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Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy?

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What will be the moral compass for the Biden administration’s foreign policy?

President George W. Bush’s foreign policy was known as his Freedom Agenda, designed to bring Western democracy to the Middle East. President Obama’s policy was ideologically the polar opposite, ending American exceptionalism to remake America as simply an equal on the global stage. President Trump’s policy was equally dramatic and unprecedented, advancing a businessman’s approach for a completely transactional foreign policy that was results-oriented. President-elect Biden’s website promises to “revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” When we look back 20 years from now, will this be what Joe Biden’s foreign policy is remembered for? 

As we prepare for a new administration, we should review the advantages and disadvantages of Trump’s transactional diplomatic approach, and speculate on what foreign policy approach Biden will take. Will it be bold, valued-based and transformational, or more modest, realistic and transactional?   

In a perfect world, Western democratic nations would follow their better angels, aligning with other nations that share their values — a model to create a better world. Whether in human rights, tolerance, pluralism, rule of law, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, standing with fellow democracies of all stripes would advance a foreign policy agenda that a nation could be proud of, while inspiring other nations to turn towards liberal democracy. 

In the past, there has been bipartisan support for a democratic values-based foreign policy that is ideal in theory. From the right, Bush touted Natan Sharansky’s “Case for Democracy” during his presidency, while the left-leaning Center for American Progress said, “America’s enduring security … (depends on the) success of democracy — both at home and abroad … (to) protect the liberal democratic values on which the United States’s global standing is built.”  

Today, a democratic values-oriented foreign policy agenda is not in fashion; critics from both sides of the aisle point to America’s nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as the most recent failures. Yet, America’s legacy also proudly includes the success of the Berlin Airlift in response to the Soviet siege of the1940s and the Marshall Plan, which saved Europe from totalitarian communism. If Biden chooses a more values-oriented policy, he may have an ally in Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said: “The world order that we have, based on democracy and based on the rule of law, is where this planet should go if it’s going to have a future.”  

Let’s leave aside progressive cultural relativists who think there is no right or wrong in the world and that, therefore, there cannot be a legitimate values-based policy. They denounce proselytizing Western democratic values as arrogant, claiming Western civilization is the root of the world’s evils, with all cultures morally equivalent. Of course, tolerance and respect, not condescension, should be afforded to other cultures, but the demonization of Western values that is in vogue is simply Marxist and authoritarian — something that does not resonate with the majority of Americans whose moral compass is rooted in 1776 and, if all things were equal, would want a foreign policy that reflects who we are as an American people.

Western civilizational values often don’t fit neatly into the foreign policy of democratic nations such as America, where you have no choice but to ally with friends and potential allies who don’t necessarily subscribe to your values, so you compromise your values to advance your interests. Western democracies have had dealings with unsavory dictators for centuries, when it served their interests. Realpolitik, a sober foreign policy that deals with the world as it is and not as we want it, is employed by every democratic nation in the 21st century.

But how much realpolitik should Biden stomach regarding China, Russia and the Middle East, before it damages our foundational principles and our reputation as a beacon of hope for the world? Engaging in foreign policy, the U.S. has found itself many times aiding and allying itself with regimes that flagrantly fail to live up to our standards in the governing of their societies. How much of this will Biden allow when dealing with China, Russia and other oppressive governments?

Whether it was Obama eschewing American values by abandoning the Iranian people during their Green Revolution, when millions took to the streets against their repressive government, in his hope of creating rapprochement for a nuclear agreement, or Trump cozying up to human rights-violating dictators such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or Russian President Vladimir Putin, American presidents of both parties have worked with authoritarians.

As the world’s leading superpower, America needs to rebuild its values-based relationships with Western democratic Europe, as well as to hold our nose and continue to create transactional alliances with authoritarians to advance our security interests. Balancing our desire to move some of those nations toward a more liberal policy to their citizens is a dance all administrations must attempt, some better than others. Henry Kissinger’s détente with the Soviet Union and  Richard Nixon’s opening with Communist China were both realpolitik, and they had to convince skeptics that those exchanges eventually could open up those societies to liberal change. In the case of China, the promised liberalizations have not occurred, even with capitalism taking root. 

Yaroslav Trofimov’s essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Can the West Still Lead?,” says “Today … the West finds itself in an existential crisis. Its role as a global beacon is in doubt. … Nationalist populism on the right and identity politics on the left threaten what used to be a broad consensus rooted in shared values of democracy and human right.”  

Americans of all political stripes should hope that the new administration creates a foreign policy that listens to voices across the political spectrum, doesn’t succumb to petty politics, and is one that reflects what most Americans believe America should project to the world. If America is to remain a beacon of hope, we must come together in respectful dialogue. Our unity is the missing ingredient to advance our foreign policy interests.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is the  senior editor for “Security” at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post.   

Tags Democracy Donald Trump Foreign policy of the United States Global politics International relations Jim Risch Joe Biden Kim Jong Un realpolitik Vladimir Putin

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