In contrast, Biden’s approach has been definitive enough, particularly in approaching leaders, to hold clear lessons for future foreign-policy practitioners—including presidents such as, possibly, Hillary Clinton herself.
When I asked Biden recently to define for me what he thought the “Biden Doctrine” was, he opened in a Bidenesque way: “My dad used to say to me, ‘Champ, if everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you.’ So the hardest thing to do, I’ve found in 44 years, is to prioritize what really are the most consequential threats and concerns, and allocate resources relative to the nature of the threat.” Americans, he said, tend to over-respond to the “wolf at the door” without recognizing that there are other wolves out in the field.
The “wolves in the field,” then—the real existential threats facing the nation—he sees not as terrorism, even from ISIS, but rather the prospect of “loose nukes, and unintended nuclear conflict that erupts with another nuclear power” like Russia or China. Other big threats include “that not-stable figure in North Korea,” Kim Jong Un, and Pakistan, which, he reminded me, he dubbed the “most dangerous nation in the world” nine years ago.
“Terrorism is a real threat,” Biden said, “but it’s not an existential threat to the existence of the democratic country of the United States of America. Terrorism can cause real problems. It can undermine confidence. It can kill relatively large numbers of people. But terrorism is not an existential threat.” If Biden were running for the presidency, this piece of the Biden Doctrine—what he calls “proportionality”—would no doubt be red meat for many who place terrorism at the heart of America’s challenges today.
The other striking element of the Biden doctrine is the degree to which it depends on establishing personal relationships. I had seen Biden take his granddaughter Finnegan to China to help break open new terrain with the new Chinese leader when Xi Jinping first took office, and do the same with his granddaughter Naomi* in meetings last January with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He told me in the interview that in conducting foreign policy, “You’ve got to figure out what is the other guy’s [leader’s] bandwidth. ... You have to figure out what is realistically possible ... so that you can begin to make more informed judgments about what they are likely to do or what you can likely get them to agree not to do.”
He recounted an array of encounters with some of the world’s most controversial leaders. He said that despite the in-the-gutter relationship between Israel and the U.S. today, Netanyahu had enough trust in the vice president to ask him to help normalize his country’s relations with Turkey, which had ruptured in 2010. Biden took the mission, mediating between Netanyahu and Erdogan—himself not an uncomplicated leader. And it worked. The two countries signed a deal to normalize relations this summer. Netanyahu called the vice president thanking him for his role in making their rapprochement—and a potential natural-gas deal between the two countries—work. Biden has tried to effect similar reconciliations between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—who at one summit of Asian leaders in 2013 spent less than 30 seconds on stage together and refused to speak with one another. Since then, the two have met several times in efforts to mend ties. Abe has visited South Korea, and Park has just announced plans to visit Japan in November. Biden gets the assist. The vice president has also spent more time hand-holding Iraq’s leaders, most recently on an hour-long call with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi after a horrific bombing in Baghdad this summer, than any other member of the administration.