Joe Biden

Joe Biden

Former vice president of the United States

Joe Biden has an extensive foreign policy background. As a two-term vice president under President Barack Obama, he played a leading role in the administration’s policy on Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, and other conflict areas. As a U.S. senator from Delaware from 1973 to 2009, he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for three decades.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden earned his law degree from Syracuse University in 1968 and practiced as a public defender and a corporate lawyer before entering politics.

China

Biden has framed China’s rise as a “serious challenge,” criticizing its “abusive” trade practices, warning that it may pull ahead of the United States in new technologies, and criticizing its human rights record. However, he says President Donald J. Trump’s confrontational approach is counterproductive, alienating allies that should be recruited in a broad front to pressure Beijing.

  • Biden agrees with Trump that China is breaking international trade rules, unfairly subsidizing Chinese companies, and discriminating against U.S. firms and stealing their intellectual property. He says one million manufacturing jobs have been lost to China.
  • However, he says Trump’s broad tariffs are “erratic” and “self-defeating,” and he instead calls for targeted retaliation against China using existing trade laws and building a united front of allies. He warns that China is making massive investments in energy, infrastructure, and technology that threaten to leave the United States behind.
  • He told CFR that “the free world” must unite in the face of China’s “high-tech authoritarianism” and that Washington must shape the “rules, norms, and institutions” that will govern the global use of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. 
  • He has said that China’s corruption and internal divisions mean “they’re not competition for us.” He says deeper U.S.-China cooperation is possible on climate, nuclear weapons, and other issues.
  • He believes his vice-presidential experience gives him unique insight into dealing with China’s leadership, saying he has spent more time with Xi Jinping than any other world leader.
  • As a senator, Biden supported China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization, which gave it permanent normal trade relations with the United States. As vice president, he backed the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), arguing it would have helped check China’s influence in the region.
  • He told CFR that China’s detention of more than one million Muslims in the Xinjiang region is “unconscionable.” He says the United States “must speak out,” and that he would support sanctions against the individuals and companies involved.

Climate and Energy

Biden says climate change is “indisputable” and “the greatest threat to our security,” calling for a “revolution” to address it. He has released a national plan to reduce emissions and invest in new technology and infrastructure. As a senator, he expressed alarm over greenhouse gases, but also supported controversial energy sources such as fracking and so-called clean coal.

  • His climate plan, released in June 2019, calls the Green New Deal a “crucial framework” and likewise advocates for a society-wide effort to reduce emissions, invest in infrastructure, create new jobs, and advance social justice.
  • The plan would commit the U.S. economy to net-zero emissions by 2050. It envisions $1.7 trillion in direct government spending on clean energy, as well as new laws to tax carbon. It promises executive action on methane emissions, stricter fuel-economy standards, and nationwide energy efficiency standards.
  • It promises a return to the 2015 Paris climate agreement and a diplomatic push to make its targets more ambitious. Biden also wants to use trade policy as a climate tool by putting tariffs on high-carbon products from other countries.
  • It advocates for major reforms in transportation, agriculture, and housing to reduce their carbon footprint and create jobs. Biden also wants to help workers in coal and other fossil fuel industries transition to other economic sectors.
  • He told CFR that he would bar U.S. foreign aid and financing for coal-fired power plants overseas, provide debt relief for countries implementing green policies, and expand Group of Twenty efforts to reduce fossil fuel subsidies worldwide.
  • He touts the record of the Obama administration, including $90 billion for clean energy in the 2009 stimulus law, tighter fuel-economy standards, new regulations on coal-fired power plants, and the negotiation of the Paris accord. 
  • The Obama administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy also supported the fracking boom that helped double U.S. oil production. In 2008, Biden expressed support for clean coal technologies opposed by many environmentalists and declined to vote on the unsuccessful Climate Security Act, the most ambitious emissions-capping legislation to reach the Senate floor.

Counterterrorism

Biden has been a major proponent of a strategy he called “counterterrorism plus.” This approach emphasizes fighting terrorist networks in foreign countries using small groups of U.S. special forces and aggressive air strikes instead of large troop deployments.

  • This counterterrorism strategy largely defined the Obama administration’s policy in fighting jihadists and other militant groups around the world, including in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian peninsula, where U.S. drone strikes have rapidly increased. These operations controversially included the direct targeting of militants with U.S. citizenship, such as Anwar al-Awlaki.
  • He told CFR that U.S. policy must focus on ensuring the remnants of al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State cannot reconstitute themselves.
  • He has supported a number of expansions of federal anti-terrorism authority. He introduced an unsuccessful 1995 law to expand government surveillance powers, much of which was incorporated into the 2001 Patriot Act, which he supported. In 2015, the Obama administration approved the USA Freedom Act, which renewed the Patriot Act with some new restrictions on surveillance.    
  • He was a critic of other federal surveillance measures, voting against updates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2007 and 2008 that authorized the collection of emails, search histories, and other personal data of U.S. citizens.

Cybersecurity and Digital Policy

Biden says that cyber threats are a growing challenge for U.S. national security, election integrity, and the health of the nation’s democracy. Meanwhile, he thinks government should be pressuring tech companies to reform their practices around privacy, surveillance, and hate speech.

  • As president, he would call a global summit to pressure tech companies to make “concrete pledges” to ensure their platforms “are not empowering the surveillance state, facilitating repression in China and elsewhere, spreading hate, [or] spurring people to violence.”
  • He told CFR that the United States should use its foreign assistance to provide the world with “digital alternatives” to China’s “dystopian” surveillance technologies. 
  • He is co-chair of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a group founded in 2018 by U.S. and EU policymakers to combat the shared threat of election hacking, especially by Russia.
  • He has repeatedly warned of the vulnerability of U.S. cyber infrastructure—including transportation networks, electrical grids, and election systems—to attack, sabotage, and infiltration, and calls for greater investment and higher regulatory standards.
  • He warns about the ability of China and Russia to exploit loopholes in the U.S. regulatory system and use the financial industry to launder money to get around the ban on foreign funding of elections.
  • While Biden has called some of the proposals to break up Facebook and other social media giants “premature,” he says the option should be considered

Defense

Biden has supported some U.S. military interventions abroad and opposed others. He has often advocated for narrow objectives in the use of force, and he has expressed skepticism over the ability of the United States to reshape foreign societies. He is wary of unilateral efforts, emphasizing the importance of diplomacy and working through alliances and global institutions.

  • He says that force should be used “only to defend our vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable,” and promises to end what he calls “the forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East. 
  • In 2016, speaking about the use of military force, he argued that “we need a real strong dose of humility about [our] capacity to fundamentally alter circumstances around the world.”
  • He told CFR that he would bring U.S. combat troops home from Afghanistan in his first term by launching a high-level diplomatic effort that includes Afghanistan’s neighbors. He supported the 2001 invasion, but as vice president argued for troop reductions and a more limited mission.
  • He says that he favors keeping a small number of special forces and intelligence assets to combat terrorism in Afghanistan, while pursuing peace talks with the Taliban. 
  • He argues that military spending is too focused on traditional warfare rather than emerging areas for defense such as space and cyberspace. He says the United States must seek to maintain its superiority amid a “return to great power competition” with China and Russia.
  • He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but he now calls it a “mistake” and touts his role in withdrawing 150,000 troops from the country in 2011. 
  • He is a strong proponent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), calling it “the single most important military alliance in the history of the world.” 
  • As vice president, he was against the 2011 intervention in Libya and skeptical of committing U.S. troops to Syria.
  • Biden has criticized the expansion of executive war powers, saying as a candidate for president in 2008 that the use of force without congressional approval, except in the case of an imminent threat, is an impeachable offense. 
  • He promises a new federal initiative to address suicide and mental health issues among veterans that will include increased funding to Veterans Affairs health programs.

Diplomacy and Foreign Aid

Biden emphasizes that the United States cannot deal with the new challenges it faces without close relationships with its allies and the cooperation of international institutions. He says Trump’s withdrawal from treaties and his denigration of alliances has “bankrupted America’s word in the world.”

  • He wants to convene all democratic nations in a “Summit for Democracy” to discuss three major areas: fighting corruption, defending against rising authoritarianism, and advancing human rights.
  • He says he will make diplomacy the premier tool of U.S. foreign policy and will “rebuild” the State Department.
  • He promises to recommit to alliances and reenter agreements, including restoring U.S. support for NATO, rejoining the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, and strengthening alliances with Australia, Israel, Japan, and South Korea.
  • He warns about the rising tide of populism and nationalism around the world, and argues that if the United States withdraws from global leadership, “authoritarian powers will rush in.” He says Trump’s “admiration for autocrats” is dangerous. 
  • He told CFR that the United States’ greatest foreign policy accomplishment has been the “investments in collective security and prosperity” made in partnership with U.S. allies.

Economic Policy

Biden has positioned himself as a champion of the middle class, warning that decreasing economic opportunity and mobility is worsening the polarization and radicalization of American life. He believes that a robust economy enables the United States to lead the world, saying that “economic security is national security.”

  • He argues that the “basic bargain” with workers has broken down, and that economic globalization has had major downsides. He says globalization has “hollowed out” the middle class, led to the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, and accelerated inequality. 
  • He says the 2017 tax-reform law makes these problems worse by cutting taxes for the wealthiest individuals. He wants to repeal the 2017 bill, instead raising taxes on investments and other passive income and increasing middle-class benefits like the child tax credit. 
  • He wants to invest trillions of dollars into American infrastructure. He proposes putting $1.7 trillion, which he says would be generated by reversing the 2017 tax cuts, toward clean energy and other infrastructure.
  • He has consistently proposed major reforms to U.S. education, pushing for free community college and vocational training, as well as free public four-year college. He says this is essential for U.S. workers to compete internationally and adapt in an economy under pressure from automation and other technological disruptions.
  • He proposes policies to strengthen worker leverage in the marketplace: banning noncompete rules, ending wage secrecy, and implementing a national $15 per hour minimum wage.  
  • He wants to do more to challenge monopolies, arguing that the Trump administration has been weak on antitrust. He has said he is open to the federal government breaking up dominant firms like Facebook. 

Immigration

Biden has condemned Trump’s approach to immigrants and asylum seekers, calling it “morally bankrupt” and “racist.” He supports comprehensive immigration reform, and has in the past backed more restrictionist policies. He emphasizes the need to address the root causes of immigration in the countries of origin.

  • Biden highlights his role on immigration in the Obama administration, where he led policy on addressing the 2014 wave of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. southern border. He says the $750 million aid package the administration gave to Central American governments helped stem the flow of migrants.
  • He continues to back the broad outlines of Obama’s unsuccessful 2013 comprehensive reform plan, including a path to citizenship for undocumented residents paired with stronger border enforcement. He says border policy should focus on beefing up screening at legal points of entry, not building a wall.
  • He says Dreamers—undocumented residents brought to the United States as children—should be immediately granted citizenship. 
  • He criticizes Trump on punishing so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. He condemns family separation and overcrowded detention facilities and wants to “strengthen and streamline” the U.S. asylum system. 
  • He also wants to reverse Trump on temporary protected status (TPS)—restoring the immigration program for citizens of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, and elsewhere and extending it to Venezuelans. 
  • He has rebutted criticism from other candidates who have attacked Obama’s deportation policy—three million people were deported during his tenure—saying it is “immoral” to compare Obama and Trump.
  • As a senator, he voted for the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which authorized seven hundred miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, and a 1996 law that increased penalties for illegal immigration and expanded the government’s deportation authority. In 2008, he proposed jailing employers that hire undocumented workers, cracking down on sanctuary cities, and building more border fencing to stop drug dealers from Mexico. 

Middle East

Both as a senator and as vice president, Biden has been deeply engaged in shaping U.S. diplomacy and military policy across the Middle East. As a candidate, he is running on his experience dealing with Iraq, Israel, Syria, Iran, and others in the region.

  • Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel throughout his political career, calling himself a Zionist. He says his commitment to Israel’s security is “ironclad.” 
  • He told CFR he backs a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which he says Trump’s unilateral approach has made more difficult. He supports keeping the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem after Trump moved it there in 2018.
  • He also says Israel must stop settlement activity in the occupied territories and provide more aid to Gaza, while Palestinian leaders should stop the “glorification of violence.” He calls on Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. 
  • He calls Iran a “destabilizing” force in the region and told CFR it must never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
  • He calls Trump’s approach to Iran a “self-inflicted disaster”, arguing that his withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has failed to keep Tehran from advancing its nuclear program. Biden pledges to rejoin the agreement if Iran returns to compliance.
  • He condemns Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, which he calls a betrayal of the Kurds and “the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history in terms of foreign policy.” He says Turkey “must pay a heavy price” for its military campaign in Syrian Kurdish territory. 
  • As vice president, he was skeptical of committing U.S. troops to Syria, arguing that any significant use of force would have had unpredictable consequences. In 2018, he called Syria one of the United States’ “biggest conundrums.” 
  • He has long been deeply involved in Iraq policy. As a senator, he supported President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, but opposed the 2007 surge of additional troops. Instead, Biden proposed partitioning Iraq into three self-governing regions. As vice president, he oversaw the 2011 withdrawal of the remaining 150,000 U.S. troops and then the return of U.S. forces to fight the Islamic State in 2014.
  • He told CFR he wants a “reassessment” of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and domestic human rights violations.
  • Though the Obama administration backed the Saudi war in Yemen, Biden says Washington should end its involvement in the “unwinnable conflict.” He also says he would stop arms sales to the kingdom and treat Riyadh like a “pariah” on the world stage.
  • He has long been critical of Saudi Arabia. In 2014, he blamed the country and its Sunni allies for allowing resources to flow to the Islamic State. 

North Korea

Biden supports diplomacy with Pyongyang, but says that Trump’s talks with Kim Jong-un have been unsuccessful and potentially counterproductive, serving only to “legitimize a dictator.”

  • Biden supports continued negotiations, but says they would depend on Kim taking concrete steps toward dismantling his nuclear program, with a final goal of a fully denuclearized North Korea. 
  • He told CFR he would launch a “sustained, coordinated campaign” with U.S. allies and with China to advance negotiations. He says Trump has “ostracized” the United States from its Asian allies, especially South Korea, and that he would seek to deepen Washington’s relationship with Seoul.
  • He has called Trump’s repeated meetings with Kim “photo-ops,” and he argues that they have worsened the situation by bolstering Kim’s regime without securing any concessions.
  • “We still don’t have a single commitment from North Korea...not one missile or nuclear weapon has been destroyed, not one inspector is on the ground,” Biden has said.

Russia

Biden warns that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is “assaulting the foundations of Western democracy” by seeking to weaken NATO, divide the European Union, and undermine the U.S. electoral system. He also warns of Russia using Western financial institutions to launder billions of dollars, money he says is then used to influence politicians.

  • Biden is a longtime champion of NATO, and has encouraged its expansion eastward, most recently with the accession of Montenegro. In 2009, he supported the so far unsuccessful ambitions of Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance.
  • He calls for an independent investigation into “Russia’s assault on American democracy,” along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to examine how to deter Moscow’s ongoing efforts at disruption. 
  • He says that the United States and its European allies must strengthen their cyber infrastructure, close foreign-money loopholes, increase the transparency of online platforms, and better coordinate intelligence and law enforcement efforts.
  • They must also invest more in NATO, which he says should forward deploy more troops to Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression.
  • He argues that the United States and Europe must “impose meaningful costs” on Moscow. Biden touts the sanctions the Obama administration levied against Russia after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and says they should be continued and expanded as necessary.
  • He told CFR that he would increase U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, conditioned on anticorruption reforms, to ensure “Russia pays a heavier price” for its interference. As vice president, he advocated for sending weapons to Ukraine to support it against the Russia-backed insurgency in its eastern territories, and he supported Trump’s moves to do so as well.
  • Biden has faced criticism from Trump for his family’s ties to Ukraine. Trump’s alleged efforts to use military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden are at the center of a congressional impeachment inquiry into the president. 
  • At the same time, Biden says, Washington should pursue new arms control arrangements with Moscow, beginning with the extension of the New START treaty to reduce nuclear stockpiles.

Trade

Biden has been a longtime supporter of trade liberalization and a critic of Trump’s tariffs, arguing that Washington should take the lead on creating global trade rules and lowering barriers to commerce worldwide. However, he is also critical of some aspects of trade. 

  • He told CFR that the United States must “write the rules of the road for the world” to create a level playing field for workers and to protect the environment. He says he wouldn’t sign any new trade deal that doesn’t include “major investments” in jobs and infrastructure, or that doesn’t include labor and environmental advocates in negotiations. 
  • As vice president, he backed the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump rejected. He says backing out of the TPP “put China in the driver’s seat.”
  • Singling out China, he argues for “aggressive” retaliation against countries that break international trade rules by subsidizing their companies and stealing U.S. intellectual property. He also says existing trade laws must be better enforced, and argues that the United States must use its economic leverage to negotiate better deals.
  • He opposes Trump’s trade war with China, calling the tariffs “self-defeating” because Americans are bearing their cost.
  • As a senator in 1993, he voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a vote he continues to defend. He supported normalizing trade relations with China in 2000. 
  • He has opposed some other U.S. trade deals, like the one signed with Peru in 2006, citing weak labor and environmental protections.
  • He told CFR that Washington should help African countries develop by strengthening trade relationships and opening new markets for U.S. businesses.

Venezuela and Latin America

Biden says that Trump has “taken a wrecking ball to our hemispheric ties,” pointing to his immigration policies and also to what Biden sees as a haphazard approach to the regional crisis in Venezuela, which has created more than three million refugees.

  • Biden told CFR that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is a “tyrant” who should step aside, and has called on world governments to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido. 
  • He advocates for increased sanctions on the regime and its supporters, more aid to help both Venezuela and its neighbors deal with the refugee crisis, and negotiations over the release of political prisoners and new elections.
  • He criticizes Trump’s handling of the Venezuela crisis, charging that his administration’s efforts to support democracy there “have been undermined by politicization, faulty execution and clunky sloganeering.” 
  • He says that Trump’s “saber rattling” over potential U.S. military intervention in Venezuela has threatened the coalition that has been assembled to support Guaido, and he condemns the administration’s refusal to allow more Venezuelans refuge in the United States.
  • He points to his focus on Latin America as vice president. During his tenure, the Obama administration reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba, which the Trump administration then reversed, blaming Cuba for propping up Maduro’s regime in Venezuela. Obama also concluded trade deals with Colombia and Panama and negotiated a $750 million aid package for Central America.

This project was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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