Here's the missing element in the Democratic contest
Amid his gaffes and trips trying to keep current, Joe Biden seems to be skipping pretty lightly over the real reason to consider his candidacy for president—his experience and ease with dealing with the rest of the world.
Of course, every Democrat’s first claim is that he or she is the candidate to beat Trump, and thereafter, they diverge on just what else to expect from each—while trying not to step on each other too much. Still, amid all the calls for free public college tuition, Medicare for All approaches and expressions of horror about conditions in border detention centers, there is little talk about American foreign policy.
Biden’s decades of public service which look like baggage on meeting domestic concerns are exactly what is missing in U.S. foreign policy-making.
To me, it would seem that to the degree Joe Biden dislikes being drawn to a much-widened view of social services to remain competitive with Bernie Sanders, a rising Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, we’re not hearing what should be a clear advantage for Biden. Those decades of public service which increasingly look like baggage on meeting domestic concerns are exactly what is missing in U.S. foreign policy-making.
Instead, of course, Trump has pursued a loose, ill-defined and situational set of tactics with other nations that seems to favor foes over friends and reward tyrants over traditional democratic allies. He has left our country increasingly isolated in a world that requires multi-lateral coalitions to get anything done.
At once, we are facing active threats about nuclear weapons development in North Korea and Iran, serious erosion of the NATO alliance, open treaty abrogation and aggression from Russia, a growing trade war with China with threats involving Japan and Europe, failed support for regime change in Venezuela, growing rejection of any U.S. influence in the Middle East and significant outreach by China in Africa. We have troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, as well as significant military outposts in Japan, Korea and Europe.
Even where there has been progress, as with the expected elimination of the formal ISIS caliphate, it was the logical extension of non-White House military policies—though you’d never know that from hearing the Trump boasting.
And then there are the active and widening, measurable effects of climate disruption—which, in fairness, is attracting the concern of the full Democratic slate. In part, that is because the threat is faceless and does require thoughtful planning and in part because there is huge voter sentiment that Trump is being ostrich-like, sticking his rejectionist head in the sand so as not to recognize that climate change requires a real governmental response.
We are less safe, in my view, than we were before the Trump administration.
And yet, the recent Democratic debate more or less ignored most of this, other than a generalized question or two for which candidates were supposed to hold up their hand or name the number one geopolitical foe in one word.
Actually, Biden used a lot of his energy as a senator for those decades to listen, visit, know and understand American possibilities around the world, a familiarity with the issues and people with whom America now must deal. To Biden, who does not even make a big deal about this on his campaign website, it is an American value to care and support democracy around the world and to pursue alliances and coalitions that can carry out a strategy. That is very different from Trump, who wings it and who depends—and says he wants to depend—on personal relationships he creates and pursues with other leaders.
Biden would pursue intelligent, high-level international strategies, even as Trump would parade tanks and aircraft in an inappropriate Fourth of July parade of American weaponry. Why isn’t this more of an issue in our campaign?
Trump’s world policies are filled with belligerence and international insult, and then often backing off when it comes to action. It is about diplomacy—or lack of it—by tweet. It is about winners and losers, not about people or prosperity for anyone other than his own family and the investor class. Tariffs are not for farmers or small business; trade wars are not bringing the jobs that Trump claims.
Sending ships and troops to be near Iran is not changing Iranian policy; sending our military to the southern border is wasteful and distracting.
Who Else Has the Chops?
Much as I enjoy thinking about the subject matter of the other Democrats’ agendas, perhaps the prime concern of the next president will be to right a seriously rocking ship of state. Are we expecting that Mayor Pete is going to have the most balanced view of world affairs? Is Bernie ever going to discuss Middle East peace prospects? Is Elizabeth Warren capable of building international military coalitions and alliances?
Maybe so, but the one clear candidate who has this particular toolset is not really talking about it very much because our Democratic primary campaign has become one of promising better domestic paths to eliminating wage gaps or building up tribalized voter blocks toward a winning formula.
According to news reports, other countries increasingly are sitting on their hands to weigh whether they will be dealing with Trump for another four years or some Democrat whose focus will largely be fixed on the domestic audience, as it has been under Trump. Foreign leaders have glommed onto the idea of using television to deliver messages to the White House because they know Trump gets his directional sense from Fox rather than from the U.S. intelligence community.
These developments cannot be good on any of the contested fronts.
If Biden can get a little smarter and quicker about sensing what is driving the domestic concerns that are driving the presidential race, perhaps he can get back to his singular strength in this crowd. Until then, I can only hope that some of the others start getting smart about how to see America in the world.