Barring a recount miracle or judicial development that would make Bush v. Gore look like a routine court decision, Joe Biden appears likely to be the next president of the United States. What effect will this have on Republican foreign policy and increasing conservative openness to realism and restraint?
Paradoxically, the likeliest answer is the worse, the better. That is, if Biden behaves like the liberal hawk he has frequently been and follows the advice of a Democratic foreign policy establishment that is largely committed to its own version of benevolent global hegemony — making the overall direction of the country’s foreign policy worse — the Republican positions on these issues will reflexively favor restraint, which is better.
Alternatively, if Biden does indeed heed more realist, even progressive voices, the results will be more events-driven, but Republicans will be more inclined to hammer their Democratic foe as feckless and weak, following a playbook that has existed since the Cold War.
For all the drama of the last four years it seems like we are in a new era of politics, but partisanship is still what makes the world of Washington go round.
This is evident based on what happened when Barack Obama was in the White House, with Biden serving as his vice president. Sen. Rand Paul and Tea Party conservatives in the House were able to rally most Republicans against the unconstitutional war in Libya and a proposed military intervention in Syria. But there was little appetite for supporting the Iran nuclear deal or even Chuck Hagel, a Republican, for secretary of defense from the rest of the party.
Every incentive will be for ambitious Republicans to oppose Biden at every turn. This is especially true because there will be an expectation of 2022 election midterm gains and President Trump left his party a much clearer path to an Electoral College majority than any vanquished GOP presidential nominee since Gerald Ford.
Biden may benefit to some extent by having relationships with Capitol Hill Republicans Obama did not, and he also has some deal-making tendencies his former boss lacked. But there are three potential roadblocks to real foreign policy change: 1) Republicans who want to run for president in 2024 will generally want no part of this deal-making. 2) His institutionalist inclinations will be hemmed in by partisanship, with the left not wanting deals with anyone vaguely Trumpy. 3) Even if Biden follows his less partisan angels and reaches across the aisle, the foreign policy results will be bad because he will likely deal with GOP hawks — and bipartisan institutionalism is what powers the Blob.
The best case scenario is that some eager Republican sees the opportunity presented by some of Trump’s revisions of the GOP brand divorced from his personal toxicity. For all of the faults of his foreign policy in the end, Trump got Republicans talking about ending endless wars and extricating the U.S. from the Middle East. And while he did not understand how to conduct diplomacy properly, he thought it better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.
Unfortunately, what Trump did not understand until very late in the game was that personnel is policy. Telegenic defenders mean very little if they want the opposite of what you want in Afghanistan. A good cop/bad cop routine cannot work in diplomacy if all of the people dedicated to the details are bad cops.
The longer term problem this poses is that Trump did not set up very many people to succeed him on the foreign policy front. The big exception is Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who was a more consistent “America First” proponent than his president. He voted against Trump on Yemen (as did Mark Meadows, the eventual White House chief of staff, and stalwart Trump defender Jim Jordan) and Iran. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has yet to decisively distinguish himself from the pre-Trump neoconservative consensus. Two other Trump allies, recently re-elected Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, are very much a part of that consensus. Jeff Sessions’ foreign policy views actually improved under Trump, but the president ensured his former attorney general would not return to the Senate.
Many Republicans loyal to George W. Bush used the Trump years to rehabilitate their man, who is now more associated with sharing candy with Michelle Obama than the futile search for WMD in Iraq, and themselves. Others successfully straddled the two realities, Nikki Haley probably being the most prominent example.
If Biden does govern as a liberal hawk, bipartisan cooperation for peace becomes easier. Trump’s rhetoric was a huge plus for intervention skeptics in the GOP but he was anathema to Democrats. That stumbling block is removed with a different man in the White House.
Large parts of even the left portion of the Democratic base were riled up about Russia in a way that implies hawkish foreign policy commitments. It will remain to be seen whether that sentiment lingers post-Trump or whether it will become a relic like “The 1980s called and wanted its foreign policy back.”
There have been some positive trends in public opinion on foreign policy over the last two administrations, headed by presidents who understood that the Iraq war was a costly mistake. But despite what seems like uncharted territory in the era of Trump and COVID, partisanship will continue to motivate the parties and their policies and “restraint” will just have to adjust.