When it comes to foreign policy, the Biden administration has been claiming that “America is back.” Allies can once again trust America. Human rights will matter again, and autocrats will not find comfort in Washington. But then at the 76th annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly last month, President Joe Biden promised the world “an era of relentless diplomacy.”
This is perplexing. How can America be back and be committed to “relentless diplomacy” at the same time? America before Donald Trump was relentlessly at war, invading and occupying nations, kidnapping and torturing alleged terrorists, and using drones to bomb targets in many nations.
Foreign policy is Biden’s strongest suit, and yet his strategy remains incoherent. Are we back to the old America when the use of force was always on the table, or are we witnessing the birth of a new America that will never give up on diplomacy?
But it’s not premature to be asking these kinds of questions. It must be noted that President Biden has decades of experience in foreign policy. Plus, unlike Trump, who issued his national security policy within a year, and Barack Obama, who took more than a year to formulate his policy, Biden issued his interim policy within two months.
But so far, there has been little difference between Biden’s approach and that of his predecessor. Biden has acquiesced to Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; embraced his Indo-Pacific strategy — which makes India, Australia, and Japan key allies in countering China; followed through on the Taliban-Trump deal, which culminated in the summer’s botched troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; and appears in no hurry to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal abandoned by Trump. Except for giving a higher priority to environmental issues and devoting high-decibel lip service to the centrality of human rights, Biden’s foreign policy agenda looks a lot like Trump’s foreign policy agenda.
Still, it’s not uncommon for presidential agendas to shift during their term — George W. Bush did so after 9/11 — and I’ve got some ideas about where Biden is headed next.
At the turn of the century, Walter Russell Mead wrote a fascinating book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, in which he argued that American foreign policy thinking can be broken down into four approaches that are most directly influenced by a quartet of historical figures — Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. The Hamiltonian perspective seeks to advance American business at home and abroad. Wilsonian ideology seeks to advance American values abroad, with the hope that a world that shares American values is more amenable to American hegemony. A Jeffersonian view is primarily concerned with preserving democracy and liberties at home and eschews international entanglements. Finally, the Jacksonian perspective is populist and not averse to full-throated military engagements abroad.
Preserving democracy at home, a Jeffersonian preoccupation, is clearly the administration’s priority. The attacks on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have convinced many Americans that at this moment in history, we cannot afford Wilsonian idealism to promote democracy in Afghanistan or elsewhere. It is time to embrace Jeffersonian concerns and rebuild democracy at home.
So how will the Biden foreign policy unfold? The key determinants are U.S.-China relations and Biden-business relations. Industry leaders are pleased with Biden, especially with his COVID-19 recovery plan that invested in small businesses and hard-hit industries. So far there is no change in U.S. economic policy toward China, but the administration is under pressure from corporate America to undo the Trump-tariff regime. Indications are clear: The Hamiltonian view will prevail, as Biden will eventually seek to protect the U.S. economy and trade with China.
Democrats usually have a Wilsonian predisposition in their foreign policy. But given the need to shore up democracy and domestic economy, while recognizing that the American public is tired of forever wars, it is safe to say that for the near future, advancing business interests while lauding the importance of human rights — Hamiltonians with a Jeffersonian instinct — will dictate U.S. foreign policy.
Muqtedar Khan is a professor in the department of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. He is the author of the award-winning book “Islam and Good Governance.” He hosts a YouTube show called “Khanversations” and he tweets @MuqtedarKhan.