NOT SINCE George H. W. Bush in 1989 has America inaugurated a president so well-known in world affairs as Joe Biden. A former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then vice-president for eight years, he has had a role in, or a say on, most foreign policy since the cold war. His chosen foreign-policy team, dominated by other veterans of Barack Obama’s administration such as John Kerry and Tony Blinken—a former secretary of state and a prospective one who has briefed Mr Biden for decades—is almost as well-known. Yet for all these familiar elements Mr Biden’s foreign policy is cloaked in uncertainty.
This reflects the altered circumstances in which he has returned to the White House. Having launched his campaign as a continuity candidate, drawn from retirement to defend Mr Obama’s legacy, he faces huge problems that will make his administration very different from the “third Obama term” he initially seemed to promise. One is the bungled covid-19 epidemic, which has produced misery at home and more proof of America’s abandonment of global leadership. In the depth of the Iraq war many Europeans thought better of the superpower than they do now. The crisis will also hamper Mr Biden’s ability to repair the damage, by ensuring he is largely consumed by fighting fires at home.
The second problem, what to do about China, is more daunting. The president and his team all subscribe to the new consensus view that it is a formidable, long-term competitor. Contrary to Republican fears, there is no prospect of them reverting to the Obama administration’s relatively benign vision of coexistence with China. Even those who are in retrospect least critical of that approach, such as Mr Blinken, a suave and understated diplomat, now sound hawkish by 2016 standards. And Mr Biden has appointed his most China-sceptical advisers to the top Asia jobs at the National Security Council and Pentagon. Foremost among this second group—categorised as “the 2021 Democrats” in an astute analysis of Mr Biden’s team by Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution—is Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. Yet quite how these Democratic hawks will push back at China, how far Mr Biden will back them, and to what effect, remain to be seen.
The complexity of the new footing with China that Mr Sullivan and other reformists envision underlies that uncertainty. While many in Congress, from both parties, hanker after the simplicity of an old-fashioned cold war, they want closer co-operation with China on some issues—including public health and climate change, a priority that unites the Democratic coalition—while checking or pulling away from it in other areas, including supply-chains, technology transfers and trade. Mr Biden is, for example, therefore likely to retain some of his predecessors’ tariffs.
That is also where the Democrat’s long-promised push to rebuild alliances comes in. As an alternative to new trade agreements or joining what remains of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which his team appears to think politically impossible, he is expected to pursue more ad hoc agreements, issue by issue. Whether that will impress America’s allies must also be seen. The EU’s decision to go ahead with its investment agreement with China, after Mr Sullivan hinted it should hold off, points to their scepticism.
Mr Biden’s and his advisers’ other big ambition is to bring foreign policy and economic policy more into alignment. This is a familiar idea; Warren Christopher once vowed to put an “America desk” in the State Department. But the focus on national competitiveness has made it newly relevant. So has growing enthusiasm for industrial policy in both parties, rooted in loose monetary policy, scepticism about globalisation and a desire to address the economic grievances that have contributed to the rise of populism—another new problem Mr Biden must take into account. It is notable that Mr Sullivan, who as Hillary Clinton’s former policy chief carries the scars of Donald Trump’s election, has embraced much of the anti-globalism critique of the Sanders-Warren left.
Connecting security and economic priorities, the Democrats hope, might also attract the support of Republican hawks such as Marco Rubio, who have taken the same intellectual path, thereby shoring up the centre. This is a worthwhile aim, sharpened by the recent illustration on Capitol Hill of how hard-pressed the rational right is, and what might follow if it fails. It is also fuelled by concerns about the self-defeating politicisation of recent foreign policy—highlighted by the fact that neither of the two previous administrations mustered much bipartisan support for their signature schemes. This is a guarantee of changeable American leadership, off-putting to allies, and guaranteed to fail.
Yet though Mr Biden has in essence accepted the Republicans’ thinking on China, it would be remarkable if many did support him. Foreign-policy realism has been largely replaced on the right by a never-say-die hawkishness, which permits no reasonable compromise, perhaps because it is partly intended to score points against the left. Mr Biden’s Middle East policy, which is likely to hew to Mr Obama’s commitment to containment and withdrawal, will antagonise Republicans especially. But, keen to accelerate Mr Obama’s aborted pivot to Asia, the Democrats will press on. This will probably involve resuscitating the Iran nuclear containment deal Mr Trump abrogated—triggering a new cycle of partisan sparring, as mystifying to America’s allies as it is self-defeating.
Over to Joe
Such are the ambitions and intellectual currents of the centre-left team Mr Biden has assembled. His utterances suggest he has moved with them. Yet the question, which not even his long record can answer, is whether he is committed to the hard policy slog, with few easy wins, that heeding his advisers on China could entail. Especially as events crowd in. Mr Biden starts his presidency with great experience and goodwill. But, in such testing times, the 78-year-old’s leadership may be another source of uncertainty.■
Read the best of our coverage of the Biden presidency, then sign up for Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter and podcast on American politics.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Back to the future”