While Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election has given Americans hope for a new domestic policy course, pundits are not optimistic that this change will occur in foreign policy.
It seems a pattern has developed over the last few decades, in which an incumbent president, left leaning or right, intervenes in another country’s domestic politics, leading to war, instability, and a loss of American credibility. Consequently, a challenger will emerge, promising a new foreign policy approach that will return the United States to its former integrity and greatness. Whether it was Bush advocating for an end to nation-building, Obama’s intent of ending the wars in the Middle East, or Trump’s promise to reduce foreign deployments, the most recent American presidents have promised sweeping changes to America’s foreign policy, and all of them have failed to fulfill them.
The most modern example of this contradiction between stated intent and action is the current Civil War in Yemen. The conflict began in 2014, with Saudi intervention beginning in 2015. Obama was faced with the choice of letting Saudi Arabia proceed alone, or indirectly participating to maintain some level of control over the crisis. Even though Obama had promised a reduced role for the US in the Middle East, and even though the country was still entangled in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama choose to participate anyway. Trump campaigned on a promise of putting America first, one component of which was reducing America’s expenses and military missions abroad. However, upon assuming office, not only did he renegade on this promise, he also vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have forced an end to US involvement in the Yemeni conflict. Many believe this decision was spurned by Trump’s close relationship with Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Along comes Joe Biden, a lifetime politician who made his name on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A harsh critic of authoritarian rule, Biden has been consistently critical of far-right regimes throughout his political career. He personally met and criticized Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990’s and was in support of ousting Saddam Hussein from power in the early 2000’s. As the democratic presidential candidate, he promised to restore international faith in the United States as one of the bastions of democracy, freedom, and equality. While Trump’s foreign policy decisions were so damaging that it seems impossible for Biden to make matters worse, there are reasons to be skeptical.
American politicians have always espoused the notion that America is the principal defender of democratic values. In Biden’s own words, America’s most sacred democratic values are “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity”. However, the US has historically been selective in who these principles are applied to. Whether it be Latin American countries throughout the Cold War or countries in the Middle East throughout the War on Terror, American administrations have repeatedly bent international and domestic law to further their own interests while denying the people of these countries the very values that Biden claims are sacred.
It is difficult for the US to position themselves as the defender of freedom and the champion of universal rights while simultaneously applying a seemingly authoritarian and oppressive foreign policy on non-complicit states. While calling America’s foreign policy history a fascist one might be a stretch, there are millions of people throughout the world who are justified in their anger and frustration with the last few decades of American foreign policy decisions. Due to Biden’s history of cooperation and candor with America’s allies, Biden has a chance to succeed in repairing alliances damaged during Trump’s tenure as well as re-engaging the US in international agreements and forums.
However, while the Biden administration has announced steps in the right direction such as reversing the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization and appointing a special envoy to Yemen, these are superficial changes that allow the Biden administration to state they are reversing Trump’s foreign policies while keeping the door open to future American imperialist projects. Biden has outlined ambitious plans to steer America away from its history of foreign policy abuses, but until they materialize, many people, myself included, will maintain our skepticism. Therefore, while the dominance of far-right politics has been temporarily curtailed in domestic American politics, this will not translate to American foreign policy.