Insight into the Biden foreign policy agenda from a key player
By Jennifer Rubin
Avril Haines, who would become the first woman to be named director of national intelligence, co-chaired with Eric S. Edelman, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, a bipartisan foreign policy task force which issued a meaty report, “Linking Values and Strategy: How Democracies Can Offset Autocratic Advances,” in October. The report provided some insight into her thinking and, by extension, President-elect Joe Biden’s. She has also headed the transition’s national security and foreign policy team since June, so the views expressed are likely to align closely with Biden’s outlook.
The report argues that the central challenge facing Western democracies is “a persistent asymmetric threat from authoritarian challengers who aim to reshape the global order in their favor.” Fortunately, the new administration will understand which side we are on and use some of the tools the task force lays out to bolster U.S. security.
Biden often says that we cannot be strong abroad if we are not strong at home. The report echoes that theme in stressing the need for political, economic, technological and information reform. On the political front, “To build resilience against authoritarian interference, the United States must first improve its own democratic practices by strengthening key institutions and cultivating a culture of civic engagement. Democracies must also showcase the corruption and political repression of autocracies.” In other words, requirements for officials’ financial transparency and voting reforms that repair damage to our institutions have the national security dimension of restoring our credibility as a defender of democratic values. If we return to a political culture that respects the rule of law and the freedom of the press, we will be in the position to wield influence against regimes that do not. It is noteworthy that Freedom House, which advocates democracy, political freedom and human rights, put out a statement rebuking President Trump’s refusal to recognize the election results:
The president may have personal, political, or financial reasons for persisting in his efforts, but these are frankly insignificant when weighed against the well-being of our country and our democracy, which greatly influences the rest of the world. Freedom House believes that all American political figures, and especially Republican officeholders, have a patriotic and moral obligation to publicly reject the outgoing president’s claims and push back on any attempts to overturn the election result. American citizens and foreign audiences must be told as clearly as possible that President Trump’s stolen-election narrative has been banished to the extreme fringes of political discourse, and that the United States’ long record of democratic order will remain unbroken.
Likewise, in the economic realm, the task force report says, “the United States must make strategic investments at home — including in infrastructure, education, and basic research — while also supporting innovation and development in key industries.” Improvements in rural broadband, STEM education and infrastructure all have domestic value but, again, they make us more competitive and give us leverage in dealing with illiberal powers such as China.
In the technology and information arenas, we must focus on “investing in democracy-affirming technology and enacting societal guardrails on platforms will be essential to this effort.” The task force recommends, “The United States must also ensure it remains an attractive destination for technological talent while preventing foreign theft of intellectual property.” This also means promoting “open and trusted information as the foundation of a healthy society.” The report continues: “To do so, the United States should embrace media and digital literacy education, ensure that information architecture supports democratic values, challenge authoritarian narrative dominance, and reinvigorate independent journalism, both at home and abroad. It should work with other democracies to maintain a free and open Internet, and to construct data governance models rooted in democratic principles.”
We should should keep in mind several issues as we transition from a chaotic, personality-driven foreign policy that often gave autocracies free rein to a more orderly approach that seeks common cause with democracies.
First, while observers point out that Biden will have his hands full with domestic policy, the report should remind us that domestic stimulus has a critical national security component (just as math and science investment during the Cold War was critical to our national defense). Republicans who want to push back against China will be hard-pressed to oppose domestic investment that allows us to do so.
Second, Biden will seek to foster and develop new alliances to, for example, provide a united front against China on trade matters (such as his planned Summit for Democracy). Fortunately, he is well known on the international stage and has existing relationships to build upon.
Third, the State Department that Biden will find is a shadow of its former self after years of neglect, retirements and poor management. To make diplomacy effective, to engage friends and adversaries, and to find our footing in a transformed Middle East, we will need a functioning, modernized and fully-staffed State Department.
The difference between think tanks and foreign policy, Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress pointed out during a discussion hosted by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, is that the latter requires people to roll up their sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty details. On human rights for example, we can, as Katulis put it, “virtue signal” with public reports and pronouncements, but real progress is often made in bilateral, nonpublic settings where we can quietly leverage aid, diplomatic support and defense cooperation to achieve human-rights gains. Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, might consider inviting back Foreign Service personnel who fled during the Trump years (especially heroic figures such as Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine).
Finally, unlike Trump, who tried undoing everything President Barack Obama did, Biden — at heart a pragmatist — should appreciate “we are where we are.” Iran’s nuclear program, for example, has blown through the limits of the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew, but sanctions have effectively wreaked havoc on Iran’s economy. We should use that leverage to navigate back to a sustainable deal that limits Tehran’s nuclear program and addresses the deal’s shortcomings.
Likewise, Biden has already signaled he will not rush to undo sanctions against China. (He told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman he would go after “China’s abusive practices — that’s stealing intellectual property, dumping products, illegal subsidies to corporations’ and forcing ‘tech transfers’ from American companies to their Chinese counterparts.”) His goal in addressing those issues, rather than Trump’s silly obsession with the trade deficit, should drive his policy. The president-elect must work in concert with allies (unlike Trump), but he should not fritter away leverage he inherits.
Biden’s team understands the challenge facing all liberal democracies. Investing at home (and explaining to voters how it connects to national security), rebuilding our alliances and diplomatic corps, and consistently articulating our values can rebuild our influence and stature while delivering on promised productivity and security.
Originally published in The Washington Post