Uncle Joe Is Ready to Run the World

Joe Biden is the only candidate for the White House with a foreign-policy philosophy that’s proven to work.

Joe Biden speaks at the International Association of Fire Fighters legislative conference in Washington on March 12.
Joe Biden speaks at the International Association of Fire Fighters legislative conference in Washington on March 12. Win McNamee/Getty Images

There are many reasons to look forward to what appears to be former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s imminent addition to the ranks of Democratic candidates for president. First, Biden finds it extraordinarily difficult to avoid saying what he thinks. Second, amid the swelling ranks of chill young persons running for the job, we need a man (or woman, of course) who signals assent, as he showed during our conversations, with a cry of “Bingo!” (or “Bingo, bingo, bingo!” for a true meeting of the minds). Finally, those of us who care about foreign policy would like to have a candidate who does, too.

Scrutinize the candidacy announcement speeches or the websites of Kamala Harris or Beto O’Rourke or Amy Klobuchar or Cory Booker; you will find virtually nothing about the world out there. Nor, at this very early stage, can one blame them, since they are vying to run against a president who poses an unprecedented threat to the values of our own society. The same cannot quite be said of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, both of whom have adopted a left critique not only of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy but of former President Barack Obama’s. (I will have more to say about that next week.) But that critique has everything to do with who we as Americans are and very little to do with realities beyond our borders.

One useful way of distinguishing between idealists and realists is that the former craft foreign policy by applying American values to the world, while the latter do so by applying foreign realities to the United States. The first suffer terrible shocks when they come into contact with the world, while the latter surrender in advance the principles that make—or perhaps I should say “made”—most Americans care about those policies in the first place.

Looking back over the notes from hours of conversation I had with Joe Biden for a New York Times Magazine profile 10 years ago, when he was vice president, I am struck that Biden seems to understand this tension very well and to combine a realistic assessment of the world as it is with a commitment to principle. That puts him in very rarefied company.

The 76-year-old Biden has been doing foreign policy since he won a Senate seat in 1972, but he came to the job with an already skeptical predisposition. Biden says that he had opposed the Vietnam War not because he considered it immoral but because he thought it wouldn’t work. “The best speech on foreign policy I ever heard,” he told me, “was Frank Church’s speech in 1971 or ’72”—Church was a liberal Democratic senator from Idaho—“pointing out that the policy of containment that drove our Vietnam policy was a misapplication of Kennan,” that is, of Cold War-era U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s famous argument about containment of the Soviet Union in Europe. “Kennan came to my office at the end of my first year,” Biden added. “He was a fascinating little guy.”

Twenty years later, Biden was an early and ardent advocate for military intervention in Bosnia. “[Then-President George H.W.] Bush took the view, ‘We have no dog in that fight,’” Biden told me, “‘And by the way, we can’t do much about it, and by the way, it doesn’t matter.’ I and others came along and said, ‘Wait a minute, it does matter in terms of security in Europe, it does impact on our security in the Euro-Atlantic, and therefore we should determine what we could do to deal with the genocide. And guess what? We have the wherewithal to intervene and determine an outcome.’ And people would say, ‘Well, why don’t you do the same in Somalia and elsewhere?’ Well, because we don’t have the capacity.” Biden then kept prodding a deeply reluctant President Bill Clinton to act.

Biden saw himself as an idealist perpetually conditioned by an awareness of intractable realities. “The difference,” he said, “between where I think we should be and where we have been in the past going all the way back to [anti-Vietnam War Sen. George] McGovern is, you either decry the behavior and cut off relations or you ignore the behavior and enhance your relations.” (Ahem, President Trump.) “My gut is, you deal with it in realistic terms. We can’t do anything about it, but don’t expect us” to remain silent “if the only way you’ll trade with us is if we say it’s okay that you’re beating the hell out of all those folks in Tiananmen Square. They must know that someone hears them, even if you can’t do anything.” The Obama administration did, indeed, do both those things—and did, indeed, have no effect at all on Chinese human rights behavior.

As vice president, Biden served as Obama’s roving fire chief but also as his in-house Cassandra, above all on Afghanistan. In 2001, Biden had endorsed full-scale nation-building in the aftermath of the war, but multiple visits to the country had since convinced him that the goal was chimerical. He regarded the counterinsurgency strategy proposed by Obama’s generals there as the fantasy of can-do warriors and starry-eyed civilians. Biden challenged the counterinsurgency advocates to demonstrate that they could train 400,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen, that they could make President Hamid Karzai a legitimate leader, and that they could somehow change Afghanistan’s insides. He insisted that none of it was necessary. “If you destroy al Qaeda, and the Taliban just has local designs, we can leave,” he told me that he argued. “But if you need to secure the population, to prevent al Qaeda from returning”—the argument of fervent counterinsurgency proponents—then planners would need to marshal a force even bigger than in Iraq, because Afghanistan was so much more impoverished and disorganized. “If that’s the requirement,” he said, “then ask yourself another question: With finite resources, a finite military, what does that prevent us from doing in Pakistan?”

Biden mostly lost that argument. But 10 years later, the Trump administration is trying to do almost exactly what he proposed then: work with the Taliban to keep out al Qaeda and then largely withdraw. (Biden would have retained a U.S. counterterrorism force.) Biden was right about the futility of counterinsurgency. On the other hand, his faith that Pakistan was more amenable than Afghanistan to American money and influence was probably groundless. And he was prepared, as Trump is, to abandon many Afghan women to the Taliban.

I spent the bulk of my time with Biden talking about Iraq, where Obama had commissioned him to serve as unofficial regent. Iraq was not, of course, a signal success of the Obama administration. Biden was convinced that the United States could work with President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite sectarian whom Iran had kept in power despite American misgivings. Biden drew on his sense of politics as a pragmatic vocation. “These guys put their pants on one leg at a time,” he told me during a visit to Baghdad. “It’s still politics. Maliki has to make a deal; I look at what are his options.” Maliki’s best path to political success lay in co-opting the Sunni minority.

Unfortunately, the Iraqi leader didn’t take that path. Maliki’s persecution of Sunnis, including those who had fought alongside U.S. troops, provoked a sense of rage that al Qaeda in Iraq—the forerunner of the Islamic State—was able to exploit to reduce the country to chaos. On the other hand, Biden probably did the best possible job with the cards fate had dealt him. American leverage was diminishing as American troops were withdrawing. At the same time, senior Kurdish officials told me that Biden had persuaded them—because they trusted him—to postpone a referendum on independence that could have led to civil war.

Joe Biden may be an anachronism. “Vote for Joe—he knew George Kennan” is unlikely to appeal to the working-class white voters with whom Biden claims to have a special rapport. At the same time, the anti-neoliberal rhetoric that the Democratic base hungers for is alien to him. Biden hails from the era when Americans thought that they could see further because they stood taller, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once put it. America no longer stands as tall nor sees as far. Many younger voters, in any case, would find that self-righteous imagery laughable.

Yet the world will not conform to the wishes of Democratic candidates. The next president will have to confront not only 21st century problems such as climate change and migration, but also 20th-century—and 19th-century—problems of great power rivalry.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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