Much changed world, same Joe Biden seeking to undo what Trump has done

Last Updated : 19 August 2020, 07:06 IST
Last Updated : 19 August 2020, 07:06 IST

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The Tuesday night speaking lineup for the Democratic convention was always intended as a muscular contrast on foreign policy and diplomatic integrity, presented to viewers under the evening’s unsubtle theme: “Leadership Matters.”

There were two former commanders-in-chief, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. There was Sally Q. Yates, the former deputy attorney general who famously warned the White House in early 2017 that Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, had lied about his Russian contacts and was susceptible to blackmail — a stark reminder of the strange relationship between Trump and President Vladimir Putin.

And John Kerry, the former secretary of state who negotiated the Iran deal that Trump decimated, was called in to validate Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee and Kerry’s former Senate peer, as a steady-handed statesman for precarious times.

“In this time of crisis for our democracy, our country desperately needs a leader like Joe Biden,” Kerry wrote in a fundraising email before his speech. “We need a president who is ready on day one to begin the hard work of putting back together the pieces of what Donald Trump has smashed apart.”

But putting back the pieces is probably not a feasible option, with global affairs straying a great distance from the status quo Biden might recall from the last time he stepped out of the Situation Room.

The relationship with China has turned poisonous. Biden’s party, still reeling from Russia’s election interference in 2016, has become more hawkish on dealing with Moscow than Republicans who once cast themselves as the party of national security. North Korea has turned a project to build a few bombs into an arsenal that rivals India’s and Pakistan’s, and reconstituting the Iran deal, if that is even possible, is unlikely to change the fundamental tensions dividing the Middle East.

Biden has offered few detailed policy plans to address how he would tackle this very changed world. Instead, the broad message of the virtual convention came down to this: Trust a man who ran the Foreign Relations Committee, who participated in the decisions to take out Osama bin Laden with a commando strike and Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with a cyber strike, and who would arrive at the White House with an experienced team.

To Trump and his supporters, that is Biden’s vulnerability. They say he stands for the establishment foreign policy that the current administration took office to destroy.

Biden, in turn, is arguing that Trump has allowed adversaries to undercut American interests, coddling strongmen, heartening the Russians and cutting deals for his friends.

By day’s end, the gravity of this split — and Biden’s long-running campaign theme of country-over-party leadership at home and abroad — had been reinforced by the latest turn in the seemingly ceaseless drama of Russia and the Trump 2016 campaign.

A Republican-controlled Senate panel released an extensive report detailing the web of connections between the Trump operation and Russian government officials and others with ties to the country’s intelligence services.

With the proceedings on Tuesday night, Democrats hoped to offer a compelling counterpoint to a nation still getting its head around a disquieting truth: A foreign power tried to sabotage the last American presidential election, and some in Trump’s circle were open to the help.

His roster of allies slated to speak Tuesday evening hinted at the kind of president Biden would like to be — a model that Democrats believe will resonate more powerfully with each revelation of Trumpian hostility to diplomatic norms.

“Having individuals speak — like Sally Yates and Secretary Kerry — speak from the perspective of where we are with Russian interference, with our challenges with China, I think tonight what you will see is a real contrast between Joe Biden and Donald Trump,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., a co-chair of Biden’s presidential campaign. She added, “The contrast between experienced leadership, compassionate leadership, qualified leadership.”

The message is in many ways a culmination of the pitch Biden and his allies have been pressing since the start of his campaign last spring: that he, a former vice president who spent decades steeped in foreign policy as a senator, was uniquely equipped to repair tattered relationships abroad and to assume the commander-in-chief role at home after four years of uncertain and destabilizing leadership under Trump.

Biden has surrounded himself by trusted veterans of the Democratic foreign policy establishment including Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, two of his former national security advisers in the White House. His team is stacked with Obama-era foreign policy hands who are not promising radical departures from that administration. Instead they are betting that a renewed emphasis on multilateral engagement, a clear message about America’s role in the world and the empowering of foreign policy experts — along with scientists — will help to steady a rocky international landscape.

Biden has also promised an intensified focus on human rights as president. And he seriously considered selecting Susan Rice, the former national security adviser, as his running mate, a sign that he believes that no matter how big the challenges at home, the world has not stood still. It has warmed, and Biden will promise to re-enter the Paris climate accord. It has grown more authoritarian, and Biden will promise to put freedom back on the agenda.

On the road early this year, as he stumped for his former Senate colleague in school gyms and at house parties, Kerry constantly made the case for Biden’s foreign policy credentials. It is a case that Democrats and even a number of Republicans have cited in explaining their comfort with Biden, describing him as a man steeped in what was once a tradition of bipartisan consensus when it comes to America’s role as a leader on the global stage. Those standards, they argue, have been shredded by Trump.

“I’ve never before seen the world more in need of someone who on day one can begin the incredibly hard work of putting back together the world Donald Trump has smashed apart,” Kerry said in his endorsement last December.

Chuck Hagel, the former defense secretary who was a Republican senator from Nebraska before joining the Obama administration, described Biden as notably receptive to hearing out colleagues from the other side of the aisle.

“Biden made an effort always to communicate with and talk to and deal with and ask opinions of his Republican colleagues,” Hagel said in an interview earlier in the campaign.

Certainly, Biden’s deep experience in foreign affairs — “I was one of those folks they call a ‘chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee,’” he once said grandly, at a veterans-focused event in 2012 — has not always translated into electoral success and has sometimes amounted to significant political liability.

In 2008, his White House run was hamstrung by his vote authorizing the Iraq War, a decision he struggled to accurately explain as recently as this year. Early in the 2020 Democratic primary, Biden often strained to connect with audiences when discussing the finer points of his foreign policy history, his throwback references to long-ago global endeavors rarely landing in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And the fact remains that in some arenas Trump simply took Obama initiatives to wild extremes. Biden urged Obama to draw down troops in Afghanistan, and warned of “endless wars.” Biden himself promised to reinvigorate America’s nuclear laboratories, which Trump seized upon to renew an arms race with Russia.

Biden conceives of himself as pragmatic and nonideological, a maker of deals and a shaker of hands, eager to collaborate with Republicans and convinced that he is particularly capable of doing so effectively. (Some Democrats have questioned the wisdom of such compromises historically, lamenting his deference to Republicans most significantly in Iraq.)

If the evening’s thesis was often that Biden could be counted on with the nation’s most sensitive national security predicaments, the headliner on Tuesday moved to expand the point closer to home.

For the evening’s marquee speech, Jill Biden, the candidate’s wife, resolved to address the convention from Room 232 at Brandywine High School, where she once taught, drawing on her long career in education and her rolling side gig as a public advocate for her husband.

The intended message, against the backdrop of a mismanaged pandemic that threatens the upcoming school year, was unmistakable: The Bidens know how to take care of families, and Trump has failed them.

Biden has described himself as a “bridge” to the next generation of party leaders, like those showcased at other points on Tuesday night, insisting to doubters that he can be trusted to light the path forward internationally and at home, if they would only set aside their misgivings for long enough to hear him out.

It is the kind of persistent case he has often aimed at Jill Biden, those close to her say — in courtship, in marriage, in impressing his own political ambitions onto the family — and one she has come to embrace herself.

“You may like another candidate better,” she once said during the primary, “but you have to look at who’s going to win.”

That person is Joe Biden, she said. That is her experience, anyway.

Published 19 August 2020, 07:06 IST

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