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The single biggest foreign policy decision Joe Biden faces

Will Biden’s foreign policy be one of restoration, reformation, or revolution?

President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event to announce new Cabinet nominations on December 11, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When I spoke last week with Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador in Washington from 2014 to 2019, I expected to hear about the world’s reaction to President-elect Joe Biden and his Cabinet. My aim was to understand the decisions global leaders faced and the effects they’d have on the world.

But in the course of our conversation, Araud made me realize the most important decision wouldn’t be made in some far-off capital. It’d be made in Washington, DC, almost as soon as Biden walks into the White House.

“The question is what will his foreign policy be: Restoration, reformation, or revolution?” the retired diplomat asked me. “That will be one of the main tensions of his earliest days. Will Biden be able to articulate a new foreign policy, and what would it mean?” (He then tweeted out this thought after we hung up.)

It’s the single biggest foreign policy choice Biden faces heading into his presidency. Opting for “revolution” can almost certainly be discarded — this is Biden we’re talking about, not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. But deciding between “restoration,” reverting to traditional statecraft after a four-year diversion, and “reformation,” changing the old ways of America’s global relations to tackle today’s problems, will set the new team’s course for at least a year, if not longer.

Most suspect Biden will select the restoration option. He talked on the campaign trail about putting America back on its post-1945 path — reassuming global leadership, but working with allies to promote democracy, free trade, and human rights — and for decades has championed such a worldview. Plus, with an economic crisis to curb and a pandemic to quash, dusting off the old playbook consumes less effort than rewriting it.

“You can’t divorce the president from the moment or who he or she follows,” said Elizabeth Saunders, a US foreign policy expert at Georgetown University. “After Trump, I think all goes back to basics.”

But a back-to-the-future operation likely won’t satisfy a newer generation of experts who say we face new problems that past practice can’t fully solve. They’re pushing Biden’s team to update US foreign policy’s software.

Then-President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden meet with members of the National Security Council to receive an update on Iraq on August 18, 2014.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

“The old way wasn’t working for us. That’s true of domestic policy, and it’s true of foreign policy,” said Desirée Cormier Smith, senior policy adviser at Open Society Foundations, a global advocacy group. “I don’t think it’s radical, as we restore our alliances and credibility, that we reform how we engage in the world and repurpose for the world of 2021, which is not the same world of 2017 when [Biden] left office as vice president.”

Biden thus faces a fork in the road, and he’ll have to decide whether to opt for the path most traveled or blaze a new trail. Whichever he chooses will help define America’s place in the world at this moment in history. For better or for worse, that’s Biden’s charge now.

“We know who he is very well,” Araud said. “But who will he be?”

Biden the restorationist

In August, I asked Derek Chollet, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration and now a Biden transition team member, how the then-Democratic nominee planned to deal with the world he might inherit. His answer was instructive: “He’s looking at an across-the-board restoration project.”

Since the end of World War II, Democrats and Republicans have pursued largely similar approaches to US foreign policy. Presidents from both parties have used US power to underwrite and maintain what’s called the “liberal international order,” which basically means a set of economic and political rules and values that major democratic powers believe help the world function.

The US never did this out of the goodness of its heart. Promoting free trade and liberal democracy was meant to provide America with markets to sell goods to and countries with which to build alliances against adversaries. It was never a perfect system, and the US made many, many errors along the way. But overall, that grand strategy helped the US maintain its position as the world’s preeminent power.

That, in a nutshell, is the world Biden wants to restore and protect.

“For the past seven decades, the choices we have made — particularly the United States and our allies in Europe — have steered our world down a clear path,” Biden said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in January 2017, just three days before leaving office as vice president.

“In recent years it has become evident that the consensus upholding this system is facing increasing pressures, from within and from without,” he continued. “It’s imperative that we act urgently to defend the liberal international order.”

The best way to do that, Biden contended, is to maintain and bolster America’s system of alliances that form the heart of that order.

He hit that theme in a July 2019 foreign policy address at the City University of New York. “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners — to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century,” he said.

Then-outgoing Vice President Joe Biden arrives onstage to address the World Economic Forum on January 18, 2017, in Davos, Switzerland.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

That worldview is about as traditional as it gets, but it’s unsurprising that Biden has long felt this way, said Paul Musgrave, a US foreign policy expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Biden is 78 years old and has been in public life for nearly 50 years. He’s “a guy who really experienced the system working for decades,” Musgrave said. That US-led system helped America win the Cold War, bolster its middle class, spread democracy, and build history’s strongest military.

That an incoming president with the most Washington experience since George H.W. Bush would embody the most sacrosanct Washington perspective is par for the course.

That’s why when Biden looks at the world and the mess Trump left him, his instinct is to believe that “things are fundamentally great, and we just need to build from where we are,” Musgrave continued.

To no one’s surprise, then, Biden has selected a Cabinet with a worldview mostly reflecting his own. “Joe Biden would reassert American leadership, leading with our diplomacy. We’d actually show up again, day in, day out,” Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, told CBS News’s Michael Morell on his podcast in September.

Considering the state of the world and America’s current predicament, Georgetown’s Saunders understands why Biden sees real value in hewing to the nation’s foreign policy traditions. In many ways, they’re comforting and stable. “Most of what he wants to do that is ‘traditional’ would have been completely uncontroversial under any president except Trump,” she told me. “Trump attacked everything for four years, so conventional doesn’t seem that odd.”

But there are forces pushing for change, and they’ll weigh on Biden’s decision.

Biden the reformer?

Few in the Democratic Party would balk at focusing on problems at home, working with allies, ending the forever wars, promoting democracy, and safeguarding the most vulnerable. What’s in question is whether America must maintain its seat at the head of the world’s table in order to accomplish those goals.

“In the post-Trump age, ‘leadership’ is a misguided, and even dangerous, vision for America’s relationship with the rest of the globe,” liberal columnist Peter Beinart wrote in the New York Times earlier this month.

His main critique was that saying the US should “lead” really means the US should be in charge, and should act like the world’s CEO. But the US doesn’t necessarily have the resources or standing — especially after the past four years — to claim such a mantle, he maintained. “Most of the time, America best serves these efforts less by dictating the rules than by agreeing to them,” he wrote.

In other words, the US would do less harm if it kept mostly to itself and reeled in its adventurism overseas.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden met with Afghan recruits during a two-day surprise visit on January 11, 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Chief Petty Officer Brian Brannon/US Navy/NATO Training Mission — Afghanistan/Getty Images

That sentiment is growing among a segment of both the left and right. Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as less advertised military engagements elsewhere), rebuilding America’s economy, and rethinking its relationships with less-than-savory regimes is part of the hope.

But even all that’s not enough: Those decisions are “important but ultimately marginal to our general strategic posture as a whole,” said Daniel Bessner, a US foreign policy expert at the University of Washington.

Real change would mean the US becomes a more humble global player, and not the unquestioned superpower that runs roughshod on the world. “The US doesn’t always have the answers or resources to solve every problem,” Open Society Foundations’ Smith told me.

Biden seems somewhat sympathetic to this argument. As vice president, for example, he advocated for a smaller troop presence in Afghanistan than many other Obama-era officials around him. Despite having voted for the Iraq War, Biden has shown signs of believing the US needs to restrain some of its impulses, like pulling back from wars in the Middle East, and invest those resources in the American economy.

He’s not alone. Incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has shown again and again that he’s taken the critiques of traditional US foreign policy — which he championed for years — to heart.

“Even if you get a president coming after [Trump] who is somewhat of a restorationist who says we have to get back to some fundamental principles around allies, around values, around the rules-based order for the world, you’re still going to have an undercurrent in the United States that is going to press against that pretty hard,” he told an audience at Dartmouth College in January 2019. “Anyone who works on foreign policy in the United States or in the rest of the world is going to have to account for that.”

It’s therefore possible that Biden and his team may be more open to reform than they’ve let on. But few experts are convinced that will be the case, as what separates Biden from his recent predecessors — namely Obama and Trump — is that he’s coming to the office with clear views of keeping things as they are.

“All those presidents wanted to make their marks by changing US foreign policy. Biden wants to make his mark by restoring US foreign policy,” said UMass’s Musgrave.

Whether that’s the right bet — that he’ll be able to overcome the obstacles on the road he chooses to travel — will shape not just the early days of his presidency, but also America’s role in the world in the coming years.