Voice

The Election Is Over. The Ideological Fight Is About to Start.

A preview of the foreign-policy battle that’s looming over Joe Biden’s presidency.

Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell arrive on Capitol Hill on Feb. 12, 2013 in Washington.
Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell arrive on Capitol Hill on Feb. 12, 2013 in Washington. Charles Dharapak-Pool/Getty Images

Go ahead, exhale. Barring judicial intervention, the U.S. presidential election is probably over, even if President Donald Trump spends the rest of his life whining that he actually won. More importantly, while Trump may have lost the presidency, Trumpism is still alive. And that means the battle for the soul of U.S. foreign policy will continue.

Former Vice President Joe Biden now finds himself in an unenviable position. Assuming the Republican Party retains control of the Senate (as seems likely), Biden won’t be able to pass serious domestic legislation. He could turn to foreign policy instead, because presidents have more latitude in that arena and it’s been a major interest of his throughout his career—although even on foreign policy, Biden may have to struggle with a Republican Senate to appoint a national-security cabinet of his choosing. And there’s one other problem: Most Americans don’t care that much about foreign affairs, and focusing on foreign policy will lead many to accuse him of neglecting the home front. Even if he scored a few big foreign-policy wins, it won’t make him or the Democrats significantly more popular. Biden and his cohorts will be quick to mend fences with traditional U.S. allies, but warmer ties won’t translate into direct, immediate, and tangible benefits for most Americans. His best hope is hang tough and to try to flip the Senate in 2022, when more Republican seats are in play, and have serious legislation ready to go in the third year of his presidency.

In the meantime, the present debate over the United States’ role in the world will go on. The protagonists in this looming battle can be divided (at the risk of oversimplifying) into four broad camps, distinguished by how they answer two critical questions. First, what is the proper role of the state, and especially the federal government? Second, should the United States pursue an ambitious foreign policy that seeks to shape politics in many places, or should it act with greater selectiveness and restraint?

With regard to the first question, many Americans favor a strong, competent, and well-funded federal government which can use its powers to regulate society for the greater good (however defined). The classic expression of this view is the progressive liberal or New Deal state, in which government authority seeks to provide collective goods such as education and infrastructure, to address broad social issues such as racial or economic inequality, to avoid unnecessary harms by regulating key industries (including the financial sector), and to promote patriotism and national unity.

But other Americans reject key elements of this vision. With but a few exceptions (such as providing for the common defense) they want to keep the federal government small and taxes low. They see government as a potential threat to liberty and believe its interference saps economic growth and reduces individual freedom. They favor states’ rights, local autonomy for schools and law enforcement, and for the most part don’t think the government should intervene on critical social or moral issues. They may be just as patriotic as the first group, but what they like about the United States is not that it has a strong and effective government, but rather that it doesn’t.

As for the United States’ global role, a substantial fraction of the population believe U.S. foreign policy should be energetic, ambitious, engaged with the world, and committed to certain core political values. They want the United States to be a global leader, though not necessarily the only one. As I’ve noted elsewhere, such views are the norm within the foreign-policy elite.  For the most part, these Americans think the United States should be committed to the forward defense of its (numerous) allies, conducting counterterrorism missions and intelligence activities (including covert action) in many places, and working to spread democracy, competitive markets, human rights, and the rule of law to other countries. Proponents of this view may have been somewhat chastened by recent setbacks, but they have not abandoned their belief in the indispensability of the United States’ global role or the desirability of promoting a global liberal order over the longer term.

But a substantial fraction of Americans don’t buy this view anymore (if they ever did), and especially not if it costs a lot and doesn’t deliver as promised. Hardly any of this group embraces genuine Fortress America-style isolationism, but its members believe the United States should be more selective in its overseas commitments, shrink its global military footprint, reduce defense spending and rely more on diplomacy, and pursue a much more restrained foreign policy.

Combining the two dichotomies yields four broad groups, as shown in the following table:


America’s Political Typology


Libertarians are located in the first quadrant. They are passionate about preserving liberty and individual choice, and notoriously suspicious of government power. They acknowledge the need for government but want to limit its power as much as possible. Low taxes, minimal regulations, unfettered markets, and individual freedom are the libertarian bywords. COVID-19 may have exposed some of the obvious flaws in this perspective, but it hasn’t and won’t disappear.

Not surprisingly, members of this group have long favored a minimalist foreign policy. They have no problem with Americans trading or investing abroad, of course; that’s just the free market at work. But they believe the United States should not undertake security commitments outside the Western Hemisphere and should rely instead on its robust nuclear deterrent and the vast Atlantic and Pacific oceans to protect the country against most dangers. Even China’s emergence as a possible peer competitor does not bother them very much, because they believe the United States could remain secure, prosperous, and free in a world where Chinese influence equaled or surpassed its own. Embracing a new cold war with China is to be avoided, therefore, because it is likely to be expensive and would require maintaining a large national security establishment that inevitably threatens liberty at home.

Mainstream Republicans inhabit the second quadrant. Rhetorically, at least, this group shares the libertarians’ rejection of a strong federal government (though some of them are happy to take advantage of tax incentives and other forms of corporate welfare). Ever since the presidency of Ronald Reagan—who famously quipped that the scariest nine words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”)—the soul of the Republican Party has been about cutting taxes and entitlements, crippling the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement capacity, and portraying all government institutions save the national security establishment as wasteful if not evil. The GOP has increasingly sought to exploit racial divisions and hot-button social issues (e.g., abortion and gay marriage), even though this tactic undermines national unity and reduces the country’s ability to operate effectively on the world stage. Of late, they’ve even declared war on higher education and science itself, which does not augur well for preserving the United States’ technological edge.

Yet at the same time, mainstream Republicans want the U.S. military to be second to none, and they generally favor using it early and often overseas. This is the worldview of the George W. Bush presidency’s neoconservatives, as well as prominent senators such as Lindsay Graham and the late John McCain, and would-be presidential candidates such as Sen. Tom Cotton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Unlike libertarians, whose perspective is at least intellectually consistent, mainstream Republicans answer our two key questions in fundamentally contradictory ways. If you support an ambitious foreign policy, including the promotion of free trade, you need a strong, well-functioning state to deal with the economic dislocations such a policy will produce back home. You also need to provide social benefits to keep the population healthy and well educated and to promote genuine patriotism and social unity, and you want to make sure the nation’s universities and research laboratories remain the world’s best. Starving government may appeal to the GOP’s wealthy corporate class, but it is at odds with the desire to run the world and the concomitant need to wage frequent wars. Moreover, allowing education, infrastructure, and scientific research to decay undermines long-term economic strength, and treating important foreign-policy issues primarily as opportunities to score partisan political points (see under: Benghazi) erodes the bipartisan support that an ambitious global strategy requires.

Progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and some but not all so-called restrainers) reside in the third quadrant. They want the state to be strong, well funded, and working to address economic inequality, climate change, racial injustice, police reform, financial regulation, and the like. Their focus is primarily on what the government should do at home, however, not on what it might do abroad. Moreover, they see a direct tradeoff between these goals: The more ambitious U.S. foreign policy is, the more money the Pentagon will require, thereby reducing funding for domestic programs. Progressives also believe that an overly ambitious foreign policy commits the United States to supporting a lot of unsavory governments around the world, thereby compromising core liberal values, causing unnecessary human suffering, and making the United States look hypocritical.

To be sure, there are important divisions within this broad group too (as there are in the others). Some progressives want the U.S. to use its power to promote human rights around the world, while others worry this goal would put the country back on the slippery slope to military intervention. Some restrainers (for instance, me) want the United States to eschew regime change, get Europe to defend itself, and do more to uphold a balance of power in Asia, while other progressives oppose confronting China for fear of sparking a new cold war. These differences notwithstanding, people found in this quadrant have a consistent worldview as well: They all favor doing (somewhat) less abroad so that the country can devote more time, money, and political capital to fixing things at home.

Finally, old-guard Democrats are found mostly in the fourth quadrant. They respect the power of government and have weaned themselves from the neoliberal market orientation seen during the presidency of Bill Clinton. They share the progressives’ belief that government exists to shape society in positive ways, but they are still committed to the activist version of U.S. global leadership that was the norm from 1945 to 2015. They like all those familiar foreign-policy institutions—NATO, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, et cetera—and they want the United States to take the lead in strengthening or revising them and in building new ones to address 21st-century issues. Deep down, they believe it is the United States’ role to spread certain ideals to other societies, if not quite as cavalierly as it has in recent years. And as Biden repeats almost daily, they want to heal divisions and bring the country together again (a view that most progressives share).

The problem here is not inconsistency: A big and ambitious foreign policy needs a strong state and a united population. The problem, rather, is that even a strong state and strong bipartisan backing is not enough to pull it off successfully, and especially in an era where the United States is no longer an unchallenged unipolar power. Social engineering is hard enough in one country—as the United States’ present level of polarization amply demonstrates—and it is well-nigh impossible in societies that are very different from the United States’ and that would-be social engineers do not understand very well. If the old guard could limit itself to multilateral institution-building in key areas such as technology or climate, there would be little difference between them and the progressives. But if Biden can’t get anything done here at home, will the old-guard Democrats be able to resist the temptation to try to do too much abroad?

As for Trump (and Trumpism), he’s all over the map and thus hard to pigeon-hole. Trump has sometimes talked like a libertarian (i.e., he doesn’t like taxes or regulations, opposes government-funded health care, has contempt for the rule of law, and hates the so-called deep state). At other times he sounded like a Sanders-style progressive, saying he was opposed to stupid wars and wanted to protect U.S. workers from foreign competition. But once you look past his posturing, it’s clear that he governed more like a mainstream Republican, consistently favoring big defense budgets, claiming unchecked executive authority, using drone strikes, targeted killings, and other familiar foreign-policy tactics, and repeatedly stoking racial and social divisions. Even his tariffs have a GOP pedigree: former Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush used them too. This pattern helps explain why the GOP went along with his destructive antics; in the end, Trump was just a cruder and more transparent expression of the modern GOP id. Even if Trump decides not to run again in 2024 (hardly a foregone conclusion), the likely contenders (Pompeo, Cotton, Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Marco Rubio, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, et cetera) will be eager to win his blessing. For this reason alone, it’s hard to see anyone in the Republican Party daring to deviate from the current GOP brand, even if the alligator-in-chief no longer rules the swamp.

What should you expect for the next four years? Foreign policy is full of surprises, but I’ll bet Biden presides over a foreign policy that is closer to the progressive version of restraint than the establishment credentials of his main advisors might lead you to think. There’s no appetite in the country for new wars and an enormous to-do list at home. Think COVID-19, economic recovery, Black Lives Matter, electoral reform, et cetera. Biden will have his hands full, the progressive wing of his own party will oppose any hint of old-style liberal hegemony, and he won’t get a scintilla of cooperation from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP. This sorry situation will make it difficult or impossible for the United States to reach effective and much-needed agreements on climate, digital governance, global health, or trade reform. I’m usually wary of the assumption that doing something is preferable to doing nothing, but paralysis is no improvement either. Unfortunately, that’s what the election delivered.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola