The Biden Doctrine
Calling for strength in unity at the United Nations, Joe Biden redefines the meaning of American realism to include an idealistic vision for the rest of the world
Today is officially the first day of fall. But before you rush out to Trader Joe’s to shop for pumpkin spice everything, please:
On Tuesday, September 21, President Joe Biden gave his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, establishing the principles by which the United States will function in the world under his leadership. In 2016, Steve Clemons at The Atlantic (who described Biden as “the vice president who will not be president”) defined the Biden Doctrine as realist, effected not through aggression and fear, but personal relationships. Differently, in June of this year, Hal Brands at Foreign Affairs defined the Biden Doctrine as the defense of democracy against autocracy.
Both are true, but neither of these definitions had the clarity of yesterday’s speech, which imagined a world invigorated by collective action and mutual aid. “I'm here today to share with you how the United States intends to work with partners and allies to answer these questions and the commitment of my new administration to help lead the world toward a more peaceful, prosperous future for all people,” Biden began:
Instead of continuing to fight the wars of the past, we are fixing our eyes on devoting our resources to the challenges that hold the keys to our collective future: ending this pandemic; addressing the climate crisis; managing the shifts in global power dynamics; shaping the rules of the world on vital issues like trade, cyber and emerging technologies; and facing the threat of terrorism as it stands today.
We've ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan. And as we close this period of relentless war, we're opening a new era of relentless diplomacy; of using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world; of renewing and defending democracy; of proving that no matter how challenging or how complex the problems we're going to face, government by and for the people is still the best way to deliver for all of our people.
If it sounds fanciful, let me remind you that all foreign policy “doctrines” are partial fallacies, often arrived at retrospectively by people like me trying to make sense of what just happened. As a result, American historians, journalists, and policymakers tend to characterize presidents’ foreign policies as revolving around overly simple principles.
For example, after decades of the United States backing post-World War II anti-communist regimes whether they were democratic or not, Richard Nixon was left with the wreckage and, except for trying to force Vietnam to capitulate through horrendous violence, imagined a foreign policy with more restrained goals. The Nixon Doctrine articulated a diminished American commitment to military intervention, one in which the United States developed and defended allies, but not extending American commitments to all countries facing a Communist insurgency. This was not only a response to reality—these wars weren’t working, and decolonizing countries had multiplied since 1960—but a recognition that, Communist or not, the Soviet Union and China were major superpowers that required and engagement that was undermined by proxy wars.
Doctrines not only change with presidencies, they change when new circumstances arise, and they are sometimes transitional. The post-9/11 Bush doctrine centered the legitimacy of preemptive strikes in a world where the United States could be attacked from anywhere. And while some critics claim that there was no Obama doctrine, others described that president’s foreign policy principles as “multilateralism with teeth:” the desire to compromise when possible and intervene when necessary. Can someone say transition? It’s no accident that when it came time for experts to define the Obama Doctrine, a president who had little foreign policy experience was hard to pin down. It has been variously described as “a kind of realism with a heart," "a careful middle ground between the bloodlessness of realism and the unrealistic hope that America can stop evil everywhere," and “realistic idealism.”
None of this made any sense. In the history of foreign policy, “realistic idealism” is a mush of two opposing principles: idealism, which imagines the United States as a city on a hill that radiates democracy outwards, sometimes by force; and realism, which argues that the United States sometimes has to do bad things to preserve that city on a hill. Realists choose interventions by defining vital interests, and it justifies fighting ugly wars, occupying countries indefinitely, standing by as a genocide takes place, and supporting autocrats who will do a good job of repressing leftists by any means necessary (footnote: Chile.)
When I studied foreign policy seriously in graduate school, the discourse was all about realism and idealism. That said, left-wing thinkers, influenced by William Appleman Williams’ book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), saw both paradigms as equally thin covers for one principle: American global dominance. Published only five years before the escalation of the Vietnam War, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy became a keystone to what was called “revisionist” foreign policy thinking. The revision was this: that the United States’s rise to power was not inevitable, nor was it due to the inevitable triumph of good over evil, or democracy over authoritarianism. Instead, revisionism saw idealism and realism together as a mutually dependent paradox: the United States could simultaneously spread democracy and justice around the globe and mine other countries for profit. In other words, democracy and ruthless, state-sponsored capitalism were the same thing.
This was the “tragedy of American diplomacy.” The United States had genuinely aspired to peace and democracy since it took the stage as a world power in 1898 and, because it also craved wealth and power, had also created “an aura of terror” that required the rest of the world to bend the knee or suffer the consequences. Or both. Williams believed that this tragedy was global. This was not just because Americans’ desire for peace and democracy was corrupted by U.S.-sponsored wars and dictatorships, but also because the decolonizing countries that bore the brunt of U.S. policymakers’ errors and crimes wanted these same things, and had a right to look to the United States to defend and cultivate that desire.
Biden’s words yesterday speak to this dilemma in useful ways that reflect his philosophy of domestic governance too. The speech was full of words like “collective,” “cooperation,” “shared,” and the pronoun “we.” It was a stark repudiation of Trumpian nationalist populism and isolationism, and an invitation to the world to move forward together to meet the challenges of disease, poverty, war, and climate change. “There's a fundamental truth of the 21st century within each of our own countries, and as a global community, that our own success is bound up in others succeeding as well,” Biden declared. “To deliver for our own people,
we must also engage deeply with the rest of the world. To ensure that our own future, we must work together with other partners — our partners — toward a shared future.
Our security, our prosperity and our very freedoms are interconnected, in my view, as never before. And so, I believe we must work together as never before.
Over the last eight months, I have prioritized rebuilding our alliances, revitalizing our partnerships and recognizing they're essential and central to America's enduring security and prosperity.
In other words: We, the United States, need you. While Biden declared his intention to use force when necessary (realism), he framed this as defense, not the right to preemptive violence, as the Bush Doctrine did. But, as Biden also pointed out at length, there is a role for preemption because death does not always come from a bullet or a bomb, but from pandemic disease and climate change. “And while no democracy is perfect,” Biden admitted, “including the United States—who will continue to struggle to live up to the highest ideals to heal our divisions, as we face down violence and insurrection — democracy remains the best tool we have to unleash our full human potential.”
The Biden Doctrine is, in a sense, a new realism: one that understands democracy as the best tool we have to lift up the world, and acknowledges that none of us can go it alone if we are to respond effectively and humanely to new challenges.
According to Judd Legum at Popular Information, three migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses last week have “filed a class action lawsuit against [Florida’s Republican governor Ron]DeSantis] `in his official and personal capacity.’ The lawsuit also targets Jared Perdue, Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, and several yet-to-be-identified defendants who were in direct contact with the migrants.” (September 21, 2022)
At The Liberal Patriot, Peter Juul writes about the Ukrainians who took on Vladimir Putin’s internet trolls and won—with cartoon dog memes. “Where the United States government and other official counter-trolling endeavors have failed,” Juul writes, “the North Atlantic Fellas Organization (or NAFO) has succeeded—and succeeded spectacularly. A loosely organized volunteer army of pro-Ukraine shitposters—or, as one prominent NAFO member put it, a coalition of `brain damaged cartoon dogs’—NAFO has proven to be the single most effective trolling weapon in the Western arsenal.” (September 21, 2022)
On the occasion of her new book, Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America, James Ledbetter, editor of the New York Observer, interviews Slate legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick. “We have so much magical thinking about equality and these legal protections that when they’re taken away, we’re like: how could this have happened?” Lithwick says. “And the last thing I would say on false consciousness is that my real obsession has been these black women scholars, including Pauli Murray, who starts the book, Peggy Cooper Davis, and Dorothy Roberts, who’ve been writing for decades and decades that what you and I are seeing now is the lived experience of black women throughout history.” (September 20, 2022)