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Joe Biden wants to restore the pre-Trump world order

But is that enough for Democratic voters?

Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Delivers Foreign Policy Address In New York
Former Vice President Joe Biden delivers his foreign policy speech in New York on July 11, 2019.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

NEW YORK — Joe Biden just made his foreign policy pitch to the American people: If you elect me, I will try to undo all the damage Trump has done.

The 2020 Democratic frontrunner unveiled his foreign policy platform in a nearly hour-long speech at the City University of New York on Thursday. In it, the former vice president promised to restore America’s democratic leadership in the world and to work with our allies to tackle global challenges, from climate change to terrorism to nuclear proliferation.

He also spent plenty of time slamming the current president.

The world sees [President Donald] Trump for what he is: insincere, ill-informed, and impulsive. Sometimes corrupt. Dangerously incompetent, and incapable, in my view, of world leadership and leadership at home,” Biden told the audience.

The plan Biden laid out was the exact opposite of President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach in nearly every respect. But though he promised to pursue a “forward-thinking foreign policy” that deals with the world as it is today, Biden’s speech seemed focused much more on restoring the world as it once was, back when he and President Barack Obama were running things.

In other words, Biden is not so much offering voters a bold vision for the future as much as he’s presenting a plan for how to restore the past.

The question is whether that idealized past can — or even should — be restored.

Biden’s plan aims to erase Trump’s decisions and build on the Obama years

Biden’s platform includes rejoining the signature international agreements that he and Obama worked to create during their eight years in office: the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords, both of which Trump has withdrawn the US from.

Biden also promised to end Trump’s travel ban, undo the global gag rule that blocks federal funding from going to any NGOs around the world that provide abortion services, rehabilitate the NATO alliance, and restore daily press briefings in the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense, which have become scarce under Trump.

And he pledged to resume sending substantial foreign aid to the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to tackle the corruption, violence, and poverty that are forcing thousands to flee to the US border.

These are nearly all accomplishments and programs achieved under Obama that Trump has more or less undone. Biden promised to put them back, and then strengthen and adjust from there.

For those distressed by how much the world has changed under Trump, Biden offers the comfort and reassurance that he will put everything back the way it was. But it’s not just the foreign policy world that’s changed in the years since Biden and Obama were in charge — the Democratic Party has changed, too.

Biden’s speech laid out a traditional foreign policy. Will it play in today’s Democratic Party?

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has written about in detail, the Democratic voting base has steadily undergone a “clear and profound” shift to the more progressive end of the spectrum in the past 20 years.

Policy ideas and political ideologies once considered “radical” are now being espoused by leading 2020 Democratic contenders and freshman members of Congress alike. Several prominent politicians unapologetically identify as “democratic socialists.” Progressive policies — like Medicare-for-all, debt-free college, taxing the ultra-rich to redistribute wealth more evenly, and zeroing-out all US carbon emissions — are now mainstream positions.

On foreign policy, too, progressive positions that were once more on fringes like rethinking or even cutting off US aid to Israel and shrinking the US defense budget have become more and more mainstream.

Which means that simply “renewing American values” and ensuring that “democracy is once-again the watch word of foreign policy,” as Biden wants to do, may not be enough to energize the Democratic base anymore.

Biden did make the case that investing in American democracy — expanding access to health care, criminal justice reform, and raising the minimum wage — would help America lead by example among democracies.

But ultimately, the vice president offered reassuring and familiar themes. It’s a steadying approach, after years of turmoil under Trump. But it doesn’t remake or reshape America’s foreign policy.

The most novel policy idea Biden presented was a pledge to hold a “global summit for democracy” that would bring together democratic countries, civil society groups, and the private sector to come up with ways to combat rising authoritarianism, restore trust in institutions, and “make concrete commitments to tackle corruption and advance human rights.”

It’s an interesting idea, and has some elements, like the focus on corruption and human rights, of a more progressive agenda. But it’s also one of the only new ideas Biden had to offer.

Biden’s vision of a world restored to the old ways of doing things doesn’t really grapple with whether this is even possible — or whether that will be enough for the Democratic Party of today. Biden wants to restore American democratic leadership back to what it was, before Trump. But is that enough for voters?

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