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U.S. Foreign Policy and the ‘Return to Normalcy’

Joe Biden’s candidacy is defined by the idea that he will “restore” things to the way they were four years ago and that he will preside over a “return to normalcy” after the Trump years. The phrase “return to normalcy” has been linked to the Biden campaign for the better part of the last year. TAC‘s Curt Mills commented on this after Biden’s recent primary wins:

Biden then, not Trump, would be the candidate of the centennial. Like Warren Harding, he promises a return to normalcy.

The Harding comparison is quite useful because it shows how Biden’s “return to normalcy” will be quite different from the one Harding proposed a century ago. Harding contrasted normalcy with “nostrums.” This was a shot at the ideological fantasies of the Wilson era and the upheaval that had come with U.S. entry into WWI. This is the full quote:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

The “normalcy” to which Biden would return the U.S. is rather different. There would be a restoration of sorts, but the restoration would be that of the bankrupt bipartisan foreign policy consensus, among other things. As Emma Ashford suggested in a recent discussion, Biden’s foreign policy could be described as “Make American Exceptionalism Great Again.” Where Harding’s “normalcy” represented the repudiation of Wilsonian fantasies, Biden’s would be an attempt to revive them at least in part. Harding contrasted “normalcy” with Wilson’s “nostrums,” but Biden’s rhetoric is full of the tired boilerplate rhetoric about U.S. global leadership. Biden’s new article for Foreign Affairs includes quite a bit of this:

As president, I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world. This is not a moment for fear. This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.

The Cold War ended thirty years ago, and it is telling that Biden does not point to any victories for the U.S. in the decades that have followed. Proponents of U.S. global “leadership” have to keep reaching farther and farther back in time to recall a time when U.S. “leadership” was successful, and they have remarkably little to say about the thirty years when they have been running things. That is what they want to “restore,” but it’s not clear why Americans should want to go back to a status quo ante that produced such staggering and costly failures as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Like the early 19th century Bourbon restoration, it would be a return to power for those who had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

John Carl Baker comments on an op-ed co-authored last year by Robert Kagan and Anthony Blinken. Blinken is now Biden’s main foreign policy adviser, and that leads Baker to draw this conclusion:

Inasmuch as Biden is much more comfortable with the nostrums of the foreign policy establishment and with their assumptions about the U.S. role in the world than Obama was, that seems like the right conclusion. A foreign policy that is like Obama’s but more conventional probably doesn’t sound that bad, but we should remember that this is the same foreign policy that left the U.S. engaged in more than one illegal war and normalized illegal warfare without Congressional authorization. Returning to an era of “normalcy” characterized by repeated policy failures, lack of accountability, and open-ended warfare is not the kind of restoration that Americans need. It might be good enough to win the election, but it isn’t going to fix what ails U.S. foreign policy.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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