The Biden Doctrine Exists Already. Here’s an Inside Preview.

The Democratic nominee and his closest advisors served in the Obama administration—but their foreign-policy vision is finding inspiration in Harry S. Truman.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

In an essay published earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wrote, “the triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” That is a sentiment worth pausing over. Biden, who was born in 1942, is a child of that heroic era: He grew up in the 1950s, when the United States assumed its role of benevolent hegemon of the West in the struggle with the Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse in 1989 appeared to put an end to the great ideological contest of the 20th century. In his own tenure as vice president, Biden worked with President Barack Obama to buffer conflict with the authoritarian states of our own time—China, Russia, Iran.

Only four years have passed since that time, and yet in his essay Biden was, in effect, conceding that this project had failed. The contest with authoritarianism will define the American future both because those states, each in their own way, have chosen a path of confrontation with the West, and because—what is far more shocking—in 2016 the United States elected a president who has trampled democratic norms at home, insulted democratic allies abroad, and showered dictators with praise. Should Biden become president, he will inherit a crisis that bears a resemblance to the early days of the Cold War—far better in some ways but worse in others. Indeed, several of Biden’s foreign-policy advisors to whom I have been speaking in recent weeks made the analogy to President Harry S. Truman.

Certain words keep cropping up in Biden’s campaign documents and the works of his confidantes: “free world,” “democracy,” “Europe,” “lead.” Progressives would regard these as retrograde words that bear the mark of a candidate shaped by a vanished world. Certainly they are words that come naturally to Biden, an old-school sentimental patriot. Yet to his former national security aides and current advisors, some of them almost two generations younger than Biden, they constitute the necessary response to radical changes both abroad and at home.

I began every conversation with members of the foreign-policy team by asking how they thought the world had changed. Colin Kahl, Biden’s national security advisor from 2014 to the end of the administration and now a professor at Stanford University, said, “The three things that are most obvious are one, the world has become so interconnected that the biggest existential challenges we face are the transnational threats”—an awareness acutely amplified by the coronavirus pandemic; “two, democracy is on its back foot around the world; and three, the changing distribution of global power—great-power competition is back.”

These threats are interconnected. As Kahl points out, Obama had muted the language of democracy promotion not only because he recoiled from American braggadocio but because the whole debate, from the time of President Bill Clinton’s strategy of “democratic enlargement,” had revolved around the question of how, and how far, the United States could project its domestic values abroad. The implicit message of the Iraq War was: much less than we think, and at a vastly greater cost. Nevertheless, the debate itself presupposed American primacy—and American democracy.

Those pillars have crumbled away. “This is not about a liberal effort to expand democracy,” Kahl said. “This is about defending the existing frontiers of the free world.” Those frontiers are threatened by illiberal populism inside democratic states and abroad by the proxy wars and weaponized corruption of Russia as well as China’s growing effort to leverage its economic power to rewrite the rules of the global order. “We have to rally the democratic nations to preserve what we have,” Kahl said.

Here lies the analogy to 1947, the year when Truman declared that the United States would come to the aid of nations fighting tyranny because Soviet opportunism threatened U.S. national security. Of course today’s Russia is a middling power, and China, though more formidable than any past American rival, poses a that which is primarily economic and diplomatic. What’s more, in the name of fighting an existential threat, the United States offered succor to right-wing dictators and overthrew democratically elected leaders. That is not the record Biden plans to emulate. But Washington also fostered networks of alliances and rule-based institutions that governed the world without a heavy American hand—thus the conceit of the “benevolent hegemon”—and offered a model that the autocrats could not duplicate.

What would it mean to rally democracies without fighting a new cold war, and without pretending to the status of undisputed leadership the United States had 70 years ago? The first order of business, as Biden notes in his Foreign Affairs essay, is “renewing democracy at home”—ending the assault on immigrants, minorities, public servants, and all the other targets of President Donald Trump’s nationalist abuse. This is one problem that Truman did not face, yet the Cold War liberals of his day, such as Hubert Humphrey, also recognized that the United States could not serve as a credible defender of democratic values unless it conspicuously practiced them at home, in their case by passing civil rights legislation and offering a generous welcome to displaced persons. Domestic reform thus enables reform abroad.

Then what? Biden has vowed to convene a “Summit for Democracy” in his first year. This is an idea that in recent years has been chiefly associated with neoconservatives, who are inclined to see the divisions of the world in ideological rather than strictly geopolitical terms. Yet that premise has been migrating toward the center. Last year, in what now seems a straw in the wind, Tony Blinken, Biden’s longtime national security aide and the head of the campaign’s vast network of foreign-policy advisors, joined up with the neocon Robert Kagan to call for a “league”—not just a summit—of democracies.

A cautious, fine-grained thinker, Blinken says that he was pleasantly surprised to discover how much common ground he shared with the far more doctrinal Kagan. Nevertheless, he stipulated that what he and Biden have in mind is not a “crusade” but a medium for collective action. “Your base in the world are other democracies,” as Blinken put it. But not, perhaps, all democracies: On many issues, emerging-world democracies like India and Brazil feel much more like part of the problem than part of the solution. Biden’s vision is far more Atlanticist. The core members of his envisioned body would be Europe plus South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—America’s traditional allies.

What Biden and his advisors have in mind is not a formal institution like NATO but a forum, a kind of expanded G-7, in which democratic allies can work out common solutions to the transnational problems Kahl was thinking of—pandemics or cybersecurity or, of course, climate change—as well as the specific issues presented by the rise of authoritarian states, including election interference, surveillance technology, and China’s role in 5G technology. To put it in the most grandiose terms, Biden would refound “the West” for a new age of problems without borders.

This new orientation also implies a new geopolitical tilt—a pivot to Europe. It has been left to Germany, France, and a few others to stand up to Russia, and increasingly to China, and to speak out against illiberalism inside Europe. In a recent article in the Washington Monthly, Julie Smith, another former Biden official and member of the inner circle of advisors, suggested that the next president travel to Germany within 100 days of taking office and deliver a major speech to “redefine the transatlantic agenda around the concept of defending democratic values.”

The equivalent for Obama of this ingathering-of-the-West address was, of course, the June 2009 speech in Cairo in which he called for “a new beginning” between the United States and Islam. Obama’s Middle Eastern adventure brought him nothing but tears.

Much though he wanted to pivot to Asia, a region of stable nation-states, Obama never pulled more than one leg out of the Middle Eastern quagmire. Biden may have better luck showing the Arab world his back (for reasons to be explored in a future column).

“Lead” is of course a word as loaded as “free world.” Conservatives mocked the expression “lead from behind,” which they believed summed up Obama’s philosophy. Progressives and realists of the left, in contrast, flinch at invocations of the burdens of leadership, which they associate with regime change, drone warfare, and imperial hubris. As Andrew Bacevich of the Quincy Institute recently wrote, “for too long, ruling elites allowed the purported obligations of global leadership to take precedence over tending to the collective wellbeing of the American people.”

Bacevich argues that “the era of US dominion has now passed.” Biden does not believe that. He really does regard the United States as the “indispensable nation,” in Madeleine Albright’s much-mocked formulation, and he tends to attract aides who do too. In an article in the Atlantic last year, Jake Sullivan, another former national security official who now occupies a unique position as an advisor on both foreign and domestic policy, argued that, thanks to its capacity for self-renewal, its pragmatism, and its commitment to a doctrine of enlightened self-interest, the United States remains uniquely capable of world leadership, albeit in the more modest role of first among equals. In words guaranteed to vex the left, Sullivan called for “a new American exceptionalism” to restore the nation’s place atop the global order.

That does sound more like a daydream than a plan of action. After all, Obama issued much the same promise of renewal, and Americans chose to replace him with Trump. Both world leaders and ordinary citizens have concluded that the United States is not the country they thought it was. And Joe Biden is no Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of course, that’s what they said about Truman.

This is the first of a weekly series reporting on Joe Biden’s foreign-policy vision.

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.