Whatever else one thinks of Joe Biden, the speech he delivered in New York on Thursday showed him to be the only Democratic candidate with his own vision on foreign policy and a full understanding of just how badly President Donald Trump’s vision is damaging U.S. interests and values around the world.
As with other issues, and in keeping with his personal style, Biden presented himself as a paragon of the old-school liberal establishment—the restoration candidate who will revivify our politics with decency, transparency, empathy, national unity, and strengthened ties with our traditional democratic allies.
The question is whether certain aspects of Biden’s vision will help or hurt him with his own party’s base in the upcoming primaries.
Two of Biden’s main rivals for the nomination—Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—have delivered more fiery speeches on foreign policy, stressing the need to repeal or revamp trade deals that have stolen the jobs or lowered the wages of American workers. Sen. Kamala Harris hasn’t yet given a foreign policy speech, though she has spoken favorably of “diplomacy” and the NATO allies. Mayor Pete Buttigieg gave a foreign policy speech last month, covering much of the same ground as Biden, but with less detail.
In contrast to Warren and Sanders, Biden has been an unabashed supporter of free trade, including the deals that have been negotiated in the name of that principle. However, in his speech on Thursday, he moved away from that stance a bit, emphasizing that he was not calling for “back-to-business-as-usual on trade.” Instead, he touted a “foreign policy for the middle class,” to “make sure the rules of the international economy are not rigged against us,” and promised that future trade talks will include a “voice for all shareholders,” including labor and environmental activists.
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Still, Biden’s main solution for dealing with the increasingly competitive global economy was to “double down” on America’s “competitive edge,” giving every student the skills and training necessary for the 21st century, improving health care, infrastructure, and creating 10 million new jobs as part of a clean-energy revolution.
This agenda has become a standard litany for Democratic candidates in this election season. Biden paints himself as the guy with the experience—36 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president—to make it happen. Some of his rivals paint him as an old-timer, out of touch with how deeply politics have changed in the past few years, who should pass the torch to someone younger. The two portraits are not mutually exclusive. Biden’s fate may depend on how Democratic voters weigh his strengths against his risks.
One thing clear from his speech: Biden is acting as if the primaries are over or irrelevant—as if there are no other Democratic candidates—and the only real contest, not just in November 2020 but right now, is between himself and Trump. He slammed Trump’s foreign policy more fiercely, and from more angles, than any other Democratic candidate has in this campaign so far. Trump, he said, “undermines our democratic alliances while embracing dictators who appeal to his vanity.” In the contest between democratic values and authoritarianism, Biden said, “Trump seems to be on the other team.” For aspiring democracies, “he has nothing to offer.”
“The world sees Trump for what he is,” Biden said, “insincere, ill-informed, and impulsive, sometimes corrupt, dangerously incompetent, and incapable, in my view, of world leadership and leadership at home.”
If elected, Biden said, he would reverse most of Trump’s ill-formed policies. He would rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, extend the New START nuclear-arms treaty with Russia, end the Muslim travel ban, withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan and the Middle East (except for those narrowly assigned to combat terrorism), end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, raise the number of refugees allowed into the country, end the horrors on the Southern border while strengthening security in less oppressive ways, reprofessionalize the diplomatic corps, and resume daily press briefings in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon.
Other Democratic candidates have also come up with specific ideas on foreign policy, notably Warren, who recently released a very detailed plan for revitalizing the State Department and the Foreign Service.
Perhaps the biggest question raised by a speech like this is whether foreign policy is an important issue to many voters. Biden addressed the issue at the top of the speech, saying, “In 2019, foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy”—though it’s not really clear what this means.
Eventually all the serious candidates will deliver speeches of this sort, written by experts that they’ve recruited for that purpose, if just to demonstrate that they can display the gravitas required for the Oval Office. It is in foreign policy, after all, that a president can do the most good or wreak the most damage on the world—and yet it’s the realm where no candidate really knows what he or she might do in a crisis. George W. Bush campaigned for the job saying he would run a more “modest” foreign policy, claiming no interest in imposing Western values on small faraway countries and intending to focus more on big-power rivalries—and yet, soon after taking the oath, he was waging “nation-building” wars in two small countries. Bill Clinton said he’d get tough with the Chinese, then, once in office, saw the benefits of cooperating with them.
Biden has at least been there, and one can expect his rivals to pound on the mistakes he made over the years—not least voting to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq, a piece of his legacy that Biden did not mention in Thursday’s speech. His rivals haven’t amassed much of a record, one way or the other. We may soon see which one of those facts matters most.
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