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What Would Biden’s Foreign Policy ‘Restore’?

Stephen Wertheim considers Biden’s restorationist foreign policy and finds it seriously wanting:

Biden deserves credit for stating flatly that he would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. But he does not acknowledge how such support began — under what he now likes to call the “Obama-Biden” administration. Nor does he grapple with the basic reason for U.S. involvement in a place like Yemen: Washington’s desire to dominate the region by force, including by closely aligning with one set of repressive states in the region and making enemies of the rest.

Biden does more than miss an opportunity to acknowledge the mistakes of the Obama administration and explain how he would do better. He extends his nostalgia even further, and to less defensible terrain. “For 70 years,” he writes, “the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity — until Trump.” Does Biden really believe that President George W. Bush conducted a responsible, constructive, rule-abiding foreign policy?

Biden’s nostalgia for the pre-Trump U.S. foreign policy consensus is one of the biggest flaws in his worldview. The “return to normalcy” that Biden is supposed to represent means “returning” to an era that was marked by illegal preventive wars, the hyper-militarization of U.S. foreign policy, and intensifying support for reckless clients. To treat decades of U.S. foreign policy before Trump as essentially benevolent and constructive not only ignores the glaring examples of when it was anything but that, but it serves to rehabilitate advocates of the worst and most reckless policies. It’s still not cleat that Biden learned anything from the Iraq war debacle despite having almost twenty years to do so.

It is good that Biden has turned against the war on Yemen, but why did it take him four years until he was a presidential candidate to do it? Notably absent from the Foreign Affairs article that Wertheim cites is any mention of changing the U.S.-Saudi relationship itself. Wertheim notices that, too:

He says nothing about America’s intimate partnership with Saudi Arabia, even though this is the one area of Mideast policy most ripe for change given support across party lines for reducing arms sales to the kingdom and demanding accountability for Saudi human rights abuses.

If Biden now believes that the U.S. was wrong to support the Saudi coalition in Yemen, shouldn’t that inform his view of the relationship in the future? The Obama administration famously backed the war to “reassure” Saudi Arabia and the UAE, so shouldn’t the U.S. rethink whether these clients are worth “reassuring”? Biden’s rival for the Democratic nomination is strongly in favor of scaling back and even eliminating U.S. support for these clients, so what does Biden have to say about that? Who is more likely to follow through on changing the U.S.-Saudi relationship: the centrist supporter of the status quo or the senator who led the charge to end U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen? That’s a question I’d like to hear Biden answer.

Biden is nothing if not conventional. He proposes no serious reassessment of U.S. grand strategy, and there is no hint of scaling back U.S. commitments anywhere. Wertheim continues:

Indeed, Biden does not wish to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy in any structural sense. He expresses no desire to cut the Pentagon’s trillion-dollar-a-year budget, even though surveys have found that the single most popular foreign policy stance among the American public is to spend less money fighting wars in order make more investments at home.

The United States is currently obligated to defend approximately one-third of the world’s countries, and informally dozens more. As long as the United States divides the entire world into protectorates and, implicitly or explicitly, enemies, it will struggle to cut its military spending significantly. That is apparently the way Biden wants it. His stance toward military alliances is nothing short of reverential: NATO, Biden writes, is “sacred.”

Biden shares the foreign policy establishment’s disapproval of Trump’s alliance management, but that makes him unwilling to question how useful some of these commitments still are to the U.S. There is a tendency among supporters of these alliances to see them as ends in themselves rather than as means to achieving common goals, and Biden certainly does that.

Wertheim concludes:

So far, however, it looks like he will not only prolong the endless wars but also restore and revive the ideas that generated them in the first place.

When he was first running for president, Obama talked about ending the mindset that led to the Iraq war. Unfortunately, Obama didn’t do that as president, but it was a good idea. Is there any reason to think that Biden would try to end the mindset that has led to our many ill-advised wars of choice over the last twenty years? How could he end that mindset when he has shared it for most of his career? The issue is not just whether Biden would wind down and end the wars that the U.S. is fighting now (he probably wouldn’t), but whether he would be willing and able to avoid new ones in the future.

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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