Joe Biden might be elected president next week. What would that mean for U.S. foreign policy? President Donald Trump’s failings are many and obvious. Unfortunately, Biden’s assumptions and plans, though different, are equally flawed.
Almost certainly there would be more pervasive intervention, ceaseless meddling, self-serving demands, economic sanctions, deadly drones, intermittent bombing, continuing occupation, and endless war. More lives and wealth wasted. More foreign societies ruined. More world problems created and seeds of future crises planted. Rather like the last two decades.
Biden has been in politics nearly a half century. Never has he evidenced a single thought that deviated much from the conventional wisdom on foreign (or domestic) policy. When he dissented from majority sentiments, it always was within hailing distance of the rest of what Ben Rhodes inelegantly termed "the Blob," or foreign policy establishment.
At most Biden wants a bit less military involvement, never no entanglement. In a Biden administration Americans would remain ever at risk of being sent off to fight and die for no good reason. As for lesser "engagement," he desires better and more intensive social engineering rather than practical, voluntary, and measured cooperation.
Indeed, the poverty of Biden’s thinking is illustrated by the title of his March Foreign Affairs article, "Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing US Foreign Policy After Trump." Is there an establishment politician in the US who does not believe Washington should "lead" the rest of the world? Is there a recent presidential nominee who has not insisted that America so "lead"? Does even Donald Trump argue against "leading" other nations? For 75 years US policymakers have insisted on leading everywhere all the time, infantilizing even friends and allies, discouraging them from acting as serious nations should.
Of course, Biden sums up his case against Trump with the claim that the latter "has abdicated American leadership in mobilizing collective action to meet new threats." Unfortunately, considering the sort of "leadership" exhibited by Trump’s predecessors, an abdication in leadership is precisely what the American people need.
The Democratic nominee offered a long list of scary detailed missions facing the next president: "to address the world as it is in January 2021, and picking up the pieces will be an enormous task. He or she will have to salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilize our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges. There will be no time to lose." Biden promised that "As president, I will take immediate steps to renew US democracy and alliances, protect the United States economic future, and once more have America lead the world."
As for the critical question of means, how is he going to achieve the constantly advanced but never defined objective of "leading"? Ironically, his first priority makes sense precisely because it has nothing to do with leading the world. Rather, it is to "repair and reinvigorate our own democracy."
Of course, Biden says he wants to address such issues as a means of proving "to the world that the United States is prepared to lead again." However, domestic reform should be his highest priority – for the American people, not to help lead the world, whatever that means in practice. Indeed, it would be easier to fix America’s domestic problems if the next president focused on that objective, not "leading the world."
No one can doubt the desperate need to address an educational enterprise that fails to teach so many of the young, a health care industry in which so many policies and incentives run against patient choice and cost-effective treatment, and a criminal justice system that creates too many crimes, punishes too many offenses severely, and treats too many people unfairly. Rejuvenation also requires welcoming immigrants and trade. But how to fix such problems?
Not by launching massive new spending programs by a government already functionally bankrupt. Yet the Democratic nominee wants to package a big spending domestic program as "a foreign policy for the middle class." For instance, he says he would spend lavishly to invest in infrastructure, create "affordable health care" (I thought Barack Obama did that!), fund innovation, and "lead the clean economy revolution."
There is a fine line between investment and boondoggle, alas, and the federal fiscal cupboard is bare – the national debt is more than 100 percent of GDP, the ultimate COVID "deficit" due to higher spending and lower revenues will be as much as $16 trillion, and the rapidly aging population already has baked in large spending and deficit increases in coming years. In most areas the only way to better meet human needs is to shift control away from overweening government agencies, especially at the national level. For instance, "fixing" education requires putting the interests of children and families ahead of those of school bureaucracies and teacher unions. That would require tough leadership, especially from a Democrat obviously inclined to kowtow to liberal interest groups.
Biden also wants to "organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world." Certainly, countries could do better in defending human rights and promoting political freedom. However, big international meetings rarely yield many practical results, focusing instead on grand, symbolic, and political gestures.
In fact, many government leaders view "improving democracy" as developing new, creative, and more effective ways to hinder the opposition. Yet the failure of established elites to listen to or even accept the legitimacy of disfavored political views helped trigger the ongoing populist wave. Biden also wants to treat promoting democracy as equivalent to strengthening state authority, by, for instance, campaigning against "illicit tax havens." However, reducing tax competition among kleptocratic regimes that have wasted, misspent, and lost (often through corruption) trillions of dollars further extends and strengthens state power in ways not likely to benefit the people.
Biden also wants to do something on international trade. Alas, it sounds a bit like protectionism lite. He wrote that his policy would be "taking down trade barriers that penalize Americans and resisting a dangerous global slide toward protectionism." That is good. But he also intoned "I believe in fair trade," which always means less trade. In practice, the only trade that is "fair" in the view of labor unions, domestic producers, progressive activists, modern socialists, and assorted believers in a fixed "economic pie," is none – which is precisely the position taken by President Donald Trump. All of them want Americans to sell things overseas but not to use any of the proceeds to buy things overseas.
Even if Biden concedes that occasionally it is okay for a few Americans to import some things, he explained: "As president, I will not enter into any new trade agreements until we have invested in Americans and equipped them to succeed in the global economy." Given the state of American education and other government "investment," and Biden’s subservience to special interest bureaucracies, Americans might never be ready by his standards.
Moreover, said Biden, "I will not negotiate new deals without having labor and environmental leaders at the table in a meaningful way and without including strong enforcement provisions to hold our partners to the deals they sign." However, imposing rich country standards on poor nations is indirect protectionism, limiting their ability to compete; dictating their internal economic policies and legal standards is old-fashioned economic imperialism as well. The result is to deny everyone mutually beneficial commerce determined by individuals and companies, rather than politicians and interest groups.
Biden’s economic policy toward China sounds little different from Trump’s. Only it probably would be more serious and constant, without the spurts of ideological madness attributable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House adviser Peter Navarro, and other administration know-nothings. Biden complained: "If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property. It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage – and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future."
The critique is common but confused. For instance, cyberespionage is different from US firms voluntarily turning over technology as a price of entering the China market. Beijing subsidizes its firms but so does America. Forcing other states to change core economic objectives is exceedingly difficult: Americans would not respond well to similar demands from foreigners. Still, Biden, in contrast to Trump, who launched simultaneous trade wars on almost all of America’s trading partners, understands that working with Europe would be more effective than warring against everyone.
Moreover, though Biden ran some ads seeking to out-hawk Trump on China, his article in Foreign Affairs did not suggest a security crisis with Beijing, in contrast to Trump’s position. Indeed, in a later interview the Democrat treated China mostly as an economic competitor. Although Biden did not offer a positive plan for reducing military tensions and resolving contested issues, such as territorial disputes, he also did not advocate military confrontation.
On more traditional foreign policy issues Biden looks predictably disappointing. In negotiating with left-wing activists when his nomination became certain, he showed openness to them on precisely the wrong issues – especially domestic economic policy, agreeing to a more dirigiste approach. On foreign policy he strongly resisted efforts to move away from perpetual intervention and endless war. He seems likely to be a traditional liberal interventionist, with most of Barack Obama’s faults while lacking the latter’s welcome caution about military entanglements with minimal security benefits.
Naturally, in his article Biden led with the standard assumption of American indispensability: "The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats." That sounds grand, but in practice likely means continuing to treat every other nation’s problem like America’s problems. And that inevitably undermines rather than advances U.S. interests.
Biden worried that "either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue." This is a common claim, but there are few examples to back his fearful assumption that not trying to run everything will lead to disaster for America.
On economics the greatest danger is not someone else leading but the US standing aside. For example, the Trump administration’s foolish decision to drop the Trans-Pacific Partnership left America out of expanded commercial opportunities in Asia, as the other TPP members moved ahead anyway. This was indirectly a major boon to China, which had been deliberately excluded from the treaty. Would Biden rejoin, however? As noted earlier, he came out against new trade agreements in the foreseeable future, which could have essentially the same effect.
Despite his expressed concern for America’s economic future, he seemed to offer open-ended support for increased military outlays: "The United States has the strongest military in the world, and as president, I will ensure it stays that way, making the investments necessary to equip our troops for the challenges of this century, not the last one." On its face, this should result in a smaller force structure better designed for more limited missions. However, nothing in Biden’s positions suggest the required humility and restraint.
If not, where would the money come from? The US deficit for 2020 ran over $3 trillion. As noted earlier, the national debt is racing upward. Even before COVID-19 Washington was expected to rack up another $10 trillion in borrowing over the next decade because Congress and the president have been simultaneously upping outlays and cutting taxes. Beyond will be constantly rising Medicare and Social Security outlays as baby-boomers retire. With outlays and deficits already programmed to skyrocket, how will Biden maintain outsize military spending while fulfilling his expensive domestic promises?
As for military action, Washington’s determination to lead has turned into a huge negative: dragging other nations into stupid, foolish, and counterproductive Middle Eastern wars is what created chaos there. Biden acknowledged that "American leadership is not infallible; we have made missteps and mistakes." However, that description does not come close to reflecting the debacle resulting from persistent US war-making in the Mideast. Four different conflicts have been disasters in four different ways: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Frankly, less US leadership and involvement are desperately called for.
If other nations, friendly or not, want to take responsibility for future imbroglios, Washington should welcome them to do so. If the alternative is chaos, America is still better off outside. Protecting American interests is not the same as attempting to maintain stability in every region, especially in areas largely impervious to such efforts. Biden cites fearful consequences without demonstrating that the fearful consequences, even if they occurred, would actually matter. Being the world’s most powerful nation means America can, and should, ignore many supposed problems.
To his credit, Biden declared that "the use of force should be a last resort, not the first. It should be used only to defend US vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people." However, does that informed popular consent mean congressional approval, as demanded by the Constitution? Every recent chief executive, including Biden’s boss, Barack Obama, has asserted unilateral war making authority.
Moreover, how does Biden define "vital" interests? He backed wars with Iraq and Yugoslavia – what was "vital" about them? In the first Washington struck the former without any proof that it possessed nuclear weapons or even a nuclear weapons program. America had no security interests in the latter; as for human rights, the US ignored similar abuses by other, friendlier states.
And what was vital that justified intervening in Libya, Iraq/Syria (against ISIS), and Yemen (indirectly, through Saudi Arabia)? Admittedly, they occurred when Biden was only vice president, but there was no hint of dissent, as when he opposed the administration’s troop "surge" in Afghanistan. (He later claimed to have opposed the Libyan misadventure, after it went bad.)
Nevertheless, Biden tried to outbid Trump on the issue. "It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure," Biden wrote. However, he only means withdrawing "the vast majority of our troops from Afghanistan and the Middle East," while narrowing the mission to defeating ISIS. (He also would end support for Saudi aggression in Yemen.) Even this moderate support for retrenchment caused unease among hawks, such as AEI’s Kori Schake, which is as good a recommendation for Biden as he could receive.
The test of Biden’s word would be his willingness to end the current military presence in Syria, designed to confront the Damascus government, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. This would be a major improvement over Trump’s policy. Indeed, ISIS cannot justify America’s presence: the US already did the heavy lifting, leading the campaign to destroy the ISIS "caliphate." Every Mideast government is opposed to an Islamic State revival and collectively these regimes should be able to contain the group’s activities.
Also problematic is Biden’s fulsome endorsement of US "counterterrorism" missions. These operations have morphed around the world and turned into quasi-wars with significant civilian casualties and foreign consequences. Collectively they count as another, seemingly unending, war.
Biden emphasized the role of diplomacy, which probably would mean appointment of a secretary of state familiar with the practice. That would be a welcome contrast to the Trump administration. Although the president appears to be sincerely committed to negotiation, Pompeo is not. Unsurprisingly, the latter’s approach is largely ineffective: his constant intimidation and belligerence drives away both friends and foes.
Biden also noted the problem of credibility: "By pulling out of treaty after treaty, reneging on policy after policy, walking away from U.S. responsibilities, and lying about matters big and small, Trump has bankrupted the United States’ word in the world." Broadly speaking, Biden is right, but Washington should not lock itself into bad policies by assuming that whatever has been must ever be. Trump’s diplomatic problem often is more tone than action. His good policies would be so much more effective if carried out, well, more diplomatically.
However, the Democratic nominee goes very wrong with his fixation on alliances, which he is committed to "reinvesting in." He wants to do so in Europe and Asia while integrating "our friends in Latin America and Africa into the broader network of democracies and to seize opportunities for cooperation in those regions." Alas, he would continue the Washington precedent of subordinating America’s interests to other governments by, for instance, affirming "our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security" without mentioning Israel’s unjust and destabilizing 60-year occupation over millions of Palestinians.
Biden also is upset that Trump talked nasty to European governments which prefer to let America always do the heavy military lifting. Admittedly, the president’s rhetoric does treat NATO a bit "like an American-run protection racket," as Biden complained. However, the solution, which neither candidate understands, is for the US to simply do less of what the Europeans should do more of, namely, protect themselves. Ending a Washington-dominated NATO wouldn’t mean ending cooperation to achieve shared ends. But the US is stronger if its allies take over their own defense. Washington should stop treating the Europeans as helpless dependents. Seventy-five years after the end of World War II is time enough for European governments to act like adults and advance their nations’ interests.
Given his presumption of European helplessness, Biden makes his biggest mistake with Russia, placing primary burden on Washington to "keep the alliance’s military capabilities sharp." He also wants to "impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms and stand with Russian civil society." In a recent interview he claimed: "I think the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our – our security and our alliances is Russia."
Vladimir Putin is no friend of liberty, but Russia, today mostly a regional rather than global player, poses no serious military threat to America. Moreover, Biden fails to employ the slightest "strategic empathy," that is, looking at the world from Moscow’s perspective: the West lied to/misled Russia about NATO expansion; illegally warred against and dismantled Moscow’s allied state of Serbia; encouraged revolutions in the sensitive border states of Georgia and Ukraine, which were promised eventual alliance membership; sought to oust Russia from Syria, with which Moscow had an alliance dating back decades; and imposed multiple sanctions, including for conduct also characteristic of the US and its allies, without providing a diplomatic off-ramp for reaching compromise and accommodation.
This is a prescription for permanent hostility toward an important nation with significant international influence. And a state that otherwise might lean West as the China challenge grows. Despite Trump’s rhetorical friendliness toward Putin, his administration has been tougher than the Obama administration toward Russia. Biden apparently would turn even more hostile, creating a mini-Cold War or worse. At least he affirmed that he would pursue arms control with Russia.
There is some good news: Biden would return to the Iranian nuclear deal, offering sanity in place of the Trump administration’s reckless decision to take sides in the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict and determination to destroy Tehran. The fanciful presumption that "maximum pressure" would force Iranian leaders to genuflect to Trump & Co. and surrender their nation’s sovereignty proved false, risking escalation to full-scale war.
Biden also would "empower our negotiators" to deal with North Korea, but it is not clear that he understands the North is unlikely to ever agree to full denuclearization. Thus, Washington should push for step-by-step disarmament instead. When Trump defended his approach to North Korea during their final debate, Biden made an incoherent comparison to appeasement of Nazi Germany. That was a cheap shot against a worthy attempt at engagement and undercut Biden’s talk of negotiation.
Unsurprisingly, Biden’s article offered a typical political peroration: We must "rally the free world to meet the challenges facing the world today. It falls to the United States to lead the way. No other nation has that capability. No other nation is built on that idea. We have to champion liberty and democracy, reclaim our credibility, and look with unrelenting optimism and determination toward our future."
Who is "we"? Americans, as in the American people, should lead the way. We are the best ambassadors for our country. But when Biden says "we" he means Washington. Or, more specifically, members of the Blob. Unfortunately, Biden has surrounded himself with certified Blobsters – Antony Blinken, Michelle Flournoy, Jake Sullivan, Tom Donilon, Nicholas Burns, and many more – who are committed to the failed interventionist consensus that has dominated American foreign policy over the last two decades.
Blinken, a longtime Biden aide who may be first among equals, is a particular disappointment, having joined with neoconservative ivory tower warrior Robert Kagan to write an op-ed in the Washington Post last year warning against the policy "alternative offered by thinkers across the ideological spectrum who, concerned that our reach exceeds our means, advise us to pull back without considering the likely consequences, as we did in the 1930s." OMG! If the US doesn’t garrison the globe and constantly war against countries big and small, ADOLF HITLER WILL COME BACK FROM THE DEAD!! WE ARE DOOMED!!!
This from someone destined to have an influential role in developing policy in a Biden administration. He also would help the new administration fill the State Department, National Security Council, and Defense Department with similarly-inclined warrior wannabes responsible for two decades of destructive and largely fruitless conflict.
Making the problem even worse, most establishment Democratic members of Congress accept Washington’s conventional wisdom of intervention always and war usually, at least when a Democrat is president. Even the most sensible members, such as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), mentioned as a possible secretary of state, offer the usual bromides about NATO, Russia, Korea, and more. In contrast, progressives, as noted earlier, had little influence on Biden’s foreign policy views. Observed Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch: "For many in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing who favor a more restrained America, Biden appears to be a man of the past."
Joe Biden is a man of the past. His foreign policy as president almost certainly would also be from the past, embodying the many accompanying failures. Despite some causes for hope, such as Biden’s forthright promise to end America’s support for Saudi war crimes in Yemen, a Biden foreign policy would mostly be more of the same. Which would cost America and the rest of the world far more than they can afford.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.