Biden Is Getting Ready to Bury Neoliberalism

The potential next Democratic administration is preparing to upend decades of dogma on globalization.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden  greet supporters at a rally on Oct. 12, 2008 in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden greet supporters at a rally on Oct. 12, 2008 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

This spring, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden agreed with his former primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders to form joint task forces on health care, criminal justice, climate change, the economy, education, and immigration. It is clear from the reports of those bodies, issued earlier this summer, that under a President Biden U.S. domestic policy would shift well to the left of where it would have been under a President Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But none of those committees covered foreign policy as traditionally defined. The ideological flames fanned by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and then brought to a white heat by the Black Lives Matter movement, have barely touched foreign affairs, which is often isolated from domestic politics. A Biden promise to return to the status quo ante would be a brain-dead response to a transformed world, but it would not be politically costly.

Yet the assumption that under a President Biden domestic policy would move left, but foreign policy would not, presupposes a distinction between the two that is itself an artifact of an earlier era. Some elements of a Biden foreign policy would almost certainly move left as a dependent variable of domestic policy. Biden uses the expression “a foreign policy for the middle class” to express the idea that trade and international economic policy must be guided by the benefits they will bring to average Americans—rather than to American multinationals. For those of you keeping an ideological scorecard at home, that policy may be taken as the death knell of neoliberalism.

That term “neoliberalism,” which began as a neutral descriptor before turning pejorative in recent years, describes the faith that a lightly regulated global marketplace in which goods, services, capital, and firms moved across borders with minimal friction would unleash growth that would increase jobs and spread prosperity, especially in the United States, the engine room of globalization. That was the guiding doctrine of the administration of President Bill Clinton. Its high apostles, including Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, served as President Barack Obama’s senior economic advisors.

Some of the most interesting thinking at the edges, if not always the center, of Biden’s pool of advisors and influences has to do with the shortcomings of that doctrine. Jennifer Harris, an international economist who served in the State Department under Hillary Clinton, argues that from the time of its founding the United States, like all great powers, has used its economic power to advance its geopolitical standing—pursuing what she and others call “geoeconomics.” To that end, U.S. policymakers have adopted a sequence of economic models tailored to the circumstances of their time. The neoliberal model suited an era when the U.S. economy reaped vast benefits from globalization—or at least seemed to. That is no longer seen to be the case: Globalization is now blamed for widening inequality and hollowing out the middle class. What’s more, at a time when China, an unabashed geoeconomics power, is wielding trade and economic relations as a diplomatic weapon, the United States cannot simply repeat shibboleths about the free movement of capital and goods. (Harris and Jake Sullivan, one of Biden’s key advisors, laid out this argument earlier this year in an article in Foreign Policy.)

Harris asserts that the American trade officials who negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership had so thoroughly internalized neoliberal dogma that they simply took it for granted that increasing the pharmaceutical industry’s access to Asian markets was good for the United States—even if doing so created neither jobs nor tax revenue in the United States. The war over just how “free” trade is, Harris said in an interview with Foreign Policy, has become sterile at a time when trade barriers are already at historic lows—or were until President Donald Trump began jacking them back up. So-called trade agreements are, in fact, the modern site of geoeconomic struggle—but aren’t being acknowledged as such. “There is a desire,” said Harris, “for some kind of economic engagement that improves the lived experience of middle-class Americans.”

That desire is now widespread. Mainstream economists having increasingly accepted the evidence that competition with China has led to a net loss of jobs at home, a cost that must be weighed in the balance against cheap televisions and smartphones. Tom Perriello, another progressive who served in the Obama administration, said in an interview that if you expressed doubts about the free market model among Obama economic officials, as he did, “you were seen as having horns growing out of your head.” Now, he added, if you repeated some of the old chestnuts, “People would say, ‘Are you cryogenically frozen?’”

Once you accept that what is good for overall global growth or even for the stock market is not necessarily good for the American worker, it becomes possible to envision a form of economic nationalism that guides U.S. behavior both at home and abroad. This seems to be what Biden has in mind with his plan for a “Made in All of America” agenda. The big investments he plans in infrastructure, education, health care, and research and development would be directed to U.S. firms to create jobs at home. A “pro-American worker tax and trade strategy” would “take aggressive trade enforcement actions against China” but also eliminate tax incentives for U.S. firms to move operations overseas.

Biden has proposed an ambitious federal effort to bring back global supply chains in sensitive areas including medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, energy grid resilience, and the like. This would entail rebuilding domestic manufacturing capacity in those areas, including through use of the Defense Production Act; making changes in the tax code to encourage domestic production of pharmaceuticals; increasing federal stockpiles of sensitive products; and establishing a new program to fund worker retraining in critical manufacturing fields. Economic nationalism is thus both a response to the rise of China and a means of equipping the United States to win the economic struggle with China.

The new nationalism has a political as well as an economic dimension. Foreign policy has traditionally been the province of experts who tell Americans where national interests lie rather than ask them where they think their own interests lie. This has become increasingly unsustainable, both because deference to expertise is a thing of the past and because the United States no longer seems to be winning the global struggle for supremacy. In 2018 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace set out to rectify this problem by sending scholars to three places very far from Washington—Ohio, Nebraska, and Colorado—to ask citizens how foreign policy affected their lives. The study, titled “U.S. Foreign Policy for the Middle Class,” was directed by Salman Ahmed, former head of strategic planning at the Obama National Security Council; among the authors were Jennifer Harris and Jake Sullivan. The project was authorized by Carnegie’s director, William Burns, a leading candidate for secretary of state in a Biden administration.

Very few of the hundreds of people interviewed had anything to say about the liberal international order or Russia’s encroachments on Ukraine. On such remote questions most offered stock responses that appeared to depend on what news channel they watched. But they had a great deal to say about China, trade, jobs, and foreign investment. The answers varied greatly both across and within states, but few of them sounded like Washington’s nightmare of a nationalistic heartland. Even in hard-pressed Ohio manufacturing towns, the authors note, people “express strong support for free trade and accept that technological advances and other market forces will continue to transform employment in their area. However, they insist on ‘fair trade’ and additional measures that would give them a ‘fighting chance.’”

The answers were mildly encouraging, if not terribly surprising; the most important aspect of the project may have been the decision to ask the question. A sustainable foreign policy must be rooted in the real interests of the great mass of Americans. When those interests change, so must the policy.

Yet the very different currents of opinion within the Democratic Party mean that one can hardly expect a consensus to form around the question of what foreign policy best advances the interests of average Americans. Biden is a foreign-policy traditionalist to whom the language of geoeconomics is alien; the same is true of almost all the people around him. Progressives hope they’ll move beyond those instincts. Perriello, who like Harris has many ties to Biden’s team, would like to see global agreements on antitrust laws, corporate taxation, and even minimum wages in order to prevent a race to the bottom. An international embrace of America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, prohibiting the “weaponized corruption” practiced by nations like Russia, which uses its vast oil and gas wealth to pay off friends and blackmail enemies, would, he says, “do a helluva lot more for free trade” than current trade agreements would.

Any president who adopted so ambitious an agenda would face enormous resistance from America’s own allies. Low-tax havens such as Ireland will not easily agree to a program of corporate-tax equalization; export powers such as Germany will bridle at a confrontational policy towards China. A program of global regulation might, in any case, prove too outré for Biden and his senior team. Perriello, like Harris, places a great deal of hope in Sullivan, a liaison between the two camps who has, he says, “taken the three years out of power to grapple authentically and deeply with the things they got wrong” during the Clinton campaign. Sullivan officially shed his neoliberal skin in a 2019 essay in Democracy in which he called for a “new old Democratic platform” focused—you will not be surprised to hear—on “rescuing and rebuilding the American middle class.”

“New old Democrat” sounds like just the right hat for Joe Biden’s silver head. Should he win in November, we will see if he is prepared to wear it.

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

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.