Eight months into his presidency, Joe Biden will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. While he shouldn’t wait until the literal anniversary to get started, 2021 marks an ideal opportunity to break decisively with what have come to be known as the forever wars—the open-ended US military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and many other countries across the Muslim world. A generation of Americans with no memory of the 9/11 attacks is currently deployed in an increasingly aimless effort to avenge them that has now spanned three drastically different presidencies. Polling in recent years has shown consistent opposition to these wars, including from veterans, who have borne the brunt of policy-makers’ refusal to abandon a failed counterterrorism strategy.
For progressives and anti-interventionists, the early signs from Biden have been inauspicious. His inner circle on foreign policy will include Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence. All are veterans of the Obama administration and played a significant role in formulating and directing military interventions, and all have leveraged their connections for profit in the private sector during the Trump era. In general, they are fervent believers in American global leadership, backed by military supremacy. The warm welcome this group has received within the Beltway foreign policy community—often derisively referred to as the Blob—suggests an imminent return to the pre-Trump status quo.
But the national mood has shifted dramatically since Barack Obama left office. Foreign policy is a space where many Americans across party lines are demanding a new direction, with clear support for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and shifting resources from the Pentagon budget into domestic priorities. Democrats in particular support repealing the endlessly renewed post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has granted the executive branch virtually unlimited war-making powers, and which progressive legislators like Bernie Sanders and Ro Khanna have fought to rein in. A Biden administration that wants to maintain broad support and transpartisan appeal could feel pressure to chart a new course.
The Democrats’ 2020 platform, to which Biden and his inner circle are theoretically committed, explicitly recognizes the need to end the forever wars. It promises to “bring the troops home” and to use force only “when necessary to protect national security and when the objective is clear and achievable—with the informed consent of the American people, and where warranted, the approval of Congress.” It specifically calls for an end to the US-backed Saudi war in Yemen, a humanitarian catastrophe, and for reversing Trump’s curtailment of travel and remittances to Cuba, a major positive legacy of Obama’s second term. It also calls for ending the Trump administration’s rush to war with Iran and for recommitting to the Iran nuclear deal, which Blinken helped shape. And unlike the party’s 2016 platform, it recognizes “the worth of every Israeli and every Palestinian” and opposes annexation of the West Bank and Israel’s settlement expansion—although it does not recognize the existence of an “occupation,” and Blinken has made it clear that Israel can count on US military aid no matter what.
To the extent that this language is promising, it represents a push by progressive groups and the Sanders campaign to influence the party’s direction ahead of last summer’s convention. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect how Biden’s team sees the world. So far, there is little indication of genuine soul-searching over Obama-era policies like the troop surge in Afghanistan, the expansion of George W. Bush’s targeted assassination program, the authorization of regime change in Libya, or the war in Yemen.
To avoid a repeat of the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy mistakes, Biden and his advisers would be wise to recognize the subsequent shifts in both public opinion and strategic reality and to work to change the underlying US relationships in the greater Middle East. In particular, the Trump administration’s uncritical indulgence of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states must be repudiated, and there should be a swift diplomatic reset with Iran, to make clear to foreign autocrats that Jared Kushner’s corrupt approach to diplomacy was an aberration.
Rooting out the transnational corruption exemplified by Kushner will require more than just a new diplomatic approach; it will require a coordinated effort to stem the flow of illicit capital across borders and to crack down on lobbying efforts by foreign governments in Washington. As with ending the forever wars, Biden, like many of his Democratic primary rivals, is theoretically committed to such a crackdown. To follow through, he will need to take aggressive executive actions, many of which would really be domestic policy shifts with significant international implications. For instance, he could broaden the definition of “lobbyist” and impose bans on former government officials serving as lobbyists or vice versa; expand transparency measures on tax information for public officials; amend the global Magnitsky Act to target corrupt officials throughout the world, in both rival and friendly countries; and shut down international tax havens that benefit both US and foreign oligarchs. Biden could thus send a clear message that US foreign policy is no longer for sale to the highest bidder—although that message risks being muddled, given that the core members of his national security team have secured lucrative consulting contracts between their stints in government.
The US relationship with China will be an especially treacherous and central concern when Biden takes office. After two decades of relatively stable relations, during which China policy was heavily influenced by the US Chamber of Commerce and by global capital’s desire for cheap labor and weak regulations, both Democratic and Republican leaders increasingly view China as a rival and a threat. China’s initial mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the growing recognition of US-China trade’s deleterious effects on America’s economic and political health, and the ongoing cultural genocide in Xinjiang and the repression of civil liberties in Hong Kong are all legitimate reasons for this shift.
But at the same time, the Biden administration should resist the temptation to spiral into a new Cold War with Beijing, the consequences of which would be disastrous for both countries and the entire world. A Biden ad run during the 2020 campaign that struck a crude anti-China tone, and that provoked vocal criticism from both anti-interventionist and Asian American activists, hinted at this danger. Biden must avoid the further militarization of East Asia and instead focus his attention on renegotiating trade policies to prioritize labor, climate, and human rights. Under Biden, Washington should champion progressive, innovative, and multilateral approaches to transnational problems, from climate change to borderless pandemics—a process that will necessarily require cooperation with China, home to nearly one-fifth of the world’s people, which would be severely undermined by a new arms race. The 2020 platform calls for extending New START and other nonproliferation agreements and for negotiating new arms control treaties with China—a commitment that Biden must be held to in office.
None of this will come easily to Biden or his administration, but the American public, exhausted by the pandemic and two decades of war, is in no mood for military adventurism. The trillions of dollars the United States has squandered on the Pentagon since 9/11 could have been spent on universal health care, housing, and infrastructure at home and on diplomacy and nonmilitary aid abroad. Biden has rightly pledged to rebuild the State Department, which has been gutted by Trump, but he could also frame any withdrawal from militarism as a step toward reinvesting in the health and well-being of the United States. This shouldn’t be mistaken for Trump’s crude America-first nationalism; rather, it should be understood as a genuinely democratic process that reestablishes Washington’s accountability to the people. The Trump era in general and the pandemic in particular have badly tarnished America’s reputation; if Biden wishes to restore American global leadership, the best way to do so would be to demonstrate that the United States is capable of providing basic services to its own people.
Unfortunately, even if Democrats win the impending Senate runoff elections in Georgia, it seems clear that Biden will be severely limited in his ability to pass major legislation. Instead, his domestic agenda will likely be limited to executive orders and a handful of centrist compromises on managing the pandemic and its economic fallout. On foreign policy, however, a Biden administration will enjoy a relatively free hand and can be more directly responsive to the demands articulated by an active progressive base.
The good news is that progressive activism and intellectual infrastructure is far more robust than it was at the beginning of Obama’s first term, including on foreign policy, where new organizations like the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft are committed to shaking up the foreign policy consensus. Biden may be an instinctive centrist, but he cannot govern without the support of the growing progressive wing of his own party in Congress; nor can Democrats prevail in the future without buy-in from the younger generation, which leans left. Holding Biden accountable for a foreign policy that breaks with 20 years of war and recommits to human flourishing will necessarily be a collective effort. Democratizing foreign policy will, by definition, be a bottom-up project.