On Foreign Policy, Biden Is The Anti-Trump
Joe Biden delivered his first major foreign policy address of the campaign. It's not perfect, but it's better than what we have right now.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden made the first major foreign policy address of his campaign for the Democratic nomination, seeking to highlight what many believe is a distinct area of advantage for him over his challengers:
After spending two weeks sparring with his presidential primary opponents, Joseph R. Biden Jr. sought once more to rise above the Democratic fray on Thursday, delivering a sweeping foreign policy address that denounced President Trump as incapable of global leadership and called for a new commitment to multilateral diplomacy.
In broad but unequivocal terms, Mr. Biden offered a scathing assessment of Mr. Trump’s leadership, saying the president’s judgment has tarnished the country’s reputation abroad and undermined its ability to achieve its foreign policy goals. As a counterpoint, Mr. Biden set forth his own foreign policy vision that he said was needed to restore America’s position as a global leader, including working with other countries toward collective aims.
“The threat that I believe President Trump poses to our national security and where we are as a country is extreme,” Mr. Biden said in a midday speech in New York City. He criticized the president’s “chest-thumping” and called him inept at global and domestic leadership.
Returning again and again to themes of democracy and American values, Mr. Biden delivered a message of unity over division and promised to reverse many of Mr. Trump’s decisions. He referred to President Barack Obama, for whom he served as vice president for eight years, with a tone that seemed intended to soothe and fortify voters disenchanted with Mr. Trump’s brash style of statecraft and “America First” philosophy. Mr. Biden spoke of American values — freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press — and alluded to the Statue of Liberty.
Among his specific proposals was a plan to convene and host a summit of the world’s democracies in his first year as president “to put strengthening democracy back on the global stage.”
“Leaders who attend must come prepared to cooperate and make concrete commitments to take on corruption and advance human rights in their own nations,” Mr. Biden said. The summit, he said, would also challenge the private sector, including technology companies and social media giants, to commit to countering both censorship and the spread of hate.
Mr. Biden said he would also rejoin the Paris climate accord as a component of his global plan to confront climate change, and he pledged to reverse Mr. Trump’s “detrimental asylum policies.”
“If we focus, this is not a moment to fear,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s a time for us to tap into the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.”
The former vice president’s initiatives would constitute a renewed embrace of multilateralism, and a rebuke of Mr. Trump’s policy of spurning international agreements and denigrating institutions like NATO.
Mr. Biden’s speech on Thursday also represented an effort to bring the campaign back to where he is most comfortable: above the crowded Democratic field, seeking to cast the contest as a head-to-head matchup against Mr. Trump.
In a seven-page fact sheet that accompanied Mr. Biden’s speech, he provided a three-pronged blueprint for accomplishing his foreign policy agenda, including specific early actions he would undertake as president, both domestically and abroad. He pledged, for instance, to reform the criminal justice system and to dedicate resources to protect the election system — a nod to the foreign meddling that bedeviled the 2016 presidential election. He also vowed to end family separation at the southern border and to discontinue Mr. Trump’s travel ban.
“Democracy is the root of our society, the wellspring of our power, and the source of our renewal,” he wrote. “It strengthens and amplifies our leadership to keep us safe in the world. It is the engine of our ingenuity that drives our economic prosperity. It is the heart of who we are and how we see the world — and how the world sees us.”
From the outset, Mr. Biden assailed Mr. Trump for his cozy relationships with authoritarian leaders like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. “He undermines our Democratic alliances while embracing dictators who appeal to his vanity,” Mr. Biden said of the president. “Make no mistake about it — the world sees Trump for what he is: insincere, ill-informed and impulsive.”
He also criticized Mr. Trump’s approach to China, saying the president’s plan was shortsighted while China was “playing the long game.”
“We need to get tough with China,” he said. “The most effective way that we need to change is to build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior, even as we seek to deepen cooperation on issues where our interests are converged like climate change and preventing nuclear proliferation,” he said.
Jennifer Rubin gives Biden’s speech a mostly positive review:
Biden’s main message was that Trump has — by his impulsive actions and refusal to stand for democratic values — given up our position in the world, hurt our alliances, made it hard to enlist our friends and made us less secure. Perhaps with an eye toward polls showing Americans care most about what is happening at home, he argued that “foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy.” He proceeded to explain what had been lost with Trump’s “chest thumping.” And from the time that Trump equated Nazis and neo-Nazis with counterprotesters in Charlottesville; and to Helsinki, when the president gave one of the most “shameful” performances by a president on foreign soil in taking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side over our own intelligence services. Biden argues that Trump undermines our democratic alliances by appealing to dictators who “play to his vanity.” Foreign leaders know who Trump is, and as a result, we’ve lost their respect. He vowed to tell the world, “We do not coddle dictators. . . . There will be no more Charlottesvilles, no more Helsinkis.”
“America First,” Biden argued, too often means “America alone.” As we have lost allies, illiberal regimes are gaining influence. Freedom is under attack but Trump “seems to be on the other team,” Biden asserted, and bereft of anything to offer besieged democracies.
It is in our “enlightened self-interest” to enhance and support democracy, which is the basis for our alliances and the source of our economy and ingenuity.
Biden made the case that our democracy at home must be strengthened to reassert our leadership internationally. That means everything from education reform to criminal-justice reform to voting rights to anti-corruption efforts to campaign finance reform, even to regular news conferences. Biden also argued that we must restore our moral position in the world which, in turn, means pursuing a long list of immigration reforms (e.g., end child separations and the travel ban) and supporting women’s rights around the world.
Biden pointed to his own role in founding member of the Transtlantic Commission on Election Integrity to fight back against Russia’s attacks on Western democracies, which included a pledge committing to transparency in campaign finance and to reject the use of fabricated or hacked material. The Democratic front-runner called on his presidential rivals to sign that pledge as well.
He then presented an original idea: A global summit for democracy during his first year in office to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. The summit participants would focus on: fighting corruption; defending against authoritarianism, including election security; and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad. Biden said he would implore civil society organizations to enlist these ideals in the cause of preserving open democracies and free speech.
Daniel Larison, meanwhile is somewhat more sanguine, calling the speech “Ho-Hum”:
Biden made some fair points about Trump’s embrace of authoritarian rulers, and I certainly won’t argue with him when he describes the president as “dangerously incompetent.” But then the former vice president went overboard by claiming that if he is president he would “remind the world that we are the United States of America and we do not coddle dictators.” If Biden wants to argue that the U.S. should no longer coddle dictators, he will get no complaints from me, but as a description of what our government has done prior to Trump it is simply a fairy tale. This points to one of the weaknesses in Biden’s anti-Trump argument. He wants to attack Trump as being unlike, and much worse than, any other president before him, and so he has to invent a mythical past that lets many previous presidents off the hook for similar or worse abuses. It also reinforces the impression that Biden’s candidacy amounts to an attempt to go back before 2016 and pretend that our political class hadn’t been failing for decades before Trump showed up on the scene. Biden’s framing sends a message of complacency and lack of imagination, and for a candidate who already seems to be out of step with his party that is the last message he should want to be conveying.
It should be possible to attack Trump on his record without whitewashing all of pre-2016 U.S. foreign policy as Biden did. Then again, Biden may not want people thinking about his role in pre-2016 U.S. foreign policy, and that points us to another weakness of his candidacy.
Biden’s foreign policy speech contained some decent pledges, but its coverage of foreign policy issues was scattershot. No single speech can address all important issues, but despite Biden’s frequent disapproving references to Putin and his one statement about New START I have no idea what Biden’s proposed Russia policy would be. He name-checked some countries and mentioned Latin America in passing, but he said nothing about the crisis in Venezuela or what he would differently in response to it. He berated Trump for being too cozy with authoritarian rulers, but he didn’t tell us how U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt would differ if he became president. He checked off the box of endorsing continued aid to Israel, but had nothing to say about the illegal occupation, the settlements, or Trump’s recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights. Even if we grant that Biden was painting in broad strokes about general principles, his foreign policy platform seems weirdly underdeveloped and half-baked for someone who has worked on these issues for decades.
It goes without saying that the President who follow Trump, whether that comes in 2021 or, lord help us, 2025, will have much repair work to do regarding the damage that this President has done to our domestic institutions and political norms. Perhaps even more important than that, though, and it is vitally important, is addressing the damage that Trump has done to our standing in the world, to our alliances, to the causes of human rights and the Rule of Law internationally, and to our vital national interests. Previous Presidents have made foreign policy mistakes, of course, but with the exception of George W. Bush’s decision to engage in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, none of them have engaged in policies that have inflicted so much damage in so little time.
As I’ve said before, you don’t have to be a foreign policy genius to recognize the fact that Trump’s foreign policy has been a failure and that he’s done immense damage to our national interest and our international credibility. t doesn’t take a foreign policy genius to recognize the fact that this President is acting far differently, and far more destructively than even the worst of his predecessors in the years since World War II. This is, after all, a President who has spent the better part of his two and a half years in office doing everything that he can to ruin our relationships with allies such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan, something that I have made note of several times here at OTB — see here, here, here, and here — and the extent to which he has succeeded in driving a wedge between the United States and its most important allies. Additionally, he has repudiated international agreements that were working as they were intended to such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and thereby sent the message that the United States simply cannot be trusted to keep its agreements or to be the force for international stability. He has largely abandoned the idea that the United States should stand out as a champion of human rights and the Rule Of Law, and looked the other way while authoritarian rulers such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Mohammed bin Salman murder journalists, dissidents, and anyone who threatens their hold on power. He has expressed obvious admiration for dictators in Russia, China, North Korea, Egypt, The Philippines, and Saudi Arabia. Finally, he has demonstrated that he has no understanding of the norms of diplomacy and shows no inclination of wanting Given all of this, one must say that Ambassador Darroch’s words are if anything, understated and even a bit too diplomatic.
Even if Trump ends up being a one-term President, repairing all of this is going to be something of a full-time job for his successor and it is going to require a President and foreign policy team that knows what they are doing from day one. This is where the former Vice-President has an advantage over all of his opponents. There is quite simply nobody in the field who has the experience in foreign policy that Biden does. In addition to his eight years as President Obama’s Vice-President, during his more than 30 years in the Senate Biden was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served as either the Ranking Member or the Chairman of that committee from 1997 forward through 2008 depending on whether or not the Democrats held majority control of the Senate. While Larison is correct to note that he was frequently mistaken at some points during this period, especially in his vote for the war in In Iraq, that experience puts him well ahead of any of his challengers for the nomination on this issue, and clearly the only Democrat running who would not require on-the-job training in the area of foreign policy. Given the work that will need to be done to clean up the mess that Trump would leave behind if he was forced to leave office in 2021, that arguably makes Biden the best candidate for the job.
As for the specifics of Biden’s speech, there is much about Biden’s speech that I find myself agreeing with. Specifically, his call for an end to America’s “forever wars” is one that is long overdue, as is his call for an end to the Saudi-led genocidal war on Yemen. Larison is correct to note, of course, that Biden was part of an Administration that extended those forever wars and that it was under the Obama Administration began its war on its southern neighbor with the acquiescence of the United States. However, this speech seems to me to indicate that Biden has learned the lessons of those years. In any case, as I said we’re going to need a President who knows what they’re doing on the world stage from day one if we’re going to repair the damage that Trump has done. With this speech, Biden has made a strong argument in his favor.
Here’s the video of Biden’s speech: