To the consternation of many on the Left, Joe Biden formally secured the Democratic Party’s nomination yesterday. And if polling both nationally and in several key battleground states is accurate, he stands a reasonable chance of defeating Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States. As voters consider their options this fall, and as leftists prepare to navigate the next four years, it is reasonable to fast forward a bit to examine what a potential Biden administration might look like.
There is perhaps no more critical area in which to start strategizing for a future Biden administration than foreign policy. For one thing, the almost unchecked growth of the “imperial presidency” has left the executive branch unchallenged in its control over this arena. Even under Trump, a president whose foreign policy decisions routinely alarm his own political allies, congressional attempts to reclaim some role in foreign affairs have been feeble and easily defeated. If there is any part of a Biden agenda that is likely to be enacted, regardless of the makeup of Congress, it is this one.
For another thing, it is on the global front where the greatest challenges of the next presidency will lie. The COVID-19 pandemic has run rampant across Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and continues to pose a threat in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Moreover, as in past pandemics the threat of a second wave — perhaps even deadlier than the first — will continue to loom unless and until scientists develop a safe and effective treatment and/or vaccine. Perhaps more seriously, recovering from the economic damage the pandemic has wrought will likely take years, and in the meantime that devastation will undoubtedly contribute to escalating instability around the world. This crisis has exposed weaknesses in international institutions and the global economy that must be addressed, lest the world go through it all again the next time it’s confronted with a new and virulent pathogen.
Lingering in the background of this crisis is the less immediate but more critical threat of climate change. A President Biden will have a profound opportunity either to help reshape global structures in ways that reduce injustice and prepare us for the massive challenges ahead, or to simply restore what has been shown to be a deeply inadequate status quo. In order to do that, he’ll have to rethink the two major driving forces behind US foreign policy: the presumption — whether justified or not — of a “great power competition” between the United States and China, and the never-ending — and increasingly unjustifiable — “war on terror.” Would Joe Biden, who often seems to have been drawn from Central Casting to play the role of “Generic Democrat,” really be willing to break with conventional DC wisdom to solve these international challenges?
Features of the Blob
Dishearteningly from a leftist perspective, foreign policy is likely to be one of the areas in which a President Biden would be least susceptible to external pressure. Throughout his lengthy career in the Senate, Joe Biden compiled a sizable and, it must be said, frequently distasteful record on a wide array of issues. But foreign policy was a consistent area of focus for him, and he appears to be particularly confident in his own presumed expertise. Biden served for many years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rising to become its ranking member in 1997 and serving as chair from 2001 through 2003 and again from 2007 through his inauguration as vice president in 2009.
In these roles, Biden built a substantial foreign policy record, and very little of it should offer hope to leftists. Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War was rightly seen as a mark against her presidential candidacies in 2008 and 2016, but Biden not only voted to authorize that war, he was instrumental in helping to sell the conflict to his Democratic colleagues as well as to the American public. His proposal to impose a “soft partition” on Iraq is another mark against his judgment. As vice president, he was a key part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy team, which expanded the drone war, intensified the futile war in Afghanistan, and involved the United States in disastrous conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
To be fair, Biden reportedly opposed the 2009 “surge” into Afghanistan and the 2011 intervention in Libya’s civil war. Yet the different stances Biden took at different times do not suggest that his views evolved in a coherent direction; rather, he appears to lack an overarching vision for foreign policy, and to propose ad hoc solutions to problems as they arise. More often than not, his stances fit within the sort of “liberal interventionism” that has defined mainstream Democratic Party foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. His feel-good talk of adopting a more progressive approach and headlining an “FDR-size presidency” notwithstanding, it’s likely with such an established record on international affairs that he will prefer to keep his own counsel and to surround himself with familiar advisers on the subject.
Moreover, any attempt to predict how a Biden administration will approach foreign policy must contend with one overarching truth: foreign policy is as much reactive as it is proactive. We can predict a few challenges that Biden would encounter immediately; he’d likely push to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, for example, and would probably move to restore and/or renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. By the same token, we can imagine where he’d be likely to continue Trump policies — he’s already said he’ll maintain Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, for example, a theme we return to below.
With this in mind, what might a Biden presidency foreign-policy agenda look like? Certainly, his campaign’s vague promises of “restoring dignified leadership” and “leading the democratic world” give us few meaningful clues, and various Biden foreign policy think pieces from the liberal establishment should be taken more as wish lists than as firm agendas.
There’s a frequently used saying in Washington that “personnel is policy.” That may not be entirely true in the Trump administration, where personnel are shuffled in and out subject to the capricious whims of an unstable president. But a glance at the names that filled important foreign policy positions under Barack Obama or George W. Bush does indeed speak powerfully to the foreign policy approaches those administrations took.
And so we can begin to approximate how a Biden-led foreign policy agenda might look, by looking at those people most likely to formulate and implement it. By this approach, those who are hoping for a new era in America’s approach toward the rest of the world are likely to be disappointed. Indeed, if anything it would appear that the DC foreign policy establishment — the “Blob,” as former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes once put it — would be poised to maintain or even strengthen its hold on power under a President Biden.
In some ways, the Blob was never out of power. Their influence remains strong in DC’s major think tanks, in top universities, in newspapers such as the New York Times and in publications such as Foreign Affairs, and in the government. Figures like John Bolton and even Richard Grenell are, ultimately, members of the Blob. Yet in other ways, Trump’s victory denied the Blob — a bipartisan body — key roles. Right-wing trolls such as Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller come from outside the Blob’s usual circuits, and Trump’s erratic flirtations with diplomacy toward North Korea, or with reducing the US presence in Syria, run counter to the Blob’s worldview. A Biden presidency would give it more straightforward control over US foreign policymaking.
Biden’s foreign policy advisers — as well as the circle of people he is likely to appoint to top posts, if elected — come exclusively from the Democratic foreign policy establishment, with a few stray Republicans in the mix. His foremost foreign policy aide is Tony Blinken, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 2000s and has been with Biden since the 2008 presidential campaign.
Blinken served as Biden’s national security advisor during Obama’s first term and then as deputy national security advisor (2013–15) and deputy secretary of state (2015-17) in his second term. Another top campaign adviser is Jake Sullivan, a protégé of Hillary Clinton who replaced Blinken as Biden’s national security advisor in 2013–14. Yet another key figure is Colin Kahl, an academic who has been in and out of government, most recently as Biden’s national security advisor from 2014–17. These figures are likely to take some of the top jobs at the National Security Council and/or the State Department under a Biden administration.
Consistent with Biden’s pledge to pick a female running mate, Biden’s foreign policy team features a number of prominent Democratic women as well. One is Michèle Flournoy, cofounder of the centrist DC think tank the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and an under secretary of defense during the Obama administration. Flournoy was widely thought to be Hillary Clinton’s pick for secretary of defense in 2016 and remains a likely pick in a Biden administration, which would make her the first woman to hold the post. It would also break with an unfortunate tradition among centrist Democratic presidents to appoint Republican secretaries of defense out of a sense of pointless bipartisanship.
Republican William Cohen served as Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense from 1997–2001, and Republicans Robert Gates (2009–11) and Chuck Hagel (2013–15) held the job under Barack Obama. Biden has been especially vocal about his desire to seed his administration with Republicans, and his campaign is reportedly working behind the scenes with several prominent figures in the “Never Trump” community — including some who are well-known for their foreign policy views, like neoconservative movement leader Bill Kristol. If Flournoy were to become secretary of defense, it’s likely that Biden would find other roles for Republicans to fill, though they may not be in foreign policy–related positions.
Biden’s team epitomizes the Blob at the same time as its leaders dismiss any critiques of the foreign policy establishment. Sullivan’s attitudes are representative: in a 2019 review for Foreign Affairs, he dismissed books by the realist scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, casting Walt in particular as someone whose “ad hominem” attacks on the establishment reflect not legitimate critique but lack of relevant experience. Sullivan wrote:
Walt has not spent time working in the Pentagon or the State Department or the Situation Room, alongside Foreign Service officers and civil servants — and, yes, political appointees — who believe sincerely that an active foreign policy serves the national interest and the cause of global peace and progress.
This is the voice of an establishment still confident in itself. Sullivan is willing to admit “clear mistakes, such as the war in Iraq,” but he attributes other, unspecified failures to “flawed outcomes flowing from imperfect options, which are the norm in a messy business like foreign policy.” Treating critics as naive isolationists, Sullivan and his peers champion a foreign policy euphemistically labeled “active” — a policy seemingly unmoored from any principles except the idea that past experience confers present wisdom, and the notion that the United States must always do something.
In their time out of power, these figures have harshly criticized Trump, and have evolved on a few issues, but have not fundamentally rethought the assumptions of Obama’s second-term foreign policy. The key venues for former and aspiring Democratic foreign policy professionals — the collective rapid response network National Security Action, the think tank–esque Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, the Center for American Progress, the above-mentioned CNAS, the for-profit WestExec Advisors (cofounded by Blinken and Flournoy) — are not forums for producing big ideas or asking deep questions; rather, they are career stepping-stones, sinecures, and partisan outfits.
National Security Action, cochaired by Sullivan and former Obama foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes, is essentially a factory for press releases criticizing Trump on his most obvious failures. These criticisms often have merit. As National Security Action repeatedly says, Trump is autocratic, corrupt, and incompetent. Yet the group tends to treat Trump as a sui generis problem rather than as an outcome of the manifest failures of the foreign policy establishment over the past quarter-century or more.
To their credit, National Security Action has leaned in a promising direction on some issues. For example, the group has voiced support for congressional efforts to block American support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen. Yet there is little acknowledgment, for example in Rhodes’s memoir, about the ways that Obama’s decisions helped to create some present-day catastrophes. National Security Action frames Yemen as a situation mostly created by Trump and Saudi Arabian crown prince Muhammed bin Salman, with no sense of history prior to 2017. The failure to conduct critical self-assessment appears not only in Rhodes’s depressingly titled The World as It Is, but also in the widely criticized memoir The Education of an Idealist, by former UN ambassador Samantha Power — another Obama-era figure who may return to power in a Biden administration. And even when Sullivan calls for prioritizing diplomacy in the Middle East, he does not question the fundamental assumptions undergirding, for example, the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The Democratic foreign policy establishment will be key architects of Biden’s foreign policy — or rather, the reactive, event-driven process that will pass for foreign policy. At the same time, Biden may follow his immediate predecessors’ lead and fill some senior posts with major politicians. He may bring figures like Senator Chris Murphy to be secretary of state, Representative Adam Schiff to be director of national intelligence, or even Pete Buttigieg to be ambassador to the United Nations. Of these three, Murphy is the most original thinker on foreign policy, yet his vision, articulated in a strategy document given the militaristic title “Rethinking the Battlefield,” is at most one degree to the left of Obama’s second-term foreign policy. If Murphy’s call to expand the State Department’s Foreign Service by 50 percent is admirable, the document is nevertheless underpinned by the assumption that the United States’ foremost foreign policy priorities should be competing with China and Russia and fighting the Islamic State. Neither the Democratic foreign policy professionals nor the foreign policy–oriented Democratic politicians appear likely to reorient US foreign policy in any dramatic way.
Left Foreign Policy in the Wilderness?
To borrow a phrase, a Biden presidency’s foreign policy could probably be summed up as “if you like your Blob, you can keep your Blob.” Some reports suggest that Biden’s team will incorporate ideas and even personnel from Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign — but Biden and his people are unlikely to defer to the Sanders wing of the party on core foreign policy decisions. It is more likely that Biden’s team would incorporate staffers from Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, particularly top foreign policy adviser Sasha Baker. Baker, whose most recent executive branch job was as former secretary of defense Ash Carter’s deputy chief of staff, is not a leftist, however, but rather a reformist Blob member who favors “pushing for progressive change from the inside.”
So far, what we’ve seen of Biden’s foreign policy intentions is similarly dismal for those hoping to see serious progressive change. In just the past couple of months we’ve seen the Democratic nominee attempt to attack Trump from the right on Cuba and China. The former is inexplicable, since Trump’s approach to Cuba has been to undo the Obama administration’s decision to reengage with Havana. The latter is inexcusable, both for its political futility and for what it means in terms of a US-China relationship whose functioning may mean the difference between success or failure in tackling global challenges like pandemics and climate change.
On another issue important to leftists — Israel-Palestine — Biden’s campaign rhetoric has been deeply troubling. The Trump administration has spent four years going out of its way to brutalize the Palestinian people — slashing aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem without waiting for a settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and offering a “peace plan” that is a thinly veiled land grab. Even now it’s about to rubber-stamp an Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank, a step that would permanently forestall the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
What is Biden offering in contrast? Almost nothing. His campaign website conflates his “record of unstinting support for Israel” with his plan to combat domestic antisemitism, and the candidate himself has spent more time criticizing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement than he has criticizing the Trump administration’s punitive anti-Palestinian policies. Biden has even made it clear that he would not undo the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. To the extent that he’s said anything substantive about the Israel-Palestine peace process, he’s merely offered the same tired bromides about a “two-state solution” that US politicians have been mouthing for decades, oblivious to the facts on the ground — and, in Biden’s case, oblivious to the Trump administration’s intentional efforts to make a “two-state solution” a functional impossibility.
The overall picture is one of a presidency-in-waiting that is looking to the past to chart America’s future, in ways that may court disaster. There is little to indicate that Biden or his probable foreign policy team have any real understanding of the unprecedented challenges we’re liable to face, let alone the willingness to break with the traditional approaches that will be needed to address them. These are people who have been deeply enmeshed in the Washington foreign policy establishment, an establishment that still views the world through a prism of military power, interstate competition, and Pax Americana — largely unchanged since the end of the Cold War, despite its myriad stumbles.
But military power isn’t going to fend off climate change; interstate competition is precisely the wrong approach in the face of another global pandemic, and the “Pax Americana,” if it ever really existed, has been dead for at least twenty years. An administration whose foreign policy agenda amounts to restoring a comforting vision of a world that never really was will be manifestly unable to guide America, and the world, into an increasingly perilous future.
During the 2020 campaign, left thinkers inside and outside the campaign sought to draw the broad strokes of a left foreign policy: antimilitarist, anti-imperialist, pro-diplomacy, non-alarmist about China and Russia, and deeply concerned about climate change. The Left has a lot more work to do in the coming years to flesh out this framework and to build the institutional capacity to have real influence. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new Washington think tank, has promoted a reformist perspective on foreign policy — but Quincy, with a fraction of the budget of major DC think tanks, does not in and of itself constitute a left alternative to the status quo, and not all of its top staff are on the Left. More, and more overtly left, institutions are needed.
A Biden administration is likely to lock left foreign policy thinkers and perspectives out of the rooms where the real decisions are made. As Ben Rhodes indicated in a 2018 interview, “The Left is good at holding people like me and my feet to the fire in ways that can impact our social circles, but less impactful on policy debates.”
If leftists have opportunities to join a Democratic administration — for example, through programs such as the Presidential Management Fellowship — our view is that they should take those opportunities, until and unless they fear becoming complicit in major decisions that go against their values. It will be crucial for a future left administration to have a pool of people who know how to run the interagency foreign policy process, and who have observed firsthand how the Blob operates when in government.
Even more important than the inside track, however, will be the effort to push and pressure a Biden administration from the outside. When Barack Obama came into office, the Left was substantially smaller than it is today, and among the wider progressive movement there was widespread reluctance to criticize the new, popular president over his decisions on Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and other issues. The Left should give Biden no such honeymoon and should discount “progressive” laments that criticizing a Democratic president automatically strengthens the Republicans’ hand.
Where Biden makes constructive moves — easing tensions with Iran, for example, or rethinking the US-Saudi relationship — the Left should applaud and push for even more diplomacy and restraint. Where Biden makes destructive moves — promoting conflict over collaboration with China, or returning to an uncompromising posture on North Korea — leftists should pull no punches. At the same time, the Left should keep articulating and refining its wider foreign policy vision, and should contrast that vision with the reactive, ad hoc approach that will likely dominate a Biden presidency.