Biden bolstered by foreign policy views

By DANIEL W. DREZNER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 6, 2020

Recently I asked whether, late as it was, “The Party Decides” hypothesis could still explain the 2020 Democratic primary. As it turns out, the results from Super Tuesday were pretty conclusive. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., won some states, including the largest prize of California, but a lot of his victory was due to mail-in votes before the party coalesced around former Vice President Joe Biden. According to FiveThirtyEight, Sanders still has an 8% chance of winning the nomination; Biden, however, has a better than 30% chance of doing the same.

One of the interesting data points from Super Tuesday is that, contrary to his campaign’s expectations, Sanders failed to generate a surge of new young voters. To be sure, Sanders crushed Biden with the under-30 demographic. As CNN’s Harry Enten noted, however, Biden thumped Sanders among older voters, and a lot more of them bothered to vote.

This is consistent with Bill Scher’s hypothesis, articulated in a 2017 Politico essay, that Biden would thrive as “the voice of anti-populism.” So far, the primary results have bolstered this argument. Biden is doing best with the backbone of the Democratic Party.

Scher further observed that an important plank of Biden’s anti-populism was an attack on President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. I pointed out last summer that this was an unsexy but popular argument for Biden to make: “More than any other candidate in the 2020 race, Biden has tapped into how most Americans want the U.S. government to pursue its national interest.” It certainly earned Biden an awful lot of endorsements from the Democratic foreign policy establishment.

Which means, as Biden’s fortunes have been resurrected, that it might be a good idea to look at any new foreign policy musings he has had. And hey, guess what, he has an essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” Is there anything new in it?

Many of the themes in Biden’s Foreign Affairs essay echo his big foreign policy speech from last summer — notions like “a foreign policy for the middle class.” That said, there are three overarching themes that Biden is emphasizing more in 2020.

First, he’s borrowed from Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in grounding his foreign policy vision in his vision of what ails the United States. For someone like Sanders, that is economic inequality; for Biden, it is illiberal democracy. A lot of Biden’s concrete pledges — reversing the travel ban, increase the number of refugees accepted in the United States — are, as he puts it, “a day-one down payment on our commitment to living up to democratic values at home.”

The second difference is that Biden stressed the need for working with democratic allies throughout the essay on issues ranging from climate change to nuclear security:

“Working cooperatively with other nations that share our values and goals does not make the United States a chump. It makes us more secure and more successful. We amplify our own strength, extend our presence around the globe, and magnify our impact while sharing global responsibilities with willing partners. We need to fortify our collective capabilities with democratic friends beyond North America and Europe by reinvesting in our treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea and deepening partnerships from India to Indonesia to advance shared values in a region that will determine the United States’ future. We need to sustain our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security. And we need to do more to integrate our friends in Latin America and Africa into the broader network of democracies and to seize opportunities for cooperation in those regions.”

Finally, and perhaps most refreshingly, Biden does not seem to be implacably hostile to trade expansion. Indeed, Biden actually makes a case for more trade with the rest of the world:

“More than 95 percent of the world’s population lives beyond our borders — we want to tap those markets. We need to be able to build the very best in the United States and sell the very best around the world. That means taking down trade barriers that penalize Americans and resisting a dangerous global slide toward protectionism. That’s what happened a century ago, after World War I — and it exacerbated the Great Depression and helped lead to World War II.

“The wrong thing to do is to put our heads in the sand and say no more trade deals. Countries will trade with or without the United States. The question is, Who writes the rules that govern trade? Who will make sure they protect workers, the environment, transparency, and middle-class wages? The United States, not China, should be leading that effort.”

It is likely that Sanders will bash Biden for liking trade deals, and it is possible that some union members might agree with Sanders rather than the former vice president. Michigan’s primary next week will be an interesting proving ground for this argument.

Nonetheless, as I have argued again and again, Biden’s foreign policy message is a pretty popular one, particularly with Democratic voters. For Sanders to come back, he’ll need to hope that voters either do not care about foreign policy or that his more progressive foreign policy platform starts to attract new voters, and right quick.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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