How Joe Biden can create a foreign policy that sticks around

Allies have learned to expect American foreign policy to swing wildly from administration to administration. Here's how Biden can fix that.

Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

President-elect Joe Biden will come into office significantly constrained in domestic policy by a Senate likely to be in Republican hands. Indeed, even if Democrats manage to triumph in the two Georgia runoff elections, or eke out a win in Alaska based on late mail-in ballots, that would put his agenda in the hands of Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and John Tester of Montana who are on the conservative end of their caucus. He still has opportunities to push forward his agenda, but only if he can find partners across the aisle.

But in foreign policy, presidents generally have a freer hand. Biden is hardly a novice in foreign affairs, and has already announced that among his first acts as president will be to reach out to allies and let them know: America is back. In a full-spectrum diplomatic offensive, he plans to rejoin the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal, to reinvigorate the New START negotiations with Russia, and to restore America's relations with its NATO allies. This is surely one area where Biden can score quick successes, build political capital, and improve America's position without having to worry about Republican support.

Sadly, it isn't that simple.

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In 2009, President Barack Obama was greeted by cheers in numerous foreign capitals, and even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, simply for not being George W. Bush. But Obama's honeymoon didn't last long, and by the time he left office his reputation was tarnished on multiple fronts: with Europeans who felt ignored (even though Obama wound up supporting their war in Libya and very nearly engaging in another war they supported in Syria); with East Asian allies concerned about an increasingly bellicose China; and with Israel and the Gulf states alarmed by his rhetorical support for the Arab Spring and the nuclear deal with Iran.

And then, of course, Obama was replaced by Donald Trump, who reversed course nearly everywhere. He tore up agreements with abandon, initiated a trade war with China without any plan for winning it, escalated America's support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, questioned the continued purpose of NATO, initiated personal diplomacy with North Korea, all under a rhetorical umbrella of "America First" that in practice meant, "America doing whatever seems like a good idea to Donald Trump at the time, without regard to any larger strategy."

The world has learned from both experiences. They have learned not to expect miracles, but to expect wild swings from one administration to the next. Rivals and allies alike have learned to doubt America's commitments — and they've also learned that policies they don't like can be undermined by currying favor with the party out of power. Given that reality, how is Biden supposed to restore America to anything like its prior position?

The short answer is he isn't — but that doesn't mean he can't make any progress on issues important to America and to the world. To be successful, Biden may have to limit his ambitions in certain ways. But he has the opportunity to set America on a more stable course for decades to come — if he can build bi-partisan support for a foreign policy that, in reality, will be less a pure restoration than a mixture of continuity and consolidation.

Take American policy towards China, for example. During the Obama era, America's principal objective was to induce China to accede to and rise within an American-led framework on trade and security. In that sense, Obama represented continuity with the prior three administrations, albeit with far clearer understanding of the sheer scale of China's power.

That policy wasn't working, and it's now entirely obsolete. Trump has torn the Obama-era framework up, while China has evolved into a more explicitly authoritarian and personalist regime with clear ambitions for regional hegemony. In the wake of Trump's trade war, commercial relations across the Pacific are deeply uncertain, with the "great decoupling" substantially irreversible. Meanwhile, America's Asian allies from Tokyo to New Delhi see China as a clear and present threat, and are looking for proof Biden sees the threat similarly.

Biden has, in fact, taken a harder line on China in his campaign than he ever did before. But he's also eager to re-engage with Beijing on trade and climate change, and he's surely anxious to avoid escalation of any dispute to open military conflict. That's a set of goals in clear tension with one another, arguably even in mutual contradiction. It would be a difficult balancing act to pull off in the best of circumstances — and these are not the best of circumstances. Nor can Biden decide simply to lean one way or the other, toward conciliation or hostility. Biden should recall how Israel and the Gulf States worked to undermine American diplomacy with Iran when he was vice president, and recognize America's East Asian allies may well do the same thing if he reaches for any kind of agreement with Beijing. But continuity in confrontation may well get Biden into trouble with his own party — not to mention running a very real risk of war.

What America needs on China is neither restoration nor continuity but clarity. America's policy toward China hasn't been coherent in over two decades, and an incoherent policy is bound to fail. But a coherent and durable policy can only be constructed on a bi-partisan basis. China's rise is such a serious challenge to American power, that however we are to meet it, we can only do so if it is grounded in authentic American interests and supported by a broad range of American political opinion. Neither of the last two presidents achieved that goal. If Biden is going to do it, he isn't going to do it alone.

The Middle East, meanwhile, represents almost the polar opposite case. The Bush administration was consumed by its adventures in the region, and both Obama and Trump — who ran respectively against "stupid wars" and "forever wars" — largely failed to extricate us from our military engagements, and even increased them in some cases. But that goal should remain the key objective of American policy: to reduce our footprint and the scope of our obligations without causing the region to descend into chaos.

That means winding down the war in Yemen, which Biden has promised to do, and ending the war in Afghanistan, even if the U.S. has to give up the anti-terrorism base Biden would like to retain. These necessary moves are sure to embolden anti-American elements in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere to test whether America is committed to maintaining our presence in the region. The reality, though, is we aren't — our commitments are limited. If Biden doesn't want to get sucked into another Middle Eastern war, that means he has to be clear with our regional allies about the nature and scope of support they can count on, so they can adjust their own policies accordingly.

To achieve that kind of strategic withdrawal, Biden needs to make sure his policies are not undermined by opportunistic hawkishness on the part of the GOP. That means calling their bluffs, repeatedly, if they call for military action, making them vote for it rather than passing the buck. He should feel pretty confident no such vote would be forthcoming. But it also means acknowledging the true shape of reality in the region. The Trump administration's major diplomatic accomplishment was peace between Israel and several Arab states. That peace is underwritten by fear of Iran, but it is also what makes it possible for America to withdraw further. Biden shouldn't be shy about giving credit where it is due, and about describing his policy as more continuous with both of his predecessors than a sharp reversal.

The one area where Biden truly does promise something like a restoration is in America's relations with Europe. But what he's promising is a restoration not of Obama's policy but of Reagan's or even Truman's. Biden has changed his mind about nearly everything in his long political career, but he has been a committed Atlanticist throughout. It is worth noting, though, that Atlanticism has been a waning tendency for decades now. Trump has repeatedly undermined NATO, but before him Obama bragged about being the first Pacific president, and Bush pointedly snubbed major NATO allies in constructing a "coalition of the willing" for his Iraq adventure. For decades, America has seen Europe as a wealthy but institutionally weak and declining continent, eager to judge us for our misdeeds but unwilling to provide for its own defense or assist us in the task of global governance.

Even if there is justice in that view — and there certainly is some — its contempt makes a healthy trans-Atlantic relationship impossible. But Americans should also reckon with the degree to which the very European behavior they criticize is in part a consequence of American actions. We encouraged the promiscuous expansion both of NATO and the EU, while discouraging European countries from building an independent foreign policy and military capacity on either an individual state level or at the EU level. We have turned NATO into a force multiplier for American policy rather than a true alliance. If Biden wants to turn it back into a proper alliance, he'll need to change that attitude on America's part.

That would be a significant departure, but one that could bear dividends across a range of American interests. Europe has far greater interest in a stable Middle East (and a stable Africa) than America does. It is absurd, therefore, that America continues to shoulder most of the diplomatic and military burden in those regions. We should want Europe to be more independent precisely because we want them to be more capable. Meanwhile, in confronting China on issues like climate change, or the spread of its authoritarian influence through key technologies, America will be far more effective in partnership with Europe than going alone.

The good news for Biden on this front is that nowhere has Trump been more out of step with his own party leadership than in his denigration of the Atlantic alliance. So finding partners across the aisle should not be difficult. Instead the challenge will be to convince them the alliance itself needs to change in fundamental ways. But since America's bad habits have also been bi-partisan, this is one instance where the effectiveness of Biden's leadership is somewhat unloosed from partisan constraints — which is lucky, because it may be the area requiring the greatest creativity.

The old saw says that politics stops at the water's edge. That was never really true, and it has gotten less and less true in recent decades — which is one reason American foreign policy has been increasingly ineffective. Restoring America's place in the world, and the effectiveness of our foreign policy, will require a greater degree of consensus about what that policy should be. And that can only come as a product of doing politics successfully within America first.

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Noah Millman

Noah Millman is a screenwriter and filmmaker, a political columnist and a critic. From 2012 through 2017 he was a senior editor and featured blogger at The American Conservative. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Politico, USA Today, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, Modern Age, First Things, and the Jewish Review of Books, among other publications. Noah lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.