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.
Read: Joe Biden’s haunted legacy in Iraq
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.
Read: Biden’s message is incoherent
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.”