Beware entanglements? ‘Realists’ fret over Biden foreign policy.

Why We Wrote This

Global leadership, democracy, human rights – the Biden foreign-policy team’s goals are laden with values that those from the “realist” school warn could also be a recipe for costly interventionism.

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Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of state, speaks as Mr. Biden announces his national security nominees and appointees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, Nov. 24, 2020.

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President-elect Joe Biden has spoken with soaring language about the world’s need for American leadership. He has pledged to convene a summit of democracies. And he speaks of a return to a more robust promotion of human and political rights.

And that has given some U.S. foreign-policy “realists,” who want to avoid a return to the disastrous interventions of the past two decades, plenty to fret about. Some cite a sense of foreboding when they hear Antony Blinken, the secretary-of-state-designate, saying that, “In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little.”

Yet Mr. Biden also is indicating he has no interest in achieving foreign-policy goals through military intervention. Indeed, some realists say there are signs of an “evolution” in Mr. Biden’s thinking.

“What I’m seeing among my fellow restrainers is that most are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” says Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington. As a senator, Mr. Biden was “one of the biggest cheerleaders of the Iraq war,” yet as vice president sought to limit the Afghanistan troop surge, he notes. “I think Biden has shown he’s learned from his mistakes.”

When President-elect Joe Biden named Antony Blinken, his longtime foreign-policy aide and a former Obama deputy national security adviser, as his choice to become the next secretary of state, foreign-policy realists shuddered.

Here we go again, they said, with a foreign policy run by idealists and based on American global leadership and promoting democracy and human rights – a recipe, in their view, for a return to the disastrous interventions of the past two decades.

“I wish he’d go with his Joe Biden self who was skeptical of the Afghanistan surge in the Obama administration,” says Michael Desch, professor of international relations and director of Notre Dame International Security Center in Indiana. “But unfortunately, most of the signals are sort of back to the future with a return to the good old days of liberal intervention and American leadership.”

Hadn’t Mr. Blinken, as recently as last May on CBS, bemoaned the Obama administration’s failure to “prevent a horrendous loss of life [and] massive displacement” in Syria as “something I will take with me for the rest of my days”?

Some realists, who advocate a foreign policy based on narrowly defined national interests and modest ambitions for America’s global role, heard their concerns confirmed last week. Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s choice as his national security adviser, took to Twitter to call out Saudi Arabia over its sentencing to more than five years in prison of prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

But perhaps the sharpest alarm bell was rung by Robert Wright, a self-described progressive realist, who took to his Nonzero Newsletter last month to lament the imminent arrival at the White House of a “progressive idealist” foreign-policy team that under President Barack Obama was responsible “for much death and suffering and dislocation” in the name of “spreading democracy and defending human rights” abroad.

“Idealists like Sullivan and Blinken have supported past interventions that made things worse,” said Mr. Wright, referring to Syria, Libya, and U.S. efforts in 2014 to bolster the opposition to a sitting president in Ukraine.

“Evolution” in Biden’s thinking

Mr. Biden appears to have given the realists plenty to fret about. He has spoken and written with soaring language about the world’s need for American leadership. He has pledged to convene a summit of democracies his first year in office to stand against a rising tide of authoritarianism. And he has pledged to return to a more robust policy of human and political rights promotion.

But at the same time, the incoming president is suggesting he has no interest in implementing a foreign policy that would achieve its goals through military intervention and other means of achieving regime change.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters/File
U.S. troops at their base in Logar Province, Afghanistan, Aug. 4, 2018. Some foreign-policy "realists" say they're encouraged that Joe Biden, as vice president, sought to limit the 2009-10 troop surge.

Indeed the clash of Mr. Biden’s two dominant impulses when it comes to foreign policy – for America to lead and promote its values around the world, but at the same time to avoid the kind of foreign entanglements George Washington advised against – is likely to determine, at least in part, the success of a presidency that will have substantial domestic policy challenges.

Some foreign-policy realists are holding to what they say are signs of an “evolution” in Mr. Biden’s thinking over the past two decades and are resisting the hand-wringing of some of their colleagues about a new American interventionism.

“What I’m seeing among my fellow restrainers is that most are taking a wait-and-see attitude, and are not being unduly alarmed or apprehensive about what might be coming,” says Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington organization that advocates a strong defense and restrained foreign policy pursuing narrow national interests.

As a senator, Mr. Biden was “one of the biggest cheerleaders of the Iraq war,” yet as vice president was an “adamant advocate for a significant reduction of the 2009-10 [Afghanistan] troop surge,” he notes.

“I think Biden has shown he’s learned from his mistakes,” he adds.

“Idealists” leading the team

Some realists would say Mr. Biden’s choice of what Mr. Wright calls “progressive idealists” to lead his foreign-policy team demonstrates that in fact he hasn’t changed his thinking much. They admit to a sense of foreboding when they hear Mr. Blinken, the secretary-of-state-designate, saying, as he did last year, that, “In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little.”

But Colonel Davis notes that Mr. Blinken was one of the architects of Mr. Obama’s drawdown of troops from Iraq, and worked “behind the scenes” in 2009 to limit the Afghanistan surge.

“At the least you have to say that Tony Blinken has a mixed record, and I’m not sure he really merits the buzz words of ‘liberal interventionist’ that people are pinning on him,” he says.

Moreover, Colonel Davis, like a number of other foreign-policy realists and anti-interventionists, finds solace in the fact that Mr. Biden has not named to prominent national security posts any of the Obama advisers who became known as the Valkyries for pushing military interventions like the 2011 Libya bombardment campaign that toppled Muammar Qaddafi.

“I don’t see Biden turning to Susan Rice or Samantha Power to fill his national security team,” he says. “So him leaving to one side the architects of those festering wounds, like Libya or Syria or Yemen, suggests he’s leaning towards restraint.”

Biden has chosen Ms. Rice, who served as Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, for a top domestic policy post. And some in Washington speculate that Ms. Power, who served as ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Obama and is known as an adamant defender of human rights promotion, could still be named to a Biden administration post – perhaps as U.S. Agency for International Development administrator. [Editor's note: On Wednesday, Mr. Biden did indeed name Ms. Power to that post.]

And this week sources with the Biden transition team confirmed that the president-elect has chosen Victoria Nuland, a former NATO ambassador and assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, to fill what is effectively the No. 3 position at State. Ambassador Nuland was a key player in the pro-Western opposition’s 2014 deposing of Ukraine’s Russian-backed president.

Some foreign-policy experts insist that Mr. Biden won’t run afoul of realists alone if he starts to let his interventionist impulses dominate. Notre Dame’s Professor Desch says the president-elect will also have to be prepared for sharp pushback from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party if he shows signs of doing too much – and in particular of turning to the military to intervene.

“Those folks are not going to be thrilled about a return to business as usual in foreign policy,” he says.

Mr. Blinken has acknowledged as “mistakes” some of the U.S. actions under President Obama that progressives most lament – but he has also warned that the foreign policy progressives advocate too often flirts with isolationism, which he says does not serve America’s interests.

Call for “new thinking”

The debate between foreign-policy realists and idealists, progressives and traditionalists, will no doubt carry on into the Biden administration. But what concerns some experts most is not so much who wins those debates as it is their inkling that there is a dearth of “new thinking” in the Biden team about America’s role in the world.

“More than anything I’d say it’s this [incoming] administration’s lack of imagination that I find most disconcerting,” says Professor Desch. “The general approach of the people Biden is choosing is that Trump broke everything, so our objective is to build back. And while Biden may be comfortable with them,” he adds, “I’m not sure how much creative thinking he’ll get from these Obama retreads.”

He’s not alone in his thinking.

Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, notes that President Reagan resisted stiff pressure to turn to Henry Kissinger, the architect of Richard Nixon’s vaunted realist foreign policy, but instead took a fresh turn.

“I don’t see the people Biden’s choosing so much as idealists as I do a team of buddies the new president is comfortable with, but that leaves me wondering, where are the thinkers?” says Mr. Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

The problem Professor Desch sees in “building back” as a guiding principle for foreign policy is that it risks turning to policies and approaches for a world that no longer exists.

“The better approach is to say, ‘What does the world of 2021 look like?’” he says, “and to answer the question of America’s role in it based on that.”

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