The Geopolitical Therapist

A conversation with Vice President Joe Biden

Larry Downing / Reuters

Recently I sat down with Vice President Joe Biden to explore whether his approach to foreign policy challenges, and his patterns of interaction with global leaders, constituted something distinctive enough to call “The Biden Doctrine,” which I wrote about here in The Atlantic. In a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion that touched on America’s current political contest, the vice president shared some of what he believes are Hillary Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses. And in a powerful ending to our chat, Biden indicted the leadership elites of both parties for looking down on and leaving behind Americans who deserve better. I felt that this material deserved its own space, and wanted to share the larger conversation with readers. The transcript, condensed and edited for clarity, follows.

Steve Clemons: Mr. Vice President, how do you see the Biden Doctrine? Through what frame do you look at national-security and foreign policy, and set strategic priorities?

Joe Biden: 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 [in government], is prioritize the most consequential threats and concerns, and allocate resources relative to the nature of the threat. There is a tendency to respond to the “wolf at the door,” but [policymakers] tend to sometimes over-respond and not leave enough assets to deal with the pack of wolves out there in the field.

I have had a view for a long time that, in terms of the use of force, the cause not only has to be a vital U.S. strategic interest, but when force is used there [must be] efficacy in the use of that force—and the effort [should be one that] can be sustained. I don’t have any doubt if we put 200,000 forces in Syria— although we might have a war with Russia—we could control the place, settle it down. But the moment we left, we’d be right back exactly where we are today. [We’re still] arguing about Afghanistan.

We tend sometimes not to look at the larger strategic imperative and what works. So, we have enormous military capability but using it, in my view, depends on A) what is the strategic national interest? And B) what are the second, third, and fourth steps in this process? So that you don’t put in 160,000 forces inside Iraq without a conceptual notion as to how you’re going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Well, you know how long you would keep them there? Forever? If you keep them there forever could [that] reduce the number of casualties in Iraq? Actually, we continue to have casualties. But secondly, are you likely to be able to pursue your national interest in any meaningful way when you use force? Or allocate those assets? These are the key questions.

For example, we went through a work-up a while ago on Syria, and everybody knew we don’t have enough ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance], and drones that are available to look down, etc. We had internally a debate about where the drones are all being used. We found out that an inordinately high percentage was being used in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] for a relatively small number of people.

My argument was, “Wait a minute, the bad guys are closer to home. They’re in Syria. They’re in Iraq.” They said, “Well we don’t have the resources to be able to deal with ISR in this particular part of Syria.” I said, “Look guys, you have 10 assets and 80 percent of your problem is over here in Syria and you’re using 9 out of 10 of your assets over there in FATA where only 20 percent of your problem is.” I’m oversimplifying, but this was a problem.

The other piece is, the existential threats to the United States going forward have changed. You’ve often heard me quote the “Easter Sunday, 1916” poem, “All has changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” Well all has really changed since I started in this. What remains is the prospect that the real existential threat is loose nukes, an unintended conflict that erupts with another nuclear power—Russia, China, that not-stable figure in North Korea [Kim Jong Un], Pakistan. You may remember the debate [about] the most dangerous nation in the world—I said, nine years ago, “Pakistan.”

Clemons: That’s what my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in our Atlantic cover story, “The Ally from Hell.”

Biden: Exactly. The third part of the Biden Doctrine—and I haven’t thought about it in this way before—would be proportionality. Terrorism is a real threat, 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.

So part of the way we talk about this—about the way [Biden’s national-security advisor] Colin Kahl and I talk about this—is about us “rebalancing.” We talk a lot about rebalancing with Russia, which we’ve been trying to do since we got into office. I have not been a quiet voice about this, but I feel that we need a “rebalancing between balances” that we inherited. There is a disproportion in balance when we had 70, 80, or 90 percent of our military assets focused on Iraq. Look at what metastasized around the world.

So the Biden Doctrine is, first, you do not commit force unless you can demonstrate that the use of that force is sustainable and will produce an outcome.

Two: Engage because the world has changed and strengthening alliances and building new arrangements is vital, that relate to sharing responsibility, sharing intelligence, and allocating force on targets so we’re not the only game in town.

And three: It all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy of being personal. You’ve got to figure out what’s the other [leader’s] bandwidth [whether that’s a] good guy [or] bad guy. You have to figure out what is realistically possible. What does that leader think his or her bandwidth is, 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? And lastly, in the conduct of foreign policy, I think it’s vitally important that not only you know and have as hard of a read as you can get on the foreign leader with whom you’re dealing, friend or foe, but that leaders know that what you say, what you do, what you propose is real and is likely to be the U.S. response, initiative, or demand.

That requires establishing real relationships. You’ve been with me a lot on these trips. You have seen it happen.

Clemons: I’ve seen you use your grandchildren as opening acts. With Xi Xinping and others.

Biden: I can say it now because he’s publicly said this at a press conference—I have enough of a relationship and enough of a standing that [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu would grab me and say, “Can you help me normalize relations with Turkey?” I can pick up the phone, call and go see [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, as erratic as he may be, and say, “Look, this is in your interest. Let me tell you why.” As Bibi said, they would not have normalized relations but for the fact that I convinced the Turks this was in their interest—it was in both their interest. I mediated.

Or, you know, [Korean President] Park [Geun-hye] and [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe. I go to see Abe and he says to me, “Will you help me with Park?” And I call her and say, “Will you do this?” And I don’t negotiate the agreement, but the end result was, because I had a personal relationship with both of them and they trusted me, I could be an interlocutor, that was more like a divorce counselor, putting a marriage back together.

But I can go down the list. I spent over an hour this morning with [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-] Abadi, and he’s calling me to ask me not only for help but advice. [After] the horrific bombings in Baghdad, I called him, and he said, “Can you help?” And I said, “This is what you could do, and this is how you should do it.” He asked me advice today and mentioned, “Well so-and-so doesn’t like my deal.” “Well, you should tell so-and-so”—meaning someone in Iraq, an opponent—“why don’t you tell them this?” He said, “You think that’ll work?” I said, “Look, you know your politics better than I do, but I think it will work.” And he goes, “OK, so how would you do it?” So [it’s] as if I’m advising the minority leader on how to get something passed. But because of the relationship, not because I’m so smart—I’m pretty good at this stuff but that’s not it—they go, “Well, the guy’s not playing a game with me.”

Clemons: So you’re sort of like this psychological, political, geostrategic therapist?

Biden: Well in a bizarre sense, every successful foreign-policy person from [Henry] Kissinger on, that’s what they’ve been. I don’t go in and make demands. For example, [Ukraine President] Poroshenko, I pushed him on getting rid of a corrupt [prosecutor] general. We had committed a billion dollars, I said, “Petro, you’re not getting your billion dollars. It’s OK, you can keep the [prosecutor] general. Just understand—we’re not paying if you do.” I suspended it on the spot, to the point where our ambassador looked at me like, “Whoa, what’d you just do? Do you have the authority?” “Yeah, I got the authority. It’s not going to happen, Petro.” But I really mean it. It wasn’t a threat. I said, “Look, Petro, I understand. We’re not gonna play. It’ll hurt us the following way, so make your own call here.” The same with Erdogan.

I look at the people I’ve worked with over the years, at this level in foreign policy, and all of them have basically the same basic modus operandi. Two things that the other world leader recognizes: Either it is the president or you speak for the president, and that’s it; and two, they have a sense of who the hell you are and they know whether or not to have any confidence in what you’re saying and doing. All foreign policy really is—we like to make it this arena that only a few people can play in—is a logical extension of personal relationships with a lot less information to act on. I don’t want to diminish it; it’s consequential.

Clemons: A lot of the skill sets you bring to your foreign-policy work do not necessarily reside in Donald Trump—and perhaps not even with Secretary [Hillary] Clinton. You don’t really raise these psychological, leader-to-leader dimensions in your [recent] Foreign Affairs piece, but do you think that a President Clinton will be able to operate on that front?

Biden: I think she is much better than people think. For example, she and I had breakfast once a week. I think the image of everyone is she came in stiff-necked, and “This is what I’m going to do, and I know exactly the right answer.” It was not that way at all. It was, “Joe, what do you think?” and “Well, how would you approach such-and-such?” Hillary has an open mind. I know she knows this, and I think that she can use her reputation for being hard-edged to some advantage. Everybody talks about her having a terrible relationship with Putin. That’s not such a bad thing right now, because he knows he can’t push her around.

My instinct and approach with this administration on the strategic side were in sync with the president’s; I didn’t move him. He was already there and ahead of me on a lot of stuff. But, as he said, we kind of made up for each other’s weaknesses. The fourth PDB [President’s Daily Brief] we had—I guess was like three, four weeks in, during the interregnum period where we’re deciding on policy and who’s going to fill administration positions, etc. We get in and we got the new team. We’ve got Hillary, we’ve got [then-Defense Secretary] Bob Gates, we have [then-National Security Advisor] Jim Jones, we have [then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Admiral [Mike] Mullen. We have, I forget who else. So we’re sitting there on a usual day, and Hillary says, “Well, Mr. President, we’ve come up with an Iraq plan that is totally consistent with the way you’ve campaigned and what you believe,” etc. She said, “And we want to present it to you.” And Obama goes like this: “No, no, no. Joe will do Iraq.” I’m thinking, “Not a good way to start this, Mr. President.” “Joe knows more about Iraq than anybody. Joe will do Iraq, so work with Joe.”

Clemons: How did your next lunch with Hillary go after that?

Biden: Turned out OK. The key is that they realize that I wasn’t trying to get attention. I wasn’t going to be the guy claiming credit. You know, when we’re having trouble with unaccompanied children [fleeing Central America for the United States in 2014]. I was in Turkey, or somewhere, [the] president called me and said, “You gotta go, you gotta take care of this. This is a crisis.” And, OK, I hadn’t been doing Latin America. When I was chairman [of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] I made sure that [Senator Chris] Dodd did Latin America.

But all kidding aside, we have the first big meeting and I came up with a proposal, and he said, “Look, you do the hemisphere.” And, jokingly, he said, “You make friends easy, and it’s in the same time zone. You can do it on the weekends.” I said, “It’s not the same time zone.”

Clemons: It sounds like he has a habit of handing you the lemons in foreign policy, giving you the tough tasks.

Biden: I think it makes sense—not because I’m good, bad or indifferent, and I really do think John Kerry is doing a hell of a job, for real—first of all, I think a couple things have changed in the last 20 years. No president, no secretary of state has the bandwidth to deal with all the stuff at play, number one. Number two, the president’s chances of being successful in terms of his policy are exponentially elevated if the person who is speaking for him agrees with the policy, understands or knows the nuances of where he would like to go, and has the authority to speak—and everybody, including the secretary of state, knows that person has the authority.

It makes sense to give me the problems that require husbandry every day. So I get Ukraine, I get Iraq, I get the relationship between Korea and Japan, I get Central America, I get Colombia. Because he knows—the guy is really good—it’s a matter of how you broach some of these. I talked [in a 2013 speech on hemispheric relations] about [how], from northern Canada to the tip of Chile, we can look for the first time at a hemisphere that is democratic, that is secure, that is growing, and we have more work to do on all this. And I really, really worked hard on this speech. And I said in there, “It’s no longer what we can do for [Latin America], it’s what we can do with [Latin America].” That had such a profound impact. The simple most important thing that I talked to the president about was establishing trust in the hemisphere. We have 200 years of bad karma. And so, he was convinced I could do this, because he knew I meant it and I had his authority, so it was, “Joe, go do it.”

That’s different than sitting down and my personally negotiating the FARC settlement. Yet, I get calls from [Colombian President Juan Manuel] Santos on the FARC settlement: “Will you come? Will you be there? What do you think I should say to this leader or that leader?” etc. It’s not like I’m the only one who can do these things—like rapprochement between South Korea and Japan, or an agreement with China and the United States relative to how to treat North Korea. These can be done by really well-informed people, steeped in public policy and history, and we have a lot of those people. But as you know, these take a ton of patience, of tending, and there’s no short-term solution. That requires establishing a trust, a long-term game plan, and constantly staying on it. I actually gave a directive to Colin [Kahl] and [Deputy Secretary of State] Tony [Blinken], to the foreign-policy teams. I said, “Look, for every time you want me to call a foreign leader to ask for something, make sure I call him three times just to say hi.” Not a joke.

Clemons: It’s occurred to me that virtually no one can talk to the average man in America as well as you can, and then all of a sudden Donald Trump is doing it. He is communicating a message that A) you citizens have gone off to fight these battles around the world but you’re getting screwed in these relationships, other nations aren’t paying enough, and we’re not getting a good deal. When I talk to my relatives in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, they’re hearing that. I’m just interested in what you think Americans need to hear that they’re not hearing about internationalism, international engagement, why it pays off for them in ways they are not sensing and feeling?

Biden: I absolutely think it is the key issue. It’s not only foreign, but it’s domestic. I was doing the interview on Morning Joe, and they asked the same question. And I said, “Look, the truth is we just haven’t paid enough attention to these people. We haven’t spoken to them.” And everybody went nuts going, “Aw Jesus! Hillary is going to think that’s an attack.” But I asked my team what did Hillary just say in her speech? She said we’re not paying enough attention—and the phrase I used that really upset them—I said, “We’re not showing them enough respect.” And she also said we’re not showing enough respect.

The truth is we are not showing enough respect. There is a new breed of Democrat that is represented by our administration, in my view, and the smart guys, the guys and gals who are Harvard, Yale, Penn graduates; the very, very well-informed, well-educated, elites of the party. They are the new version, if they don’t watch it, of the limousine liberals when I was coming up in the 60s. Because at its core there’s a disconnect with some really, really, really smart, good, decent people who are with us and part of the larger Democratic younger elite, the millennial elite who don’t understand the middle class anymore.

You may remember when I came in, [Biden’s then-Chief of Staff] Ron Klain said, “Look, ask to be able to do a middle class [task] force,” to focus on how can we administratively, by executive order, ease the pain of the middle class, which got clobbered, the bottom fell out with the Great Recession.

So the president gave me authority. I held an enormous number of Cabinet meetings and I said, “Here’s what I want you to do: I want every one of you, within two weeks, to get back to me with a name and a phone number, so I can talk to them, of someone you hired who reports only to you and whose only job in your department is to scrub the department to see what can they do administratively to ease the burden on the middle class and working class people.”

So, to his credit, [then-Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner was the first guy to come in with a proposal. And his team came in and they sat here, I had five of my staff here, two women included, and all raised in classic, middle class backgrounds.

So they came in and said, “We have a great idea. We’ve figured out a way how to plus up 529s”—that’s that savings account for college tuition, that you can save it now, not pay the tax on it, and you’re able to use it toward college tuition, and they were decimated, like 401(k)s. And I listened and I said, “Well, that’s a good idea, Tim,” but I said, “I don’t know anybody who has a 529.”

And he looked at me, and I looked at my team. I said, “How many of you have 529s?” And they all had them. And I said, “I’ll make you a bet”—and this was after the Washington Post had printed, literally, “It’s probable no man has ever assumed the office of vice president with fewer assets than Joe Biden,” when I did my first financial disclosure. And, I said, “What percentage of people are eligible for 529s in the capital?” And [the guesses ranged] from 40 percent to 25 percent, or 20 percent, among my staff. And I said, “If more than 10 percent of the people eligible have a 529, once a month, lunch is on me any place you all pick in Washington. We’ll all go to lunch—it’s on me.”

So they came back. 7 percent. Nobody has any money to save. They’re of no value to the neighborhood I grew up in. These are people making, married couples with two kids making 100,000 bucks. They don’t have any disposable income.

So there is a disconnect. It’s like the book Coming Apart by the conservative sociologist [Charles Murray]. He points out there’s a new elite in America. And this new elite is a meritocracy. It’s black, it’s white, it’s women, it’s men. But it’s all about the best-educated people. And so, for example, I asked my younger staff, I lay 8 to 5, if you put up 20 neighbors I could tell you what neighborhood they live in.

There’s this test in Murray’s book—and it drove my sons Beau and Hunter crazy. I asked them to take it. Have you ever been on the factory floor? Were you’re raised in a neighborhood where over 60 percent of the people you live with, their parents did not have a college education? Do you know any one of your close friends that is obese? Do any one of them, in their refrigerator, have whole milk? Given a choice to be able to go to Starbucks or McDonalds, where do they go? All of the bright kids, I don’t want to indict anybody in this room, they live in neighborhoods of people who have the same view of art, the same view of culture, the same view of—

Clemons: The people you describe are my relatives in Kansas and Oklahoma and Texas, many uneducated, served in the military, eat mostly at fast-food joints—

Biden: Bingo! But here’s the deal: We don’t talk to them anymore.

Clemons: What do these folks need to hear? On the international stuff?

Biden: [Politicians have to] say, “Look, let me tell you why it’s so important to you that this happens.” The example I give, I say, look, everybody knows we need Europe and their armies, or God forbid if anything happens with Russia or if there’s a major war we have. Because we saw it happen when this great migration crisis occurred. It didn’t have anything to do with war or peace, but it destabilized a lot of these governments. Now, now Europe is doubting itself. The last thing we need, after building up a system for 70 years, of a Europe whole and free and secure, is for this to fall apart.

So what happens when we have a conflict? God forbid we have a conflict with Russia or China. Look guys, it makes no sense for us not to be involved in Latin America. And the reason is as long as they are unstable you’re going to have millions of people heading to this border. Now look, look what happened. Look what we did. This is what I do when I sit down at kitchen tables, which I still do because I go home.

Look what happened with Mexico. Fewer and fewer Mexicans are coming over. Matter of fact, there’s a net migration [out of the United States to Mexico]. Why? Mexico is doing better. Isn’t there interest for Mexico to be more stable? It helps us. Because, guess what? It’s like Ghostbusters, man. When there’s a problem anywhere else, call Ghostbusters. We’re Ghostbusters; so it makes sense that we are there to help them because it helps us.

Now here’s not what I’m going to do. Now it doesn’t make sense for me to send your son or daughter into a Muslim country as an occupying force and try to insist on a particular regime order. But it does make sense for us to use special [operations] forces, like in Libya right now, because there is an actual nascent government there. And they’re saying, “Can you help us take out [ISIS], in Sirte, there?” That makes sense for us to do.

But you can’t talk down to people because they’re pretty goddamned smart and they instinctively know what’s in their interest. But the other part of it is I don’t think we show them enough respect. Because what your relatives in Oklahoma and Kansas sense is that a lot of people in our party these days really don’t think they’re very smart, really don’t think they know what’s in their own interest—“we know best for you, we’re going to take care of you.”

So, if you notice, when I spoke about Hillary, I said, Hillary understands. Hillary understands student loans are about more than getting a talented child to college; it’s about saving that parent the indignity of having to turn to their beautiful child and say, “I’m sorry honey, I can’t help.” My dad, my dad was a classy man, a real gentleman. I remember going down to borrow a car to go to a prom. I asked where he was; said he’s outside by the lane going into the service entrance. I need the car to pick up my girlfriend up at the prom and drop my ’51 Plymouth off.

I walk up and my father is pacing back and forth. It’s a true story. I look at my dad and said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I’m so goddamned sorry.” I thought something happened to my family. I said, “What’s the matter, dad?” He said, “I went to the bank and spoke to Charlie Delcher"—who’s at the Farmer’s Bank and who financed all the cars that were sold. [Biden’s dad] said, “I asked him for a loan to get you to school [send Biden to college]. I don’t have any money. I’m so goddamned ashamed. I’m so ashamed. I’m so ashamed.”

That’s what the hell they want to know that we know. That’s the middle class. They want us to understand what the pain for them is as it relates to the education—not just that the kid doesn’t get there. It’s that, I mean, what is more helpless than a parent looking at a kid knowing you can’t help them? And Hillary understands that. The way Teddy Kennedy used to talk. Everybody knew Teddy Kennedy wasn’t like them, but Teddy talked in terms when he talked to poor and middle class people that you shouldn’t have to suffer that indignity. And that’s what we have lost.

Clemons: If Hillary Clinton wins, is there a way you can play a role that helps her do that?

Biden: I don’t know. Hillary, I’ll do anything she wants—I’m not going to go back in administration—but you know, Hillary has never been afraid with me to let her guard down to ask me for an insight that she knows she doesn’t possess, any more than I was reluctant to ask Teddy about things that I didn’t understand.

And, for example, I’ll end with this, because it goes both ways. My son Beau dated a lovely young woman that was a classmate of Hunter’s girlfriend at the time, from high school into college. And she comes from one of the most prominent families in American history. And so, and they were serious for a while. So I’m sitting in a hearing, and Teddy said, “Hey, I saw Beau in so-and-so’s box,” and I said, “You gotta explain this to me, man.” And I said, “How do you deal with that kind of money and power?”

And he said, “Joe,” he said, “I can’t explain that to you. They’re in a different world than I am.” But I was genuinely trying to figure this out. “Teddy, how do you traverse that world?” Because I was never a part of that world, and I was trying to figure it out.

Hillary is as open, in reverse, with me in asking me, “OK, I’m going to speak to these labor guys. What is it? I’m right on policy with them. What is it that I say?” That’s not exactly what she’d say but, “Tell me how you would say this?” And I don’t want to offer myself as the oracle of labor and middle class—

Clemons: But people get that. They see you and they don’t see it from many others.

Biden: But I am more optimistic about her chances, in large part because of him [Trump]. But the truth is, and she says she’s no Bill Clinton, she’s not a natural—and sometimes paranoia is justified, you know? She has been so battered for so long. But you understand my advice to Hillary to open up, to show your soul a little more, show your vulnerability. I could understand why, given her experiences, after 40 years of what she’s been through, that’s a hard thing to do.