Biden Diplomacy & International Relations Editor's Picks History

Biden’s Domestic Vision for American Foreign Policy

“Theories of history, fundamental beliefs about how the world works, are usually assumed rather than argued and rarely get subjected to serious scrutiny. Yet these general ideas set the parameters for all the specific policy choices an administration makes. Know an administration’s theory of history, and much of the rest is easy to fill in.”
– Gideon Rose

In his final piece as Editor of Foreign Affairs titled “Foreign Policy for Pragmatists,” Gideon Rose writes, “Theories of history, fundamental beliefs about how the world works, are usually assumed rather than argued and rarely get subjected to serious scrutiny. Yet these general ideas set the parameters for all the specific policy choices an administration makes. Know an administration’s theory of history, and much of the rest is easy to fill in.” 

Academics and those in the foreign policy community have sought to do just that by attempting to predict the theoretical compass they believe will (and should) guide the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy over the next four years. 

Rose broadly divides theories of history between those that are pessimistic and those that are optimistic. Applied to theories of International Relations, the realists fit the shoes of the pessimists while the liberals fall on the side of the optimists. “Given the stakes of the question,” Rose notes, “no one really knows whether the optimists or the pessimists have the better case.” 

Those in the realist camp have warned against a return to a liberal internationalist status-quo ante under President Joe Biden. Some, however, have been hopeful that a shifting balance of power and resurgence of great power competition would complicate this effort. Those in the liberal camp have encouraged a return to liberal internationalism but remain divided about what the future of the Liberal International Order ought to look like and whether it is even feasible to restore America’s conventional leadership role within it.

Rose believes that Biden should instead opt for pragmatism; that is, not being wedded to any single theory or approach. He argues that the U.S. has historically avoided disaster because it has proven capable of blending and hedging against the two. The main difference between the past and today, however, is that theoretical mixing usually occurs across administrations, not within one.    

Having now passed Biden’s 100th day in office, it has become clear that he and his administration are not guided distinctly by realist or liberal principles, but rather a domestic-focused vision for American foreign policy centered on something far more elemental: revitalizing the social, political, and economic foundation of the United States. This means confronting rampant economic inequality, reinvesting in basic research, and addressing the wide infrastructure gap, which many believe has helped fuel the rising tide of populism in the U.S. Though ambitious, the president’s approach recognizes an unavoidable truth: without prioritizing a return to fundamentals, much of the practical policy utility offered by realism, liberalism, or any other major theory of international relations is diminished.    

A Realist Foreboding

Realists, the pessimists, emphasize the competitive and conflictual side of international politics. To them, states are trapped in an anarchic international system that breeds both mistrust and an eternal competition for power between them. Peace, stability, and war are simply reflections of stable or unstable distributions of power among the world’s strongest and most consequential states. Conventional wisdom says that ideology breeds conflict, but realists emphasize the dominance of security competition and international anarchy in fueling war.  

If one is convinced by these assumptions, then the U.S. ought to follow a simple approach to foreign policy: preserve the country’s hegemonic position in the Western Hemisphere; maintain its economic and military advantage over adversaries and potential competitors, and ensure that no state in another region comes to dominate its neighbors. 

Simple enough, they say, but as recent history has demonstrated, the U.S. has proven incapable of following this logic. Realist critics of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War do not see continuity between the “post-war Liberal International Order” that existed within the broader bipolar Cold War order. They contend that the U.S. largely eschewed balance-of-power politics and embraced “liberal hegemony,” arguing that the country blended its ideals with its power and pursued foolish, unrealistic, and counterproductive policies that have diminished its power and prestige.

For example, rapid NATO expansion from 1999 through the first decade of the 2000’s is argued to have pushed the geopolitical tolerance of an insecure, volatile, and declining Russia, which produced avoidable hostilities that have poisoned relations with the West; neoconservatives militarized democracy promotion and embarked on a disastrous crusade in the Middle East that accomplished the opposite; and faith in what the combined forces of free trade and economic liberalization could produce also had the consequence of compounding economic inequality, withering America’s industrial base, and enriching China, which never democratized and is now converting its wealth into military power.

Present at these failures was Biden, first as a U.S. Senator and then as Vice President. Realists would point out that he was not only present but was a chief architect and champion of many of these post-Cold War policies. Had the U.S. stuck to the basics, it would have taken Russian interests more seriously and likely averted a path that has only led to counterproductive hostilities; it would have not bet on China eventually liberalizing its political system and becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the Liberal International Order, and it would not have found itself bogged down in quagmires throughout the Middle East.

Prominent Realist thinker Stephen M. Walt wrote in August 2020, “If former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November—and, to be clear, I hope he does—the apostles of U.S. primacy and its ‘indispensable’ global role will be back in the saddle, and we are likely to see at least a partial attempt to turn the clock back to the halcyon days when the United States was actively trying to create a global liberal order.” 

The words “partial attempt” speak to an unavoidable reality that Biden and these “apostles of U.S. primacy” in his administration face: the sunsetting of the unipolar moment. It was America’s uncontested power and stature in the international system following the collapse of the Soviet Union that provided the structural permissiveness for it to pursue liberal hegemony. As the realist scholar  John Mearsheimer likes to say, the U.S. was Godzilla in a system filled with minions. China, of course, is far from a minion today. It’s more like King Ghidorah, the three-headed arch-enemy of Godzilla. Realists believe that the rise of a challenger will constrain any attempt to return to a liberal status-quo ante and hope that the resurgence of great power competition will make the virtues of prudence and restraint fashionable again. 

Liberalism’s Cautious Optimism 

Liberals, the optimists, reject the realist notion that conflict among great powers is an inevitable feature of an anarchic international system. They believe that international institutions, economic interdependence, and the proliferation of democratic states are all pacifying forces that can promote great-power peace. The general assumptions being that institutions help shape norms and behavior, promote cooperation, and provide platforms for states to settle disputes through non-violent means; free trade and globalization drastically raises the cost of war between them and advances economic and political liberalization within them, and democratic states never go to war with one another. Combined, these assumptions constitute the theoretical basis of the American-led Liberal International Order.  

To many, however, President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 sounded the death-knell of this post-World War II consensus. His America first platform, crude style of diplomacy, and indifference he showed towards many of America’s traditional allies signaled a wide departure from his predecessors. The wave of nationalism and populism he ushered in even rejected core elements of American foreign policy that many in the profession had come to regard as second nature: Leadership in international institutions was abdicated; trade wars with allies and enemies were pursued; protectionism was embraced, and the active and rhetorical promotion of democracy was largely ignored. 

Biden’s victory over Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election had many in the foreign policy establishment questioning (and hoping) that the past four years had simply been an aberration. And if anyone was going to be able to return American foreign policy to a more familiar beat after a period marked by turbulence and disruption, it was Biden. His nearly five decades in government demonstrated that he was a tried and true liberal internationalist who was not shy about his faith, support, and confidence in multilateralism and free trade. He had campaigned as a moderate that vowed to bring America back to its traditional role in the world. Under his leadership, the U.S. would rejoin agreements Trump had left—such as the Paris Agreement and Iran nuclear deal—and once again stand as a champion for human rights and an opponent of authoritarianism abroad.

But, can liberalism really be back in style post-Trump? Over the past four years, proponents of this theory of international politics in both academia and government have had to grapple with this question. As Rose notes in his piece, liberals have been on the defensive in recent years: 

“They argued that globalization would build on itself and increasingly tie the world together, but instead it provoked a massive backlash, and states are weaponizing interdependence. They saw democracy as improving at its core and marching forward on the periphery, but it is now regressing and retreating. They saw Chinese authoritarianism as doomed to fail, but it has succeeded beyond all expectations. They preached cosmopolitanism, but it turns out that everybody’s a little bit nationalist (and gets more so under stress). They claimed that norms constrained behavior, but the reality is that shameless people can break them without consequence.”

Even if one comes to terms with these failures and shortcomings, liberals would still point to the fact that realism has little explanatory power when it comes to the biggest challenges and threats facing the modern world. Climate Change, pandemics, fiscal crises, artificial intelligence, terrorism, and cyberattacks (just to name a few) are all international realities unphased by international anarchy and left unaddressed by balance of power politics. They are, however, complex transnational problems that are indifferent to territorial boundaries and require intense global cooperation to solve them.

A world increasingly abundant in global collective action problems means that an international order which facilitates cooperation and instills a sense of accountability between states is not just relevant, it is critical. 

This observation has led the prominent liberal thinker Anne Marie Slaughter to reimagine what a reformed Liberal International Order ought to look like. She posits that power is increasingly diffuse and the centrality of states is more diluted. Global challenges, however, are plentiful. They are also extremely complex; so much so that she does not believe that states, even if they wanted to, possess the means to successfully confront and solve them on their own. She states: 

“In the absence of a true global government, the best bet for guaranteeing the world’s security and prosperity is not to limit the liberal order to democracies but to expand it deeper into liberal societies. There, civic, educational, corporate, and scientific actors can work with one another—and with governments—in ways that enhance transparency, accountability, and problem-solving capacity.”  

In her reimagined liberal order, “impact hubs” embedded within international institutions (and outside of them) would “harness the power and efficacy of both governments and global actors” to solve and manage specific challenges. This would streamline problem-solving capacity by connecting relevant state, local, and non-state actors to a hub that has “both the funds and the authority to make a difference.” 

This vision, however innovative and relevant, is one in which the U.S. is no longer front and center of the liberal order and states grant both funding and authority to a diverse set of issue-specific organizations composed of a wide array of actors. In the U.S., accepting this proposal would require a domestic consensus that transnational problems are both real and must be solved and that Washington should provide dollars and responsibilities to more, not less, international organizations to confront them. Considering that questions as basic as what role should America play in the world? have been drastically rearticulated across just two U.S. administrations, it is clear that building such consensus would be a near-impossible task. 

Back to the Basics 

President Biden recognizes the wide gap between America’s domestic realities and the international visions offered by theorists on both sides. For realists, the core of power lies at home. It is dependent on a nation’s ability to utilize all of the attributes of its population and economy to exert influence and power abroad. Polarization, toxic partisan rancor, growing economic inequality, and racial injustice are not qualities of a great power that can serve it well for very long.

One can similarly apply this observation to the liberal side. The U.S. will have a difficult time continuing to lead a liberal order based on universal human rights and democracy promotion when it itself is now divided over first principles. This does not even consider the external challenges posed by China. Furthermore, growing nationalism and a country where a significant portion of its population rejects globalism and believes that man-made climate change is a “hoax” is not one where authority and funds can realistically be granted to a more transnational-oriented order. 

For both theories to continue having practical relevance for policymaking, Biden understands that the U.S. must revitalize its social, political, and economic foundation.

The President recognizes that soaring economic inequality, crumbling infrastructure, and great portions of the country that have been left behind in a bygone era of American manufacturing preeminence are all forces that helped generate the populist backlash that culminated in Trump’s election. The appeal to nativism, stoking of racial animosity, and growing allegiance to a narrowly defined conception of American identity are all symptoms of a fractured society. 

Household wealth has not returned to its pre-recession levels and average incomes have grown at a dismal rate of just 0.3% between 2000 and 2018. This is contrasted with a 1.3% annual growth rate between 1970 and 2000. Had the rate stayed the same in the latter period to now, the current median household income would be $12,400 higher. Furthermore, while unemployment skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, 650 U.S. billionaires saw their net-worths increase by around 35%, making them $1.2 trillion richer. 

When it came to R&D spending towards the end of the Cold War, the federal government receded from its role in funding basic research and increasingly relied on the private sector for breakthroughs in advanced and emerging technologies. The consequence has been a diminishing technological edge over China and an industry increasingly dominated by monopolistic corporations that stifle competition. On infrastructure, the gap between current spending and what is actually needed stood at $2 trillion in 2016. All of these developments indicate an approach to government, or lack thereof, that has left the social fabric of the U.S. torn and tattered after decades of disinvestment in the lives of everyday Americans.   

In May 2021, President Biden unveiled a plan to invest $3 trillion in the U.S. economy. The proposal addresses everything from infrastructure, technology, education, climate change, and workforce development— all in an effort to make the U.S. more competitive, productive, and equal. In June, the Senate also passed a major overhaul of U.S. industrial policy, committing $250 billion to research and development. At the heart of these historic policy proposals lies a recognition and bet that by boldly and dramatically confronting long-standing domestic deficiencies, the U.S. can begin a process of mending the divides that Biden believes are hindering its ability to effectively compete and prevail in the 21st century. However, bizarre conspiratorial fanaticism, racism, tribalism, nativism, and hyper-partisanship that have all come to define many aspects of American life are unlikely to be resolved with a 21st century New Deal. There is also the corrosive and entrenched nature of partisan gerrymandering and the current assault on voting rights in numerous states. These are all potent forces that threaten to hinder Biden’s agenda. Even with these uncertainties, however, the bet remains an ambitious and necessary one.  

No Longer Assume

When reading U.S. National Security Strategies from the late 1990s and early 2000s, one will find that a general assumption prevailed in each one: The U.S. was now in a position to concentrate its attention idealistically outward towards reshaping the world in its image. Concerns over fundamental values and first principles at home were the last things on anyone’s mind. In fact, some even thought we had reached the “end of history” where liberal-capitalism had prevailed on a universal scale. 

Times have changed. The U.S. can no longer afford to assume that its own house is in order. Recognizing this is not a call to turn inwards at the cost of U.S. engagement with the world, but is rather a reminder of a famous statement given in a speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” To keep America standing strong in the world, it must first prioritize restoring and reinvigorating the social, political, and economic pillars on which its strength rests. This means engaging in honest national self-reflection and boldly investing in itself. It is human capital on which American power and the American idea stands. After that standing is restored, the bickering over pessimism, optimism, and pragmatism can once again ensue.   

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Editor’s Picks

By Zachary Durkee

Zachary Durkee is a Senior at UCLA majoring in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations. He also writes for The Generation, UCLA's Foreign Affairs magazine. Zach has an interest in US-China relations and aims to pursue a diplomatic career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

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