Joe Biden is a foreign-policy rock star. Like his policies or not, he’s made international relations a pillar of his public service and persona, from chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he educated the freshman senator Barack Obama, to a vice presidency whose portfolio included the Iraq war. If he walked into the hall at the United Nations or NATO or policy conferences, he would be welcomed with a standing ovation from U.S. and allied delegates.
That’s probably why most Trump voters and many new-era progressives will hate him. He’s as establishment as it gets.
And that’s likely why his 2020 presidential campaign coming-out video, released Thursday, makes no overt mention of foreign policy. There is no reference to America’s counterterrorism wars. No talk of U.S. global leadership on the brink, nor of America’s continuing, robust, and very expensive global footprint. No mention of the border, the Iran deal, ISIS, NATO, not even the word “Russia.” Yet there were hints of what’s to come, if you listened closely.
In a campaign where Americans seemingly are at each other’s throats over domestic issues they claim could define the nation — immigration, free trade, guns, climate change, race and equal rights — even Biden knows what’s more important to voters today than, say, Syria. Just look at the setting for his video message. It wasn’t Baghdad, or Kabul, Paris or Pyongyang. It was Charlottesville, Virginia.
Biden bolted out of the gate going right at President Donald Trump by quoting one of Charlottseville’s own. Citing Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence, Biden proclaims that America remains in an unfinished fight for equality. Then, with the KKK marching across the screen, he recalls Trump’s characterization of white supremacists at Charlottesville’s 2017 riot: “very fine people.” Biden says that was the moment he knew he couldn’t sit this one out. (Why he waited so long to tell us, I guess we’ll find out later.) “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen,” Biden said in the video.
Over quick clips from history — the Iwo Jima flag-raising, Martin Luther King, Jr. — Biden says, “Folks, America is an idea — an idea stronger than any Army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on earth, it guarantees that everybody is treated with dignity, it gives hate no safe harbor.”
Indirectly but clearly, he rebukes Trump’s dictatorial approach to the presidency, his isolationist rhetoric aimed at pulling back from global leadership, his military-heavy approach to American power, his “build that wall” approach to border security and immigration, his permissiveness toward domestic extremism, and his encouragement of policies that threaten equality.
Read between the lines. Realize what Biden’s statement means for issues like confronting Russia, the United States’ standing within NATO, Defense and State Department spending, women in combat, transgender service members in the military, and confronting violent domestic extremism.
Biden left plenty to want. Despite his extensive record, he will have to make his positions clear on contemporary security issues like China, North Korea, nuclear modernization, and U.S. military interventions.
Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination probably know it may not be worth confronting him on foreign policy. Some may not disagree with him at all; others, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, already have planted their flags as non-interventionists and skeptics of the U.S. defense machine. Many will try to paint Biden as old and out of touch as they try to distinguish themselves on their own issues. You know, not on foreign policy, but rather the issues that the newly fired-up liberal base really go for: equality and race.
“We can’t forget what happened in Charlottesville. Even more important, we have to remember who we are. This is America,” Biden said Thursday, beating them to their punch.
We’re about to find out if he’s right.