Fully cognizant of the unofficial Goldwater Rule in the U.S. that “it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures whom they have not examined in person, and from whom they have not obtained consent to discuss their mental health in public statements,” I do find Joe Biden’s early administration to be schizophrenic.
On the one hand, his domestic initiatives have been promising. According to one commentator following Biden’s April 28 presentation of his agenda to a joint session of Congress one day short of his 100 days in office, Biden “is looking to correct a capitalist economy that has gone askew, and reclaim a lost vision of shared prosperity.”
As proof of this promising look – obviously dependent on help from Republicans – John Cassidy of The New Yorker focuses on Biden’s American Jobs Plan and Biden’s American Families Plan. Cassidy says the first “would have increased federal spending on transportation, green energy, and scientific research and development.” According to Biden, it would create “millions of good-paying jobs, jobs Americans can raise a family on.”
The latter, Cassidy summarizes, “would provide affordable child care to low-to-middle income families, and also up to twelve weeks of paid medical leave, two years of free community college, and expanded child tax credits…”
An impressive list by any progressive account. It is no wonder that early President Biden is being compared with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
In addition to presenting his domestic agenda and boasting that “America is Back” and how he’s acted “to restore people’s faith in democracy to deliver,” Biden briefly touched on foreign policy. And here’s where the schizophrenia revealed itself.
While extolling that all his policies are aimed to benefit the struggling middle class, Biden “made absolutely clear [to President XI of China] that we will defend America’s interests across the board.” In addition to defending America’s economic interests, Biden said “I also told President Xi that we’ll maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific, just as we do with NATO and Europe.”
Reaching out? Ping pong diplomacy? Biden revealed that in his conversation with the Chinese leader, “I told him…that America will not back away from our commitments, our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to our alliances.”
While this might have been re-assuring to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, there is nothing new or progressive about these positions. If trickledown economics and the Reagan-Thatcher era is over, as Biden promised in domestic affairs, what has changed from traditional American foreign policy here?
And that extends to Russia as well. Biden said that “I made very clear to Putin that we’re not going to seek escalation, but their actions will have consequences if they turn out to be true, so I responded directly and proportionally to Russia’s interference on our elections and the cyberattacks on our government and our business.” Yes there has been some progress on nuclear talks and the Iran nuclear deal, but there is nothing innovative or progressive in these statements.
Biden was addressing a joint meeting of Congress. He is primarily concerned with the pandemic and its harsh economic consequences. I will concede that foreign policy is not high on his agenda, certainly not in the first 100 days of his administration.
But that assumes that domestic and foreign policy can be separated, a traditional binary division. It accepts that Biden may be progressive and surprisingly liberal domestically while he can remain tied to a very traditional foreign policy paradigm. Progressive at home, conservative around the world. After all, wasn’t Nixon the opposite: progressive in foreign policy – especially with China - while conservative at home?
To return to Biden and the FDR comparison. If Biden is to be a revolutionary president, he must understand that Roosevelt’s New Deal for the American people was started at a time of extreme economic hardship as the U.S. is now witnessing for much of the population. There the comparison holds. But on foreign policy, Roosevelt was already planting the seeds for the United Nations during World War II. In other words, Roosevelt was anticipating the end of the war and a world organization designed to be more pragmatic than the failed League of Nations. (Early in his career, Roosevelt had made more than 800 speeches supporting the League.)
Biden is no newcomer to foreign policy He became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1997 and chaired it from 2001-2003 and again in 2007. Current Secretary of State Antony Blinken worked for many years with Biden on the Committee as well as serving in senior policy positions for several administrations. He too is well versed in foreign policy.
So why haven’t there been more impressive foreign policy initiatives beyond rejoining the World Health Organization, the UN Human Rights Council, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear talks as well as the announced troop withdrawal from Afghanistan? These are a far call from changing the trickledown economic policies of a generation and “looking to correct a capitalist economy that has gone askew.”
Why hasn’t Biden been more foreign policy progressive? The obvious answer that he is too busy with domestic affairs belies his foreign affairs preparation and the world’s need for new ideas. A more cynical answer is that he and Blinken are so embedded in traditional paradigms that they cannot think out of the box.
There is a need for comprehensive and radical change on both domestic and foreign policy fronts. Subtle changes or declarations that the U.S. is back in the multilateral system are necessary but not sufficient. Many of the declarations and actions sound like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. There is medication for schizophrenia.