Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Meaning of Biden’s ‘America First’ Doctrine

The U.S. president cares about the well-being of the world. But he cares about Americans’ well-being more.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Then-U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden listens to a story.
Then-U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden listens to a story from an attendee at the We Decide: Planned Parenthood Action Fund 2020 Election Forum to Focus on Abortion and Reproductive Rights event in Columbia, South Carolina, on June 22, 2019. LOGAN CYRUS/AFP

For the first six months of his tenure, Joe Biden faced no real crisis abroad. Our view of how he would act in such a crisis was circumscribed by words in speeches—“multilateralism,” “democracy,” “the middle class.” Yet a president’s deepest intuitions are revealed only when he has to act under emergency conditions—as 9/11 exposed George W. Bush’s millennial idealism or the Russian invasion of Afghanistan uncovered, or rekindled, Jimmy Carter’s Cold War impulses.

Biden of course has vastly more experience in foreign affairs than either of those predecessors. He has long since forged a working view of the world, and has acted on that view both as senator and vice president. But now he is president and, as he said in his speech last week explaining the rationale for his withdrawal from Afghanistan, he has taken power under very different circumstances from what he, and the nation, have faced before.

What lay behind Biden’s decision to withdraw the troops and then to stick to his self-imposed timetable for doing so was a tough-minded willingness to liquidate a failed enterprise. Doing so meant abandoning the millions of Afghans who had enjoyed heretofore unimaginable benefits under the American dominion. But Biden had never believed that the well-being of the Afghans themselves should figure in American calculations. His self-assigned role in the epic 2009 debate over the war had been to oppose the counterinsurgency strategy that President Barack Obama’s generals advocated, and to argue instead for a “counterterrorism-only” strategy that would protect American interests even should the Taliban retake the country.

For the first six months of his tenure, Joe Biden faced no real crisis abroad. Our view of how he would act in such a crisis was circumscribed by words in speeches—“multilateralism,” “democracy,” “the middle class.” Yet a president’s deepest intuitions are revealed only when he has to act under emergency conditions—as 9/11 exposed George W. Bush’s millennial idealism or the Russian invasion of Afghanistan uncovered, or rekindled, Jimmy Carter’s Cold War impulses.

Biden of course has vastly more experience in foreign affairs than either of those predecessors. He has long since forged a working view of the world, and has acted on that view both as senator and vice president. But now he is president and, as he said in his speech last week explaining the rationale for his withdrawal from Afghanistan, he has taken power under very different circumstances from what he, and the nation, have faced before.

What lay behind Biden’s decision to withdraw the troops and then to stick to his self-imposed timetable for doing so was a tough-minded willingness to liquidate a failed enterprise. Doing so meant abandoning the millions of Afghans who had enjoyed heretofore unimaginable benefits under the American dominion. But Biden had never believed that the well-being of the Afghans themselves should figure in American calculations. His self-assigned role in the epic 2009 debate over the war had been to oppose the counterinsurgency strategy that President Barack Obama’s generals advocated, and to argue instead for a “counterterrorism-only” strategy that would protect American interests even should the Taliban retake the country.

Some Jesuitical genius on the Biden team came up with a hypothetical that perfectly captures the president’s view. “If,” Biden said in his speech, “we had been attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, from Yemen instead of Afghanistan, would we have ever gone to war in Afghanistan? Even though the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the year 2001? I believe the honest answer is no.” Taliban rule, absent terrorism, would not have threatened America’s national interests. As James Baker, the senior Bush’s secretary of state, said of the slaughter in the Balkans, “We have no dog in that fight.”

Yet Biden does not regard himself as an unsentimental realist. As a senator, he passionately advocated intervention to stop the killing in Bosnia. As a candidate, Biden harshly criticized human rights abuses not only in China—an adversary—but in Saudi Arabia, an ally. Though in last week’s speech, he spoke of defending America’s “vital national interests” as a self-evident proposition that puts debate to rest, he also insisted that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.”

Protecting vital national interests and defending human rights cannot both occupy “the center” of American policy for the simple reason that they will often come in conflict. For evidence we need look no further than Afghanistan. Is the lesson we have learned, then, that faced with that inevitable tension, Biden will unhesitatingly default to national interest?

Biden’s own personality obscures this question. He is a deeply compassionate man who wears his heart on his sleeve. His fondness for other people, and his feeling for them, puts one in mind of that ur-liberal, Hubert Humphrey. Yet Humphrey’s liberalism was founded on a moral universalism that would have America take the interest of others, and above all the poor and oppressed, as seriously as it did its own well-being—or to see those interests as inextricable. The U.S. senator from Minnesota was a passionate advocate of foreign aid and of nuclear disarmament, as well as the founder of the Peace Corps.

Biden, who is no theoretician, does not connect personal feeling and political outlook in the same way. A European journalist called me to ask how to reconcile Biden’s personal kindness with his Afghanistan decision. “He’s soft-hearted,” I said, “but hard-headed.”

That may not be a bad thing. One could, after all, say the same thing of Franklin Roosevelt, a champion of the downtrodden prepared to ride roughshod over opposition to ram through New Deal legislation. I think that Biden was right to liquidate the failed enterprise in Afghanistan, and to focus America’s energies elsewhere—even though that meant abandoning the Afghans to the Taliban’s fearful ministrations.

Yet I can’t help wondering if Biden would have gone to greater lengths to secure the departure of Afghans desperately seeking to flee if he felt a moral imperative to do so. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the United States is continuing to negotiate with the Taliban to extract remaining Americans as well as Afghans, and perhaps we will see how much the Afghans matter once all the Americans are home.

What, then, have we learned about Biden? The idea that he will turn his back on allies, or on international engagement, because he has decided to leave Afghanistan is absurd. Biden is a committed internationalist. That said, he has reminded allies of America’s habit of doing whatever is best for itself and then informing the world later. His peremptory decision felt more like Bush II than the endlessly consultative Bush I. The difference lies less in the individuals than in the moment, for Americans are far more insular, more focused on their own woes, than they were in the palmy days at the end of the Cold War. Even Biden’s jut-jawed threat to terrorists to “hunt you down to the ends of the Earth” sounded disconcertingly like the bellicose younger Bush.

In this fearful and angry moment, it’s not hard to understand why Biden avoids the language of moral universalism that liberals have embraced, no matter how fitfully or hypocritically, from the time of Woodrow Wilson. But how does his new version of “America First” comport with the commitment to human rights that he has professed? In her essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Jeanne Kirkpatrick brutally mocked Jimmy Carter for punishing America’s autocratic allies, but it was precisely this willingness that marked Carter’s break with Cold War hypocrisy.

Biden will not hesitate to criticize abuses by Russia or China, but what about abuses by countries that serve as bulwarks against those rivals, like Poland or India? To take another example, will Biden exert himself on behalf of fragile democracies, like Tunisia, whose failure might not damage America’s vital national interests? The jury is very much out on that one.

The Biden administration is now organizing a summit for democracy, to be held, probably virtually, towards the end of this year. Biden plainly does believe, as Wilson did, that America benefits by making the world safe for democracy. As Blinken wrote in a cable sent in July to all diplomatic outposts, “Standing up for democracy and human rights everywhere is not in tension with America’s national interests nor with our national security.” That’s a fine sentiment. But summit invitees will understand that the democracy Biden cares about is his own. The administration will have to overcome the suspicion that the real purpose of the exercise is to announce “America is back.”

In his withdrawal speech, Biden declared that the way to advance human rights “is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools and rallying the rest of the world for support.” That, too, is a fine sentiment. Biden has certainly proved his commitment to the negative part—but not, as of yet, the positive.

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

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.