The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “No one ever steps in the same river twice.” His point, at the risk of oversimplification, is that all things change. Or as the novelist Thomas Wolfe later put it, “You can’t go home again.”
Heraclitus, and Wolfe, came to mind this week as I read Thomas Wright’s thoughtful essay for The Atlantic titled, “The Quiet Reformation of Biden’s Foreign Policy.” The article focuses on what Tom calls the “2021 Democrats.” They are the experts pushing Joe Biden to reform his approach to the world. These advisors believe that “U.S. foreign policy must change and move beyond where Democrats have been for the past two decades.” Tom asks and answers the obvious question:
So what do the 2021 Democrats believe? Their critique is not really of Obama per se, nor is it just about Trump. The view is more of a conviction that the world has changed in fundamental ways since 2012—when Xi Jinping came to power, Vladimir Putin returned as Russia’s president, and Obama was reelected.
Experts certainly have been offering up advice about the kind of foreign policy a President Biden should pursue, and Tom links to many of the best contributions. How much these depart from past practice is a matter of perspective, much like the perennial debate over whether the glass is half full or half empty. Biden himself is often cast, as Tom and many other writers put it, as a “restorationist.” That framing is as misleading as it is illuminating. The former vice president’s worldview is clearly closer to Barack Obama’s than to Bernie Sanders’s (or Donald Trump’s). That hardly suggests, though, that he presumes the United States can hit a reset button and return to 2012 or 2015. Indeed, it’s not even clear what a restoration would look like even if one were possible. Obama’s own policies changed significantly over the course of his two terms. Presidents, and former vice presidents, all learn and adapt as they go.
The more striking aspect of the work being done by the 2021 Democrats is that it largely embraces the core principles that have driven U.S. foreign policy for decades. These writers accept that the United States has vital interests abroad. They speak of using U.S. power to bend the course of history to America’s favor. They view allies as critical to advancing and protecting U.S. interests. They recognize that U.S. relations with rival powers require balancing cooperation and confrontation.
Yes, as Tom notes, ritual invocations of the “liberal world order” are giving way to renewed talk about the “free world.” Experts are proposing different solutions than they would have a decade or even five years ago. The smartest analyses assess how the prospect of returning to a more traditional U.S. foreign policy can be used to leverage desired changes in the behavior of friends and foes alike.
All of this is as it should be. Context and circumstances change. Policy recommendations need to adjust as a result. As Heraclitus said, you don’t step into the same river twice.
The Candidates in Their Own Words
Biden and Bernie Sanders squared off one-on-one for the first time in a no-audience debate on Sunday. Neither candidate broke new ground. Sanders repeated his longstanding criticism of Biden’s 2002 vote for the Iraq War, and Biden criticized Sanders’s praise of Fidel Castro. Both candidates also denounced the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and laid out the steps they wanted to see the federal government take.
Iran is facing a catastrophic toll from the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. sanctions should not be contributing to this humanitarian disaster.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 18, 2020
As a caring nation, we must lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions. https://t.co/OBjff1nsxz
China, among other countries, has publicly called on the United States to relax the sanctions on humanitarian grounds. The Trump administration has shown no signs that it will heed these calls. Indeed, it imposed additional sanctions on Iranian officials this week in retaliation for rocket attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, though those sanctions did not target trade in medical goods. The administration notes that current U.S. policy exempts humanitarian imports such as food, medicine, and medical devices, blames Tehran for mismanaging its response to the coronavirus, and insists that Iran has spurned its private offers of help. The administration may be correct technically, but it risks losing a public relations battle that could easily be won with small adjustments to its policy.
What the Pundits Are Saying
Eighty national security and homeland security professionals signed an open letter endorsing Biden for president. The signatories included James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, Richard Danzig, a former secretary of the Navy, and Larry Pfeiffer, a former chief of staff of the CIA. The letter reads in part:
We believe that Joe Biden has the best chance, of all the Democratic candidates, to ensure that Donald Trump does not continue as President for four more years, and for that reason alone would endorse him. But we also believe that, of the candidates, he is best suited to reverse the course of American national security decline.
Several of the signatories signed a similar letter released last November endorsing Biden.
Tulsi Gabbard dropped out of the race yesterday, after winning just two delegates. She endorsed Biden in her exit announcement. Gabbard caused a stir back in 2016 when she resigned her position as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee so she could endorse Sanders for president.
Biden won Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois. Ohio postponed its vote at the last minute because of the coronavirus. The new date looks to be sometime in June. Georgia, which was set to vote next Tuesday, has moved its primary to May 19. Besides Louisiana, which postponed its primary last week, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Maryland have all pushed their primaries to later in the spring. They may not be the last states to shuffle the electoral calendar.
In light of Biden’s sweep on Tuesday, Sanders announced he intends to “assess” his campaign. The delegate math looks daunting for the Vermont senator. Biden needs to win 805 more delegates to capture the nomination. To do that, he needs to win just 46.5 percent of the delegates remaining. The Democratic Party allocates delegates on a proportional basis, so Sanders has to do spectacularly well in the remaining races to close the delegate gap.
The delegate count as of this afternoon has Biden with nearly 60 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination.
The next nominating events are Tuesday, April 4. Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming are scheduled to vote. Just fifty-three delegates will be up for grabs.
There are 115 days until the start of the Democratic National Convention and 157 days until the Republican National Convention. We are 228 days out from Election Day.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.