Their deliberations have been occurring in plain sight, in articles and policy papers, in speeches, at conferences, and at think-tank roundtables. They have been taking place parallel to the presidential debate and have largely passed unnoticed as a result. However, make no mistake—if the influence of these policy makers prevails, the Biden administration could change Democratic foreign policy in some significant ways, just as the administration of George H. W. Bush departed from that of Ronald Reagan, or as Bush the younger departed from the approach of his father.
Under Obama’s foreign policy, his administration largely preserved the post–Cold War neoliberal consensus toward globalization. Obama sought to pivot from the Middle East to Asia but struggled to do so. He pushed back against China and Russia more as his presidency progressed, but he was wary of allowing geopolitical competition to define his approach. He believed in the arc of history, whereby the United States, and democracy more generally, would prevail if it focused its energy on strengthening itself at home. He was a supporter of NATO but thought Europe should spend more on defense and could take care of its own problems.
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. Over that eight-year period, democracy has eroded, nationalist populism has grown in the West, and authoritarianism has strengthened globally. Economic discontent has increased even though the U.S., until recently, experienced growth and high levels of employment. Shared problems, such as climate change and pandemics, have worsened, but international cooperation has become harder to achieve and to explain to domestic audiences.
Peter Beinart: America needs an entirely new foreign policy for the Trump Age
The 2021 Democrats no longer talk about the goal of American foreign policy being a liberal international order, as they did during the Obama years. They still believe in international cooperation and a values-based foreign policy, but they don’t think the term resonates, nor does it capture the essence of their approach. “Free world” is how some refer to this worldview, a term that Biden now uses. These thinkers don’t believe that America’s success is assured, nor do they think that the free world is guaranteed to stay free or as influential as it has been for several decades; democracies may have unique challenges to overcome if they are to succeed.
The 2021 Democrats are worried about rising authoritarianism and see the world as a more geopolitically competitive place, particularly in U.S.-China relations. An influential article by Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Obama administration, and Ely Ratner, Biden’s deputy national security adviser in Obama’s second term, argued that some of the key assumptions underpinning China policy—for instance, that commercial engagement with China would lead to economic liberalization, and China would become a responsible stakeholder in the international order—were wrong. Top priorities in dealing with authoritarian governments include defending democracy and tackling corruption, as well as understanding how these challenges intersect with new technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and synthetic biology.