World Events

Joe Biden’s First Diplomatic Fight Will Be at Home

“It’s that arc that lots of people went through: overestimating, sobering up and becoming more cautious,” says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

That said, Biden is not veering anywhere near isolationism. He extols the virtues of international alliances, a feature that distinguishes him from Trump. He has vowed to devote more resources to diplomacy while indicating he won’t slash and burn the Pentagon’s budget. And while Biden may pull regular combat troops from countries like Afghanistan, he is expected to keep some Special Forces there to pursue the anti-terrorism fight. In other words, the forever wars won’t truly end.

One striking feature of Biden’s foreign policy plan that should delight many progressives is its extensive focus on domestic and economic issues. Under the umbrella of foreign policy, Biden has included goals such as restoring the Voting Rights Act, ending the practice of anonymous shell companies and raising the minimum wage to $15—the notion being that the United States must tackle its own economic and democratic challenges if it is to have the strength to lead the world. He also strongly emphasizes the need to promote democracy abroad, another distinction from Trump. And Biden promises to use America’s trade might, ideally in partnership with fellow democracies, to “shape the future rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor to trade to transparency, nonproliferation to cyber theft, and data privacy to artificial intelligence.”

Biden isn’t the first presidential contender to talk about the concept of “nation-building at home”—Obama and even Trump did so. But Biden and his aides talk as if they actually mean it, promising to ignore age-old silos and treat foreign, domestic and economic policies as essentially one body. Some progressive foreign policy thinkers argue this is a must, especially given that U.S. adversaries like China weaponize their economic power to shape political relationships with other countries. They also assert that progressives will not tolerate foreign policy justifications for economic policies (including trade deals) that exacerbate inequality in the United States. The coronavirus pandemic, progressives say, has brought home just how interconnected even health policy is with international affairs and the global economy. While progressives say they won’t rest on their laurels if Biden wins, there’s hope that, with public sentiments increasingly against overseas military adventurism, Biden can follow through on this integrated approach.

Privately, top Biden aides say they understand that the world has changed and new formulas are needed. Some Biden advisers, in particular Jake Sullivan, a former Obama administration national security aid and top hand to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, have devoted extensive time since that brutal loss to studying ways to integrate foreign, domestic and economic policies. Under headlines like “America Needs a New Economic Philosophy” and “Competition Without Catastrophe,” Sullivan, who did not respond to a request for comment, has authored or co-authored a number of essays laying out progressive-tinged visions for the Middle East, China and U.S. funding for national security.

Murphy, for one, says he is willing to give these Obama-era veterans the benefit of the doubt. “I obviously am rooting for some new faces to show up at the State Department, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council,” he says, “but I also have seen how many of the people who were making policy in the Obama administration have changed some of their views. … Some eyes have opened to some of the mistakes of the Obama administration.”

As Castro puts it, “the world has changed a lot” since the Obama years, not least because of the extremes of the Trump years. “Bear in mind,” he says, “with President Trump we’ve moved away from that Obama baseline a lot.”

Few American political figures can match Biden’s international Rolodex. He has, after all, been around long enough to have met China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, as well as its current increasingly authoritarian ruler, Xi Jinping. Biden, with his love of personal banter and overall charm, provided a helpful counterpoint to Obama, whom foreign leaders often found cool and too focused on the business at hand. Biden aides say he has a perennial line that goes along with his approach: “All foreign policy is an extension of personal relationships.”

Michael Gwin, a campaign spokesman, touted Biden’s global acquaintances as a key reason the candidate is uniquely qualified to steer the United States away from Trump’s “chaos” and reestablish “the alliances and the trust in the United States that have long made us the most powerful country in the world.”


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