Biden needs to take the Wayne Gretzky approach to foreign policy

Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden meets with US troops in Afghanistan, January 11, 2011.

  • President-elect Joe Biden’s instinct is to look for common ground, so it will be difficult for him not to try for bipartisanship in the short-term.
  • But the politics of conviction, not the politics of compromise, have best chance of bringing about a fruitful cross-party consensus on the most important international issues, writes Dr. Peter Harris, a professor of political science at Colorado State University.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Joe Biden has promised to unite Americans. It is an important task, and one that Biden’s entire career has prepared him to accomplish as president of the United States. But there is one area where Biden ought to shun togetherness – at least for now – and cut a more independent path: foreign policy.

Biden’s instinct is to look for common ground, and so it will be difficult for him not to try for bipartisanship in the short-term. Over the long haul, however, it is the politics of conviction – not the politics of compromise – that stand the best chance of bringing about a fruitful cross-party consensus on the most important international issues facing the United States.

The conventional wisdom is that US foreign policy is more credible, effective, and enduring when it rests upon solid bipartisan foundations at home. This traditional view is right but offers limited guidance in the current context.

Political polarization and hyper-partisanship in Congress make it difficult to achieve grand bargains of any sort. And when it comes to foreign policy, the holy grail of bipartisanship is even more elusive given that both parties are internally divided on core foreign-policy questions.

Biden will have to confront these headwinds. Under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, “establishment” Republicans in the Senate have turned obstructionism into an art form. The newly minted Trumpist wing of the GOP is certain to oppose Biden at every turn.

At the same time, Biden must manage competing factions among Democrats, not least of all an emboldened progressive wing that has yet to accept Biden’s position as leader of the party.

Joe Biden
Biden listens to a protester during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, March 9, 2020.

Bipartisanship will not be possible if it means trying to blend the preferred foreign policies of every faction in Congress. The cross-cutting cleavages will be too many to bridge. As president, Biden should instead lay down markers for what a future bipartisan consensus might look like.

Borrowing from Wayne Gretzky, he should skate to where the puck is going – not to where it has been. This means nudging foreign policy in the direction of multilateral cooperation, diplomatic sophistication, and especially military restraint – a broad-brush approach that enjoys growing support in Washington and across the country.

Biden should start by rejoining those international agreements and organizations that were abandoned by President Trump – the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council, to name just some.

This is low-hanging fruit. For while there are Republicans in Congress who will criticize Biden for returning to the “globalism” of the pre-Trump era, opinion polls show that the American people are largely disposed toward international cooperation.

Second, Biden ought to reject the inevitability of conflict with China and make serious efforts to smooth relations with Beijing. Democrats are divided on the question of China, but most are wary of sleepwalking into a new cold war – let alone a hot one. So are many Republicans. The worsening of the US-China relationship is one of Trump’s most dangerous legacies. Biden must repair the damage.

At minimum, Biden should end the self-defeating trade war with China, explore ways to reduce military tensions in the Asia-Pacific, and propose bilateral cooperation to tackle the (still-raging) COVID-19 pandemic and kickstart the global economic recovery that the whole world is depending upon. These are modest positions that most rightminded Democrats and Republicans could get behind.

Of course, there are areas where a robust approach to China is sorely needed, such as human rights and climate policy. President Trump rarely pressed Beijing on these issues. Biden will enjoy the enthusiastic backing of his party if he makes them central to his China policy. He might also attract support from Republicans reluctant to endorse a policy of unalloyed conciliation.

Biden Xi Jinping China
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden, Peng Liyuan, and Jill Biden stand for the US National Anthem at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, September 24, 2015.

Third, Biden must follow through on a military withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021. Ending America’s longest war should be the central pillar of a general policy of retrenchment from West Africa to Central Asia.

The United States has been at war somewhere in this vast region since the 9/11 attacks – usually fighting in multiple warzones simultaneously. At some point, the American public needs to be assured that there will be an end to the fighting, killing, and dying.

Fighting fewer wars will allow the United States to shrink the gargantuan amount – $750 billion – that it currently spends on the military each year. Of course, it is predictable that GOP hawks will call Biden weak on national security if he proposes cuts to the defense budget. Others, however, are open to the argument that military spending needs to be brought under control.

For their part, Democrats have been coalescing around the idea of a “rightsized” military for some time, recognizing that the United States today does not face a major foreign threat to its national security.

Biden has portrayed his presidency as a bridge to the future. This seems appropriate given his age and the circumstances of his election. But when it comes to foreign policy, Biden will have to be clear about the precise future to which he wants to build a crossing. He could do far worse than embracing the Gretzky Doctrine – moving to where politics seem to be headed rather than fixating on where things currently are or have been.

To be clear, these policies will not garner strong bipartisan support in the short-term. Nor, though, would any other set of foreign policies in the current political climate. Instead of trying to appease his critics, Biden would do better to call their bluff. Does either the Democratic Party or the GOP want to be the party of crude unilateralism and endless war? If so, let them run candidates on that platform in 2022 and 2024. Chances are, it will not serve them well.

It will take courage for Biden to plot a new course for US foreign policy. As FDR once confided: “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and to find no one there.” But try to lead Biden must.

The case for a new foreign policy is strong. In the long run, it might well turn out that even the most recalcitrant Democrats and Republicans have no choice but to reconcile themselves to a foreign policy of international cooperation and military restraint – the only bipartisan consensus worth having.

Dr. Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University.

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