Biden’s Foreign Policy: Normalcy is Not Enough

by Brenner Beard 

What You Can Do:

  • Advocate: contact your state’s Senators telling them to vote “Nay” on arms dealing  related appropriations
  • Become a Member of RSF: Reporters Without Borders ( provides resources to protect and preserve free press in many of the authoritarian nations that buy weapons from the U.S,  including Saudia Arabia 

Beginning in late November, President-elect Joe Biden began to give the American public a glimpse of what his administration’s foreign policy will look like. Biden’s campaign announced his choice for Secretary of State, Antony J. Bilken, a former state department employee under the Clinton Administration [1]. Biden’s selection of Bilken in addition to  the expected selection of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year foreign service veteran, as Ambassador to the United Nations [1], is far from surprising. If anything this appears to be the President-Elect’s team making good on their campaign promise to “restore the soul of America”; a pledge that pundits have called ” a return to normalcy” [2]. As the Campaign appeared to suspect, given its rhetoric and platform, a renewed sense of normality was a central appeal of a Biden presidency. Re-entry into the Paris Climate Accord, support towards global institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the United Nations (UN), and securing alliances that have fallen by the wayside under the Trump Administration, all featured as prominent talking points for the President-Elect on the campaign trail [3]. 

While having a Commander-in-Chief who doesn’t shape foreign policy in a 280 character tweet is refreshing, we shouldn’t be so quick to accept a return to the comfort of familiarity. In the wake of a Trump administration that has flipped normalcy on its head, there’s a chance not just to go back to “business as usual”, but to examine our country’s role in the international community and be better. America’s military presence on foreign soil, our governmental arms dealing, and our indifference towards the citizens of countries in which we intervene are all outdated pillars of American “Big Stick” Diplomacy that must be fixed. If President-Elect Biden wants to “save the soul of America”, as he pledged [3], he must address these issues; normalcy alone will not cut it. 

Currently, the United States operates the world’s most expansive network of overseas military installations, topping out just shy of 600 bases [5]. Dating back to FDR’s initial Lend-Lease Act in 1940 [6], the U.S government has continuously sold military supplies to other governments in exchange for these leases to bases on their soil. In a rare show of durable bipartisanship, generations of post-WWII Presidents have effectively allowed our nation to become one of the world’s largest arms dealers so that our military forces can operate abroad without any restraint. From 1990-95, the combined Republican and Democrat administrations of Presidents Bush and Clinton oversaw the sale of an estimated 7 billion dollars worth of U.S. munitions that granted our military access to bases in Saudia Arabia, Egypt, and many other nations [7]. This trend has stood the test of time. The Obama administration alone saw a 43% increase in our nation’s arms sales [8]. The point here is this; the presidential norm that pundits hope that the Biden Administration returns to includes these shady weapons deals. It includes overseeing a network of expensive and intrusive military bases overseas. It also includes staffing these installations with thousands of American troops. For the Biden administration, if “saving the soul of America” means a continuation of this toxic norm, then the soul of our nation is long past redeemable. At this transitional point where for the last four years the perception of the executive office has changed so dramatically, President-Elect Biden is afforded an opportunity to set a new standard of leadership that reneges on many of our questionable arms deals and foreign military occupations. 

It is imperative to discuss the crossroads that the Biden administration begins its term at because change is not guaranteed. Between the President-Elect’s early foreign service picks, the language of his campaign, and his executive track record, all signs seem to indicate a continuation of the broken American diplomatic system. The Joe Biden website highlights the “restor[ation] of our moral leadership” as one of the administration’s major foreign affairs goals [3]. This isn’t the President-Elect’s first rodeo with leadership abroad, though. Let us not forget Biden’s time as Vice-President. As a close advisor and confidante to President Obama, he was a part of an administration that authorized a record 542 drone-strikes that killed 3,729 people including 324 innocent civilians [9]. So, when our future president speaks of our nation’s moral obligation to be a leader abroad, those statistics are part of the leadership background he comes from. 

This context isn’t the only antiquated thing the President-Elect is carrying with him from his time as Vice President. Mr. Biden’s recent Secretary of State pick, Antony Blinken, served as the former Vice-President’s chief national security advisor and his top aide during his tenure on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee [1]. For over 20 years, Blinken has stood by Joe Biden’s side, helping shape the President-Elect’s attitude towards international relations. The problem with this pick is that Blinken believes strongly in American military might abroad. Described in 2011 by inner-department sources as having a strong “interventionist streak” [10], Blinken consistently encouraged military involvement overseas during his time in President Obama’s Situation Room. He urged both President Obama and then Vice-President Biden to take military action in Libya and Syria and was disappointed when Obama sought congressional approval for increased airstrikes in the Middle-East [10]. As a policy advisor, Antony Blinken seemed to have forgotten the “speak softly” part of the famous Teddy Roosevelt saying. Does Blinken’s selection foreshadow a continuation of militaristic interventions abroad? Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, we, as American citizens, must apply pressure so that our nation’s foreign policy doesn’t relax back into the “bullying” norm we’ve held onto for so long. Whether it be letter writing, tweeting, calling, or petitioning we must let our legislators know that the expectations are higher than normalcy. 

With that being said, how can the Biden Administration actually roll up its sleeves and make these changes happen? The answer is not an entirely clear one. It would be far too idealistic to say, withdraw all of our troops, close our military bases abroad, and quit selling weapons to fund our interventions. For starters, some countries want our military presence there, not to mention the complex web of legal agreements and treaties we’ve diplomatically wrapped ourselves in. There are some concrete steps the President-Elect can take, though. The Biden Administration should start with the countries that actively object to our military presence. For example, earlier this year, the Iraqi Parliament democratically voted to oust American forces stationed there, yet, our military hasn’t budged and instead President Trump threatened Iraq with economic sanctions [11]. If one has overstayed their welcome at a neighbor’s house they don’t pull out a gun and threaten the neighbor when asked to leave. President-Elect Biden’s mission to rectify the soul of America could begin with avoiding these escalations to conflict as much as possible and simply being a better house guest. Additionally, there should also be a reduction in arms sales to governments that don’t guarantee fundamental human rights. For example, as recently as December 23rd, The Senate backed a $500 Million weapons deal with Saudia Arabia, a country whose government represses its women, locks up activists for treason, and in 2018 openly assassinated dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi [12,13,14]. The Saudi government’s violent track record flagrantly violates our nation’s espoused values of free speech and equality under the law, and yet they’re one of our largest clients. On top of this, they take the weapons we hand them and turn them over to various terrorist organizations they support. In 2019, it was found that U.S. arms sold to the Saudi’s were given to al-Qaeda linked organizations in Yemen [15]. By stopping weapons transactions with Saudia Arabia and other authoritarian states, President Biden would not only be helping to put an end to our nation’s moral hypocrisy but would also be reducing the flow of United States weapons to recognized terror cells throughout the Middle east. Combine this with thinning our occupational forces abroad and the path to moral redemption becomes a little bit more transparent. 

When Joe Biden’s Campaign ran on the message that this election was a “battle for the soul of our nation” [3], they were making an implicit and explicit promise to do better. At campaign stops across the nation, the President-Elect sold a positive narrative of inclusivity and change that got him elected. Now, it is time for Mr. Biden to make good on his promise to the American people. Certainly, President Trump’s divisive “strongman” rhetoric abroad lost us many allies and cast doubt upon global U.S leadership, but a mere return to the old ways won’t be enough to redeem our country. Long before President Trump was ever elected, the soul of America was dirtied with our aggressive military action abroad and our systematic arming of countries for financial gain. As the President that follows an administration that so thoroughly demolished the meaning of executive normalcy, Joe Biden has an opportunity to make concrete changes for the better in the realm of foreign affairs. To follow through on his ambitious campaign promises, the President-Elect must reform American diplomacy so that decades of bullying abroad are not allowed to continue in perpetuity. 

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