“The world does not organize itself.” That’s the standout line in Joe Biden’s keynote article in January’s Foreign Affairs, in which the presumptive Democratic nominee laid out his vision for America’s role in global security. It’s also the one to which Americans should be prepared to hold him accountable if the former vice president beats Donald Trump in November.
In speeches and statements and interviews, the candidate and his advisors have been sketching out a foreign policy that would put the United States, as Biden has said, “back at the head of the table.” And over the past month, Defense One asked dozens of his aides, advisors, surrogates, and former Obama administration colleagues what the world might expect from his presidency. What they said is that Biden may not radically change the nation’s military, deviate from the era’s so-called great power competition, or even slash the bottom line of the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget. But how that money is spent, how the United States competes, and how the military is deployed to advance American interests certainly would.
But if Biden wins, will the world follow him? Will Americans?
Part 1: What if Joe Biden Wins?
Part 2: Biden’s China Policy Starts With Building a Stronger America
Part 3: How Biden Would Wage Great Power Competition
Part 4: ’How Much and How Fast’: Biden Watchers Anticipate Defense Spending Crunch
“During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy,” Biden wrote in January. (He first said it in July.) He would like governments to emerge with renewed commitments on human rights, corruption, and authoritarian regimes.
This, of course, would mark a U-turn from Trump, who has preferred bilateral exchanges of sweet-talk with dictators (China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman) and other corrupt leaders (Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro). Although Trump has participated in global conferences, often leaving disheartened allies in his wake, he has never convened world leaders or U.S. allies to a summit — say, to organize against American’s strategic competitors, nor for peace talks in Syria or Afghanistan, or even for the global economic rebalancing he seeks.
That’s notable, because for years — at least two or three decades — some national security scholars and leaders have called for a summit-level effort to remake the liberal international order into something more reflective and useful to the real world today, something as bold as those that created the current order that governed states since World War II. Under Trump’s “America First,” there will never be a new Bretton Woods, or Yalta, or Vienna, or Camp David, or Oslo, or Dayton.
Biden is promising such an event next year. (Or, he was, before the coronavirus pandemic cancelled conferences around the world.) He says it will focus on democracy, and will focus on deliverables, not photo-ops of world leaders shaking hands. He’s also reaching past the elites and bureaucrats, promising to make NGOs and tech companies central to the summit. He’ll press them on their responsibilities as carriers of free speech and disinformation, he says.
What Biden and his supporters describe is a plan to reconnect the world through American foreign policy to average Americans and citizens. He’s calling it “a foreign policy for the middle class” — which sounds like a counter-populist answer to the criticism and backlash against globalization that helped bring about the Trump presidency and Brexit. It’s the establishment “blob” trying to find a way to save globalization without saying “globalization,” but recast and rethought.
If Americans buy it, it could work. But if it comes across as anti-business and pro-”workers of the world, unite,” well, one can already hear the cries of “Socialism!” and “World government!” coming from Trump’s campaign, not to mention the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.
Two weeks ago, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s former national security adviser and director of policy planning at the State Department, said foreign policy-makers have become too “comfortable” with old thinking. No longer should the U.S. equate the desire of multinational corporations to access new markets as a national security interest. “Instead, we should be asking what is going to grow and sustain a strong middle class. What policies will do that?” Sullivan said, in a preview of what’s to come.
Part of achieving that wider connection is a call by Biden supporters (and historic opponents, such as former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, this month) to further demilitarize foreign policy and invest in non-military tools of diplomacy, development, and institutions. The idea is that it’s long overdue for the U.S. government to get back into the Cold War mindset of aggressively spreading all that is good about America to the world — because China is beating America in the battle for global influence. It’s not much different from what Obama wanted to do in 2008, after seven years of unexpectedly prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“As president, I will elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy. I will reinvest in the diplomatic corps, which this administration has hollowed out, and put U.S. diplomacy back in the hands of genuine professionals,” Biden wrote in January.
But he has not outlined specifics for that plan, nor how he’ll execute it. It may not cost much, compared to the Pentagon’s war chest, but it would require White House leadership and political buy-in from Congress. It would require enormous federal and private spending to pay for a wish list that also includes massive domestic infrastructure projects in roads, rails, and energy; student loan forgiveness; higher wages; and on and on. Added up, all of Biden’s reimaginings sound like a 21st-century version of the New Deal, which could send the GOP Senate and conservative American into convulsions. Abroad, it may not be America First, but is definitely American-led.
If Biden wins, will anybody follow?