Biden Resists Move Left on Foreign Policy
Though he’s eager to accommodate Bernie Sanders’s base on domestic issues, the presumptive Democratic nominee is still seen as a man of the past by progressives.
When Joe Biden’s campaign invited Bernie Sanders’s advisors to participate in a series of policy workshops aimed at integrating progressive ideas into the Democratic Party platform, one topic didn’t get mentioned: foreign policy. As Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, shows signs of nudging his party to the left on domestic policy—proposing student debt relief, expanded health care, and police reforms aimed at outlawing chokeholds and the transfer of weapons of war to police departments—there has been little sign of a similar move over America’s relations with the world.
For many in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing who favor a more restrained America, Biden appears to be a man of the past: an unapologetic champion of American exceptionalism. He backed the resolution authorizing the Iraq War, remains committed to waging an open-ended global war on terrorism with drones and special forces, refuses to condition military aid to Israel to secure its commitment to a Palestinian state, and demonstrates little interest in curbing a U.S. defense budget that has swelled by more than $100 billion under Donald Trump’s presidency. Recently, he has been trying to burnish his foreign-policy credentials by portraying himself as tougher on China than Trump.
The development has been particularly dispiriting for left-wing Democrats, who felt they had altered the course of the party’s foreign-policy thinking during the primary campaign and demonstrated widespread popular support among Democratic voters for scaled-down military spending and a more restrained foreign policy.
“There is a real sense in which progressives won, or at least controlled, the debate on foreign policy during the primaries,” said Stephen Wertheim, a historian at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and critic of what he views as America’s excessive reliance on military solutions. “A return back to normal, or a return back to the Obama administration, is not that compelling at this point.”
During the primaries, Biden premised his campaign on his relationship with former President Barack Obama and their accomplishments together. But until the South Carolina primary, the former vice president was being soundly beaten by Sanders, who favored deep cuts in military spending, denounced decades of U.S. trade policy that killed jobs for American workers, and advocated human rights for Tibetans and other minorities in China. While many progressives are willing to swallow hard and support Biden now, they are also expecting that Sanders’s strong early performance should be rewarded with a broad turn leftward by the party, including on foreign policy.
For the moment, the debate over foreign policy has been widely eclipsed by more pressing crises at home, where a videotaped recording of a Minneapolis police officer asphyxiating a black man, George Floyd, ignited nationwide protests against police abuse that has resulted in violent exchanges between protesters and police from Atlanta and Los Angeles to Minneapolis and New York. On Monday, Trump unleashed military police on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square outside the White House and threatened to deploy the military in U.S. cities to quell the violence.
“When peaceful protesters are dispersed by the order of the president from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House—using tear gas and flash grenades—in order to stage a photo-op at a noble church, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle,” Biden said in a speech Tuesday. The president, he added, is “more interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care.”
Biden’s reluctance to give more ground to the left threatens to deepen friction in the party over the course of foreign policy, though it remains unclear whether the discontent will seriously affect voter turnout, which will be crucial to a Biden victory in November, according to interviews with more than a dozen advisors, analysts, former officials, and congressional aides in the progressive camp.
Indeed, there is little evidence that progressives will ultimately break ranks with Biden, given the overwhelming sense of urgency they place on preventing Trump’s reelection. Staffers from the primary campaigns of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have already migrated to the swelling ranks of the Biden campaign, which has flirted with the possibility of bringing the Massachusetts senator onto the ticket.
“We are not looking to start a giant food fight inside the party—everyone is aligned behind the idea that Biden needs to be our next president because we can’t survive another four years of Trump,” one progressive foreign-policy advisor said. “But I see it as the role of the progressive community to keep the pressure on the campaign” to pursue a more progressive course.
“The overriding objective for the Biden administration will be to establish the credibility and the standing that the United States enjoyed prior to 2017,” said Peter Mulrean, who served at the State Department for nearly 30 years. “But you can’t achieve that by just turning back the clock and resume the policy positions we held under Obama. Too much has changed. The attitude towards the U.S. has changed and even attitudes in the U.S. have changed, particularly among progressives within the Democratic Party.’’
Many progressives say U.S. credibility before Trump was already on the wane, citing the diplomatic damage done to the United States by disastrous U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Libya.
Progressives have been prodding Biden, with little success, to commit to embracing their calls for reduced military spending, a halt to the nuclear modernization program, and a more nuanced diplomatic approach to dealing with U.S. rivals, including China, whose cooperation they believe is critical for making progress on the international effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus and to scale back the production of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
“Is Biden going to try to outhawk Trump on China and get into the game of who is tougher with foreigners, a game that the Democrats will never win and which will make our policies and debate worse?” Wertheim asked. “Or will he seek to cooperate with them in international organizations?”
The dispute over Biden’s approach to the Asian economic powerhouse followed the April 18 release of a Biden campaign ad accusing Trump of going soft on China in the critical weeks after the first outbreak of the virus, a period during which Trump praised China’s response. “But Trump rolled over for the Chinese. He took their word for it,” the ad stated. “Trump praised the Chinese 15 times in January and February as the coronavirus spread across the world.”
The ad drew a sharp rebuke from Asian American activists in the party, who complained that the president’s effort to blame China for spreading the coronavirus in the United States was exposing Chinese American citizens to abuse. “We share the Biden campaign’s goal of defeating Trump in November,” Asian American activists wrote in an open letter. The ad, the letter continued, “exacerbates anti-Asian racism in many ways, none clearer than when it implies that the country would have been saved by a stricter travel ban on China.”
Some progressives say the Biden campaign has accepted the criticism as legitimate, and Biden has since softened his tone on China. “I think they took those concerns and criticisms on board, and they understand a hawkish race to the bottom is unwise both politically and on policy,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’s chief foreign-policy advisor.
Other progressives see China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy—it has recently stepped up its crackdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong—and its military buildup as posing threats to U.S. security and the promotion of values that progressives care about, including human rights and democracy, around the global. Sanders also took a far more hawkish position than Obama on trade with China, citing the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
“The extreme positions on both sides are overly simplistic and naive,” one progressive said. Hawks in the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Tom Cotton, “are looking to instigate a conflict” without considering that there may be a more nuanced approach to advancing U.S. interests. At the same time, “there is some oversimplification among progressives that they can wish away the military aspect of the conflict with China because it is not consistent with our preferred narrative.”
That reality, the source said, will strengthen the Defense Department’s case for continued high levels of funding.
“There is not a lot that suggests to me that the Biden administration is going to take a different route than previous administrations, which is that we give the Defense Department as much as we can stand to, as we can, at any given time,” said Laicie Heeley, a former fellow with the Stimson Center’s budgeting for foreign affairs and defense program.
Nowhere has the fault line between progressives and establishment Democrats been sharper than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where leading candidates, including Sanders and Warren, have expressed greater sympathy for Palestinian rights and a willingness to openly criticize Israeli conduct that undermines diplomatic efforts to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state. Both candidates expressed a willingness to condition billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance to Israel.
Biden’s refusal to consider conditioning military assistance to Israel is “not really in line with the views of most Democrats, especially younger Democrats,” Duss told Foreign Policy. “If you look at polling, including a recent survey from the Center for American Progress, the majority of Democrats are in favor of conditioning aid or other consequences in response to settlement growth.
“If you say you support a two-state solution but also say there will be no consequences for Israeli policies aimed at foreclosing that solution, why would you expect anything to change?” Duss said.
Biden has spoken out critically against Israel’s announcement that it plans to annex key parts of the West Bank, warning that “it’ll choke off any hope of peace.” He is also expected to take steps to improve relations with the Palestinians, restoring financial assistance that was cut by Trump. But he has otherwise charted a far more deferential approach to Israel. Asked whether he would reverse controversial Trump policies, such as the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, or apply economic pressure on Israel to make compromises with the Palestinians, Biden has offered resounding noes. “My commitment to Israel is absolutely unshakeable,” he said.
“Biden is the product of the last 40 years of Democratic mainstream politics and foreign policy, which has not only grown increasingly supportive of Israel but really loathes to ever question Israel in public,” Mulrean said. “I’m a little concerned that the Biden team’s instinct could be to fall back on the old playbook, rather than come up with something that addresses the new changes.”
Others in the progressive camp say Biden still shares a good deal with progressives.
“So, look, I would be lying if I said I was totally thrilled with their positions” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the progressive foreign-policy advisor said. “But he is committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and supports meaningful rights and representation for the Palestinians. He said he is unequivocally opposed to annexation of the West Bank or any form of unilateral action, which is consistent with what progressives want.”
During the Obama administration, Biden was among the staunchest supporters of the Israeli government, backing a decision to veto a 2011 U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements and opposing a decision in the final weeks of Obama’ s presidency to abstain on a subsequent U.N. resolution condemning settlements, according to a former senior White House official. His position was previously reported by Peter Beinart in the Jewish Currents.
“Joe Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences as far as possible between friends, behind doors, maintaining as little distance in public as possible,” Antony Blinken, a top advisor to Biden, said last month during an event organized by the pro-Israel group Democratic Majority for Israel.
A decision by Israel to press ahead with annexing portions of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, will provide an early test. “If annexation does not occur, there is no cost to pay [for an uncritically pro-Israel stance],” said Mulrean, who recently served as the director of the representative office for the U.N. Palestinian refugee relief organization in New York. “If annexation does occur, he and his team need to find a way to thread the needle and to lay down a marker signaling that this is not just another day in relations with Israel. My guess is progressive Democrats are not going to remain silent.”
In May, Biden and Sanders established a series of six working groups, headed by progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and establishment stalwarts like John Kerry, on climate change, criminal justice reform, economy, education, health care, and immigration. But there was nothing on foreign policy.
The pressure from progressives to lurch leftward, however, is not as salient on foreign-policy matters as it is on domestic issues like inequality, health care, and college debt.
“There is nothing to suggest a fundamental rethinking of the policy,” a former Obama White House official said. Biden would face strong counterpressure from constituencies that “would feel aggrieved if Biden were to change tact” on Israel, the official said.
Biden’s attitude toward the use of force, the official added, is not as hawkish as some of his critics on the left fear.
Biden is more of an “iconoclast” who sees the U.S. military as a force for good in the world and has vigorously backed U.S. military interventions, from the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq in 2003. But he has grown more cautious about the risks of military interventions, advocating a stronger drawdown of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and opposing the U.S. intervention in Libya. “I can’t fit him into a box,” the official said. “Has he evolved, or has he always had an ambiguous attitude about the use of force?”
The reality and constraints of governing may limit even a more progressive president’s ability to satisfy his or her more progressive followers. But even a moderate shift would be preferable for progressives than the current administration. “I think it’s an insufficient course correction given how much the U.S. role in the world has changed,” the official said. “But going back to an Obama-like or Clinton-like policy or Bush-like policy would be huge progress from where we are.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch