Biden Offers an Obama-Trump Cocktail
Biden Offers an Obama-Trump Cocktail
If elected next November, Joe Biden would be the US president with the longest association with foreign policy. We say association because he has had both direct and indirect experience in the field. For almost 30 years as a senator, including tenures as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden had a vantage observation post. Then, with eight years as Barack Obama’s Vice President, he gained practical experience.
So, when it comes to foreign policy the man should be heard. As the presidential campaign heads for the home-stretch, Biden touts his foreign policy credentials with speeches, talks to think-tanks and last week, a paper in 80 pages.
What does one learn from all that?
The first thing is that Biden does not offer any new ideas to make headline-writers jump for joy.
Most of the time he either promises a back-to-the-future revival of Obama’s policy or a less sensational version of what Donald Trump is doing as President.
The calculation behind this may be Biden’s wish to appear as conciliator, winning support from the Obamaists without antagonizing Trumpists.
The second thing one learns is that, though aware of the fact that the post-World War order is in trouble, Biden does not see this as a structural problem but as a series of defects to be fixed with partial repairs and redecoration.
He has little to say on reforming the United Nations and more than 30 other organizations atrophied into irrelevant or even harmful bureaucracies.
Trump has pointed out the problem without offering a solution apart from walking away on some occasions. Biden’s ambiguity on this may be understandable because, as a conservative politician, he is wary of radical options, something that might enrage the Bernie Sanders crowd.
Next, Biden is careless with terminology. When talking of relations with China and Russia, for example, he is not quite sure how to describe them. At times they are “a challenge” and at others they are labelled “rivals” or “adversaries.”
Biden says he agrees with Trump that China, a “serious challenge”, cheats on trade rules, grants subsidies to its businesses, steals intellectual property, and has destroyed millions of jobs in the US. But then he castigates Trump’s “confrontational approach” to China.
What would he do? Biden would demand “more transparency” from China. He would also “work with allies” to develop a common policy. But that requires US leadership and that, in turn, needs a strategy to present to the allies. There is none.
On Russia, Biden again agrees with Trump that it is “assaulting the foundations of Western democracies”, a clearly sensational charge.
What is to be done?
Biden suggests consulting with allies to adopt sanctions with “meaningful cost to Russia.”
On some issues he adopts Obama’s kick-the-can method.
On Iran, for example, he wants to revive the Obama “nuke deal” known as JCPOA provided Tehran does a number of unspecified things. He repeats Trump’s assertion that the US will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but isn’t seeking regime change either.
He repeats Trump’s claim that Iran is a de-stabilizing factor, but adds that there should be no war on Iran. He approves Trump’s decision to order the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani as “justice for his role”.
Biden also kicks the can down the road on Venezuela, branding President Nicolas Maduro “a tyrant” and endorsing Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of his nation. So, what to do?
Again Biden suggests consulting allies.
Biden describes NATO as “most enduring alliance in history”, something that reminds one of Richard Nixon’s quip in front of the Great Wall in China: “The Great Wall is great!” However, Biden again offers no ideas to revitalize the alliance.
He singles out Turkey, a NATO ally, for bitter attacks and says he would withdraw US nuclear weapons from there. He says Turkey should “pay a heavy price”, and promises to support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opponents, presumably under Fethullah Gulen who forged close ties with the Obama administration.
Biden’s catch-phrase “our allies” suffers from ambiguity.
He talks of a “return to great power competition” involving the US, China and Russia, no mention of Europeans. He revives Dick Cheney’s concept of “a coalition of the willing”, suggesting “a summit of democracies” but does not say who would be invited. Right now half of the 193 members of the UN could be regarded as democracies of various degrees of legitimacy.
Obama’s “leading from behind” method makes a comeback with Biden on many issues.
He talks of China’s imprisonment of 1.2 million Uighurs. But he finds no word stronger than “unconscionable” to describe the crime. What to do? Biden’s answer: “Consult with allies and the UN” but the US should not take the lead.
Biden wants to revive Obama’s Trans-Pacific-Partnership scheme and commits himself to defending Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and South Korea, against Chinese threats. But he forgets that China is also a threat to the Philippines and Vietnam not to mention Taiwan with which the US has special defense arrangements.
On North Korea, Biden ridicules Trump’s personal diplomacy and promises never to meet Kim Jong-un while suggesting more negotiations with Pyongyang.
On the Israel-Palestine issue, Biden says he is “a proud Zionist” and supports a two-state solution while insisting he would exert no financial pressure on Israel to change its policies. He also endorses Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Like Trump, Biden wants to end the US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Afghanistan he wants to pursue Trump’s quest for a deal with Taliban. And on Iraq, he forgets that the withdrawal accord was made under President George W Bush but delayed under Obama.
Biden disagrees with Trump on withdrawal from Syria, calling it a “betrayal.” but forgets that Obama didn’t want any involvement.
Biden agrees with Trump on spending more on the military but says he wouldn’t use force except “in defense of our vital interests”, a Bidenian palisade. The only threat to vital interest he cites is “disruption in the flow of oil” but then he threatens moves that could wreck US relations with some of its oil-exporting allies. The “war on terror” will continue with drones and air strikes as during Obama’s presidency.
The Obama-Trump cocktail offered by Biden could keep the US on an uncertain trajectory for four more years. There is one thing that Biden may be able to do: rebuild the bureaucratic underpinnings of US foreign policy that is badly shaken by the Trumpian wrecking ball.