Biden’s Foreign Policy: Make America the leader again

Aug 21, 2020

In an essay in the prestigious US publication “Foreign Affairs”, the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, sets out a broad set of his foreign policy objectives should he win the US presidency in November. The title – “Why America Must Lead Again – Rescuing US Foreign Policy after Trump” – is hauntingly close to that used by President Trump prompting one to wonder if this was deliberate – and if so why? Less an inspirational or ground-breaking treatise by Biden himself it is more a collage of ideas born out of an extraordinarily long, yet quiet, consultative process.

The essay provides the global community with a valuable outline of a number of likely new policy directions under a Biden administration. But, given its brevity, it lacks detail in many key areas. The extraordinary consultative process which Biden employed to review foreign policy options proved to be the complete antithesis of Trump’s MO – if he has one! And may well come to characterise a Biden administration if he is elected – in itself a timely insight into preparing how to deal with it.

Earlier this year groups of academics, former senior diplomats, military and bureaucrats, journalists and other influence purveyors had begun while the Democratic nomination process dragged on. By July things had started to take shape and it was reported that over 1000 people had been involved divided into over 40 working groups – including many familiar faces from the Obama administration and the Washington political establishment – Trump’s vaunted “Swamp”. More recently the numbers involved reportedly grew even higher. So much so that 270 odd of Bernie Sanders’ delegates signed a letter to the Democratic National Committee expressing concern that too many of the Biden team carried unwelcome policy baggage from previous administrations and strongly urging the priority which needed to be given to climate change.

As the title dictates, the central objective is to correct the manifest wrongs of Trump – not only abroad but as a prerequisite within the US. All solid stuff in its own right but, as the Sanders group rightly points out, this obfuscates the need in 2021 for the US to avoid the policy failings under Obama which saw the US still locked into Afghanistan, unable to counter Chinese activities in the South China Sea and on the trade front, as well as the denuclearisation of North Korea to name a few.

Biden claims genuine interest and expertise in foreign policy issues based on the extensive involvement he had in these area under Obama. One insider has commented that Biden has a very well established personal network with leaders and key thinkers around the world. Another has remarked that in choosing Kamala Harris as his VP he did not need any foreign policy “heft” from her but did so in the domestic arena.

Again guided by its title the essay spends much more time on detailing claims of the damage wrought by Trump on the US’s international standing than on analysing the significant changes in the global environment which have occurred since Biden was in office with Obama. It fails to present a coherent response to the challenges of the world of 2021 awaiting the next Presidency other than a rather clumsily presented rallying call for the US to lead the “free” world again – “because the US is the only nation that can”!

Priority is given to reviving the neocon chestnut of “democracy promotion” – a feature of US policy since WW11 though of varying activity and success. But to do this Biden readily acknowledges that “first and foremost , we must reinvigorate our own democracy “ which leads to an ambitious list of domestic causes on which urgent action will be required. “Having taken” action on these issues he plans to invite leaders of other democratic countries to a Summit for Democracy “ to put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda”.

Biden’s next objective is the novel “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class” which “will equip Americans to succeed in the global economy .. to win the competition for the future against China or anyone else..”. In some curiously worded paras he asserts that “trade policy must start at home by strengthening …our middle class” through substantial investment on infrastructure, education, R&D and the “clean economy revolution to create ten million good new jobs – including union jobs”! He would push for the removal of trade barriers “that penalize Americans “ and resist “ a dangerous global slide towards protectionism” while working to ensure that “the rules of the international economy are not rigged against the US”. He will not enter any new trade agreements “until we have invested in Americans… and without having labor and environmental leaders at the table!”

From there Biden segues into China with some unusual wording reflecting his attempt to play to the currently strong public anti-China views in the US and defend against Trump allegations that he is soft on China. He describes China as representing a “special challenge” which he understands well having spent “many hours with its leaders” and recognizing it is “playing the long game”. But then concludes that the US “does need to get tough with China” for which it will need to build “a united front of US allies and partners to confront Chinese abusive behaviours and human rights violations” even as “we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge “ like climate change, non-proliferation and global health security. No specific reference to either Taiwan, the South China Sea or the WHO.

Biden criticises Trump for having abdicated global leadership in “writing the rules, forging the agreements and animating the institutions” which will only allow someone else (read China) to take over that role or leave the world in chaos. He claims that Trump’s disastrous foreign policy record resulted from his “unbalanced and incoherent approach” which “defunds and denigrates the role of diplomacy”. Too often Trump has relied solely on military might which should be “the last not the first resort” for US projection. In words welcome to the State Department he will “elevate diplomacy as the principal tool of foreign policy” implemented by “a coherent policy making process and a team of experienced and empowered professionals”.

Once again Biden returns to his alliance strengthening theme by committing to “reimagine” the US’s historic relationships with NATO and “reinvesting” in the treaty alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea and deepening partnerships from India to Indonesia”. He singled out an “ironclad” commitment to Israel ( he claims a close personal relationship with Netanyahu and his principal foreign policy advisor is Jewish as is Kamala Harris’s husband) and general commitments to Africa and Latin America.

In a substantial comment on climate change, Biden announced that he would make “massive, urgent investments at home” to reach US net zero emissions by 2050, to rejoin the Paris agreement and convene a Summit of the world’s major carbon emitters which must include China. In a comment of potential importance for Australia, he also called for a halt to China subsidising coal exports and “outsourcing pollution to other countries by financing …dirty fossil fuel energy projects”.

He then went on to list briefer remarks on more detailed issues :

. rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran returns to strict compliance

. “jump start” a sustained and coordinated campaign with allies and China to progress negotiations on denuclearization of North Korea (pretty unremarkable stuff)

. extend the New Start treaty and use it as a foundation for new arms control arrangements

What may be as interesting as what the essay contained are the issues which did not rate a mention. For example, in addition to the avoidance of detail on issues related to China (above) there was no mention of the Quad (with which many in Canberra and the media still seem transfixed), the TPP, or even the 5Eyes network (which, for some, has come to be a hub for what amounts to the Anglosphere – despite its failings in Iraq and closer to home in SE Asia). Nor is there any reference to Obama’s much heralded “pivot” to the Indo Pacific which was always designed primarily as a device for cost cutting in the US military. Of course, if Biden is elected there is plenty of scope in the essay for policy modification as a new cohort of personalities join a new White House team and Administration.

For further reading on Biden and his foreign policy objectives see. Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump – Foreign Affairs

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