- The Democratic nominee and his closest advisors served in the Obama administration—but their foreign-policy vision is finding inspiration in Harry S. Truman.
In an essay published earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wrote, “the triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” That is a sentiment worth pausing over. Biden, who was born in 1942, is a child of that heroic era: He grew up in the 1950s, when the United States assumed its role of benevolent hegemon of the West in the struggle with the Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse in 1989 appeared to put an end to the great ideological contest of the 20th century. In his own tenure as vice president, Biden worked with President Barack Obama to buffer conflict with the authoritarian states of our own time—China, Russia, Iran.
Only four years have passed since that time, and yet in his essay Biden was, in effect, conceding that this project had failed. The contest with authoritarianism will define the American future both because those states, each in their own way, have chosen a path of confrontation with the West, and because—what is far more shocking—in 2016 the United States elected a president who has trampled democratic norms at home, insulted democratic allies abroad, and showered dictators with praise. Should Biden become president, he will inherit a crisis that bears a resemblance to the early days of the Cold War—far better in some ways but worse in others. Indeed, several of Biden’s foreign-policy advisors to whom I have been speaking in recent weeks made the analogy to President Harry S. Truman.
Certain words keep cropping up in Biden’s campaign documents and the works of his confidantes: “free world,” “democracy,” “Europe,” “lead.” Progressives would regard these as retrograde words that bear the mark of a candidate shaped by a vanished world. Certainly they are words that come naturally to Biden, an old-school sentimental patriot. Yet to his former national security aides and current advisors, some of them almost two generations younger than Biden, they constitute the necessary response to radical changes both abroad and at home.