In a line many on the right love to quote, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Joe Biden of being “wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.” Gates isn’t wrong, though he, too, has been wrong on foreign policy questions, and has anyone who’s made enough tough decisions over that many decades (see Churchill, Winston).
What conservatives omit is that Gates dedicates most of the passage to praising Biden’s character:
Joe is simply impossible not to like. He’s down to earth, funny, profane, and humorously self-aware of his motormouth. Not too many meetings had occurred in the Situation Room before the president started impatiently cutting Biden off. Joe is a man of integrity, incapable of hiding what he really thinks, and one of those rare people you know you could turn to for help in a personal crisis.
Conservative foreign policy expert Kori Schake has also written about how Biden has been wrong more often than he has been right. So why has she endorsed him, despite her criticism? What differentiates Schake, a Biden-supporter with reservations, from Michael Brendan Doherty, who has lambasted Biden’s foreign policy errors as “career-defining?”
Schake knows that Biden is a progressive Democrat. Schake is conservative. Disagreement is inevitable. But Biden’s instinct is right where it matters most: The return of great power competitions has reignited the struggle between free and autocratic states, and the United States should defend and promote democracy overseas.
In an essay for Foreign Affairs, Biden outlined his foreign policy agenda. Many of the specifics he mentioned left a lot to be desired. But specific issues were not Biden’s main argument. The centerpiece of the essay was perfectly summarized in the title: America Must Lead Again.
The Trump administration’s foreign policy has been a war on American credibility and an acceleration of Barack Obama’s abdication of America’s hegemonic responsibilities. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership—I objected to the first two when they were announced—they were agreements that the U.S. government had entered. The Trump administration withdrew from them without consultation or coordination with the United States’s democratic allies, and without a coherent alternative strategy. These reversals served to undermine America’s credibility for future agreements.
The administration has also signaled that America’s relationship with its allies is completely transactional. The Trump administration abandoned the Syrian Kurds last year to Turkish tanks and bombers. It has also weakened America’s relationship with European democracies and South Korea. Instead, the president has promoted anti-democratic forces skeptical of liberal alliances, including Polish president Andrzej Duda, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, and Brazil’s demagogic president Jair Bolsonaro, all on missions to erode democracy.
The president has an affinity for strongmen. He calls them “tough guys.” He loves tyrants. He has called the military dictator of Egypt his “favorite dictator.” He frequently praises Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. He has said that he has fallen in love with Kim Jong-un, probably the evilest man in the world. He has praised Chinese concentration camps in private, according to his former adviser, John Bolton.
He has no kind words, though, for pro-American liberals like Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Theresa May, or for the protesters in Hong Kong, or Alexei Navalny, or the poor souls of Xinjiang.
He simply views liberalism as weakness and thuggish authoritarianism as strength.
But liberalism was the free world’s strength against the Soviet Union, and it is going to be our strength against China and Russia. A freer world weakens China and Russia. In part thanks to, and in part because of the unprecedented expansion in global freedom since 1991, the United States remains the most powerful state in the world, but this gap is narrowing.
Power is not just military power. Power is also diplomatic credibility and persuasion, state legitimacy, economic might, and intelligence capability—all the measures that can spread influence and enforce peace with less risk and cost than bullets and bombs. Liberal democracies are more legitimate than autocracies, and, illegitimacy is the Achilles’s heel of autocrats—just ask Mikhail Gorbachev. Liberal democracies add to their economic strength through free trade—a blessing they can weaponize to contain their adversaries—while autocrats tend to be more mercantilist and economically isolated. Liberal democracies share intelligence, while autocrats spy on everybody, including their own peoples. Liberal democracies join forces out of ideological affinity, while autocrats build alliances out of necessity and abandon them as soon as a better deal presents itself.
The Biden campaign’s message on foreign policy has been a call to strengthen democracy around the world, something that is only possible if the world’s greatest democracy is attractive again:
As a nation, we have to prove to the world that the United States is prepared to lead again—not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example. To that end, as president, I will take decisive steps to renew our core values.
He is right. America must lead with its hard power but also by setting an example. He continues:
During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.
This idea echoes a proposal espoused by John McCain, an international league of democracies. If all of Biden’s foreign policy ideas were tributes to the late hero, he could be remembered as a master statesman on par with Reagan.
Biden is also right about the value of NATO. He commits to pushing members to pay more for their defenses, and writes that NATO’s military preparedness against Russia is crucial to the success of the alliance. But he adds:
The alliance transcends dollars and cents; the United States’ commitment is sacred, not transactional. NATO is at the very heart of the United States’ national security, and it is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal—an alliance of values, which makes it far more durable, reliable, and powerful than partnerships built by coercion or cash.
Which is exactly what the founders of NATO intended it to be. And exactly what thugs like Putin need it not to be.
Biden’s essay includes more than 50 references to democracy and the free world. He continuously mentions the importance of America’s alliances. This is a welcoming contrast with Trump’s foreign policy of America First, which has turned out in its best moments as America Alone, and in its worst moments as America and the Autocrats.
As Biden conceded during his October 15 town hall, the Trump administration has had its share of achievements. Normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel is a welcome development. The Islamic State has lost its caliphate. Iran’s regime has never been more vulnerable. But Trump’s achievements have all come from the Middle East, a region that, while still of great importance to American national security, is losing its place as America’s top priority to Europe and Asia. Trump has also completely neglected Africa and mistreated Latin American allies, all to the benefit of China, which is increasing its influence in those regions, building alliances that are also increasing China’s influence in international organizations. This is another area where Biden is right:
We need to do more to integrate our friends in Latin America and Africa into the broader network of democracies and to seize opportunities for cooperation in those regions.
Trump thinks that America’s military might is enough to protect it against her ill-wishers and maintain its international influence. He is wrong. China and Russia are trying to catch up with and overtake America’s position as the world’s indispensable nation. America remains more powerful, and the good news is that power begets power, and influence begets influence, but only if used prudently. Our adversaries are using their power prudently, and they are multiplying their influence, while America is scoring own goals. Trump’s complacency about America’s ability to sustain its power is the greatest threat to American security, world order, and the American way of life.
Biden’s critics point to the Obama administration’s myriad and sundry failures in foreign policy and call Biden guilty by association. Fair enough. Biden himself pays a lot of lip service to the “successes” of the Obama administration.
But what, then, to make of the current administration? Trump’s instincts on foreign policy are like Obama’s but on steroids. Both presidents came to power as disrupters and saw America as a dispensable power, just “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.” They damaged America’s standing in the world and its reputation as a reliable ally whose word has credibility. The Obama-Trump America stopped being a country that stands with the free world and free peoples against tyrants.
Biden’s vision for America’s role in the world is much closer to an old-school conservative Republican than that of Obama and Trump. This doesn’t mean that Biden will be a conservative on foreign policy. He is still a progressive Democrat, and he will govern like one. He will be wrong on many issues. But his thinking is within the old bipartisan establishment that won the Cold War and made America the world’s sole superpower. He will be wrong, but he will be wrong within normal parameters.
For too long, the United States has shirked the responsibility that it assumed at the end of the Second World War, pretended that it could retreat without authoritarianism filling the vacuum, and deluded itself into thinking that its international leadership was a source of poverty and weakness rather than wealth and strength. Biden’s campaign message is that he will reverse the course.