How Biden would deal with the world


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An underplayed aspect to Joe Biden is his foreign policy background. Biden would have more experience on taking office than any US president since George HW Bush. Having served as vice-president to Barack Obama for eight years, and as the senior Democrat on the Senate foreign policy committee for the preceding 12, Biden is known to leaders around the world.

Critics, of whom there are plenty, point out that Biden’s deep resume hasn’t sharpened his judgment. Robert Gates, the former US defence secretary, said that Biden had been on the wrong side of every foreign policy issue in the last generation — voting against the first Gulf war in 1991, for example, and in favour of the second in 2003. Hindsight leaves no doubt those choices were back to front.

But Gates was being a little harsh. Biden was an early and persistent critic of Serbian nationalism in the 1990s and called for strong US intervention in the Balkans, which eventually happened — and succeeded (up to a point). He was also an opponent of the 2006 US troop surge in Iraq that Gates had pushed and then oversaw, which may have curdled the former defence secretary’s judgment of Biden.

As vice-president Biden was also a sceptic of Obama’s Afghan troop surge in 2009. That stance also looks reasonable in retrospect. More than a decade later, another US president is trying to extricate US troops from Afghanistan with the Taliban in control of increasingly large tracts of the country. Were all those US dollars and lives worth it?

There is little upside in speculating what a “Biden doctrine” would look like. Biden doesn’t do philosophy. He is not that kind of politician. He is a relationship person who clasps your hand, gives you a high wattage smile and pats your back (or rubs it, according to some complainants). The value of such bonhomie should not be underestimated on the diplomatic stage. Recall, if you can bear it, Donald Trump shoving Montenegro’s prime minister out of the way so that he could get to the front of the group photo of leaders at a Nato summit.

Much of diplomacy is the constant gardening of building relationships with your foreign counterparts, which is something Trump does terribly (except with autocrats). Obama wasn’t much good at it either. Biden would get a high starting grade on that front.

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But what would Biden diplomacy amount to in practice? Any US administration has to line up the three Ps — people, process and policy. On the first, Biden would start with a deep bench. Anyone who doubts that should listen to the Deep State Radio podcast with Tony Blinken and William Burns, two former deputy secretaries of state who would likely be Biden’s national security adviser and secretary of state respectively. You will have to pinch yourself as you listen to two rational, experienced public servants who don’t talk about the world as America’s enemy. Should they land those jobs, process would large take care of itself. Today’s version is that Trump says something — anything really — then the system bends itself out of shape to fit around whatever he said.

Biden’s policy is the hardest to predict. But we can be sure of two things. His first 100 days — and probably much longer — would be dominated by the coronavirus outbreak. Building a global pandemic alliance, and figuring out how to stop a beggar-thy-neighbour competition over the vaccine, would top the list. In so doing, Biden would go some way towards achieving another pressing item: repairing America’s alliances.

Second, without doing anything at all, Biden would start off with a lot of goodwill. Most of the world would give Biden a standing ovation simply for not being Trump. That would probably not be true in Russia, Brazil and possibly China. That’s a plus on my ledger.

I do not wish to overstate my point. Biden is no foreign policy genius. But he has good people around him and he is not Trump. For those reasons alone, he would begin his presidency on a positive footing.

Rana, we know less about what Biden would do with the economy than how he would act on the global stage. Do you have a hunch which direction he would go — radical or centrist? I think I know where you’d prefer him to end up. I’d love to hear your prediction.

Recommended reading

  • My column this week says that Trump is courting a landslide defeat if he carries on as he is — alienating older voters, who formed the bedrock of his victory in 2016. Making it harder for absentee voters is not a good tactic either. “Trump claims his opponents are trying to steal the election,” I write. “I cannot find a single example in any country, including the US, where an elected leader has claimed their own system is rigged against them.”

  • My colleague Martin Wolf wrote a characteristically limpid warning about the direction of US-China relations — not good, in summary. “Today’s world has powerful echoes of the early 20th century, when rivalries between established and rising powers led to war,” Martin writes. “That in turn led to the collapse of an era of globalisation — ‘the first globalisation’. Today, our ‘second globalisation’ is under threat.”

  • Since we are on the future of US foreign policy, it’s well worth reading this essay by Robert Blackwill, the former senior Bush National Security Council staffer and ambassador to India, and Thomas Wright, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, on the end of the world order and what America should do about it. Their recommendations will also give you a flavour of how a Biden administration might act.

  • Finally, I hugely enjoyed appearing with Rana at the Delphi Forum to talk about what to expect from the 2020 election. Alas, Rana and I couldn’t actually make it to Delphi. Nor were our utterances particularly Delphic (though Rana’s will doubtless prove more prophetic than mine). Our discussion was virtually moderated by the inimitable Endy Zemenides, head of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.

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Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, my understanding is that neither Biden’s economic team nor his policies have been nailed down (though I know that he’s being advised by everyone from Larry Summers to Jared Bernstein, which covers quite a lot of ground). In the past he’s been considered relatively pro-labour, but he’s no Elizabeth Warren — I doubt he has any firm sense of what it would take to, say, reshore supply chains or what the risks of financialisation might be.

That said, my prediction would be that he would announce some sort of Germany-type employment programme that would incentivise companies to keep workers on payrolls and/or retrain and rehire those who’ve been dismissed, perhaps through some sort of “human capital” tax incentive. There will be a push for another big fiscal stimulus to manage what surely will still be double-digit unemployment figures, but it will be tough to agree on the details. (There’s disagreement even among Democrats, some of whom will want to raise money the old-fashioned way — through tax increases — and others who are in favour of a bigger and broader Federal Reserve backstopping of Treasury budgets to fund, say, a Green New Deal.)

I would expect some antitrust action as well, because by then, an even smaller number of companies will have taken an even bigger slice of the pie. Biden, like Warren, has made a shift in power from capital to labour an explicit priority. Those are my Delphic predictions. I hope the last in particular will be so. 

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . ..

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In response to It’s the end of globalism as we know it (and I feel fine):
“I grew up in England in the 1950s. Several friends say we have gone back to that time, when adults were cautious, rationing had just ended, there were few restaurants or hotels. It was wonderfully quiet. Then came the colour burst of the 1960s but our economy collapsed in the 1970s — until Margaret Thatcher’s revolution. Now we have an economic, ecological and medical crisis all at the same time. Are they related? They are — through population density and mass travel. They are — through the mass consumption on which the economy is based and the degradation of the natural world. In economic terms, the system itself has shown its paucity, as we find ourselves unable to buy essential supplies. What would Adam Smith say? The pin factory was about efficiency and this is the opposite of efficient.” — Jane Hayter-Hames, historian and author, Devon, UK 

“Western shareholder capitalism gave rise to globalisation, yet Germany’s manufacturing base has not moved to China to the extent that we have seen in the US. German chief executives and boards give greater weight to home-country labour and environmental solidarity, which seems to have worked out well for all constituents. How feasible will it be for US companies to repatriate supply chains to higher-cost locales when capital market imperatives demand the opposite? It seems unlikely unless there is widespread investor adoption of ESG [environmental, social and governance] principles — German style — to give American CEOs proper incentives.” — René Jarquin, chief investment officer of Single Point Partners, Boston, Massachusetts

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter.





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