Joe Biden’s prospective presidential candidacy is in danger of becoming a joke. Every week, some new Democratic bigwig pledges himself to Hillary Clinton. Pro-Hillary groups have already assembled to fend off hostile campaign press. At last weekend’s White House Correspondents Dinner, President Obama added to the air of inevitability by teasing Fox News, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone. It’ll be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya.”
If there’s any suspense left about the Democratic primary in 2016, it largely revolves around whether an economic populist will challenge Clinton from the left. The prospect of Elizabeth Warren entering the race tantalizes many liberals. But since Biden’s not an anti-Wall Street crusader, his potential candidacy sparks barely any interest at all. That’s too bad. While a Warren candidacy would spark one valuable debate inside the Democratic Party—about government’s role in the economy—a Biden candidacy would spark another: about America’s role in the world.
Among today’s Democratic foreign-policy elite, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden represent opposite poles. Hillary’s a 1990s-style hawk. Although she and Bill came of age during the movement against Vietnam, they both grew far more comfortable with American military force during his presidency. In her first memoir, Clinton describes having supported America’s interventions in both Bosnia and Kosovo. As first lady, she lobbied for Bill to appoint Balkan hawk Madeleine Albright as his second-term secretary of state.
It was Albright who in 1998 famously called America “the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” And that’s still Hillary’s view. As she commented in 2007, in explaining her opposition to immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, she is “cursed with the responsibility gene.” Which is to say: While Americans may sometimes chafe at the burdens of world leadership, and while presidents may make errors in upholding it, the greater threat lies is doing too little. For Clinton, even after Iraq, the real danger is less American maximalism than American minimalism, which creates a vacuum that America’s enemies will fill.
Clinton is not a “neocon.” Unlike many in the Republican Party, she’s sympathetic to international institutions and international law. But there’s a reason that in the Senate she got along so well with John McCain, and that in 2007 she attacked Obama as “irresponsible and frankly naïve” for proposing direct talks with the leaders of Iran. Compared to many in her party, she sees the world as a Hobbesian place that can only be held in check by American power.
Biden’s worldview, by contrast, is more shaped by what came before and after the Clinton years. In a 2012 interview with James Traub, he mentioned his reverence for George Kennan, who for decades during the Cold War warned that global containment was producing American overstretch. Traub notes that Biden’s “foreign-policy heroes—men like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker—are, in effect, Kennan’s sons.” Scowcroft and Baker, it’s worth remembering, resisted the intervention in Bosnia that helped make Clinton a hawk. Nor did not they pursue Saddam Hussein’s ouster at the end of the Gulf War, something to which Bill Clinton committed himself in 1998.
Although Biden, like Clinton, supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, those calamitous wars have instilled in him a new devotion to the cautious realism that men like Scowcroft and Baker exemplify. In 2009, according to Bob Woodward, the then-secretary of state argued passionately for sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, at one point pounding her fist on the table and declaring, “We must act like we’re going to win.” Biden, by contrast, didn’t think defeating the Taliban was either possible nor necessary, and argued for a narrower mission focused on al-Qaeda alone. What she feared most in Afghanistan was chaos and barbarism. What he feared most was quagmire.
Biden, according to Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s book, HRC, was also skeptical of a Western air campaign in Libya. Clinton supported it. Biden considered the raid on Osama bin Laden too risky. Clinton pushed Obama to go for it. Clinton, perhaps remembering the way her husband’s decision to arm Croat forces helped enable a peace deal in the former Yugoslavia, urged Obama to arm Syria’s rebels. Biden expressed caution once again. “Over the last few years, and especially amid the Arab Spring, events have forced the Obama White House to choose between its prudential instincts and its great ambitions,” Traub writes. “In almost every case Biden has sided with the skeptics.”
It would be a good thing for Democrats, and the country, if the private debate between Biden and Clinton went public. Otherwise, it’s likely that during the campaign Clinton will take stances more hawkish than Obama’s—partly because Ukraine has made hawkishness fashionable again and partly because that’s where her own instincts lie—but barely anyone will notice.
Unless, of course, she confronts the only other major potential candidate likely to stake out a position less interventionist than her own: Rand Paul.