In the final months of the Obama Administration, then Vice President Joe Biden penned an article describing the state of American foreign policy. In it, he observed that future administrations would be tasked with “uniting the Western Hemisphere, deepening … alliances and partnerships in Asia, managing complex relationships with regional powers, and addressing severe transnational challenges such as climate change and terrorism.”
At the time, Hillary Clinton appeared likely to succeed Obama, meaning that Biden’s lifetime of political service looked like it was drawing to a close. However, the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump significantly altered the standing and strategic outlook of the United States.
Trump – alongside his two Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo – had championed a foreign policy which more closely aligned with his domestic ambitions. In many ways the administration demonstrated a willingness to deliberately disrupt the long standing alliances which Biden had said would be central to addressing ‘severe transnational challenges.’ Such positions reflected Trump’s embrace of more protectionist approaches to issues ranging from trade to national security.
When Biden was elected President, there were broad hopes that his decades of foreign policy experience, including his 12 years as chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would mean a much closer embrace of America’s global partnerships. And, in an address to world leaders shortly after assuming the presidency, Biden declared that “America is back.”
In the earliest months of his presidency, Biden moved to quickly reestablish close relationships with key allies while seeking to reclaim the mantle of global leadership long claimed by America. In his first hundred days as president, Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, ended support for the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen and committed to remaining a funding member of the World Health Organization. However, the President has faced a period of unique challenges.
Following the January 6th insurrection at the capitol, Russian aggression in Ukraine and tensions with other authoritarians throughout the globe, Biden has framed this moment in history as a contest between democracy and autocracy. In many ways, championing the ‘moral force’ of democracy has become the central tenet of Biden’s foreign policy, or what may be described as, ‘The Biden Doctrine.’
The challenge in providing a more concrete description of this doctrine is two-fold; first, the President has only barely passed the half-way mark of his first term – and there is no guarantee he will serve a second. More importantly though, Biden has simultaneously championed democratic alliances, while making strategic decisions which have taken many allies by surprise.
On the 14th of April last year, Biden announced a delay in the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, while committing to ending America’s military presence in the country. While many experts suggested that Biden had been left with a decision to either significantly increase combat troops on the ground or end US presence entirely, the manner of withdrawal as well as the rapid decline of the Afghan government significantly damaged Biden’s international credibility. In the year since the last American troops departed Kabul, Biden’s decision has left the nation facing oppressive military rule, enabled an overwhelming decline in women’s rights and precipitated a food-crisis that has left millions starving.
The devastation of the decision, which surprised both US military personnel and American partners across the globe, has had tragic ramifications for many Afghans. In light of this reality, many analysts have tried to make sense of Biden’s decision with reference to a broader foreign policy framework. From this process, there appears a general consensus that Biden envisaged the conflict as unsustainable, domestically unpopular and believed that any attempt to withdraw would be unavoidably destructive. However, it also appears to fall within his view of America’s strategic outlook. In an article written for The Atlantic at the end of Biden’s Vice Presidency, Steve Clemons quoted Biden as stating that “terrorism is a real threat, but it’s not an existential threat to the existence of the United States of America.” In this sense, some have construed that Biden did not consider sustaining the US presence in Afghanistan as either economically viable or, ultimately, militarily sound.
Whether or not this was the case, better responding to the plight of Afghanistan will remain an urgent concern for the administration. Indeed, providing food aid, medical support and ensuring the preservation of human rights for the nation must remain a priority of all international diplomacy. It is undoubtable that Biden’s legacy will be formed in no small part by the withdrawal and its fallout.
Throughout his well-chronicled public life, Biden has often been seen as approaching diplomacy through a specifically pragmatic lens. In an article for The Atlantic, Steve Clemons recorded Biden saying that “you’ve got to figure out what is the other guy’s [other global leader’s] bandwidth … what is realistically possible … so that you can begin to make more informed judgments about what they are likely to do or what you can likely get them to agree not to do.” In this way, Biden’s approach to foreign policy can be seen as inextricably linked with his assessment of other world leaders, and specifically, their willingness to work in partnership to achieve common international objectives.
However, the Biden Doctrine is perhaps most visible in his administration’s approach to alliance building. In his article, Clemons observed that Biden sees the greatest threats to the global order as nuclear tensions, and seeks proportionality as a result. According to Clemons, Biden envisages this approach as hand in hand with developing and strengthening alliances, ensuring that any response to threats to peace and stability is unified and supported throughout the international community.
According to Shay Khatiri, “twenty months into Joe Biden’s presidency, there is an emerging trend in the administration’s foreign policy. The Biden team has been cobbling together groups of U.S. allies and partners, each comprising countries with shared interests within a geographic region.” In this view, Biden has sought to strengthen US foreign policy by developing closer partners all around the globe. This aim has the benefit of producing policy objectives that can be tailored to meet more regionally specific needs. Such an approach was reflected in the announcement made to the Pacific Islands Forum by Vice President Kamala Harris, who acknowledged the importance of greater US engagement with the region’s concerns while outlining the development of a ‘National Strategy on the Pacific Islands.’ Reflecting the period of unique challenges faced by the Biden team, Dr Wesley Morgan, a researcher at the Climate Council, told the Guardian, “It’s very clear that … geo-strategic competition is the backdrop to this Pacific Islands Forum in ways it never has been before.”
It is also visible in Biden’s commitment to AUKUS, a security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and America which has both reiterated US engagement in the Pacific, as well as reflected the potential for such engagement to aggravate rather than abate geo-political tension.
However, the current and most salient feature of Biden’s foreign policy is the broad international alliance which has continued to support Ukraine amid Russia’s attempt to annex the nation. Just this week, Biden announced the 22nd instalment of aid to the nation, including over a billion dollars worth of new military hardware to fuel Ukraine’s resistance. Such aid has been consistently delivered in conjunction with NATO and the European Union. Here, Biden has been relatively successful in sustaining both international condemnation and economic sanctions against Russia while securing material support for the Ukrainian government.
As the Biden Doctrine, and its focus on democracy, pragmatism and international alliances continues to develop, it will face new threats. Rising autocracies, a fragile economic environment and the unpredictability of some global events will make securing lasting peace a challenge. Despite this, the current international consensus – which has framed global responses to crises from Russia to climate change – provides genuine reason to believe that diplomacy offers a pathway to more lasting peace.