Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has decades of foreign policy experience, a team of longtime aides who have worked on global affairs and one central pitch in the 2020 election: Unlike President Donald Trump, he will be a steady hand and a stable force in the world.
All of that makes it tough for people outside his circle to influence Biden on foreign policy, including progressives who argue that changing views among American voters and international conditions demand a fresh approach to national security from Democrats. Biden’s team also knows that saying he has “evolved” on policy risks accusations of flip-flopping and the reigniting of controversies from the Obama administration, in which he served as vice president.
Biden “is not going to try and reinvent himself,” as one person familiar with his national security team put it.
At the same time, he can’t afford to appear dated, particularly after years of public soul-searching on foreign policy among many Democrats, including Biden himself. The result is an unsettled dynamic between the likely Democratic standard-bearer and national security activists who are tied to different parts of the party’s base. It’s not a thoroughly combative relationship, but it does involve complicated, sometimes uncomfortable conversations.
After Biden released an ad last month that painted China as hyper-aggressive and Trump as weak, civil rights advocates slammed him for bolstering anti-Asian racism and some saw the risk of a slippery slope.
“A hawkish race to the bottom is a race Republicans will always win,” said Matt Duss, the top foreign policy adviser to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Not only is it politically unwise; it will lead to bad policy.”
Last week, Biden put out a new message that narrowly focused on Trump’s praise for China’s authoritarian leadership.
“I think the shift in messaging from the earlier ad to the new one shows that they’re listening to those concerns, and that’s encouraging,” Duss said.
Biden has already assembled most of his national security team. How much they do listen to those outside their circle and adjust ― or decide it’s better to hew to more traditional views ― will show voters and the world what to expect if Trump’s Democratic rival defeats him in November.
Biden’s Old Guard
Biden starts each day with briefings on the economy and public health, New York magazine recently revealed. Jake Sullivan helps make those briefings happen.
Sullivan was one of the then-vice president’s national security advisers under President Barack Obama. This is his second time preparing a candidate to battle Trump: He was Hillary Clinton’s chief foreign policy counselor in 2016 and was expected to take a top role in her White House.
His key role today is one of the clearest examples of how being a trusted aide in Biden’s operation and having a background in international relations often go hand-in-hand.
Antony Blinken, who manages the campaign’s foreign policy apparatus, has been in Biden’s orbit for nearly 20 years. Blinken advised Biden when he chaired the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate and during Obama’s first term. By the end of the Obama administration, Blinken was the deputy secretary of state. His team includes other long-time Biden associates like Brian McKeon, whose ties to the candidate date to the 1980s, and national security analysts who served under Obama, like Julianne Smith, Colin Kahl, Ely Ratner and Jeffrey Prescott.
Echoing their candidate, Biden’s advisers maintain that even though they’re familiar faces in official Washington, they plan to get creative in tackling America’s problems. Simply replacing Trump is insufficient, they say, not least because of the way his presidency has damaged U.S. standing in the world.
“It’s not a matter of just walking in and flipping a switch and saying, ‘Here we are, we’re ready to rebuild,’” Smith said at a Quincy Institute event earlier this year. “We have to be clear-eyed about how much has changed in the last couple of years and that may require some new ways of going about things, new structures, new policies. ... Joe Biden is open to all of that.”
Since Clinton’s defeat four years ago, Sullivan has repeatedly challenged foreign policy wonks’ traditional failure to focus on the link between their work and the domestic concerns of ordinary Americans. The establishment’s approach to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive Obama-era trade deal, suggested a worrying gap, Sullivan told The Washington Post. Experts ― and high-ranking officials like Biden ― promoted it while downplaying American workers’ fears for their jobs. The agreement became a flashpoint for Clinton and Trump, who would back the U.S. out of the deal in 2017. Biden came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership last summer, after nearly all his Democratic primary opponents had done so.
Sullivan now endorses a new trade strategy in which the government would spend heavily on U.S.-based manufacturing and crack down on international tax havens ― ideas more associated with liberal firebrands like Sens. Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) than the historically moderate Biden.
Most of the Democrats who would populate foreign policy jobs under Biden are more realistic about the limits of U.S. global influence than they were in the Obama period, according to Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Wright. But they have also noted that some aggressive Trump policies that were deemed too dangerous under his predecessor ― such as bombing Syria’s Assad regime or arming Ukraine to fight Russian-backed separatists ― did not have the drastic consequences the policies’ opponents warned about, Wright wrote in The Atlantic. He believes that observation could make a Biden presidency more willing to use tools of American power.
For peace groups, that is worrying, particularly because amid Biden’s evolution, “it appears there’s been no fundamental questioning of American exceptionalism,” said Kate Kizer, policy director at Win Without War. Without that kind of interrogation, she argued, it’s hard to rule out the possibility that any U.S. president will engage in costly and potentially bloody overreach abroad.
The track records of some of the staffers Biden would likely elevate could trouble the left too. Tom Donilon, who served Obama as national security adviser, could get a big job. His brother is a key political consultant to Biden and his wife was chief of staff for then-second lady Jill Biden. Donilon is associated with Obama’s extensive use of drones against foreign targets, which watchdog groups contend killed hundreds of civilians, and he offered public defenses of the secretive policy.
Michèle Flournoy, long expected to be tapped as the first female secretary of defense by the next Democratic president, will likely be a target of progressive criticism over the perception that she is overly hawkish, said an activist involved in lobbying the Biden campaign who requested anonymity to preserve relationships.
“One area we really want to push on is personnel,” the activist added, noting that they anticipate fights over Senate confirmations for some Biden national security nominees.
The former vice president is known for loyalty and trusting his judgment of people ― it’s doubtful he will overhaul his team. Still, some observers suggest he could show sensitivity to the range of foreign policy views among Democrats by drawing closer to figures who could serve as a bridge to more liberal factions, like Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) or Rob Malley, a former Obama staffer who advised Sanders during the primary.
Campaign Trail Caution
In recent weeks, anti-war groups have asked Biden to commit to using the U.S. military more sparingly, former officials have pushed him to run on a more evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and scholars have urged Biden to avoid competing with Trump in vilifying China.
The former vice president’s staff is open to advice, people outside the team say, but Biden wants to be clear that he already has the expertise needed to be commander in chief.
“It’s remarkable to have a likely Democratic nominee that sees foreign policy not as an afterthought and sees it as a key strength,” said Ned Price, a former Obama aide now at the advocacy group National Security Action.
For Biden to focus on staying true to his record is just fine as far as some people who could be key to his political success, like long-time donors, are concerned. In April, real estate executive Jack Rosen, who held a fundraiser for Biden last year, told Jewish Insider that he doesn’t believe advocates for a tougher U.S. approach to Israel will gain much traction with Biden because of the candidate’s historic commitment to supporting the American ally.
The former vice president could make some nods to the evolution within his party ― by speaking about Palestinian rights more forcefully, for instance, the way he has recently ― without having to promise sweeping change in America’s global approach.
“You’ll see him lean into many of the strategies that he has espoused over the course of years,” like engaging in both competition and cooperation with China, said the person familiar with his national security team.
But a more boldly progressive turn in foreign policy during the campaign could help Biden both with voters and as president, some observers argue.
“In many areas, he was a voice of restraint during the Obama administration,” said Duss, the Sanders adviser. Tapping the skepticism about foreign wars that is now popular in both parties, Biden might speak about Obama-era episodes in which he was more dovish than others, like the 2011 Libya intervention or the question of how many troops to maintain in Afghanistan.
Much of this outside advice is intended to help the presumptive Democratic nominee, not to tear him down.
“The message that progressives are sending is that Biden will have the best chance possible by making some commitments on key issues,” like serious new diplomacy with Iran, Duss said. “In addition to broadening his base of support, he can also then take office with a clear mandate to do these things and a coalition ready to mobilize in support.”
But after a primary in which Biden received heavy criticism on foreign policy, notably his vote for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, his team could still be wary. For now, “Biden’s national security people I don’t think fully grasp how important a movement is” when it comes to crafting foreign policy that many Americans can support, said the activist involved in lobbying the campaign.
The months ahead of working toward a shared goal could help unite the candidate’s circle and those further left seeking to influence them.
“The bottom line is that progressives want Trump gone, and the way to do that is with Joe Biden,” Duss said.