It was May, just two weeks after Joe Biden announced his 2020 presidential bid, and Robert Gates sat down for an interview on CBS's Face the Nation. The host, Margaret Brennan, asked the former secretary of defense whether Biden would be an "effective" commander in chief after reading a memorable line from Gates's memoir: "I think [Biden] has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." Gates paused and let out a long, audible sigh. "I don’t know," said Gates, who headed the Pentagon under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. "I stand by that statement."
Perhaps Gates was thinking of Biden's push in the Obama administration to "reset" relations with Russia, which went on to invade Ukraine and interfere in the 2016 presidential election, or of Biden's advice not to conduct the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Maybe Gates was thinking of Biden's plan to partition Iraq—an idea that, according to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, would "produce extraordinary suffering and bloodshed"—or of the weeks after 9/11, when, as a senator, Biden proposed sending $200 million to Iran, which has collaborated with al Qaeda for years. The pool of Biden's misjudgments has long been overflowing. And in those few seconds on CBS, Gates delivered a sledgehammer's worth of impact, unable to ignore a career of international follies.
Two months after the interview, on Thursday, Biden delivered a major speech on foreign policy in New York, trying to convince Democratic voters that they should ignore such criticism and choose him to challenge President Trump next year. Rather than focus on his opponents in the primary, Biden centered his remarks on Trump, portraying himself as the antithesis of—and even the savior from—the 45th president.
Trump's "erratic policies and failures to uphold basic democratic principles have muddled our reputation and our place in the world, and I think, quite frankly, our ability to lead the world," Biden said. The former vice president, who served under Obama, went on to castigate Trump as a threat to democracy, both at home and abroad. Biden focused on Trump's "coddling of dictators," saying the president "plays the role of a strongman" by deferring to Russian president Vladimir Putin, refusing to condemn Saudi Arabia for killing dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and "falling in love" with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"The world," Biden added, "sees Trump for what he is: insincere, ill-informed, impulsive, and sometimes corrupt, dangerously incompetent, and, in my view, incapable of world leadership and leadership at home."
Biden himself has tried to reach out to authoritarians to form closer relationships in the name of advancing American interests. During the Obama administration, for example, he sought to create a "commission" with Putin—a relationship that, according to Hillary Clinton, could have "produce[d] a larger bargain." Around the same time, in 2011, Biden said that he "fully understands" China's one-child policy, under which the Chinese government limited the number of children that families could have. Biden later walked back his remarks. As vice president, he also campaigned for the nuclear deal with Iran, which involved giving the autocratic regime in Tehran billions of dollars and, overtime, lifting bans on its abilities to import conventional weapons and build ballistic missiles.
In his speech, Biden also bashed Trump's foreign policy as too unilateral and a threat to democratic alliances. "Trump's brand of ‘America First' has too often led to America alone," he said, "making it much harder to mobilize others to address the threats to our common wellbeing." Biden chastised Trump for mistreating allies, apparently forgetting that Obama, as president, used similar rhetoric to describe America's friends. In a series of interviews with the Atlantic, Obama famously described both Middle Eastern and European allies as "free riders." Obama even warned that the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom would end if the latter did not spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense. "You have to pay your fair share," Obama told then-British prime minister David Cameron, echoing a Trump-esque sentiment.
Biden then warned of the "rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism, and illiberal tendencies around the world," not only in places such as Russia and China, but also among American allies such as Turkey and Hungary. And "demagogues" like Trump are, according to Biden, exploiting these trends for their own personal and political gain. The former vice president even described Trump as "on the other team," in opposition to the democratic nations that form the free world.
After several minutes of lambasting the president, Biden finally connected his diatribe to a foreign policy vision based on three pillars: "repairing and reinvigorating" American democracies, while bolstering democracies around the world; equipping the American people to succeed in the 21st century with a "foreign policy for the middle class"; and placing America "back at the head of the table" to mobilize "global action" on a range of global threats.
While outlining the first pillar, Biden effectively gave a mini speech on domestic policy, arguing that the United States needs to strengthen its own democracy as an example for the world. He stressed the need to reform campaign finance, criminal justice, and education, among other areas. Biden also said he would organize a "global summit for democracy" during his first year as president. The summit would include the private sector and renew a global push to strengthen democracy.
The second pillar also focused largely on domestic policy, such as tax reform, a "clean economy revolution" to create jobs, and expanding broadband. Biden also discussed trade, representing the "working man" in a manner similar to Trump. But then Biden discussed China, proclaiming that the United States and a "united front of friends and partners" need to "get tough" with Beijing as the Asian behemoth extends its global reach. Biden seems to have forgotten that, just two months ago, he dismissed the Chinese threat, saying that China is "not competition for us" and will not "eat our lunch."
Biden then turned to a range of threats around the world, from the Islamic State to climate change. While discussing the daunting array of challenges facing Washington, Biden barely mentioned military power, only saying that he is willing to use force, but as a last resort. "No army on earth can match the electric idea of liberty" as it jumps across borders and "supercharges communities," Biden added. This sentiment is certainly noble, but Biden appears to miss an important truth: American military power, both as a deterrent and through its actual use, has done more to spread freedom, democracy, and human rights than any force in human history. Just ask South Korea, to name one of several examples. Moreover, the post-1945 world order, which Biden praised in his speech, rests in large part on the American military, which deters conflict and ensures freedom of navigation in the world's waterways. Biden called for strengthening the country's diplomatic corps but never acknowledged—perhaps because he does not realize—that diplomacy and military force complement each other, with the latter giving the U.S. leverage to conduct the former effectively.
It is fitting that, one day before Biden's speech, the Nation published an essay titled, "The American Left Is Failing Hong Kong: Why is Marco Rubio doing more than the Democratic Party to support the people of Hong Kong?" In the piece, freelance writer Rosemarie Ho notes that "many more Republicans than Democrats have publicly backed Hong Kong's protesters," who have demonstrated against the Chinese government's authoritarianism. "The American left, on the other hand, has had little to say about China, let alone about Hong Kong," she continues. "Virtually none of the progressive members of the House when it comes to foreign policy have expressed serious concern for Hong Kong's 7 million residents." One can find a similar dynamic with the recent anti-government protests in Iran and Venezuela, where demonstrators have found little support among the American left. Trump, meanwhile has imposed significant sanctions on the regimes in Tehran and Caracas and supported the protesters. When Biden criticizes Trump for corroding democracy and helping authoritarians abroad, perhaps he should also look inside his own party, whose progressive direction does not bode well for those resisting brutal authoritarians. And while he's it at, Biden should also take a serious look in the mirror.