Last spring, the Biden campaign decided to hit back hard against accusations of being soft on China. So the campaign produced a blistering ad attacking Trump’s failure to confront China in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biden ad was xenophobic and racist.
"Trump let in 40,000 travelers from China into America," says the ad’s narrator as ominous music plays in the background. "He rolled over for the Chinese. . . . Donald Trump left this country unprepared and unprotected."
Hundreds of major Asian American organizations and prominent individuals expressed outrage in an open letter. They wrote that blaming China for the pandemic helps foster violence and discrimination against Asian Americans. Prominent Asian American activists met remotely with Amit Jani of the Biden campaign in early May, asking that the ad be dropped.
"Jani seemed sympathetic to the anti-racism argument," says meeting participant Calvin Cheung-Miaw in a phone interview.
"But we were there with a wider message. We don’t want Biden to outdo Trump in attacking China. It’s bad for the campaign and bad for the planet."
Jani forwarded a request for an interview to Biden’s campaign staff, which had not responded as of press time.
That incident reflects just one battle being waged against Biden’s conservative foreign policy positions. Most supporters of progressives such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, remain committed to voting for Biden in order to defeat Trump. But they are also launching grassroots efforts to push a future Biden Administration to adopt internationalist and anti-interventionist policies.
Biden’s checkered record
Biden’s record on foreign policy is checkered. As a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years, he supported the US occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and the drone war in Pakistan. He also staunchly supports Israel at the expense of Palestinians.
But, on the whole, Biden’s policies are better than Trump’s. Biden opposed the 1991 US invasion of Iraq, opposed the 2007 Iraq troop surge, and supported the 2011 US troop withdrawal from Iraq. As vice president, Biden opposed the war in Libya. In 2019 he came out against the Yemen war. He calls for restoring normal relations with Cuba.
If Biden wins, it seems likely he will end Trump’s tariff wars with allies, re-engage in the Paris climate agreement, and reverse Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
Matt Duss, the top Sanders’ foreign affairs advisor, expresses optimism about the Democratic Party platform, which calls for ending forever wars and stopping US support for the war in Yemen.
"There is no denying the fact that the party is moving in a very positive direction on these questions," he told Foreign Policy.
But there’s a very large gap between a party platform and policy implementation.
Biden’s choice of foreign policy advisors is revealing. He is likely to rely heavily on former Obama staffers such as Susan Rice, Tony Blinken, and Samantha Power, according to Daniel Bessner, a foreign policy advisor to the Bernie Sanders’ campaign and professor at the University of Washington.
"I don’t think they would challenge the US armed presence in the world," he tells me in a phone interview, saying Biden may well rely on military advisors in deciding whether to maintain troops overseas.
"Biden is likely to keep some troops abroad," says Bessner. "He’s unlikely to close military bases or reduce the military budget."
A number of Biden’s top aides come from WestExec Advisors, a strategic planning firm, which employs former government officials who use their connections to benefit corporations and foreign governments. WestExec clients include at least one arms manufacturer and other major corporations.
The Biden transition team for foreign policy and national security is headed by Avril Haines, a former deputy CIA director who also worked at WestExec. Haines helped oversee the illegal US drone war against Pakistan, although she’s considered a moderate because she reduced the number of strikes. She helped cover up the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program and helped redact incriminating sections of the Senate report about CIA crimes.
Michèle Flournoy, WestExec co-founder, has been mentioned as a possible Secretary of Defense. Progressives have already launched a campaign against Flournoy, based on her support for continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Democrats in Congress voted for passage of a war powers resolution that would have cut off aid to the Saudis’ war in Yemen.
"Somebody like Flournoy, should have no place in a Democratic administration," says David Segal, a leader of Demand Progress, a progressive lobbying group in Washington, D.C. "She has a more militaristic stand towards Saudi Arabia than many Republicans," he tells me in a phone interview.
Segal says some Biden advisors want to end the forever wars; others do not. Changing US foreign policy, in his view, "will require ongoing activist engagement that targets the administration and Congress."
Times are changing
Biden faces a very changed world heading into the November elections. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive recession in many countries. The United States has shown itself unwilling or unable to provide either medical or economic relief. Many other countries – including European allies, Russia, and China – are ignoring the weakened superpower and charting their own future.
"A world totally dominated by the United States will probably never exist again," says Bessner.
Trump’s defeat could lay the groundwork for a significantly better foreign policy based on peace and non-intervention. But that will take a big struggle inside and outside of the Democratic Party. Chinese American activist Cheung-Miaw says Biden’s efforts to sound tough on China damages his campaign and alienates voters. People of color and young voters, he says, want a break with aggressive foreign policy.
"We are strongly and firmly committed to defeating Trump," says Cheung-Miaw. "But we have to keep up grassroots pressure on the Biden campaign."
Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48Hills. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.