Joe Biden’s foreign policy should steer clear of missionary idealism

Joe Biden’s foreign policy should steer clear of missionary idealism

Barack Obama’s prudence abroad is a good model for the president-elect

Joe Biden is about to stroll through an orchard of low-hanging fruit. Once he is sworn in in January, the next US president will mend relations with Europe and other old but estranged friends. We can expect an equal and opposite distancing from the world’s autocratic regimes. After the strongman-whisperer, Donald Trump, America will have at its top an unambiguous democrat, not just a Democrat.

It is right to wish this project well. It is also natural to worry when the US accords near-mystical powers to democracy. If Mr Biden plans to signal a general preference for free countries over the opposite, so much the better. But there are intimations of a more ambitious idealism. “Call it a league of democracies,” wrote Antony Blinken last year (with Robert Kagan), proposing a formal concert of liberal nations. So much pamphleteering, maybe, but the man who has been selected as the next secretary of state is not unique among Democrats in this quest to promote freedom after four years of brute nationalism.

Mr Biden must be careful not to set moral standards that can only be flunked. Most of his foreign priorities entail some accommodation with autocrats. The nuclear pact with Iran, which he hopes to revive, does not stipulate any liberal reform within the Islamic republic. And how could it? Nor can a world effort against climate change be fussy about the domestic institutions of participant nations. Carbon emissions are not unique to the democracies.