His record should give us some clues.
As the pandemic crisis shows, the White House can decisively shape our global environment, for better or worse. Would the United States approach the world differently under a Joe Biden administration?
This should be an easy question to answer. Biden has nearly a half century of experience in Washington. He has served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met dozens of world leaders, and carried out high-level diplomatic missions as Barack Obama’s vice president. He is a charter member of the bipartisan coalition that believes the United States is called upon to guide the world. For decades he, like almost every other leading Democrat and Republican, has been telling Americans that we can be safe only if we spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year to project military power around the world. Based on this long record, it seems safe to predict that a Biden presidency would mean four more years of the confrontational policies that have produced war and suffering around the world during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.
Or maybe not. The world has changed dramatically in recent years. Our efforts to depose unfriendly governments like those in Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran have failed. Russia is not collapsing despite our best efforts. The reality of China’s rise has become undeniable. Americans are tiring of endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Our current health crisis suggests that some of the money we spend on weapons and wars might be better diverted to domestic programs like building a modern public health system. Given all of this, might Biden’s long-held views be changing — or might they change if he becomes president? Given his record, and the fact that he has surrounded himself with advisors who are immersed in Washington’s foreign policy “blob,” that seemsunlikely. The glimmer of possibility, however, is intriguing.
Little in Biden’s record suggests that he would back away from a foreign policy based on threats, coercion, sanctions, and war. He was an outspoken promoter of our 2003 invasion of Iraq. After Russia seized part of neighboring Ukraine in 2014, he insisted that Russia must be made to “pay in blood and money,” and tried unsuccessfully to persuade President Obama to supply heavy weapons to the Ukrainian army. He supports plotters who are seeking to overthrow the government of Venezuela. In January he cheered the American drone attack that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, insisting that Iran has “supported terror and sowed chaos” in the Middle East. He has promised to “get tough with China,” and rejected as “absolutely outrageous” the idea that the United States should consider reducing its military aid to Israel. Most tellingly, he has asserted that in world affairs, the United States must be “at the head of the table,” or else “chaos will ensue.”
Given Biden’s depressing willingness to embrace the worst aspects of our post-Cold War foreign policy, what basis is there to hope that his presidency would move the United States in a different direction? One remarkable item on his political resume suggests that he does not believe bombing countries and deposing foreign leaders is always a good idea. In 2011, as vice president, he urged President Obama not to launch the war that ended up transforming Libya from the most prosperous country in Africa to a failed state and breeding ground for terror. Although he voted for the 1995 law that imposed harsh sanctions on Cuba, he later supported President Obama’s decision to seek reconciliation. He also endorsed his boss’s nuclear accord with Iran. After decades of promoting Saudi Arabian interests, he now promises to end American support for the Saudi bombing of Yemen. He has pledged to “bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.”
Why, then, is Biden so reluctant to support a decisive break with policies that have devastated many countries while weakening American security? Part of the reason could be political. Biden’s managers have apparently concluded that he should not call for peace and international cooperation because Trump would then attack him as weak. This is a familiar fear. Past Democratic leaders, determined to show that they are as “tough” as any Republican, have embraced the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the “war on terror,” the Libya War, the Syria War, and crushing sanctions on countries that defy us. Yet at this moment, as we face a global health crisis, trying to out-jingo the Republicans might be a miscalculation.
For Americans who wish that our country would adopt a foreign policy based on collaboration rather than confrontation, a Biden fantasy can be alluring. Imagine him whispering something like this into our ears: “Vote for me, because as president, I might abandon the positions I’ve held for most of my life. I can’t say it in public, but I have come to see the failure of our past policies and want to steer our country away from militarism. Instead of searching relentlessly for foreign enemies, I’ll focus on reducing tensions and rebuilding our troubled nation.” That may not be realistic. Fantasies rarely are. Voters who hope for a more peaceful world, however, may be forgiven for dreaming this one.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.