Biden’s Foreign Policy Would Be Better Than Trump's, But Just Barely

The former vice president lacks a consistent philosophy of when and how to use military force.

Joe Biden has been wrong a lot on foreign and defense policy. A lot. This year’s presumptive Democratic presidential nominee voted against the 1991 Gulf War, in which the United States and a broad multinational coalition quickly achieved their goals, and in favor of the 2003 Iraq War, and regretted both votes. Years into hostilities, he opposed the troop surges that brought some stability to both Iraq and Afghanistan and even insisted that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” He argued for carving Iraq into sectarian statelets even as Iraqis voted for cross-sectarian political lists. And he opposed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. These stances suggest not only that he lacks a philosophy of how to use military force effectively, but also that his instincts on when to use it are often faulty.

Perhaps for that reason, Biden was seldom a major force in American foreign and defense policy during more than three decades in the Senate—even though he served as the chairman of its Foreign Relations Committee. But he has shown an embarrassing tendency to embellish his contributions, such as claiming he was responsible for ending genocide in Bosnia.

Robert Gates, who served as the secretary of defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in his 2014 memoir that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Last year, Gates reiterated his concerns. “I think that the vice president had some issues with the military,” he declared on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Biden and his campaign are smart enough to pick up on the easy wins afforded by President Donald Trump’s disastrous foreign policies. A President Biden would work with allies and through multilateral institutions and would return to international agreements, along the lines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that advantage the United States. He would surely be a less corrosive force on civil-military issues than Trump, whose threats to use the U.S. armed forces to quell protests have caused alarm both at home and among American allies abroad. Biden wouldn’t invoke national security to impose tariffs on allies such as Canada or divert money appropriated for our military by Congress to other purposes. Those policy corrections alone would go a long way to restoring trust and confidence in American international leadership.

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Yet while Biden might prove steadier than the incumbent on foreign policy, that is a low standard. And on some issues, Biden seems either to share Trump’s reflexes or accept his basic premises, raising the question of how much a Biden administration would change the substance of American policies.

Trump rails against trade; Biden so far has shown little inclination to defend it. And while Biden castigates Trump for withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his own approach toward trade throughout his career has been more partisan than philosophical. The former Delaware senator voted with Democratic presidents and mostly against deals negotiated by Republicans. During the Bush administration, he voted against trade agreements with Singapore, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Oman. His 2020 campaign, as The Atlantic’s David Frum recently noted, has not staked out firm positions on trade matters, amid growing protectionist sentiment in his party and in Washington more generally. To those of us who continue to believe in the benefits of trade, Biden’s current ambiguity is arguably more encouraging than Hillary Clinton’s winking claim that she’d abandon the TPP, or Obama’s campaign claim in 2008 that he’d renegotiate NAFTA. But Biden’s positions will be shaped more by the political winds than by principled support of a globalized economic system, and are unlikely to produce much-needed initiatives to strengthen the multilateral trading system.

Meanwhile, Trump’s and Biden’s positions on Afghanistan are indistinguishable: Both vow to “end the forever wars” by withdrawing American troops, but neither has a plan for what happens after that. Biden said last year that Trump’s withdrawal from Syria was “a complete failure,” yet he advocates the same policy for other places. When talking about Syria, Biden rightly asks, “Who will stand with us if the United States is reduced to an unreliable partner?” But he neglects to apply that standard to abandoning Afghanistan, where 60 allies have fought alongside the U.S.

Biden’s favored strategy of “counterterrorism plus” underinvests in political relationships with countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq that have shaky governments in volatile circumstances. It relies—just as Trump does—on drone strikes and special forces to reach into countries and kill people whom the U.S. fears. That approach embitters the very people striving to create the political conditions that are ultimately the solution to terrorism. Overall, Biden’s reflexes are to provide little political assistance to countries in transition. That is a recipe for failed states, and failed states produce not only terrorists but also refugees, and they invite foreign intervention by neighboring states and aspiring hegemons.

This half-in-half-out approach to military intervention also strips U.S. foreign policy of its moral element of making the world a better place. It is inadequate to the cause of advancing democracy and human rights. Biden claims that the U.S. has a moral obligation to respond with military force to genocide or chemical-weapons use, but was skeptical of intervention in Syria. The former vice president’s rhetoric doesn’t match his policies on American values.

As for defense policy, neither Trump nor Biden appears to have a view about what the size and sticker price for U.S. forces ought to be. Biden seems to think America has spent too much on “traditional warfare” while also believing we need to retain military superiority. He merely waves his hands and vaguely supports more emphasis on America’s space and cyberdefense capabilities.

The November election is still months away, and the pandemic, by drawing attention away from the presidential campaign, has given Biden space to refine and improve the specifics of his policy proposals. But the problem with Biden, as with Trump, is a failure of judgment on important national-security issues. A president can make up for a lack of it by appointing sensible people and being willing to be persuaded by sound arguments on specific policies. And Biden has a much better record of compromise resulting in good policies than does Trump. But Biden’s continued advocacy of muddled and mistaken foreign policies shouldn’t be overlooked, and he can best help his cause by quietly rebooting them.