As Biden Stalls, Is the "Restorationist" Narrative Losing Ground?

February 7, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally in Philadelphia for his 2020 presidential campaign. CREDIT: Michael Stokes (CC).

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

Accepting all the caveats about the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses (the state is unrepresentative of the Democratic Party or the country as a whole, the process is skewed toward committed activists who are prepared to devote several hours to be present, and the reality that the number of delegates selected is quite small), the results suggest that there is an unease among primary voters about "establishment" positions. Foreign policy may not have been the prime salient voting issues, but there are very distinct foreign policy choices on offer—and different nominees would take the United States in very different directions, something I discussed with Alex Woodson in a recent podcast.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is, in foreign policy terms, most associated with a "restorationist" approach to U.S. foreign policy—that is, attempting to reverse course and return the U.S. to its approach of forward engagement. But what is striking is the extent to which other candidates qualify their support or enthusiasm; others seems to embrace a more modest agenda or want to focus on retrenchment.

Daniel Shapiro and Thomas Schaffner over at Russia Matters have been putting together profiles of the Democratic hopefuls as it relates to their positions on Russia (and by extension, other foreign policy issues). In perusing it, one cannot help but notice divergences not only from positions that were embraced by the Obama and Clinton administrations, but some echoes of Donald Trump's own critiques. Retrenchment and recalibration are the dominant themes—especially in terms of recasting burdens and focusing on American needs.

Bernie Sanders has consistently argued for revisiting core assumptions about the degree of American involvement in the world, noting, "We need a serious national discussion over how and when our country uses its military." He and Elizabeth Warren have also questioned the assumptions about the benefits of free trade pacts concluded by previous administrations. As Warren noted in 2019, "Policymakers promised that open markets would lead to open societies. Instead, efforts to bring capitalism to the global stage unwittingly helped create the conditions for competitors to rise up and lash out."

None of the remaining front-runners espouse complete American withdrawal from the world scene or accepting any sort of arrangement that divides the world into spheres of influence. None propose writing off Ukraine, for instance. But none of them talk about America taking the primary responsibility and shouldering most of the costs. In January 2020, Elizabeth Warren made the point that "I do think that the Europeans need to bear a significant share of the cost of defense of Europe." Tom Steyer weighed in by commenting that, when it comes to Ukraine, "that's a perfect example of a place where I believe we should be responding with allies, not by ourselves." Pete Buttigieg seems inclined to find ways to work with Russia on decreasing the nuclear threat noting that "we actually seem to be further away from being able to work with Russia on things like the renewal of START. We've got to move toward less, not more nuclear danger . . . " When it comes to Eastern Europe, Buttigieg advises, "Future U.S. policy towards Russia must include a regional security framework that promotes stability for Eastern Europe and incentivizes Russia to adhere to international norms."

Foreign policy does not appear to be the main reasons that Biden's campaign is faltering—and we still have not had the decisive primary elections of "Super Tuesday" where his electoral fortunes could be restored. But the apparent unease with the former vice president carries over into questioning whether the robust role he envisions for the U.S. is helping to fuel some of the skepticism about his candidacy.

Of course, the reality is that candidates will say one thing on the trail and do another thing in office, and that Warren, Buttigieg, or even Sanders, once in office, might easily embrace a more interventionist approach. But, from this snapshot in early February 2020, it appears that the engaged segment of the American electorate is looking less to restore the past and more about how America's role in the world evolves in the conditions of the 2020s.

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