Jonathan Bernstein

A Biden Surprise: Bipartisan Foreign Policy

It’s time to give President Joe Biden credit for achieving something no one predicted: bipartisanship in foreign policy.

The Senate on Wednesday delivered a victory for Biden’s foreign policy agenda, voting almost unanimously to admit Finland and Sweden into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Previously, Biden was able to get the Ukraine aid he has asked for. That Senate vote in May also was truly bipartisan, with all the Democrats joined by 39 of the 50 Republicans; that was after House Republicans voted nearly 3-to-1 in favor of the bill.

Overall, choices by a group of Republican senators are the top reason that the all-out obstruction many of us expected in the face of Democratic unified government hasn’t come to pass. From an infrastructure bill to a gun safety law to legislation promoting domestic computer-chip production, some Republicans have chosen to buck their own party and negotiate rather than resorting to knee-jerk opposition. It also helps a lot that Democrats have been open to compromise and that Biden has a legislator’s get-things-done mindset. That has allowed everyone to wind up with deals that they could live with.

But it’s on foreign policy that we’re seeing true bipartisan consensus. Much of the credit for that belongs with Biden.

It would be easy to argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin is more responsible for US unity when it comes to Europe than Biden, and to some extent that’s true. It’s also true that Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, has done a terrific job of making his cause popular around the world, and that Ukrainian troops prevented the quick collapse that many expected.

But Biden made the risky choice to respond forcefully to Putin’s aggression, even at considerable political cost in the form of higher gas prices and overall inflation. Ukraine could have proved to be a less appealing or less competent ally. The costs to US consumers could have been even more damaging to Biden (and still could be; gas prices are plummeting now, but they’re still a lot higher than a year ago and could easily reverse course as the war in Europe drags on).

Biden’s decisions have turned the war into a broader rally around NATO and international cooperation — which is exactly the larger purpose that Biden and most Democratic (and many Republican) foreign policy professionals thought was needed after Donald Trump’s presidency.

Republicans have criticized Biden on a few foreign policy matters, most notably on the botched exit from Afghanistan and Biden’s continued efforts to re-enter the deal with Iran designed to prevent that nation from getting nuclear weapons. But those are exceptions.

Perhaps one of the reasons Biden has been successful at keeping Republicans on board is that he hasn’t attacked Trump’s foreign policy any more than he needed to. He built upon Trump-era diplomacy between Israel and Arab nations. He hasn’t abandoned Trump’s initiative in moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Even experts who thought that move was too risky generally don’t believe that once it happened there was any point in reversing it. (Trump, of course, looked for places to reverse former President Barack Obama’s policies regardless of whether it made any sense.)

Even the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the risk of the Taliban benefiting was basically just continuing a Trump policy, though it’s far from clear that Trump would have gone ahead with it. In other words, Biden has made it relatively easy for Republicans to support many of his foreign policy and national security priorities.

It probably helps, too, that outside the debacle at the Kabul airport the US hasn’t suffered troop deaths in foreign conflicts during Biden’s presidency — a sharp contrast with his three immediate predecessors. Nor has there been any noticeable uptick in actions by foreign terrorists. And the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike can’t hurt.

Another reason for Biden’s success is Trump’s failure to win support within the Republican Party for much of his foreign policy agenda. During his presidency, both Congress and the executive branch, including the military, regularly rolled Trump on foreign policy questions. Post-presidency, Trump seems to be doing a good job of undermining confidence among Republicans in the fair administration of elections. But on other domestic and most foreign policy questions, Republicans appear to be mostly resisting him. The areas where they oppose Biden — the Iran deal, for example — are longstanding, pre-Trump policy positions. Beyond that? Outside of a handful of elected officials, Trump’s anti-NATO, anti-internationalist agenda just doesn’t seem to be catching on. At least not yet.