Albeit described by The Washington Post as “old, inarticulate, uninspiring and gaffe prone”, Joe Biden is today the likely winner of the Democratic Party nomination for the upcoming US presidential elections. According to The Financial Times, polls in March 2020 even show Biden beating Trump by seven percentage points in a presidential race. What would a Biden presidency mean for the liberal international order? Would it make a difference, as far as the status quo in US foreign policy is concerned? Let us turn to Biden’s recent article published by Foreign Affairs for answers.
Biden’s Foreign Affairs article is good news to liberals, among whom Princeton University’s John Ikenberry is the most outspoken. In his paper, Biden calls for the restoration of US “leadership”. An ambiguous and much contested term, US leadership, to Biden, as to liberals, means commitment to the liberal international order. This means commitment to key alliances such as NATO, multilateral economic institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the now gone Trans-Pacific Partnership, and confronting key “illiberal” powers, such as Russia and China and, albeit within the parameters of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran. Today, this also means gradual withdrawal from the Middle East and the “forever” war on terror.
With the exception of commitment to economic multilateralism, Biden’s foreign policy outline sounds familiar to anyone who has read Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy. Furthermore, it remains unclear how economic multilateralism would be restored under a potential Biden administration. In his article, Biden says, “I will not enter into new trade agreements until we have invested in Americans and equipped them to succeed in the global economy.” In other words, the state will interfere in the “free market”, arming citizens with what they need to compete, and then open “free trade”. A subtle form of economic nationalism under a Biden administration will apparently save the free market by letting the US, in Biden’s words, “sell the best to the world”. This is the foreign policy of liberal nostalgia, which simply overlooks the contradiction between the desire for multilateralism and the reality of economic nationalism. In its pursuit of the latter, in however subtle a form, it represents a foreign policy that Trump would applaud.
What explains this continuity in US foreign policy? In some areas, for example in US foreign policy towards the Middle East, particularly towards Iran, US foreign policy remains continuous due to domestic considerations. The Israeli lobby, as Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University and Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago argued in their book, The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, plays a major role here. Continuity in US foreign policy in the wider liberal order, however, cannot be reduced to domestic considerations: it is due to a lack of imagination to go beyond liberal principles that, for at least for a century now, proved morally bankrupt.
Liberal principles, particularly in the neoliberal age that accelerated in the 1980s onwards, lack moral purpose beyond material accumulation and improvement in hedonistic lifestyles. In the age of the nation state, this causes a contradiction that historians of liberalism and empire are all too familiar with. On the one hand, liberal principles call for “free trade” and the reduction of the government role in political economy. On the other hand, liberal principles reduce international politics to a Darwinian struggle for economic and political competition between governments. In the age of the nation state, where each “people” looks to their national government to provide material improvement, endless accumulation and competition result in “total wars” as seen with World War I and World War II. In short, in the age of the nation state, liberal principles are highly problematic: they result in conflict and violence, only to be tamed by the sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons as seen during the Cold War.
Liberals argue that in the post-1945 order the US engaged in the formation of multilateral institutions that allegedly mitigated the disaster of pre-1945 laissez faire. But the contradiction under liberalism remained. Resurfacing under Trump, it once again challenged these institutions, as seen with Trump’s recent challenge to the WTO. Biden’s image of peace, like Trump’s, is based on the false premise that a “fair deal” for America can save its liberal nostalgia and once again open up free trade. What this premise fails to recognise is that liberalism itself became bankrupt a long time ago. What America faces today is a challenge of imagination: the challenge to imagine a post-liberal alternative; that is, to look forward to a new future, rather than backward to a glorious past.
Neither Trump nor Biden are ready to come face to face with this moral bankruptcy of liberal principles in the age of the nation state. Rather, theirs is a foreign policy of “reformation” as Thomas Wright recently wrote in The Atlantic. In an age of impending climate catastrophe and global health crisis, both of which cry for transnational cooperation, this nostalgia is dangerous. It lacks a post-liberal imagination that is desperately needed today. Thus, to answer the question raised at the start: no, it does not make a difference, as far as the status quo in US foreign policy is concerned, whether Trump or Biden is in the White House next year. The only real change can come from a more radical candidate, perhaps a democratic socialist who may challenge the moral bankruptcy of liberalism and, with fresh thinking, ultimately challenge the status quo. Whether this challenge will be successful and steer US foreign policy in a less conflictual direction is yet to be seen.
*The writer is a teaching fellow in international relations at the University of Birmingham.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly