The world is watching the US presidential election with horror: a process in which the incumbent seems determined to convince his base that any outcome other than a win for him means the election was rigged. A Joe Biden victory would reassure most foreign leaders that such chaos, at least, is over. But how much would US foreign policy actually change? In style, dramatically. In action, substantially but not completely.
The US would re-embrace multilateralism and reach out to allies and partners with renewed vigour. But it would still be more inwardly focused. It would return to the global fold on the necessity of combating climate change, pandemics and other global threats. But it would still embrace great power competition and focus on China as its main rival. It would substitute a values-based foreign policy for a power-based approach. But it would not return troops to Syria or Afghanistan and would remain sceptical about foreign intervention.
Articles by Mr Biden and those likely to hold senior foreign policy posts in his administration suggest that the pillars of his foreign policy can be captured by three Ds: Domestic, Deterrence and Democracy. These categories contain lots of sub-policies, but they are general principles guiding the investment of time and resources.
Mr Biden’s foreign policy advisers would never use the term “America First”, which to them means “America Alone”, thumbing its nose at the world and insulting allies. But they would focus on domestic investment to renew the US. Jake Sullivan, a former Biden national security adviser, and Jennifer Harris, who was at the state department in the Obama years, tie this investment to US rivalry with China, arguing that the outcome hinges “on how effectively each country stewards its national economy and shapes the global economy.”
The US, in this view, needs massive investment in “infrastructure, technology, innovation and education.” To this I would add the need to demonstrably narrow the gaping racial gaps in virtually every area of the US economy. Industrial policy will also be necessary, aimed specifically at subsidising US companies to transition to clean energy and compete in an emerging green economy. And the federal government will need to invest to ensure the US is more self-reliant in the production of everything from medical equipment to military technology.
In the countdown to the 2020 election, stay on top of the big campaign issues with our newsletter on US power and politics with columnists Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce. Sign up here
Another aspect of strengthening the US domestically is a focus on tax to ensure corporations pay their fair share at home. Trade deals will also be viewed more through a “fair trade” than a “free trade” lens — another area where Mr Biden will depart from President Donald Trump in style, less in substance.
Beyond domestic renewal, Mr Biden’s foreign policy would revive the cold war reliance on deterrence, but with a 21st-century twist. Against the Soviet Union, deterrence was largely a matter of missile count. Missiles still matter, but deterrence today must be tailored to meet the favoured tactics of adversaries, mainly China and Russia but also Iran and North Korea.
Michèle Flournoy, a leading candidate for defence secretary in a Biden administration, has laid out the steps necessary to “reestablish credible deterrence of China” by changing Beijing’s cost-benefit calculus when it considers acts of aggression. She believes particularly in the need for the Pentagon to invest in new technologies that protect US communications and battle management networks against China’s efforts to degrade them. Deterring Russia’s adventurism and efforts to sow division and distort democracy in the US and Europe requires other tools, many of them more geared to domestic and global law enforcement than foreign policy.
The third defining principle of a Biden foreign policy is the embrace of democracy as a basis for choosing partners. He has announced that he plans to convene a summit for democracy in the first year of his presidency; Antony Blinken, a longtime Biden foreign policy adviser and former deputy secretary of state, has proposed a League of Democracies.
Commentator James Traub points out that phrases like “the free world” come naturally to Mr Biden, however old-fashioned they may seem to the progressive left. In this formulation, he writes, Mr Biden “would refound ‘the west’ for a new age of problems without borders”. Perhaps. Mr Biden and his advisers are still more comfortable dealing with problems that require beating or bonding with other nation states than those that transcend borders such as climate change. Still, unlike Mr Trump, they recognise the need to manage both types.
The writer is CEO of the New America think-tank and an FT contributing editor
Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?
Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency