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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchBiden the Realist: The President’s Foreign Policy Doctrine Has Been Hiding in...

Biden the Realist: The President’s Foreign Policy Doctrine Has Been Hiding in Plain Sight

Authors: Joshua Shifrinson and Stephen Wertheim

Affiliation: Boston University Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies/ the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: September 9, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Article  

Word Count: 2590


Keywords: Biden’s Doctrine, Pragmatic Realism, Restraint Approach, and Reshaping American Foreign Policy



While many observers have expected President Biden to revive the liberal internationalist enterprise in US foreign policy after its retreat with Trump, Shifrinson and Wertheim argue that the practice of foreign policy has revealed President Biden’s pragmatic realism instinct in contrast with the content of some of his speeches during the election campaign, which reflected the spirit of liberal hegemony, such as his slogan “America is back”. In this article, the authors analyze some of Biden’s rhetoric and positions on critical issues throughout his career, arguing that he has a pragmatic realist instinct that places national security as a permanent priority over following the orthodox pattern of foreign policy. Throughout his course, he has valued advancing tangible American interests and has shown great flexibility in changing his positions and adapting foreign policy to achieve what the United States needs in a competitive world. It is a way of thinking that the authors welcome. They push to change the course of a decades-old US foreign policy that has insisted on wasting lives and resources in pursuit of unattainable ends. The article is divided into three parts. In the first, the authors explain what they see as flexibility in Biden’s positions regarding the country’s foreign policy since he entered the Senate in 1973. He was adapting positions according to local and international conditions. While critics saw him as a mere opportunist, the authors see him as having a constant willingness to learn from experience. These transformations prove his pragmatic realism, which always makes US security the paramount foundation of foreign policy. For example, when Americans were fed up with the war in Vietnam in the 1970s and rising tensions with the Soviets in the 1980s, Biden opposed sending additional military aid to South Vietnam and voted against several of the Reagan administration’s top priorities when it increased pressure on the Soviet Union. He voted against America’s war in the Gulf in 1991, warning that “the enmity of the Arab world” would be directed toward the United States because of it. However, he changed his views after the fall of the Soviets and the unilateral hegemony of the United States, adopting the liberal hegemony approach such as his support for NATO expansion, his defense of the military intervention led by Washington against Serbia in the Bosnian War and the Kosovo crisis, his vote in favor of the decision to war against Afghanistan after 9/11 and the war against Iraq with some reservations considering that the invasion would “put Iraq on the path to a pluralistic and democratic society.” But once the wars in the two countries faltered, Biden adjusted his positions once more and became skeptical of America’s mission of “nation-building” there. As Vice President, Biden’s opposition to large wars with inflated goals only deepened. He expressed frank skepticism about projects to promote liberal values “at gunpoint.” He also opposed the bombing of Libya in 2011, preferring to transfer the task there to NATO allies, stressing that Libya was a marginal country to American strategic interests in the region. The second part shows how the decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan came in the context of President Biden’s pragmatic realist adaptation as he withstands the pressure of the Pentagon and the opposition of the establishment’s elites, making it clear that Afghanistan may only be the beginning of more sweeping changes in US foreign policy. One example is Biden’s order to the Department of Defense to conduct a “global posture review” of US forward deployments. His administration has signaled its intent to “right-size” the US military presence in the Middle East, and Biden may become the first president in the last three decades to avoid NATO expansion. His realism is also evident in his actual policy toward China and Russia. Despite his ideological rhetoric (his determination to hold two summits of democracy promotion around the world in order to counter the autocracies), his first major bilateral summit was with President Putin, as he sought to establish a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia to reduce bilateral tensions and potentially enable the United States to focus on counterbalancing China. His pro-democracy rhetoric did not prevent his administration from deepening ties with authoritarian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, and with illiberal democracies such as India and the Philippines. The final part argues that far-reaching changes in the store of American foreign policy are likely possible if Biden continues to favor pragmatic realism over liberal primacy. The authors push the Biden administration towards this direction in order to reshape American foreign policy away from the excessive dreams of liberal hegemony. For instance, they urge defining the places from which the US military footprint should be reduced, identifying terrorist movements that should be combated, or ending the “war on terror” so as not to hand Biden’s successor an “open mission.” Moreover, the authors argue that the best preparation for competition with a rising China requires the US to do serious internal and external reform. His administration should reduce American commitment in Europe, for example, or cut it entirely and transfer responsibility for the security of the continent to the Europeans by urging them to build a European defense force outside the American umbrella. Biden should also avoid pursuing an excessively militarized and zero-sum approach in Asia. His pragmatic instincts should prevent him from offering an explicit guarantee to defend Taiwan or expand America’s already broad commitments there. Finally, the authors argue that Biden’s pragmatism may prevent him from adopting a rigorous realist perspective and make him go along with some ideas of liberal hegemony. It might make him move too slowly to roll back outdated commitments that no longer enhance American security. His approach to China (intensifying geopolitical competition while welcoming cooperation with it on common challenges) may appear pragmatic in the short run but may come to look unachievable and undisciplined in the years ahead. In sum, Biden is not a radical figure, but his approach may at least begin to revitalize the United States’ role in the world.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate



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