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‘That’s his first love’: Why Biden may be a foreign policy president despite domestic crises

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Trudeau congratulates Biden on election win

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday congratulated U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate California Senator Kamala Harris on their historic election victory that was declared Saturday. (Nov. 9)

WASHINGTON – In June 2001, President George W. Bush was trying to size up Russian President Vladimir Putin during their first face-to-face meeting at a summit in Slovenia.

“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” Bush told reporters at a joint news conference, in what turned out to be an embarrassing misconception. “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”   

A decade later, then-Vice President Joe Biden had his own tete-a-tete with Putin, and he offered a starkly different assessment of the Russian strongman. As Putin was showing Biden his Kremlin office, the two men also found themselves eye to eye. 

“I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a 

soul,” Biden recalled in an interview with Evan Osnos, whose biography of Biden was published in October. “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’ ”

As Biden’s story about Putin illustrates, the president-elect already knows many of the players on the world stage – and knows them well, whether from his two terms as vice president or his 30-plus years in the Senate.

In fact, Biden will enter the White House with more foreign policy experience than any of his four immediate predecessors, from Donald Trump to Bill Clinton, stretching back nearly three decades.  

“Biden is in a position to hit the ground running,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And that’s very important, because there’s a lot of ground to make up.” 

Indeed, while Biden will begin his term confronting two urgent domestic crises – the spiraling COVID outbreak and its economic consequences – many observers believe he will also put foreign policy front-and-center.

“Biden will be a foreign policy president,” predicted Bill Richardson, a former congressman and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “That’s his first love.”

But it’s not just about wonky foreign policy passion. 

Biden has made it clear that he wants to restore America’s standing in the world because he sees that effort as inextricably linked to solving the pandemic and the sputtering U.S. economy, said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank. For example, Biden wants to rejoin the World Health Organization in part because he believes it will help the U.S. with its domestic COVID crisis, increasing American influence inside the organization and making the U.S. a bigger player in the global response. 

“The solutions to these domestic priorities absolutely have a through line to your foreign policy,” said Wilson. “I think (Biden’s team) have baked in this fundamental connection between the domestic and the international, so that they are mutually reinforcing … It’s not like you have to choose one or the other.” 

Biden can skip the diplomatic ‘peacocking’

Richardson recalled his first time meeting Biden in 1972, at a foreign policy conference in Lesotho, Africa. Richardson was a Senate staffer, and Biden had just won election to the U.S. Senate but hadn’t been sworn in yet, he said. 


Joe Biden’s nearly 50-years in politics in review

Joe Biden has spent nearly 5 decades in politics, culminating in his candidacy for president in 2020.

“Yet he was already being very personal with African leaders, like devouring information,” recalled Richardson, who is not involved with the president-elect’s current transition team.

Biden continued to schmooze with foreign leaders and soak up global politics for the next 37 years. And from 1997 through 2008, Biden served as either chairman or the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

By the time Barack Obama tapped Biden to be his No. 2 in the 2008 presidential campaign, Biden had met with more than 130 foreign leaders from nearly 60 countries, territories and multi-lateral organizations, including presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings and United Nations’ secretaries. And when heads of state came to Capitol Hill, many were on a first-name basis with Biden. 

As vice president, Obama put Biden in charge of a range of nettlesome global issues – dispatching him to more than 50 countries over his eight years. His portfolio included everything from America’s military drawdown in Iraq to the 201migrant crisis in Central America.

“He is a known quantity in a lot of capitals around the world,” said Osnos, who is a fellow with the Brookings Institution and a staff writer at the New Yorker. That will be a major asset for Biden, he said, giving allies and foes “an element of recognizability” at a time when America has lost its footing on the world stage.

It will also help Biden cut to the diplomatic chase. 

“They can skip some of the process of peacocking around and trying to suss out each other’s approach. They’ve already done that work,” Osnos said.

That familiarity could, of course, disadvantage Biden if other foreign powers think they know how to play him. When President Donald Trump first came into office, heads of state around the world were deeply unsure of how the new American president would handle foreign affairs.

And while many world leaders grew to dislike his erratic policies and provocative rhetoric, Trump’s unpredictability did work to his advantage at times. Nikki Haley, Trump’s first ambassador to United Nations, said she used Trump’s bellicose rhetoric to persuade other world leaders they had to tighten sanctions on North Korea.  

“I bounced it off the president’s rhetoric, saying, ‘I can’t stop him. I’m not gonna be able to control him. We’ve gotta get this done,'” Haley said in a 2018 interview.

‘I can’t stop him.’ UN ambassador Nikki Haley used Trump’s harsh North Korea rhetoric as leverage

From across the globe to Delaware, a rush of congratulatory calls

As president-elect, Biden has already spoken with at least a dozen foreign leaders, fielding congratulatory calls from across the globe even as Trump continues to contest the election.

‘Welcome back, America’: World congratulates Joe Biden, allies and adversaries look ahead

Among the first to phone Biden: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two men have known each other for nearly 40 years. And while Netanyahu has developed a close relationship with Trump, the Israeli prime minister was quick to tout his “long & warm personal relationship” with America’s next president in a tweet.  

Indyk said that while Biden and Netanyahu genuinely like each other, their long relationship also gives the president-elect a big advantage in dealing with the Israeli leader on tough issues.

“Joe Biden knows the kinds of tricks and behavior that Netanyahu engages in,” he said. “And in particular, he knows that Netanyahu is beholden to his right-wing base, which leads him to adopt policies that are antithetical to American interests in certain respects.”

Biden’s long-established relationship with Iran’s top diplomat may also work to their mutual favor as Washington and Tehran figure out if – and how – to pick up the pieces of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers gravely wounded by Trump’s exit from the accord in 2018. The president-elect and Mohammad Javad Zarif have known each other since the latter’s time as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York from 2002-2007, when they often held private meetings aimed at defusing U.S.-Iran tensions. 

In world affairs, Indyk said, “relationships are everything,” but they are also a means to an end, whether that’s rebuilding America’s global standing or securing a smaller diplomatic victory.

Trump-Netanyahu: How two leaders reap political rewards from their cozy relationship

Biden has two other longstanding relationships that he will likely lean on after his inauguration: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

His rapport with Merkel could help Biden in his quest to repair relations with America’s European allies, as well as with NATO, said Osnos. And his relationship with Xi, developed when they both served as vice presidents, will help him confront a rising China. 

“The reason why that stuff matters is not because Xi Jinping is suddenly going to cave in the face of Joe Biden’s purported charm,” said Osnos. “It’s that … they’re coming in with a pre-existing understanding” of each other’s personalities and national interests. 

Aside from his personal relationships, Biden will have another key edge when dealing with foreign leaders, Indyk said. 

“Most of our allies will be immensely relieved that they have somebody who is sensible, stable, reliable to engage with,” he said. “They will understand the value of having an American leader who is back.”

“That will give Biden a chance to say ‘You just saw the alternative and the alternative is lurking in the wind … If you don’t want Trumpism to come back, we need to find a way to work effectively together to produce results’,” Indyk added.

Getting results on the world stage has been important to Biden for decades. In a 1987 interview, the British broadcaster David Frost asked then-Senator Joe Biden what the president’s “most important” job is. 

“It’s foreign policy,” Biden told Frost. “It’s a president who can be perceived by allies and adversaries alike as someone who has strength and … a degree of sophistication about the affairs of the world.”

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