The Amorphous Biden Doctrine

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about safety in America during a campaign event in Pittsburgh, Penn., August 31, 2020. (Alan Freed/Reuters)

A tour of his campaign website leaves the voter wondering about the details of his agenda, particularly on foreign policy.


oe Biden’s campaign website could easily be mistaken for Elizabeth Warren’s. Click on the menu and then the “Joe’s Vision” tab and you’ll find 27 plans, nine agendas, four components of his Build Back Better ™ proposal, and one roadmap. Amid this expansive platform, however, only two pages are dedicated to articulating Biden’s foreign-policy outlook.

One is a plan for Central America, focused on curbing corruption, investing considerable resources — both public and private — in the region, and placing “strong conditions for verifiable progress to ensure that U.S. taxpayer funds are used effectively.” All this because “the most effective and sustainable way to reduce migration” is to “address root factors.” None of Biden’s Central American plan is particularly objectionable, though his intention to restore asylum rights to victims of domestic violence abroad is sure to ruffle the feathers of immigration hawks. It does seem strange, however, that it is the only region his campaign website devotes an entire page to addressing, what with the continued existence of China, the Middle East, Russia, and North Korea.

His more general foreign-policy plan is called “the Biden Plan for Restoring American Leadership” and consists of three pillars. Specifically, Biden advocates “reinvigorat[ing] our own democracy” while rebuilding the alliances he contends have been weakened under President Trump, pursuing “a foreign policy for the middle class,” and “renew[ing] American leadership.”

His first pillar is, curiously, focused mostly on domestic reforms such as reforming our criminal-justice system, creating “greater transparency in our campaign finance system,” and once again holding daily press briefings in the White House. He also calls for a restoration of moral leadership by once again sending federal funding to organizations that provide or refer people to clinics that do provide abortion abroad and “revitaliz[ing] our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” Then, “having taken these essential steps, . . .  President Biden will host a global Summit for Democracy” with the goals of “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism,” and “advancing human rights.” How this body will operate or ensure that its actions have any effect is left to the imagination.

The second pillar is just as domestic-policy-dominant as the first one — stressing the importance of health care, a $15 minimum wage, and infrastructure as well as of significant public investment in “clean energy, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, 5G, and high-speed rail.” On trade, Biden declares that there “is no going back to business as usual” (a tacit endorsement of the Trump agenda without saying as much?) and questionably asserts that he will have half of global GDP — the sum of all earthly democracies — to use as leverage.

On reaching the third pillar, Biden finally pivots to addressing national-security threats but remains incredibly vague. Take this passage, which is the entirety of his plan for fulfilling his first stated priority in this section, which is to “defend our vital interests”:

As president, Biden will never hesitate to protect the American people, including when necessary, by using force. We have the strongest military in the world — and as president, Biden will ensure it stays that way. The Biden administration will make the investments necessary to equip our troops for the challenges of the next century, not the last one. But the use of force should be our last resort, not our first — used only to defend our vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people.

Biden follows this passage by channeling his inner Tulsi Gabbard, promising to “end forever wars” by almost completely withdrawing U.S. forces from the Middle East. Seemingly lost on him is the tension between this promise and his earlier claim that “the world does not organize itself. American leadership, backed by clear goals and sound strategies, is necessary to effectively address the defining global challenges of our time.”

After a brief recounting of his plan for Central America and a word salad about not only reviving but “reimagin[ing]” NATO, Biden moves on to arms control, where he begins by tendentiously claiming that the Iran nuclear deal “blocked Iran from getting a nuclear weapon” and pledging to reenter the deal if Iran “returns” to complying with it. It should be noted that Iran was not in compliance with the Iran deal even while both it and the United States remained nominally agreed to it. Biden also vows to push “back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.” And yet he pledges to stop supporting the war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, calling it a “Saudi-led” conflict.

His strategy for dealing with North Korea — which some will remember as being among the most important issues facing the Trump administration in its early days — is entirely hazy and consists of only a single sentence. Biden “will empower our negotiators” (How? And to do what?) and work with our allies and China to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula — he makes it all sound so simple!

Speaking of China: It merits only four mentions in the entirety of the section. All are in passing, and none address China’s human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong or express support for Taiwan. Apparently, Biden deems a call to action for private tech companies at the hypothetical Summit for Democracy enough to counter the consensus challenger to American hegemony.

A campaign website light on details alone should not be of particular concern. But for a candidate who has been credibly accused of being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades” by Obama defense secretary Rick Gates, it certainly raises questions. Biden, the clear favorite to win in November, has an agenda for nearly every community under the sun, but no coherent vision for confronting the U.S.’s chief geopolitical rival. Does Biden still, as he did in May 2019, believe of the Chinese Communist Party that “they’re not bad folks” and “not competition for us”? How does he reconcile his goal of restoring American leadership with his isolationist rhetoric? If he plans on countering Iranian action in the Middle East, why did he so vehemently oppose the elimination of Qasem Soleimani?

Biden’s amorphous foreign-policy agenda — much like his campaign writ large — is full of heartwarming platitudes and enough jargon to convince his supporters that he will be a capable caretaker president. But any more scrutiny shows that the Biden Doctrine is largely without substance, and worrisome where substance can be found.

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