Different How?

In a piece at Foreign Policy Heather Hurlburt tries and, I think, ultimately fails to draw a sharp distinction between Joe Biden’s approach to foreign policy and Donald Trump’s:

Biden is famous, or infamous, for his personal connections to world leaders. “You can drop him into Kazakhstan or Bahrain, it doesn’t matter—he’s gonna find some Joe Blow that he met 30 years ago who’s now running the place,” Julianne Smith, a Biden advisor, told his biographer Evan Osnos. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell described welcoming foreign leaders to the Senate. “I’d say, ‘Here’s Senator Smith, here’s Senator Jones.’ When I got to Joe, the leader would look out and say, ‘Hi, Joe.’”

Biden’s attention to personal relationships implies a valuing of the softest of soft powers: individual experience. It points to one of the achievements of U.S. foreign policy that experts have the hardest time compassing and measuring: the attractive power of the United States to others around the world. Lists of U.S. achievements seldom note how two generations of Cold War-era and post-Cold War leaders’ worldviews were shaped by programs that brought them to the United States, or Americans to them, and what a triumph that was for U.S. interests.

While relationship-before-task may be dogma in some management consulting circles, it doesn’t count as a foreign-policy strategy. Biden is not noted for either contributions or attachment to one of the major schools of U.S. foreign-policy thought. Indeed, when asked by Osnos to name Biden’s major foreign-policy contribution to his administration, Barack Obama credited his vice president’s ability to focus on concrete U.S. goals, and specific means for achieving them, “rather than get caught up in broader ideological debates that all too often end up leading to overreach or a lack of precision in our mission.”


In 2021, the voices vying to shape U.S. foreign policy include both the straightforward self-dealing that characterizes Trump’s approach and the Kissinger renaissance, which offers a more sophisticated self-interest in which ideals surrounding human rights and solidarity must be sacrificed in order to sustain the core of the U.S. democratic experiment.

Biden believes otherwise. But he combines the moral focus of a liberal internationalist with a realist’s skepticism of grand interventionist schemes—and a rhetoric about the needs of Americans at home that gets often reflexively classified as isolationist.

Okay. Not an intellectual. Check. Relationships over tasks. Check. Self-dealing. Check. She strives to distinguish between Joe Biden’s liberal interventionism and Barack Obama’s. Mr. Biden has supported every use of force by the United States over the period of the last 30 years. Was he “reluctant” to do so? I see no sign of that.

I think the greatest differences will be that he will join with European leaders to focus on environmental causes and human rights issues. Unlike European leaders he will actually mean it.

5 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    “Mr. Biden has supported every use of force by the United States over the period of the last 30 years. Was he “reluctant” to do so? I see no sign of that.”

    As VP he was skeptical of both the war in Libya and the Afghanistan surge, but he was alone in those views and Obama went with Gates & Clinton. Gates famously wrote in his memoir that Biden was wrong about every major foreign policy issue over the last several decades. Gates might have more credibility with that claim if his record wasn’t worse. Gates, Clinton, and others considered Biden to be far too skeptical about the use of military force.

    Biden has a lot of baggage, I’m not thrilled about his FP, especially some of the picks he’s made (like Nuland), but I’m not (yet) convinced it’s going to be Obama redux.

  • Not to mention that Samantha Power has a prominent role in his foreign policy team. And, as the article itself asserts, he’s more of a foreign policy idealist than a realist and an interventionist. There’s always a cause to fight for so we can expect a new war to be started.

  • bob sykes Link

    “with a realist’s skepticism of grand interventionist schemes”

    Whatever Biden might have thought of the American war crimes in Libya during their execution, he has put the Libyan interventionists in charge of his foreign policy.

    The Trump administration proved the reality of the Deep State, and that the Deep State controlled Presidents. Biden will not even try to resist their plans. So expect many, hopefully small, wars during Biden’s regime.

  • steve Link

    I am going to have to agree with Andy here. It was pretty well known at the time that Biden opposed Libya and surging in Afghanistan. However, Obama chose other advice and it was then Biden’s job to publicly support that and do what he could to make it work.

    Also, I really dont understand what you mean by this?

    “Not an intellectual. Check. Relationships over tasks. Check. Self-dealing. Check.”

    Definitely not an intellectual. However it seems that he uses those relationships to accomplish tasks. As i recall, it was Biden and McConnell who worked together to get past some budget impasses. Dont get the self-dealing either. Certainly nothing in the article or what you wrote to support that.

    I do agree that he will concentrate more eon environmental issues and human rights. He may or may not actually mean it, but I think the business lobbies will hold that in check.


  • Grey Shambler Link

    Valerie Jarrett was interviewed this morning on CBS, gave every impression of expecting to be one of the incoming senior advisors.
    Looks more and more what I feared. Biden is a team player not a team leader, and we’ve seen this team before.
    Now 12 years out of the last 16.

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