Joe Biden Remembers When

Biden’s message may be tilted toward the future, but its overarching theme will be the reclamation of past glories squandered by the present president.

Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters

If the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populists in Europe have killed off the liberal world order as we knew it, no one told Joe Biden. The former vice president is billing himself as the man who can revive it.

Biden will deliver his first major foreign-policy address as a Democratic presidential contender today, and it will underscore a central theme of his campaign: that he can put a broken world—of estranged U.S. allies, emboldened autocrats, and ascendant nationalism—back together again.

Previewing the speech in a background briefing with reporters, a senior Biden campaign official insisted that the candidate will not be calling for “restoring the old order because the world has changed in dramatic ways over the last years,” and said that Biden will propose new ideas, such as organizing a summit of the world’s democracies during his first year as president to counteract the authoritarian resurgence and democratic retrenchment that he says Trump has only encouraged.

Yet the official added, “There are certain basic principles of the infamous liberal international order that remain absolutely valid and critical to our success in the world.” And the official offered a classic formulation for the defense of that order: that “the world doesn’t organize itself,” and that if America doesn’t play a leading role in “shaping the norms, helping to write the rules, and building the institutions that govern relations among nations,” either someone else will, or there will be chaos.

Biden’s message may be tilted toward the future, but its overarching theme will be the reclamation of past glories squandered by the present president: the reassertion of America’s global leadership, the rehabilitation of America’s reputation, the renewal of American credibility.

Some of Biden’s rivals, by contrast, have embraced the idea that the old world order is indeed dead—and are promising to build a new one. Bernie Sanders has argued that just because authoritarian powers such as China and Russia are seeking to destroy the post–World War II international system doesn’t mean the United States should rush unquestioningly to its defense. That U.S.-led order—which consists of an open international economy, U.S. military alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, and liberal rules and institutions that govern how countries conduct themselves—“has failed to deliver on many of its promises,” Sanders has stated. (So far, he doesn’t seem to have a concrete alternative, but issued a vague call to “reconceptualize” the order “based on human solidarity.”)

Elizabeth Warren frames U.S. foreign policy as a struggle to reform global capitalism, arguing that liberal economic policies in the 1980s exacerbated inequality. “We can start our defense of democracy by fixing what has gone wrong with our international economic policies,” she said in a speech in November. (Kamala Harris, who rounds out the top four in current polling, has yet to give a significant speech on foreign policy.) In his own foreign-policy speech, Pete Buttigieg put the matter frankly: It would not be “honest to promise that we can restore an old order that cannot, in any case, meet the realities of a new moment,” he said—even while offering a foreign-policy vision that sounded similar to Barack Obama’s.

Biden is different: He appears to be saying that, to a large extent, we can go back to the way things were before. In fact, his campaign is built in part on nostalgia for an era that seems distant now.

This fits with a central promise of the Biden campaign—to reinstate the Obama era that Trump has worked so hard to erase. It applies to domestic politics and has echoes in his calls for civility and decency, but also in foreign policy. Biden has expressed support for Obama’s climate-change initiatives, his nuclear deal with Iran, and his insistence on negotiating with North Korea only once it demonstrates a willingness to denuclearize. The Biden campaign official said Biden would not only reenter the Trump-spurned Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear agreement—so long as Tehran once again complies with its terms—but also work with other countries to make both pacts more ambitious. Biden has even sought to turn his controversial history in Iraq into an asset, boasting that Obama had put him in charge of overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country—while choosing not to dwell on his momentous vote in the run-up to the Iraq War or the chaos that followed the troop withdrawal. Asked about Biden’s Iraq War vote, the Biden campaign official said the candidate won’t focus on it today, calling the speech “very much present-focused and forward-focused.”

In the June 27 Democratic presidential debate, Biden acknowledged both just how fragile the U.S.-led international system has become and just how determined he is to uphold it. He argued that the NATO military alliance in Europe would “fall apart” if Trump, who has berated member states for not spending enough on defense and questioned coming to their aid, is reelected. “It’s the single most consequential alliance in the history of the United States,” he said.

In his emphasis on such issues, Biden at times seems to be looking back even further than the Obama presidency, to the 1990s. Some Democrats consider that the heyday of liberal foreign policy—a time when NATO was expanding, the U.S. intervened to end a civil war in the Balkans, and a larger-than-life diplomat such as Richard Holbrooke could marshal an international coalition to support the use of American military might. Biden’s campaign touts the former vice president’s push for arms control in the Soviet Union and Russia and his leadership in U.S. intervention in the Balkans as some of his foreign-policy successes.

The following decade proved darker: Many Democrats voted for the resolution that led to the Iraq War, setting off an identity crisis on foreign affairs that plagues the party to this day. Biden was a poster child for that vote as the influential chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. His focus on the foreign policy of the Obama era, meanwhile, has tended to avoid the areas where it fell short: in Iraq with the rise of ISIS, in Syria with a disastrous civil war that America couldn’t end, in the botched military intervention in Libya, and in the ineffective response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Biden has yet to address these failures, but he will need to in order to persuade voters that his long record on foreign policy is an asset. He has consistently been in the top spot in the Democratic field, though those numbers have dropped in several polls since the debates in late June—suggesting that his front-runner spot may be more precarious than a double-digit lead would suggest.

That’s the danger of nostalgia: It tends to make the past seem a lot better than it was, and thus can keep us from learning from our mistakes.