America’s path forward on the global stage for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden begins by looking backward.
The former vice president’s inner circle on international affairs and national security is populated heavily by familiar Obama-era officials and recognizable names in what has become the Democratic Party’s 21st-century foreign policy establishment.
While holed up in Delaware, Mr. Biden is routinely holding foreign policy discussions with former top officials who served alongside him during his eight years as vice president, according to sources familiar with the Biden campaign’s strategy.
Unlike President Trump, who built his presidential bid in 2016 by pitching a fundamentally new view of what America’s role in the world should be, Mr. Biden is crafting something of a hybrid approach that is open to new ideas but is largely reliant on a return to many of the policies and principles in place during his time in power.
Sources with knowledge of the Biden campaign’s plan say “evergreen” principles are a central pillar of how the longtime senator from Delaware will frame his foreign policy pitch to voters during the home stretch of the presidential race. Most polls give Mr. Biden a sizable lead over Mr. Trump just over four months before Election Day.
While they stress that Mr. Biden is fully aware that the world has changed over the past decade, the headline of his foreign policy platform will be an escape from the wrenching break with tradition that Mr. Trump ushered in.
Political analysts describe the platform as “restoration,” with Mr. Biden assembling a team that can help him best articulate how he would reverse the perceived damage Mr. Trump has caused over the past four years and rebuild bridges with traditional allies in Western Europe and East Asia, while repairing strained relationships with key international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO and the World Health Organization.
Unlike Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Biden would come to the job with a long and varied record on foreign policy, including three stints as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee during more than three decades in the Senate.
Mr. Biden’s bet, specialists say, is that a strong plurality of voters will warm to the idea of returning to the more predictable foreign policy of 2009 to 2017. Although voters tend to reward new ways of thinking and bold ideas, Mr. Trump’s unique approach may have radically changed the dynamic.
“I think the Trump foreign policy … has been such an outlier that any new president just has huge scope for pretty dramatic change by doing things that people would have taken for granted five, 10, 15 years ago,” said Thomas Wright, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on Mr. Biden’s foreign policy approach.
“Normally, when a presidential candidate in an election year says ‘I want to do more with allies, strengthen our alliance,’ it sounds a little trite. Every candidate, with the exception of our current president, says that,” Mr. Wright said. “Bush said it. Obama said it. Normally, it doesn’t mean much. But this time I think it means quite a lot.”
Mr. Biden’s restoration of foreign policy could include a return to the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate pact, a reluctance to use tariffs as a policy pressure point, and a much less antagonistic attitude toward traditional allies such as Germany.
To do that, Mr. Biden is assembling a familiar cast. Former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken; Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s former national security adviser; Elizabeth Rosenberg, former Treasury Department undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence; and a host of other Obama administration officials are among key voices in the former vice president’s ear.
Much of Mr. Biden’s national security brain trust is centered within several powerful left-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups in Washington, such as National Security Action, which describes a central part of its mission as “restoring American leadership” and reversing what it calls damage done by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Sullivan is a co-chairman of the organization, as is Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama.
Still, Democratic insiders argue that the world has changed dramatically over the past four years. Mr. Biden can make the deepest inroads on foreign policy, they say, by marrying attacks on Mr. Trump’s leadership with a clear path forward that recognizes where the U.S. stands today and where it needs to go.
“America has been represented by an empty chair” during the Trump presidency, said one source with knowledge of Mr. Biden’s campaign strategy. “Even when you have these evergreen strategies and approaches, rebuilding alliances and leveraging partnerships around the world, those are going to have to adapt to the present reality. And it’s a reality that doesn’t look anything like the reality he saw when he was vice president.”
Perhaps the clearest example of that dual strategy is with China. Mr. Biden favors a more collaborative working relationship with China on issues such as climate change, but he also seems keenly aware that Mr. Trump to some degree has successfully cast Beijing as a villain in U.S. popular opinion.
Mr. Biden seems willing to ramp up his rhetoric toward China’s Communist Party leadership to an unprecedented level.
“This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic-with-a-small-‘d’ bone in his body,” Mr. Biden said of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a Democratic primary debate in February.
Mr. Biden also labeled the Chinese leader a “thug.”
Global competition with China also could push Mr. Biden toward Mr. Trump’s positions in other arenas, specialists say. The need to increase American military presence in the Pacific, they say, could lead Mr. Biden to more emphatically back the Trump doctrine of ending U.S. participation in “endless wars” in the Middle East and Asia.
“Would you see some people [in the Democratic foreign policy realm] saying the China challenge is so important that we need to actually do less and pull back?” said Mr. Wright.
The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Facing his record
Other analysts say a heavy focus on the past could invite scrutiny of Mr. Biden’s mixed record on foreign policy. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served as Pentagon chief in the early years of the Obama-Biden administration, has said Mr. Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” including his opposition to the 1991 Persian Gulf War authorization, his vision for Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his positions on the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.
President Trump revived that critique in his address to a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night, and his allies have been preparing on that front.
The Republican National Committee this month circulated an email blasting Mr. Biden’s support for the 2003 Iraq invasion, his initial opposition to the 2011 raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other foreign policy issues.
The email cited numerous news articles and columns that have cast Mr. Biden’s foreign policy platform as “opaque,” unclear and as less of a priority than many of his domestic proposals.
Specialists say Mr. Biden’s relatively safe foreign policy approach also could frustrate the liberal wing of his party, which wants decreased military spending and a more determined move away from interventions in conflicts abroad.
“He’s going to frustrate the Democratic base, but he could win over, I think, independents, moderate Republicans, people of a more mainstream persuasion,” said Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco who studies the intersection of politics and foreign policy.
“Biden is really going to have to distance himself from his support for the Iraq War. … Biden is really going to have to remake himself as an anti-interventionist,” Mr. Zunes said. “The good thing for Biden is he’s really good at remaking himself on foreign policy. He’s gone basically where the wind blows on foreign policy.”