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Liberals need a clearer foreign policy

Biden and his Republican challengers have very different views of America’s role in the world. But the president’s stance may be harder to explain to voters.

President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 16, 2022.MANDEL NGAN/Associated Press

President Biden has now been in office for almost three years — so what’s his foreign policy?

This administration has presided over the United States’ historic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, funded and armed Ukraine to fight back against Russia for over a year, and put America on firmer footing in its relations with China. But what does this add up to? To say that another way: What does the United States stand for in the world today?

These aren’t just academic questions; they will come up in a presidential election that is just 14 months away. Foreign policy is not usually seen as decisive in a presidential race, but it may be crucial in this one, just as it was in 2016 and 2008. Trump’s election, though it had a lot to do with racism and sexism and anti-elitism, was also about foreign policy: Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were portrayed as globalists who had traded away America’s jobs and would not stand up to China. The continual mention of Mexico, Russia, and Iran through the 2016 campaign became stand-ins for perceived foreign policy failures. The 2008 election was as much about the Iraq War and the future of US leadership as it was about the financial crisis.

And Democrats do not seem to fully appreciate that 2024 is gearing up to be another election in which foreign policy matters a great deal.


Article II of the Constitution gives the president immense powers over foreign affairs. Unlike the economy or the climate, foreign policy is an area that a president can truly shape and define. Arguably, no issue is more important: The choices made by a president can be the difference between war and peace. Contrary to popular perceptions, Americans seem to intuitively grasp the importance of foreign policy, and periodically, elections turn into great battles between distinct visions of America’s role in the world and thus America’s character as a nation. When raised, foreign policy issues go to the heart of the American experiment in democracy — which, after all, began as a foreign policy crisis against a great empire.


Today, the major divide between liberals and conservatives is not over troop numbers or funding commitments — and voters would forget these quickly anyway. Rather, it is over what the American future will look like. What the world shaped by America will resemble. The Republican primary is going to yield one clear answer. But the Democrats do not have one.

At last week’s Republican debate, the second- and third-leading candidates, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, both challenged the consensus of further supporting Ukraine. Ramaswamy has pledged, in nationalist terms, to stop all support for Ukraine and actually build a partnership with Russia to check China. (This reversal of what Richard Nixon did in the Cold War sounds better on paper than it would likely be in reality.) More establishment candidates like Mike Pence and Nikki Haley have stuck to the hawkish script of continuing to militarily check Russia and China. The point is that in front of millions of Americans, the Republican Party is airing out differences and debating the principles that should guide America’s foreign policy.

As for Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, he has promised to end the war in Ukraine on day one. He wants massive new tariffs on all goods imported into the United States. He will toughen immigration laws. Trump’s foreign policy vision is clear: protectionism, militarism, and nationalism. In sum: America First.


He’s even promising to prevent another world war by ending support for Ukraine. At rally after rally, Trump declares: “I will keep us out of World War Three.”

Preposterous as it may sound, because the Biden administration’s foreign policy is not being clearly articulated we run the risk of Trump positioning himself as the anti-war candidate — and winning.

Through American history, the foreign policy debate has oscillated between idealists and realists. Biden seems to be a blend of the two: speaking the language of idealism — democracy, human rights, self-determination—while executing the foreign policy of a cold realist. Recent headlines about alleged US meddling in Pakistan and Biden’s refusal to call the Niger coup “a coup” underscore the contradictions of Biden’s foreign policy. One worries that the Biden administration has overlearned the lessons of Trump — it is militaristic when it needs to be but still winks at democracy; it is fine cozying up to antidemocratic leaders like those in Saudi Arabia and India; and its economic agenda risks becoming fully protectionist at a time when autocracies are rising. There seems to be real confusion as to which values the United States is representing abroad.

If polls are to be believed, about two-thirds of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. A solid majority now oppose more aid to Ukraine. Yet there is not even a debate among liberals or Democrats about what American objectives and goals are with respect to Russia. Right now, the United States is fighting a proxy war with Russia with no end in sight. The Ukrainian battle is a noble one, but should more US diplomatic muscle be applied to create the conditions for peace talks? What is the ultimate purpose of American power if not to bring about peace? There may be a strategic reason to maintain steadfast support for Ukraine in public, not showing any weakness to Vladimir Putin, but the president should also be pursuing avenues for de-escalation and peace in private. Yet when a group of Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter last year to President Biden recommending peace talks, the pressure on them was so intense they immediately retracted it.


Even if most Democrats believe that unquestioning support for Ukraine absent diplomatic negotiations is the best policy, the rest of the American public is growing skeptical. Sooner or later, an affirmative case for Biden’s policy vis-à-vis Russia — and his overall foreign policy — will have to be made.

American voters don’t necessarily care about the specifics of foreign policy. What’s important — and what voters do care about — is what the nation represents. Here, Biden has both a narrative problem and potentially a substantive one.

If one peruses Biden’s National Security Strategy, published in 2022 without the fanfare of its Obama or Bush-era equivalents, one finds sentences like this one: “The post-Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” It is a historic time, and the United States can lead the next century, the document goes on to say, by reinvigorating democracy at home, “outcompeting China and constraining Russia,” and investing in domestic sources of strength.


“The window of opportunity to deal with shared threats,” the National Security Strategy states, will narrow drastically.”

Meaning that the foreign policy debates happening now — within the parties, as well as the broader conversation among the American people — may be some of the most consequential for this century.

It’s not that Biden doesn’t have a clear record. He has invested some $39 billion in America’s domestic semiconductor capabilities and passed the largest investment in easing climate change in history with the Inflation Reduction Act. He has increased funding for the US military and moved more troops to Europe and Taiwan to strengthen America’s alliances, emphasizing US leadership in the Indo-Pacific. Contrary to campaign promises made in 2020, Biden has also not renounced the United States’ traditional stance of being open to using nuclear weapons first in a war as a deterrent, hoping to stifle any criticisms from Republicans that he is soft on defense issues.

Still, in the absence of a clearly expressed vision, voters may think of Biden’s foreign policy as America First Lite. He has clearly co-opted parts of Trump’s 2016 agenda and at times gone further. His banning of the sale of all advanced microchips to China effectively undercut China’s tech strategy for the next 25 years. He is pursuing a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. These and other moves have been made quietly, by the professional and experienced foreign policy staff that surrounds President Biden. But the communication of this overall policy, and what it amounts to in the grand scheme of things for Americans, has been lacking.

Unlike Trump, Biden doesn’t have a cogent narrative for why he’s taking the actions he is taking. And if voters ultimately want America First, they may just opt for the real thing.

To be clear, there are important distinctions between Biden and Trump that go beyond mere style. Trump conducts foreign affairs like his business relationships — with one-to-one dealings with heads of state, based on personal affinities. Biden prefers the tedious work of backroom diplomacy, which is harder to sell and even harder to explain. Biden also has none of the fondness for tyrants and autocrats that Trump routinely exhibits.

But if Trump had, with a single signature of his pen, cut off China’s potential to be a technological superpower and simultaneously rejuvenated America’s domestic manufacturing and infrastructure base, America (and the world) would never stop hearing about it. In the past, support for a fledgling democracy like Ukraine fighting back again imperial invasion would have been tethered to America’s larger moral purpose in the world. Liberals are supposed to be the citizens of Hollywood and Harvard, the best storytellers on the planet, yet they cannot tell the story of their own foreign policy. This will soon become a political liability.

It may be that deeper fissures within liberalism have formed because the major policy initiatives liberals championed in the last few decades — more free trade, greater integration with China, intervention abroad — all turned out to be duds. This could suggest a starker philosophical shift, one that requires more debate and discussion on foreign policy among liberals, not less.

After 20 years of war and violence, liberals must finally present a foreign policy vision to the American people — or risk losing when the inevitable questions are raised next fall. Is the United States still the indispensable nation, a friend to democracy and a beacon of hope for people everywhere? Or is America now the insular giant, withdrawn and isolationist, tending to domestic squabbles and shutting out the rest of the world? In a world of rising autocracies, where will America’s moral leadership stand?

“The American conscience is a reality,” wrote Walter Lippmann, one of the great foreign policy minds of the 20th century. That conscience has a chance to test and evaluate two different visions for America and the world and decide between them. The fate of the next century hangs in the balance. Let’s hope both visions are presented well.

Omer Aziz, a lawyer and author, recently completed a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard, where he studied contemporary fascist movements. He is the author of “Brown Boy: A Memoir.”