Biden says 'America is back'. But will his team of insiders repeat their old mistakes?

Samuel Moyn
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA</span>
Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

The big question for the US president-elect, Joe Biden, who has taken “build back better” as his motto, is whether this will mean genuine renovation or mere restoration. Americans desperately need a pivot after the madness of Donald Trump. And when Biden takes the reins of power from his predecessor, there is no doubt that a big reset will come. But the risk of complacent restoration is nowhere greater than in US foreign policy – especially since it is a domain in which the office of president has so much authority, even in the midst of legislative gridlock.

Related: Trump poised to leave legacy of chaos with last-minute foreign policy moves | Analysis

“Everything must change so that everything can remain the same,” says the aristocratic hero of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard (1958). It seems to be the motto of current elites eager to bracket the Trump years in the name of the status quo ante.

Since the shock of 2016, Washington foreign policy elites, both mainstream Democrats out of power and their Never Trump Republican allies, have developed a just-so story about their benevolent role in the world. It goes like this: the US was once isolationist, but then committed after the second world war to leading a “rules-based international order”, a phrase that is increasingly hard to avoid in assessments of the presidential transition. In this story, Trump’s election represented atavism and immorality, the return of rightly repressed nationalism and nativism at home and abroad. In response, the agenda has to be to restore US credibility and leadership as the “indispensable nation” by embracing internationalism again.

Trump’s boorish attack on traditional pieties understandably makes Washington traditions seem like comfort food after a hangover. The darker truth this response conceals is that generations of foreign policy mistakes both preceded and precipitated Trump – who often went on to continue them anyway. The record of Washington’s “wise men”, who coddled dictators, militarised the globe, and entrenched economic unfairness at home and abroad, opened an extraordinary opportunity for any Trump-like demagogue – making his ascendancy less a matter of atavism than another form of the blowback to mistakes that America perpetually made abroad. If his presence shamed US foreign policy elites, it was because they helped make him possible.

There is no doubt that Trump altered national security policy in a host of ways. But the idea that the old international order was actually rules-based is a fiction that is impossible to sustain – especially regarding the US, which bent or broke the rules across the world throughout the cold war, fearful of its Soviet adversary. After September 11, the US crafted its own version of international law, shaped in its own interests – under both George W Bush and Barack Obama, and against much resistance from others across the world.

In economic matters since 1945, it is not so much that the US either forged or ruptured a rules-based order, but rather that it pivoted from one set of rules to a radically new one. For decades after the second world war, the system allowed other governments considerable room for manoeuvre in their economic policies. But then the US helped to impose a draconian neoliberal order that persists to the present day, including through international financial institutions it dominated.

Trump’s attitudes towards war and peace were paradoxical. He beat his Republican rivals in 2016 by shockingly condemning the Iraq war, falsely claiming to have been on the right side of history all along, before going on to prevail against Clinton by appealing to veterans and other Americans fatigued by their country’s fruitless global interventionism. As a result, Biden himself ran on “ending endless wars” because Trump helped to make it an obligatory gesture.

Benjamin Netanyahu
‘Joe Biden will offer slightly less support for Israel’s rightwing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu (above), and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman (though still a lot).’ Photograph: Reuters

In power, Trump became the latest president to condemn “dumb” US wars – as Obama did before him – while building a bigger military, and ordering even more drone strikes and special forces missions. Still, he not only reversed Obama’s incursions deep into parts of Africa but continued the shift away from heavy-footprint wars to light- and no-footprint modes across Central Asia and the Middle East, facing the “resistance” of the military for trying to pull troops from Afghanistan and Iraq in his final days for doing so.

Biden will rightly restore the Iran deal if he can, and re-enter the Paris climate accords. He and his staff will talk more about the importance of standard parts of US foreign policy of the past, from human rights to multilateralism and from Nato to the United Nations. He will offer slightly less support for Israel’s rightwing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman (though still a lot).

But the transformation will likely halt there, for there is little further evidence that Biden understands the need to deal with America’s belligerent traditions. True, Biden did learn something from his support for the disastrous Iraq war. He spoke against some interventions as vice-president to Obama and has been vindicated for doing so. As a result, he will rattle America’s sabre less aggressively. He needs to be held to his promise of ceasing US support for the calamitous Saudi war in Yemen, which Obama enabled and Trump has continued with a vengeance. Unfortunately, however, a more cautious approach to US military power may only come in exchange for restoring enmity with Russia, and continuing the path to a cold war with China that Trump blazed.

The chance Biden will end the misbegotten “war on terror” is vanishingly small – and not merely in Afghanistan and Iraq. Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, will undo much of the damage Trump did to America’s foreign service and international reputation. But as he explained on a recent podcast, the new administration will ratify the shift away from the “large-scale” to the microscopic and visible to invisible strategies that Bush and Obama pioneered, as if the problem were just that Trump used them with even more gusto.

Avril Haines, whom Biden has nominated to direct national intelligence, helped both devise and limit targeted killings in a CIA stint. An eternal campaign of armed drones and special forces isn’t a fulfilment of a promise to “end endless wars”. It merely appropriates a slogan for the sake of continuity.

The continuity of personnel such as Blinken, who was Biden’s top aide when he voted for the invasion of Iraq, is the way restoration really works in practice. Susan Rice, former national security adviser under Obama and nearly Biden’s vice-presidential candidate, also mentioned for high office, has written glowingly that Biden brings “a deep bench of highly qualified, knowledgable experts”. What is less clear is whether these interventionist mainstays have learned enough in their promises to overturn Trump’s legacy while not recognising how much he both capitalised on and continued their own grievous errors.

While the wars of the future are hard to predict, a better indicator of whether Biden intends a restoration or a renovation will be his economic policy. In spite of campaign promises to restore US manufacturing, Biden has a long record of supporting free trade in America’s foreign relations, as a diehard supporter of Nafta and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (before the latter became politically controversial). Biden has been cagey about whether he will join the latest such agreement. Either way, how he will balance the benefits of free trade with its grievous results for inequality and stagnation remains to be seen.

Not only the system crash of Trump’s victory in 2016 but his near-miss in 2020 mean that it is not a time for complacency. But if Biden’s presidency stands for little more than nostalgia for a lost foreign policy, it will not only miss a historic opportunity for a US reboot. Reviving old mistakes will only lead some new rough beast to slouch toward Washington, promising to save America from them.

• Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Yale and the author of Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World