This is one of the strange ironies of American politics. Few things are as politically polarizing as foreign policy, and yet it is on foreign policy that the party differences are often narrowest. Indeed, seen from abroad, our allies and adversaries often think that the biggest problem with any new administration is the continuity of American policy, not the change of direction.
Consider two opinion pieces on Biden’s foreign policy published late last week. Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, asked, “Is Biden normalizing Trump’s foreign policy?” Michael Rubin, writing in the Washington Examiner, asked: “Is Biden’s foreign policy really any different from Bernie Sanders?”
The two foreign policy experts plead well. Zakaria notes that despite his campaign rhetoric, Biden largely maintains Trump’s trade policies. A Canadian politician, Zakaria points out, even complains that Biden’s “Buy America” provisions are more protectionist than Trump’s. The Biden campaign had bludgeoned Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal with Iran, but the Biden administration did not reinstate the deal, arguing instead to “lengthen and strengthen it.” Biden maintained Trump’s Cuban policy and even stepped up sanctions.
Rubin sees Cuba as one of the only glaring differences between Biden and Sanders in foreign policy (the other being Israel). The most obvious similarity concerns commerce. Sanders, like Trump, hated the Trans-Pacific Partnership championed by Barack Obama. As vice president, Biden praised him, but now he’s following the Sanders-Trump consensus.
The evidence for continuity or consensus does not end there. On Afghanistan, while Republicans and many Democrats are rightly critical of Biden’s chaotic pullout, the underlying policy is in line with stated goals of not only Trump but Obama as well.
Last week, the Biden administration announced a defense and trade deal with the UK and Australia dubbed AUKUS that angered the European Union, particularly France, largely because ‘it will cost them billions of dollars in sales of submarines to Australia. This trilateral security alliance is a smart move. But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that it could have blossomed in the Trump administration.
And on Friday, the Biden administration appealed a federal court ruling that suspended a Trump administration policy of using a public health law, known as Title 42, to deport migrants. asylum seekers.
Now, I don’t think Biden is starting from the same ideological assumptions of Trump or Sanders. The point is, ideological pledges and rhetorical streaks tend to mask the reality that presidents don’t have a free hand in foreign policy, everyone claims they do.
For example, Obama saw the world very differently from George W. Bush, but he retained many of the Bush administration’s most controversial national security measures, including a heavy reliance on targeted drone strikes and the maintenance of Guantanamo. Bay open. He even launched a “war of choice” in pursuit of regime change in Libya.
Jimmy Carter took office looking for deep cuts in defense and bragging about not having the “inordinate fear of communism” that justified Cold War warmongering. He ended his presidency by asking Congress for a sharp increase in defense spending to “contain Soviet aggression.”
Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was reportedly asked what he thought was the biggest challenge for his administration. “Events, dear boy, events,” he would have replied.
What is good about the word “events” is that it does not distinguish between internal and foreign affairs or between left and right. It is likely that Biden is no more fond of refusing asylum seekers at our border than Obama is. But events at the border create a political and political necessity to stem the flow, and there is no “left” way to do it.
The downside of the word “events” is that it excludes the role of interests and inertia. It may have been easy for Biden to join the Paris climate agreement – just as it was easy for Trump to leave – but that’s because it’s a largely symbolic and toothless deal. . Joining the TPP – which America should do – would require intersecting the vested interests Biden relies on, risk alienating the voters Democrats need, and overthrowing a vast bureaucratic enterprise.
It can be frustrating, but it’s also a little reassuring. Robert Gates, Obama’s Republican Defense Secretary, said Joe Biden was wrong about almost every major foreign and national security policy issue over the past four decades. I am okay. Trump, of course, also had a deep reservoir of bad opinions, ranging from wanting to confiscate Middle Eastern oil and defenestrating NATO to banning all Muslims in the United States.
I understand why you would want a president you agree with to have a free hand on foreign policy, but channels have their advantage.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch.