Last week, the Biden and Sanders campaigns unveiled six “unity task forces” to rally Democrats around an agenda that merges Biden’s incrementalist instincts with Sanders’s more transformative ones. The task forces—which include big names like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, John Kerry, and former Attorney General Eric Holder—cover climate change, criminal-justice reform, the economy, education, health care, and immigration. Foreign policy isn’t on the list.
The Biden campaign does have foreign-policy working groups, lots of them. They’re broken down into subcategories: defense, intelligence, the Middle East, and so forth. Democratic-foreign-policy insiders told me that these panels include hundreds of wonks, who produce reams of documents, which are sent to top Biden advisers like Antony Blinken, Julianne Smith, and Tom Donilon. But the working groups don’t wield much power; one former Obama-administration official characterized them to me as “window dressing.” And because the identities of the people chairing them are secret, they are harder to influence than the unity task forces established on domestic policy. “The fact that they don’t have a public foreign-policy working group means advocates are jumping through hoops to figure out who to talk to,” one progressive foreign-policy activist told me. “It makes it harder and more challenging to communicate with the campaign.” (This activist and the former Obama-administration official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.)
This comparative secrecy might be less of a concern had Biden laid out a more specific foreign-policy agenda. But compared with his major primary rivals, he’s been vague. Take the defense budget. During the primary, Elizabeth Warren proposed cutting military spending by $800 billion over 10 years. Sanders suggested cutting it by $1.2 trillion over 12 years. Biden’s plans are more opaque. A February 2019 Politico survey identified him as one of the candidates who wanted to “boost the defense budget.” In November, by contrast, he told Military Times, “We can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less.” Reading the entrails, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright suggested in The Atlantic in March that while “defense-budget cuts are possible” in a Biden administration, “top priorities are reforming and modernizing the military to reflect new technologies and repairing civil-military relations.”
In other words, Biden isn’t planning to expend much political capital to shrink the Pentagon. Stephen Miles, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group Win Without War, told me he worries that a Biden administration may embrace the principle of “parity,” in which—to gain Republican support in Congress—“domestic investments like health care, education, and infrastructure must be matched dollar for dollar with more money for the Pentagon’s bloated budget.” Laicie Heeley, a former analyst with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program at the Stimson Center, predicted to me, “When it comes to defense, a Biden presidency is likely to look very much like an Obama presidency, and that’s going to look not so different from a Trump presidency when you really look at the numbers.”