Biden’s foreign policy: the return of American exceptionalism

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Joe Biden’s nominee for US ambassador to the UN, on Tuesday promised a new approach to one of the top jobs in American foreign policy: “gumbo diplomacy”.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield described her experience of sharing Cajun cooking during her 35-year career in the foreign service as “my way of breaking down barriers, connecting with people, and starting to see each other on a human level”.

It sounded humble, but Mr Biden’s foreign policy aspirations are anything but. As he announced his first six national security cabinet picks on Tuesday, the president-elect promised to reboot traditional alliances and restore what he described as America’s “global . . . [and] moral leadership”.

Some in the foreign policy establishment interpret Mr Biden’s ambitions as a repudiation of Donald Trump’s “America First” isolationism — which strained traditional alliances, particularly in Europe — and an attempt to return to the status quo of Barack Obama’s presidency.

“It’s Obama term three,” said a senior Republican congressional aide, who argued the 44th president had “destroyed American primacy” and predicted the Biden team would antagonise countries Mr Trump forged stronger ties with, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Poland and Hungary.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, president-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for US ambassador to the UN © REUTERS

Marco Rubio, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, tweeted Mr Biden’s picks would be “polite and orderly caretakers of America’s decline”, adding he had “no interest in returning to the ‘normal’ that left us dependent on China”.

In an interview with NBC News on Tuesday, Mr Biden took issue with the idea that his administration would be a continuation of Mr Obama’s presidency.

“This is not a third Obama term because . . . we face a totally different world than we faced in the Obama-Biden administration,” the president-elect said. “President Trump has changed the landscape. It’s become America first, it’s been America alone.”

Mr Biden’s insistence that his foreign policy will be different from the approach taken by his erstwhile boss gives credence to those foreign policy experts who think the president-elect will depart more forcefully from Mr Obama’s approach — which one aide described in 2011 as “leading from behind”.

Some in the US foreign policy establishment think Mr Obama was too timid on the world stage. He continued to fight the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan — where he ordered a surge of troops starting in 2009 — and joined the Nato-led invasion in Libya. But he was criticised for reneging on a “red line” promise he made in 2012 to intervene in Syria over the use of chemical weapons, which even some of his own aides feared had damaged US credibility.

They sense that Mr Biden’s team will embrace a more moralising, interventionist posture, which will be tougher on China, closer to Europe, and much more willing to make an argument for American values.

In his first public appearance as Mr Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Washington foreign policy veteran Tony Blinken talked of a need for “equal measures of humility and confidence” on the world stage while also praising America’s history as the “last best hope on earth”.

“Most of the world’s problems are not about us, even as they affect us. We cannot flip a switch to solve them. We need to partner with others,” he said.

Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s pick for national security adviser, pledged to be “vigilant in the face of enduring threats, from nuclear weapons to terrorism”.

But Mr Sullivan — who helped craft the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Mr Trump pulled out of — also said that Mr Biden had set him the task of “reimagining our national security” so that foreign policy decisions delivered “for working families” in the US.

Karim Sadjadpour, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “Tony and Jake still believe in the idea of American exceptionalism.”

However, Mr Sadjadpour, who knows both Mr Blinken and Mr Sullivan, said they would instinctually veer away from military adventurism in favour of diplomacy and de-escalation. He added they shared Mr Biden’s belief that America “must lead by the power of its example not only the example of its power”.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the duo had learned to be “very wary of regime change” and would steer away from overthrowing governments.

“They are just very effective foreign policy experts with a lot of experience,” said Mr Indyk, adding Mr Biden chose them in part because they were “no-drama people” who would focus on getting the job done.

Charles Kupchan, an informal Biden adviser during the campaign and an adviser to both the Obama and Clinton administrations, said Mr Biden’s team were staunch internationalists who were “very much in line with the liberal internationalism of the last 80 years”.

But he said Mr Biden’s foreign policy picks and the president-elect were pragmatic rather than ideological: “They, I think, will understand that after a couple of decades of pretty frustrating wars in the Middle East, the political sweet spot is to pull back.”

Still, for some, the idea of exporting America’s “moral” values — even in the absence of military force — is an anachronism that misunderstands the realities of geopolitics.

“The notion that we are called upon to be the world’s moral leader is presumptuous,” said Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a non-partisan think-tank that advocates for greater restraint in US foreign policy.

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