A Preview of Biden's Foreign Policy
A Preview of Biden's Foreign Policy
I got to know Joe Biden when I was a combatant commander for the Barack Obama administration, first at the US Southern Command and then most deeply in my four years at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Once, at a dinner hosted by America’s NATO ambassador in Brussels, I watched the then-vice president meet with ambassadors and foreign ministers from the 27 other nations then in the alliance.
Biden walked around the large table and was able to comment in depth on any number of the countries, from huge Germany to tiny Iceland, with a short vignette about a visit to this or that city, or a telling anecdote concerning a head of state, or a comment on current policy. This was not the result of memorized crib sheets from his staff: Biden did it off the top of his head, and it was a natural and unforced demonstration of his long term of service not just domestically, but also in the larger world.
While the 2020 election campaign understandably focused on domestic issues, Biden is a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and reinforcing America’s geopolitical primacy will be high on his agenda.
He will bring a deeply experienced team of foreign and security policy advisers with him into government, many veterans of the Obama administration. Having worked alongside nearly all of them, I would say this might be the deepest initial bench any president has brought to the White House in the post-Vietnam era. Among them: Nicholas Burns, William Burns and Tony Blinken held top jobs at the State Department; Avril Haines and Michael Morell similarly helped guide the CIA; Michele Flournoy, Lisa Monaco and Jeh Johnson filled senior roles involving defense and homeland security; Susan Rice was ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser.
Whether all of these serious players will take on official roles remains to be seen, but it is a very good start. And a real strength of a Biden foreign policy team would likely be stability. Donald Trump has had four national security advisers in as many years. Look for members of a Biden team to have long terms.
As we begin to contemplate the Joe Biden approach to the world, it is worth examining the similarities and differences with the outgoing Trump administration. It may come as a surprise, but many aspects of foreign and security policy will likely continue on their current trajectory, albeit with different style and grace notes.
Biden has signaled that he intends to take a relatively tough stance on China, for example. This will include continuing to address the pre-Covid basket of challenges the US has with Beijing: claims of territoriality and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea; trade and tariff imbalances; intellectual property theft; and shadowy conflicts in cybersecurity.
There will also be continuing pressure on various terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, the so-called ISIS, and Al Shabaab in East Africa. Likewise with economic and diplomatic pressure on the corrupt Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela. And the general idea of bringing home troops from “the forever wars” is likely, albeit at a more measured pace based on conditions on the ground.
But the differences are going to be far more pronounced than the similarities. At the top of the list will be an immediate (and sensible) return to the Paris Climate Accords, moving the US back into a leadership role in international environmental efforts. This is a potential zone of cooperation with China that I suspect will be explored seriously.
This more collegial global effort in climate will lay alongside a generally higher appreciation for cooperation with other international organizations: the World Health Organization and other United Nations entities; regional groups such as the Organization of American States and Association of Southeast Asian Nations; and, dear to my heart, NATO.
Similarly, this team will be more inclined to invest in treaties as tools to help shape the world in ways that help US objectives. At the top of the list will be a new strategic arms limitation agreement with Russia, to replace the expiring New START pact, and perhaps over time with China. Russia has signaled a willingness to hammer out an accord.
A Biden administration will also consider revisiting the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, which was abandoned by the Trump administration; the open skies agreement for nuclear weapons verification; and possibly the Iranian nuclear deal. All of this will signal a return to classic diplomacy.
I am being asked often about the defense budget under President Biden. Despite some calls from the left wing of the Democratic Party to slash defense deeply, I suspect the dollar amount will stay flat or drop by a percentage or two.
There will, however, be a realignment within that budget to emphasize 21st-century tools of warfare: cybersecurity; unmanned vehicles (not just aerial drones, but also satellites, unmanned submarines, and surface ships); Special Forces; hypersonic weapons; and artificial intelligence. This will come at the expense, probably, of troop levels and some number of very expensive large platforms (aircraft carriers and Army brigade combat teams). Modernization of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, begun under Obama, may be put on hold.
In terms of individual nations, the degree of similarity and difference between Trump and Biden will vary. Iran should expect a return to negotiations, but not to the exact previous nuclear deal. North Korea may find a willingness to consider creative solutions, such as allowing it some number of nuclear weapons but with restrictions and inspections on delivery systems.