Biden Picks Harris for Veep—and Bush Sr. for Himself

The Democratic candidate’s choice of vice president says more than you might think about his foreign policy—and his own self-image.

By , a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden in 1987
U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden announces on Sept. 23, 1987, that he is withdrawing from the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. JEROME DELAY/AFP via Getty Images

When Barack Obama became U.S. president, he had thought a great deal about foreign policy—as he had thought a great deal about many things—but had barely practiced it at all. That was where his vice president came in handy. Joe Biden, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had the chance to be on a first-name basis with various heads of state since Obama had been taking social studies classes at the Punahou School in Honolulu.

When Obama needed someone to straighten out the mess in Iraq, whose leader, Nouri al-Maliki, seemed to be paying a good deal more attention to Tehran than to Washington, he turned to Biden—or so Biden told me at the time—and said, “Joe, you do Iraq.”

Had Biden chosen former National Security Advisor Susan Rice as his vice president, one can easily imagine just such an assignment. The woman he did choose, Sen. Kamala Harris, brings many strengths—but they do not include the ability to tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he’s acting like a schmuck and then say “You know I love you” before hanging up.

Joe Biden, however, does not need his own Joe Biden. The closest analogy to Biden, in regard to personal experience, is George H.W. Bush, who chose as vice president Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, who no one considered an authority on foreign policy, perhaps not even on the names of foreign capitals. Bush was his own chief diplomat.

Only rarely do Americans elect figures who feel comfortable in foreign countries. Though the Founders regarded the position of secretary of state as the stepping stone to the presidency, no one has taken that step since James Buchanan. Should he win, Biden will know the world beyond the United States’ borders better than any president since Richard Nixon, or perhaps Theodore Roosevelt.

Some presidents regard their ignorance of the foreign world as a patriotic badge of honor. Andrew Jackson let voters know that he had never been abroad, unlike the cosmopolitan John Quincy Adams—a former ambassador—whom he defeated in 1828. George W. Bush had taken one or two jaunts with the Young Presidents’ Organization, but he was happiest kicking around his Texas ranch. History offers no more telling an example of the danger of such provincialism.

After 9/11, the younger Bush underwent a conversion to a kind of magical idealism that left him seeking to remake a world about which he knew almost nothing. Knowledge might have stayed his hand; ignorance yoked to dogma made him terribly dangerous.

In recent days I have been talking to Biden’s foreign-policy advisors for a series that will appear in Foreign Policy in the coming weeks. All of them, quite naturally, talk about Biden’s immense fund of personal experience. Biden doesn’t just know the Kurdish leaders—he knows their grandchildren. He knows their hopes and he knows their political limits. I am skeptical of this kind of talk, having heard it over the years from Richard Holbrooke and John Kerry and France’s Bernard Kouchner. You can call Netanyahu on his birthday, and he’ll still authorize the construction of a new settlement. Biden himself sagely explained to me in Baghdad that Maliki and his adversaries in rival ethnic groups “put their pants on one leg at a time,” and would be forced by political calculation to make concessions to one another. That turned out to be a sanguine prediction.

But experience matters in a different way—it educates your intuitions. George H.W. Bush conducted a limited war in the Gulf because he knew how easily grand ambitions could run aground in the region; his son did the opposite because he didn’t know any better. When Obama ran his agonizingly protracted debate over Afghanistan in 2009, it was Biden, almost alone, who told the generals advocating a hugely ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that they were smoking something. Biden thought the administration shouldn’t set itself a task it couldn’t achieve. Obama must wish that he had listened to him.

The practice of foreign policy operates under a Hippocratic imperative: Don’t make a bad situation worse. Competent management is the first order of business; lest that seem a low bar, think how few U.S. presidents over the last 60 years or so have cleared it. Yet presidents also need to navigate the world with a destination in mind; they need a worldview. Trump has no such thing—and should he somehow win reelection, he will continue running the country’s affairs with both eyes fixed on his personal self-interest.

The great question that Biden will face, should he win, is not, “How will you glue together what Donald Trump has smashed,” but rather, “How must America adapt to a world that looks very different from the one you left in 2016?” America is wounded today in a way it was not then—in a way that it has not been since before Joe Biden was born. There is an epic quality to the work that lies ahead. Is that not the opportunity that any truly ambitious statesman seeks?

Correction, Aug. 12, 2020: Andrew Jackson defeated President John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election. A previous version of this article misstated the election year. 

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