kroenig is a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and the deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a national security adviser on the 2012 Mitt Romney and 2016 Marco Rubio presidential campaigns. His most recent book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China.

Photograph by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.