Joe Biden has moved to the left on many issues. Why hasn’t he done the same on foreign policy?
“Joe Biden has the most progressive platform in history” was a familiar talking point in the last months before the election, both from Republicans trying to paint the Democratic nominee as a socialist controlled by the “radical left,” and from moderate Democrats who hoped to convince that skeptical left wing of the party to support him. While the President-elect has not endorsed some of the plans that more progressive Democrats would have liked him to—such as Medicare for All or the Green New Deal—many of his domestic stances represent a meaningful move to the left.
This has not been the case in his foreign policy. Judging by his rhetoric, advisors, and now nominees, Biden’s approach to national security places him at the center of current national discourse, sitting somewhere within the same space on the political spectrum as traditional, post-Cold War American Presidents.
This positioning cannot be explained simply by ideology, which has rarely driven Biden’s approach to politics. Throughout his long career, Biden has mostly moved with the party. When it comes to the use of force and global military engagement, Biden has also shifted with the political winds. He opposed the first Gulf war, aggressively advocated the NATO campaign in the Balkans in the early 1990s, supported George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and then, during the Obama years, reportedly became a voice of restraint in the Situation Room.
Instead of focusing on ideology, core beliefs, or some overriding guiding principle to understand the incoming president’s foreign policy, one should instead look to the man he will soon replace. Paradoxically, while Donald Trump’s domestic policies helped pull Biden to the left, his foreign policy has given Biden reason to stay smack in the center.
Biden’s leftward shift on domestic issues is a reflection of two complementary trends: The long-term move to the left by the Democratic base on the one hand, and intense opposition among progressive Democrats to Trump’s policies on the other. On socio-economic issues, left-leaning Democrats and anti-Trumpism push in the same direction, shifting Biden’s policies in a more progressive direction.
On foreign policy, however, this calculus does not hold. While elements of the Democratic Party have advocated a more progressive national security approach, Trump’s foreign policy has not been as clearly and systematically hostile to a progressive agenda. His stances and policies in some respects hue more closely to the views of the anti-interventionist left. In many instances, Trump has identified the same problem as the left has, but has responded to them in ways that progressives reject. But Trump’s rash and clumsy approach to decisions—whether abruptly removing troops from northern Syria or hastily putting together an unseemly summit with Chairman Kim Jong Un without preparation or follow-up—have tarnished the worthy principles underlying both sets of actions. That made it both more difficult to support them, and far easier to oppose. In other words, unlike with what happened on race, health care, or immigrations, opposition to Trumpism has not automatically translated into espousal of a progressive agenda.
Reflexive opposition to Trumpism can go hand in hand with espousal of a more progressive agenda, as has been the case on domestic issues. But the desire among so many Democrats to oppose anything and everything that the President says or does has enabled Biden to stick comfortably to the center on foreign policy, aligning himself with center-left opponents of Trump and Never-Trump Republicans. Even if advocating the reverse of what Trump has done means espousing centrist, liberal interventionist or neo-conservative approaches, many opponents of the outgoing president are likely to do so. During his four years in office, the outgoing president has managed to occupy such a large place in the nation’s collective psyche that reacting negatively to his path of choice has often replaced articulating logically consistent alternatives. Biden can revert to a conventional form of foreign policy precisely because he can couch it as the opposite of Trump, making his approach one that appeals to a constituency that both opposes the current president’s foreign policy and craves a return to the status quo ante.
For this reason, just as Trump gave renewed energy to immigration, environmental and racial justice activists who have been critical of past administrations—both Democratic and Republican—his presidency also helped resuscitate the neoconservatives and liberal internationalists whose influence appeared to be slipping away in 2016. Prominent Republicans who felt unwelcome in Trump’s party—David Frum, Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and others—have found new homes in Biden’s broad Democratic tent. For the second consecutive election, a group of Republican former national security officials endorsed Trump’s opponent. Because they share a common antipathy toward Trump, the Democratic Party is happy to join hands with Republicans who had been prominent architects and cheerleaders of some of the most disastrous American foreign policy decisions in recent history.
What that has meant is that the former Vice President’s foreign policy—unlike its domestic counterpart—could comfortably be simultaneously centrist and strongly anti-Trump. He can emphasize restoring American global leadership, out-tough President Trump on China, and criticize him for precipitous military withdrawals—positions that are all anathema to the left, yet at the same time plainly opposed to Trump’s.
The downside is that Biden runs the risk of ignoring some crucial questions the outgoing president asked about the United States’ role in the world—about the value of open-ended military commitments or the necessity to meet even with the most intransigent of American’s foes. The former Vice President was highly critical of Trump’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria and, while agreeing with the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, opposed the notion of a full pull-out, emphasizing the need to maintain some there in order to combat terrorism. He asserts his support for diplomacy, yet blamed his soon-to-be predecessor for meeting with Kim Jun Un.
It is hard to understand why Biden has simultaneously urged re-entering the JCPOA while also taking a far more bellicose rhetoric towards North Korea than Trump—until you remember that Trump opposes diplomacy with Iran, but supports negotiating with Kim Jong Un.
Another example is Russia. The Democratic Party’s stance with regards to the country has shifted dramatically since 2016, because the country represents not only an authoritarian regime with whom Trump is thought to be close—but an authoritarian regime that is viewed as largely responsible for his ascension to the presidency. Just eight years after Barack Obama ridiculed Mitt Romney for calling Russia the single biggest geopolitical threat facing the United States, Democrats more closely resemble Cold Warriors than Republicans do. The concerns over Russia may not be baseless, but the threat Putin poses to the United States has almost certainly been vastly exaggerated—and serves as another illustration of how single-minded fixation on opposing Trump can lead to questionable policy choices.
Over the last few years, figures on both the left and right have made piercing and important critiques of American foreign policy and global leadership. In their fixation on opposing that Trump has stood for, Biden and his foreign policy advisors have proved unable to walk that fine line of distancing themselves from the outgoing president’s dysfunctional approach without reverting to the unsatisfactory, pre-existing status quo.
Blaise Malley is a writer based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in The American Prospect.
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