The Biden Foreign Policy Takes Shape

In his latest Wall Street Journal column Walter Russell Mead makes what strikes me as a reasonable analysis of what he divines from the appointments that Joe Biden has made so far about the likely foreign policy of the Biden Administration. I’m tempted to quote it in full and it deserves to be read in its entirety but I’ll excerpt it.

1. It doesn’t suggest a third Obama term.

As a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a hands-on vice president, Mr. Biden comes to the White House with more foreign-policy experience than any post-World War II president besides Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush. America’s new foreign policy will have Mr. Biden’s fingerprints all over it; the president-elect knows what he wants and is choosing a team he believes can deliver it.

The second, related point the appointments make is that Joe Biden has turned to what Obama adviser Ben Rhodes famously called “the Blob”—experienced foreign-policy insiders who work comfortably within the key assumptions that have guided U.S. foreign policy since the late 1940s.

I’m not as optimistic about that as Dr. Mead. IMO U. S. foreign policy has been seriously flawed for at least the last sixty years. Assumptions about the Soviet Union, strategic alliances (anyone remember SEATO?), Latin America, and Europe have all been erroneous for much of that time or more. The obsession with the Middle East is more recent—largely since the Arab Oil Embargo if that tells you anything. Jonathan Pollard was just released from prison which is a nice reminder.

2. His foreign policy will not be supported either by progressives or by Republicans.

This is not the Squad’s dream team, but the president-elect seems untroubled by that perception.

That said, nobody should mistake this for a Republican administration. Mr. Biden’s expected nominees may be centrists, but it is the Democratic mainstream in which they swim. They are, for example, multilateralists not out of pragmatism (like, say, James Baker and George H.W. Bush), but out of conviction.

or, to use Dr. Mead’s taxonomy, they are solidly Wilsonian in their views. That will predispose them to intervene when the more pragmatic would step back.

3. Climate change will be a major focus.

As they see it, climate change is not only a direct threat to international peace and American well-being; it is an issue that links the administration’s foreign and domestic policies and offers an opportunity to split progressive greens away from more isolationist, anticorporate voices on the Democratic left. Linking a global push for an accelerated transition to a net-zero carbon economy (in the relatively distant future) with a domestic infrastructure program focused on green energy can, the new team believes, energize a coalition behind Biden-style centrism at home and abroad.

While I agree there will be more attention paid during a Biden Administration than there has been under previous previous administrations, I also think that practically everyone will be disappointed. This is not the 1980s. China’s and India’s increasing emissions will guarantee that nothing we can do will have any effect. I wonder when advocates will start to realize that the increased emissions not to mention particulate emissions from implementing the measures they support will overwhelm the results they intend to gain? At a first approximation my guess is never—they’re too solidly intentionalists.

4. A “pivot to Asia”?

American foreign-policy’s focus, however, will continue to shift toward the Indo-Pacific. This is very much a “pivot to Asia” foreign-policy team that’s likely to pursue a more robust policy in the East than the Obama administration did. The new team’s critique of Trump-era China policy was on means more than ends.

I don’t honestly understand how Dr. Mead arrives at that conclusion. So far this team looks pretty darned eurocentric to me.

5. Stronger alliances will strengthen our hand.

Poor relations with allies, particularly in Europe, meant Team Trump couldn’t marshal a united front on economic matters with China. In Team Biden’s view, this was a fatal flaw that undercut the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Globally, besides Iran, which will hope for a return to some version of the nuclear agreement, Germany and Japan are probably the chief beneficiaries of the coming shift in U.S. policy. Berlin can expect a renewed close partnership with Washington. Haggling over its NATO contribution and trade surplus will be off the front burner as America recommits to the multilateral and green goals dear to German hearts. Tokyo can expect continued close support from the U.S. in the face of the China challenge from a less volatile administration with, again, a less mercantilist trade policy.

IMO this is a fundamental miscalculation. In reality we have no allies. The Europeans and Japan only support us as long as we’re furthering their own foreign policy objectives otherwise they view us more as threat than asset. They only turn to us when other threats look greater. For Japan that time is now which is why they’re been pretty supportive of the Trump Administration. If the Germans see Russia and China as threats, they’ll turn to us. If they see them more as customers or vendors, they’ll oppose us.

He concludes:

The new U.S. foreign-policy leadership is less a team of rivals than a reunion of friends. Let us wish them the best as they prepare for the challenges of leading the world’s greatest power through a stormy and tumultuous time.


What metrics can we use to assess the success of this new/old foreign policy team? I’ve already proposed some. I also note that Dr. Mead does not mention immigration, legal or not, in his assessment. IMO the Biden Administration will be very much pro-immigration which pragmatically means that are also pro-low wages for Americans. That’s sure to earn them the approval of Big Tech.

2 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    I don’t know how #1 can be quantified.

    By measures of who is implementing the policy and advising Biden; they were key actors for Obama too in Iran, Syria, Ukraine, Asia.

    Second; there isn’t a milestone interview or paper that Biden said or wrote on what he would do differently or thought did not go right during his VP stint. See Nixon, “Foreign Policy”, and China. This is mostly true for Blinken, Sullivan.

    I look at George HW Bush compared to Reagan and his policies were mostly the same; except less abrasive (was it because the implementation was gentler or because circumstances had vindicated the policies?)
    As examples; NAFTA built on US Canada FTA; victory in the Cold War was Reagan’s goal.
    That’s the other known case of a VP winning and retaining the staff from his time as VP.

    There’s a lot of projection by various pundits that things will be different without a lot of actual evidence.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    WRT China I believe Biden is on record that all we need is to establish “bright lines” regarding their mercantilist trade policy, implying that they just don’t understand. They do.
    They understand it’s business as usual and more aggressive tactics will be tolerated.

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