vision 2020

Could Biden Move Left on National Security?

Like most pols, Joe Biden loves to identify with the military. Photo: Tomoyuki Kaya/EPA/Shutterstock

Since basically clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden has been conspicuously considering a more progressive set of initiatives in domestic policy. This tendency has unsurprisingly been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic, leading Biden to envision a big, New Deal–style domestic policy agenda, as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti recently reported:

In his economic briefings — which have featured former White House advisers like Jared Bernstein and Benjamin Harris as well as Heather Boushey of the liberal Washington Center for Equitable Growth — Biden has likened the necessity to spend massively and immediately, without the usual D.C. focus on deficits, to a wartime effort.

He’s moving left, as Debenedetti suggests, as his party is doing the same. But this leads Peter Beinart to ask a very good question: Why is this leftward reconsideration limited to domestic policy?

While the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to win over Bernie Sanders voters have pushed the Biden campaign to embrace a more ambitious domestic agenda, little evidence indicates that the presumptive Democratic nominee is doing anything comparable on international affairs. That’s a pity, because America’s relationship with the world needs dramatic rethinking too.

In part that’s because COVID-19 is rapidly transforming conventional ideas of global power balances and the principal purposes of international organization and U.S. alliances. But in part it’s because, at some point, the need for significantly expanded federal resources to address domestic needs will collide with the vast Pentagon budget that has continued to rise in Democratic as well as Republican administrations. Even as Biden takes a friendly second look at the domestic policy idea of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in order to unify and energize his party, his expanded thinking has largely stopped at the water’s edge:

During the primary, Elizabeth Warren proposed cutting military spending by $800 billion over 10 years. Sanders suggested cutting it by $1.2 trillion over 12 years. Biden’s plans are more opaque. A February 2019 Politico survey identified him as one of the candidates who wanted to “boost the defense budget.”

Biden has since expressed an interest in defense savings. But so far there is no reason to think he has moved beyond the budgetary strategy of the Obama administration, which typically supported back-scratching deals that boosted both defense and nondefense appropriations (as congressional Democrats still largely do) in tandem. Aside from the need to secure Republican votes in Congress for key Democratic initiatives, this approach also reflected the ancient Democratic fear of looking “soft on defense,” the same impulse that has led the party to scour the earth looking for candidates with a military background or, better yet, heroic combat experience.

Could the same national emergency that made it possible for Republicans to all but abandon fiscal hawkery create an opening for Democrats to rethink national-security policy? Beinart thinks it could:

The pandemic — which has already killed roughly 30 times as many Americans as 9/11 — offers Biden the chance to break out of the parameters established by his predecessors. As the national-security analysts Joseph Cirincione and William Hartung recently noted in The National Interest, the U.S. spends $740 billion a year on the military and $11 billion on global public health. Hospitals teeter on the edge of bankruptcy while the Pentagon spends about $500 million a year on marching bands.

Donald Trump’s distinctive mix of national-security impulses — a sort of fun-house version of “peace through strength” where the United States stakes everything on military spending so large and threats to adversaries so reckless that actual armed conflict is minimized — has scrambled the GOP’s Cold War and post–Cold War national-security ideology. It’s an excellent time for Democrats to rethink their own tradition, placing international cooperation on challenges ranging from public health to climate change front and center alongside the traditional geopolitical concerns. And Trump may force the issue sooner rather than later, thanks to his efforts to interpret the coronavirus as a Chinese “plague” launched like a weapon against America:

Instead of challenging the Pentagon’s sky-high budget, Biden’s highest-profile foreign-policy foray since clinching the Democratic nomination has been to try to out-hawk Donald Trump on China. In April, the Biden campaign ran an ad, filled with menacing images of Chinese troops, that accused Trump of having “rolled over for the Chinese.” A pro-Biden super PAC accused the president of “outright acquiescence to China.” Getting to Trump’s right on China may strike Biden’s advisers as a shrewd way to neutralize the GOP’s line of attack. But it perpetuates the Cold War narrative that hawks are already using to sustain massive defense spending.

Yes, Biden has always been viewed as conventionally centrist in foreign as in domestic policy. He voted for the Iraq War resolution, as Bernie Sanders reminded Democrats in multiple candidate debates over the last year. But the veep was also considered a more cautious counterweight to Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration’s internal debates over intervention in Libya and troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. He hasn’t lashed himself to any national-security “doctrine,” and probably understands that his weakness among younger voters would benefit from a more pacific outlook.

Trump’s sinophobic saber-rattling aside, it’s unclear foreign policy or national security will play a central role in the presidential contest. So the struggle for the Democratic Party’s soul on these matters may play out behind the scenes, particularly if Biden wins. Its outcome may ultimately have as large an impact on fiscal policy, and in turn on domestic policy, as anything Uncle Joe decides to say on heath care or jobs or coronavirus recovery.

Could Biden Move Left on National Security?