“THIS TOO shall pass,” Joe Biden told America’s allies at the Munich Security Conference in February. “We will be back.” The applause he received reflects a longing to return to a world order that existed before President Donald Trump started swinging his wrecking ball. Now that Mr Biden, vice-president under Barack Obama for eight years, has entered the race to challenge Mr Trump in 2020, the contest has acquired a foreign-policy heavyweight who embodies the pre-Trump era.
But would a future Democratic administration simply turn the clock back? In the crowded field of Democratic candidates, apart from Mr Biden, only Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have so far made serious forays into foreign policy. Still, those efforts, and stirrings of debate among activists, point to the potential for a future American foreign policy that could look very different not just from that of the current administration but also from the consensus that prevailed before.
On the surface the thrust of the Democrats’ approach is simple: reverse much of what Mr Trump has done. Jake Sullivan, who was an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, talks of a “back to basics” dimension to Democrats on foreign policy: value alliances, stress diplomacy. “Compared with domestic policy,” he says, “there is less focus on new ideas.”
Democrats would take America back into the Paris agreement, pressing the world for a new level of ambition in carbon-cutting. They would rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran, though some may want to set conditions for lifting sanctions. They would reassure NATO allies of their whole-hearted commitment. They would not reverse Mr Trump’s more confrontational approach to China—there is now bipartisan agreement on the need to stand up to the rising superpower—but would aim to work in a more collaborative way with allies.
Mr Biden’s candidacy will draw attention to the foreign-policy record of the Obama administration. Mr Biden did not always agree with his boss. He pressed for a more muscular pushback against Russia (including arming the Ukrainians), favoured a tougher approach to China, opposed the surge in Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya. But broadly he supported “95% of Mr Obama’s policies”, says a former foreign-policy adviser. As president, Mr Biden would be internationalist, experienced and familiar.
Yet there are rumbles of revisionism. In the party’s mainstream Mr Sullivan and Ben Rhodes, another senior adviser in the Obama administration, have launched National Security Action, a ginger group to attack the Trump administration’s “reckless policies” but also to search for fresh alternatives. A number of voices on the left are calling for a more radical rethink.
What it is ain’t exactly clear
“Defending the rules of the road is fine, but it won’t mobilise anyone,” believes Kate Kizer, policy director at Win Without War, an advocacy group. Post-Trump, just getting back to business as usual is not good enough, she says; some on the left want to “reconceptualise how we see security”. In a paper published last month by the Centre for a New American Security, a think-tank, she argues for a new American grand strategy, driven by values rather than military muscle and involving “a reorientation of national-security spending to prioritise human needs at home and abroad.”
This fits with a broad critique of American policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union: that it overreached. Well-intentioned moves to spread democracy became counter-productive, involving the country in “forever wars” and doing enormous collateral damage. The strategy of preserving or extending American dominance around the world is “increasingly insolvent”, concludes Peter Beinart, from City University of New York, writing in the Atlantic.
Support for greater restraint is gaining ground, according to Stephen Wertheim, a historian who teaches at Columbia University. But can the ideas of “the restrainers”, as he calls them, move from the fringe to the mainstream? Three reasons suggest this might be more than mere wishful thinking on their part.
First, there are advocates for restraint on the right as well as on the left. Take the bill passed by Congress to end America’s support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Mr Trump has vetoed the resolution, which was energetically championed by Democrats such as Ro Khanna in the House and Mr Sanders, along with Chris Murphy, in the Senate. But it got through the Senate because it also had support from several Republicans, including the bill’s libertarian-leaning co-sponsor, Mike Lee from Utah.
Second, opinion polls suggest there is fertile ground for restrainers’ ideas to flourish. A survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation found a big gap between the foreign-policy experts who espouse activism and the wider population favouring restraint. Polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that millennials, born between 1981 and 1996 and now becoming the biggest cohort of voters, take a more modest view of America’s role in the world than baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. Only 26% of millennials favour increasing defence spending and 44% support maintaining superior military power worldwide; among boomers the figures are 41% and 64% respectively.
The third reason for supposing that the left’s foreign-policy ideas might penetrate the Democratic mainstream is that something similar has already happened in other areas, such as “Medicare for all”. “We need to stop siloing domestic and foreign policy,” says Matt Duss, Mr Sanders’s adviser on foreign affairs.
One promising avenue for this to happen is an attack on inequality and corruption. Both in America and abroad, Mr Sanders said in a well-crafted speech on foreign policy last October, “the struggle for democracy is bound up with the struggle against kleptocracy and corruption.” Mrs Warren echoed the theme in an article in Foreign Affairs, urging aggressive promotion of transparency around the world.
Treating corruption as a strategic matter offers rich pickings for policy. The effort could begin at home with legislation to make it harder to launder money through shell companies and cash property deals, and with beefing up instruments like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. America would then be in a strong position to lead a fight against kleptocracy around the world. Identifying tools that can interrupt the corrupt flows of money that empower oligarchs, princes and China’s state-owned enterprises could prove popular. The issue of corruption is unifying the world more than anything else, believes Tom Malinowski, a congressman who sits on the House foreign-affairs committee. Tackling it, he says, may be “one way America gets its mojo back after Trump.”
Another favourite theme of those on the left is a desire to see greater democratisation of foreign policy-making itself, a domain seen as excessively controlled by an establishment clique, and above all by the president. That means in part strengthening congressional scrutiny, something that has begun to happen with Democratic control of the House. But it also means welcoming wider participation in policy debate. Elizabeth Beavers, associate policy director for Indivisible, which cultivates anti-Trump grassroots movements, suggests that “talking about democratising foreign policy is something where Democrats have a real opportunity.”
There’s a man with a gun over there
Grassroots pressure is a means towards the objective of ending wars. Congress has put down a marker with its Yemen bill. Ms Beavers now has her sights on the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF), put in place after the attacks of 2001 and used by successive presidents to facilitate interventions around the world. As with Yemen, Democrats will find allies among “restrainers” on the libertarian right.
Rows among Democrats are likely, for example, over military spending: radicals want to cut it, mainstreamers are more cautious. Policy towards the Middle East, and Israel in particular, could also prove divisive. Democrats are vulnerable to accusations by Mr Trump that they are soft on defence and woolly on protecting American interests. Republicans stubbornly outscore Democrats when it comes to public trust to protect national security.
Yet some Democrats are keen to challenge the assumption that strength has to be demonstrated by spending more on defence and a willingness to use military force. “We have an opportunity as a party to close the national-security gap,” insists Senator Murphy. “We have to talk about our national-security vision.”
So far, most of the Democratic presidential contenders prefer to talk about their domestic vision. Yet foreign policy “will creep up on the candidates,” predicts Mr Wertheim. A full-blown debate on what a post-Trump foreign policy ought to look like would be healthy. It could also prove surprising.