Biden Revives the Truman Doctrine
His call to wage a global war for freedom echoes the dawn of the Cold War.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
On March 12, 1947, in a special address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, President Harry Truman laid to rest any hopes that the Allies’ victory in World War II would usher in a new era of international cooperation. Instead, Truman told the assembled lawmakers: “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life … One way of life is based upon the will of the majority [and] guarantees of individual liberty.” The other, he warned, “relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.” The United States, therefore, would “support free people resisting attempted subjugation.” That, in a nutshell, is what every student of international relations knows as the Truman Doctrine.
As a candidate, President Joe Biden gave the impression that he would be a kinder and gentler commander-in-chief. He would stop insulting allies and rejoin multilateral accords like the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. As he liked to say on the campaign trail: “We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” He would be a healer and uniter at home and abroad.
But if we are now seeing a harder-edged Biden take an increasingly clear line on the challenge posed by a totalitarian China, it should not come as a surprise. There was always another thread running through his candidacy—one that sees the world divided between democratic nations and the aggressive dictatorships working to undermine them. Only the United States could lead the democratic coalition to victory. This worldview was not something Biden inherited from his tenure as President Barack Obama’s vice president. Rather, it grew out of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 presidential election and the deepening polarization of American domestic politics. It also drew on the emerging consensus that China’s rulers were determined to exploit the West while committing atrocities against dissenters at home.
In other words, Biden came to see the world in remarkably similar terms to Truman’s at the dawn of the Cold War.
Six weeks into his presidency, on March 3, Biden affirmed his harder edge by releasing a draft national security strategy. The 23-page document titled “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” can be read as the foundation for his actions since—corralling allies around the threat from Beijing, clear statements on Russia, his focus on shoring up NATO and upgrading the Indo-Pacific Quad. In the document’s preface, Biden writes: “I believe we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward. And there are those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting all the challenges of our changing world.” Biden sees Western democracy under siege, as Truman did in 1947. “We must prove that our model isn’t a relic of history,” the president insists.
For Biden, the threats at home and abroad are inseparable. His inaugural address barely mentioned foreign policy, yet it was a summons to battle on behalf of democracy within the United States. “I ask every American to join me in the cause,” Biden said, “uniting to fight the common foes we face: Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence.”
There is a strong precedent for the pursuit of moral and democratic restoration at home proceeding in tandem with a return to a more idealistic and ideological foreign policy. When Jimmy Carter made his commitment to human rights as central to foreign policy, it was a response to the moral crisis of Watergate and the civil rights movement no less than the Nixon-Kissinger policy of embracing anti-Communist autocrats. Similarly, Biden is responding to the ways in which President Donald Trump attacked the democratic process at home and drew close to authoritarian leaders abroad.
While the language of the new Strategic Guidance is unusually forceful, Biden began migrating to a more idealistic, democracy-focused foreign policy soon after Trump took office. In December 2017, Biden co-authored a lengthy essay that began by recalling how, “During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in an existential struggle between two antithetical systems.” Truman was the first president to articulate that view, yet as the Cold War progressed, many of his fellow Democrats came to reject it as simplistic and needlessly provocative to Moscow.
Biden, however, does not question the orthodox view of systemic rivalry during the Cold War. In that 2017 essay, he also observes that Russia had an opportunity to reinvent itself in the 1990s, yet: “Today, the Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy around the world.” Since Trump ignored or even abetted the threat, small-d democrats would have to fight back both at home and abroad.
Biden’s call to wage a global struggle for freedom represented a sharp break from the foreign policy of the administration in which Biden had served as vice president. Obama’s 2015 national security strategy highlighted Russian aggression, but framed the threat as a challenge to the rules-based international order, not the foundations of democracy worldwide. With regard to China, the 2015 strategy demonstrated a certain wariness while emphasizing the bright potential for better relations. “The scope of our cooperation with China is unprecedented,” Obama wrote in his preface to the strategy, “even as we remain alert to China’s military modernization and reject any role for intimidation in resolving territorial disputes.” Fast forward to 2018, when Biden’s future national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and chief Asia advisor, Kurt Campbell, announced that “there is a growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close.” Competition was now the order of the day, although the United States would have to manage it carefully to avoid catastrophe.
applied to China in the early 21st century. In 1946, then-U.S. Embassy Counselor George Kennan’s famous “long telegram” from Moscow smashed much of the hope for cooperation with the Soviets that persisted in the State Department and Pentagon, yet the telegram remained classified. When Truman articulated his doctrine, he was tearing down the conventional wisdom of his day.The evolution of the future Biden team’s approach to China recalled the sudden about-face with regard to the Soviets between the end of World War II and the unveiling of the Truman Doctrine. The premise underlying the establishment of the United Nations Security Council was that Moscow would become a partner in preserving stability and order—or a “responsible stakeholder,” to borrow the hopeful phrase
Biden affirmed his view of a global struggle between democracy and dictatorship even when it seemed to be a political liability. In January 2020, as Biden’s polling numbers continued their descent in Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidate published a detailed look at his plans for foreign policy. The article began with an indictment of Trump’s failures, concluding: “Most profoundly, he has turned away from the democratic values that give strength to our nation and unify us as a people.” Biden also recalled how “the triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world,” adding that “this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.”
Biden saw threats that reminded him of 1947, while his rivals for the nomination tended to focus on the need to bring troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. With Sen. Bernie Sanders moving into the lead, Biden’s language seemed to reflect how out of touch he was with Democratic voters who wanted to rebuild at home, not take on new responsibilities abroad. Yet precisely because Biden put forward his global democracy agenda despite the political drawbacks, the content of his new Strategic Guidance is no accident—and can be seen as the foundation for his administration’s emerging foreign policy.
Biden’s strategy paper has some gaps. It has surprisingly little to say about the most dangerous autocracies other than China, which may have something to do with the word “interim” in the document’s title. The passages about China are reminiscent of Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy, describing it as the only foreign power with the ability to “mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” The document pledges to “ensure that America, not China, sets the international agenda.” It promises that following its guidance will “allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.”
In contrast, the strategy contains only three sentences about Russia, despite Biden’s firm stance on Moscow during the campaign, and his more recent description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” There are no references to Ukraine or the Baltics, whose elected governments are key targets of Russian subversion. North Korea merits one full sentence, a vague pledge to “empower our diplomats” to address Pyongyang’s “growing nuclear and missile programs.” As for Iran, the guidance only tells us that the administration will engage in nuclear diplomacy while opposing Tehran’s aggression. Neither Pakistan nor Venezuela comes up at all.
These omissions serve as a reminder that it is much easier to declare one’s commitment to a global struggle for freedom than to confront specific adversaries who are likely to push back. When Truman laid out his doctrine, his immediate objective was very modest: to secure congressional support for American aid to Greece and Turkey. The former was under threat from a communist insurgency, while the latter faced Soviet demands for border concessions and naval bases. Yet the commitment to resisting Soviet expansion soon required measures that entailed greater costs, greater risks, or both. In the space of two years, Truman committed himself to the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, and the founding of NATO. When Kim Il-Sung’s forces invaded South Korea, there seemed to be no choice but to make a stand in defense of freedom. More than 33,000 Americans were killed in action. Truman’s popularity suffered irreparable damage, ensuring he would not run for reelection in 1952. Instead, he would leave office with the lowest approval rating of any president until George W. Bush.
The end of the Cold War rescued Truman’s reputation, although he was long dead. He is now seen as the resolute architect of a successful strategy and historic victory. In 2017, a survey of more than 90 leading historians ranked Truman as the sixth greatest U.S. president, one spot ahead of Thomas Jefferson.
What risks is Biden prepared to take in pursuit of his vision? If he imposes tougher sanctions on North Korea and stations more U.S. troops in the south, leader Kim Jong-un may resume nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches. If Biden redoubles support to Ukraine, Russia may heat up the war in the Donbas and escalate cyberattacks against the West. If Biden confronts Beijing in the South China Sea and continues to sanction it for atrocities in Xinjiang, the intimidation of Taiwan is likely to intensify while the odds of an agreement to limit Chinese carbon emissions will sharply diminish. With regard to Iran, Biden has already made clear that he wants to reverse Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” and return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Yet on multiple fronts, Biden has shown a readiness to clash with authoritarian rivals. Anger pervaded the administration’s first high-level meetings with Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. Days later, the United States, Britain, Canada, and the European Union imposed coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials over atrocities in Xinjiang. After Biden called Putin a “killer,” Blinken said the administration would not waver in its push for new sanctions on firms involved in the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. It would be premature to conclude, however, that Biden’s resolution is as firm as Truman’s was in 1947—even if the parallels between their approaches are aptly clear. So far, the costs of confrontation have been minimal, yet they are unlikely to stay that way. Eventually, when it stops being easy, Biden will have to decide whether he is prepared to lead a global struggle for democracy like Truman.