The quiet reformation of Biden’s foreign policy

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden holds a campaign rally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. May 18, 2019.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC155E77EB70
Editor's note:

The former vice president represents the so-called establishment’s last chance to change U.S. foreign policy so it is better aligned with how Americans see the world, argues Thomas Wright. This piece was originally in The Atlantic.

Joe Biden is running as a restorationist, offering a return to the Obama era. But he likely wouldn’t govern as a restorationist, at least when it comes to foreign policy and America’s role in the world.

The Biden campaign believes that the candidate’s connection to Barack Obama is an asset, and no political benefit exists in distancing Biden from the former president, except in the gentlest of ways. However, an influential group in the wider Democratic foreign-policy community from which Biden will draw if he wins, including some people who are a formal part of his campaign, have not been thinking about how to return to Obama’s policies. They have spent much of the past three years thinking about what they need to do differently if they have another bite at the apple.

For simplicity’s sake, call them the 2021 Democrats. The group is informal, with no organization or meetings; some members are part of Biden’s team, others have worked for other campaigns or none at all. They are foreign-policy experts, academics, politicians, and congressional staffers. On Capitol Hill, they include Senator Chris Murphy and several freshman members of Congress who were elected in 2018. They may not even think of themselves as a distinctive group but what unites them is a shared belief that U.S. foreign policy must change and move beyond where Democrats have been for the past two decades.

Their deliberations have been occurring in plain sight, in articles and policy papers, in speeches, at conferences, and at think-tank roundtables. They have been taking place parallel to the presidential debate and have largely passed unnoticed as a result. However, make no mistake—if the influence of these policy makers prevails, the Biden administration could change Democratic foreign policy in some significant ways, just as the administration of George H. W. Bush departed from that of Ronald Reagan, or as Bush the younger departed from the approach of his father.

Under Obama’s foreign policy, his administration largely preserved the post–Cold War neoliberal consensus toward globalization. Obama sought to pivot from the Middle East to Asia but struggled to do so. He pushed back against China and Russia more as his presidency progressed, but he was wary of allowing geopolitical competition to define his approach. He believed in the arc of history, whereby the United States, and democracy more generally, would prevail if it focused its energy on strengthening itself at home. He was a supporter of NATO but thought Europe should spend more on defense and could take care of its own problems.

So what do the 2021 Democrats believe? Their critique is not really of Obama per se, nor is it just about Trump. The view is more of a conviction that the world has changed in fundamental ways since 2012—when Xi Jinping came to power, Vladimir Putin returned as Russia’s president, and Obama was reelected. Over that eight-year period, democracy has eroded, nationalist populism has grown in the West, and authoritarianism has strengthened globally. Economic discontent has increased even though the U.S., until recently, experienced growth and high levels of employment. Shared problems, such as climate change and pandemics, have worsened, but international cooperation has become harder to achieve and to explain to domestic audiences.

The 2021 Democrats no longer talk about the goal of American foreign policy being a liberal international order, as they did during the Obama years. They still believe in international cooperation and a values-based foreign policy, but they don’t think the term resonates, nor does it capture the essence of their approach. “Free world” is how some refer to this worldview, a term that Biden now uses. These thinkers don’t believe that America’s success is assured, nor do they think that the free world is guaranteed to stay free or as influential as it has been for several decades; democracies may have unique challenges to overcome if they are to succeed.

The 2021 Democrats  are worried about rising authoritarianism and see the world as a more geopolitically competitive place, particularly in U.S.-China relations. An influential article by Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Obama administration, and Ely Ratner, Biden’s deputy national security adviser in Obama’s second term, argued that some of the key assumptions underpinning China policy—for instance, that commercial engagement with China would lead to economic liberalization, and China would become a responsible stakeholder in the international order—were wrong. Top priorities in dealing with authoritarian governments include defending democracy and tackling corruption, as well as understanding how these challenges intersect with new technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and synthetic biology.

In a recent article, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s former national security adviser, and Jennifer Harris, a former Obama-administration official, document new ways of thinking about global economics and trade. Moderate domestic economic thinkers, they say, are reckoning with ideas that neoliberalism got wrong over the past decade. The foreign-policy world needs to do the same. Sullivan and Harris argue for reforming trade deals to target tax havens, prevent currency manipulation, improve wages, and generate investment in the United States. Industrial policy should be used to compete with China, particularly in new technologies, and foreign policy should be a part of the antitrust debate on breaking up big tech.

Salman Ahmed, a former official on Obama’s National Security Council,  similarly stresses the importance of challenging long-held assumptions underpinning US foreign policy for the past decade. That is  what a bipartisan group of former foreign policy experts, on both sides the aisle, are now doing in a project Ahmed has led at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on how US foreign policy affects the American middle class.

Dramatic changes are also afoot for the Middle East. Centrist Democrats now openly question whether the region is worth the high levels of military engagement the United States has maintained for decades. In an article for the journal Foreign Affairs in early 2019, Obama administration officials Tamara Wittes and Mara Karlin argued that “although the Middle East still matters to the United States, it matters markedly less than it used to.” A couple of months ago, Martin Indyk, Obama’s envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace, wrote that after a lifetime of supporting a very activist U.S. role in the region, he is now of the view that it is no longer worth it. All three favor a significant reduction in U.S. goals in the Middle East.

Indications of small changes exist too. The 2021 Democrats are more open to moving European allies away from Trump’s 2% spending goal and toward practical areas of cooperation, such as working more closely together on the China challenge, reforming the global economy, and coping with a reduced U.S. role in the Middle East. They agree that alliances are crucial, but they frequently distinguish between the allies, criticizing Saudi Arabia (Biden called it “a pariah state”), Egypt, Hungary, and Turkey. Defense-budget cuts are possible, but top priorities are reforming and modernizing the military to reflect new technologies and repairing civil-military relations.

The 2021 Democrats have also learned some lessons from Trump. They know the sky did not fall when he supplied the Ukrainians with lethal assistance, which many Democrats (including former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, and former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy) unsuccessfully argued for during the Obama administration. They saw that catastrophe also did not strike when the Trump administration retaliated against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, or when U.S. forces killed large numbers of Russian mercenaries in Syria. They watched Trump employ tariffs on China and play tough with the Europeans over defense spending. Although many of these policy thinkers disagreed with much or all of what Trump did in the foreign-policy arena, they have also noted that they can use leverage for their own ends, including to prevent the further erosion of democracy, to deter aggression, and to reform the global economy.

Disagreements and debate do pop up among 2021 Democrats.While most Democrats want to reduce the U.S. role in the Middle East, they differ on how much instability is acceptable and what the consequences might be. Some would really tighten the screws on Saudi Arabia by imposing sanctions or even withdrawing forces, whereas others would express America’s displeasure in smaller ways—such as ending support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

On China, decoupling is where the disagreements are most pronounced. Some argue that technological separation is basically impossible except in a very small number of sensitive technologies. Others argue that decoupling should encompass a larger part of the technology sector and may expand to include other parts of the economy, in part to reshore crucial supply chains, such as for pandemic response, and in part to reduce U.S. vulnerabilities to Chinese economic coercion. Others still wonder whether interdependence gives America more leverage over China and may be a strategic advantage.

Another debate arises about whether competition with China has a significant ideological component and, if so, how far the U.S. should go. For instance, what level of sanctions should the United States impose on Chinese actors for the arbitrary detention of more than 1 million innocent Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang? Should the next president identify the Chinese Communist Party as a problem, as Trump-administration officials have done and as many Democrats in Congress do?

In the case of Russia, arms-control advocates would prioritize negotiations to renew the New START agreement, the last arms reduction treaty between Russia and the U.S., before it expires on February 5, 2021, while those who are wary of Russia manipulating this issue to secure a new reset would caution a Biden administration to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach to its renewal. The likelihood that the new U.S. president will take office after significant Russian interference in the election, and therefore may need to impose tough new sanctions, also looms large.

Some foreign-policy thinkers in the Democratic party do favor more continuity with Obama. Some Democrats who promote greater cooperation with China see Fareed Zakaria’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, “The New China Scare,” calling for cooperation and engagement with Beijing, as a necessary corrective to the more geopolitically competitive approach of the 2021 Democrats. The Wall Street Democrats are wary of reforms to the global economy. Some multilateralists are uneasy with a shift in emphasis away from the liberal international order. And opposition exists from parts, though not all, of the progressive left. For instance, progressive Quincy Institute experts who have played a greater role in Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign over the past few months see the 2021 Democrats as an unwelcome assertion of American leadership.

The world may change so dramatically as a result of COVID-19 that many policy debates are rendered obsolete, but if we do return to something resembling normality, we are unlikely to see restoration under Biden. For the 2021 Democrats, Biden represents the so-called establishment’s last chance to reform U.S. foreign policy so it is better aligned with how Americans see the world and how they live their lives. Biden’s foreign policy certainly will not be revolutionary, but if the 2021 Democrats have their way, it may bring about a quiet reformation.