Every election season, commentators search for the Holy Grail of American foreign policy, the presidential doctrine, or a leader’s defining set of diplomatic beliefs. The George W. Bush doctrine was to hunt down terrorists and spread democracy, if necessary, at the point of a bayonet. The Barack Obama doctrine was to avoid “dumb” wars like Iraq. The Donald Trump doctrine was to stop allies and international institutions from taking America for a ride. What’s Joe Biden’s doctrine? It should be easy enough to figure out, given his long career as a senator and vice president. Some on the left see the Biden doctrine as a hawkish agenda, while Trump supporters describe Biden as a proponent of “activist liberalism” and endless wars. Meanwhile, others on the right hammer Biden as a consistent dove. In reality, there’s no fixed Biden doctrine—and that’s probably a good thing.
The idea that presidents somehow stamp a unique doctrine on foreign policy is a version of the “great man” theory of history. But even the greatest man is also a creature of his age. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln seemingly held the destiny of the nation in the palm of his hand. And yet, Lincoln wrote: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Biden’s personality also blurs the idea of a distinctive Biden doctrine. He’s not a visionary thinker but a pragmatist. His strongest views on foreign policy are often about the means rather than the ends—the importance of conciliation, deal-making, and alliances. His governing style is closer to the collegial model of John F. Kennedy than the top-down approach of Richard Nixon. Whereas Trump once revealed that his main foreign policy advisor is “myself,” Biden has mobilized a brigade of 2,000 diplomatic gurus. And Biden’s bridge-building doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. He puts great weight on cultivating personal relationships with foreign leaders and prefers to use force alongside international partners. If elected, he’ll be “schmoozer-in-chief.”
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Biden has rarely strayed far from mainstream Democratic Party thinking on foreign policy, or from wider public opinion. However, if Biden doesn’t control the current, he does steer within it, and at key moments, his personal experience profoundly shaped his thinking.
Biden the Moderate
Biden’s foreign policy journey is a story in three chapters, each in the shadow of war. The opening chapter began in the wake of Vietnam in the 1970s, when Biden was a youthful senator, and lasted through the Gulf War in 1991. “I ran the first time as a twenty-nine-year-old kid against the war in Vietnam,” recalled Biden, “on the grounds that the only way to take a nation to war is with the informed consent of the American people.” Still, he didn’t identify with the peacenik protesters and thought that the Vietnam War was dumb, rather than immoral.
During this time, Biden was a middle-of-the-road Democrat on foreign policy. He backed the invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, but opposed funding the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and in 1991, voted against authorizing the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. national interests, he said. Just as Washington was ignorant about Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, now it didn’t understand the Middle East. The goal of stabilizing the region was a pipe dream, which “has never in 5,000 years been accomplished for very long.”
Biden’s wariness about fighting Iraq was in sync with the Democratic Party mood and wider public opinion. He was one of 45 (out of 55) Democratic senators who voted against the Gulf War (the resolution authorizing war only narrowly passed 52 to 47). In the buildup to Desert Storm, the American public was also cautious about hostilities, and only became enthusiastic about war after the fighting started.
Biden the Hawk
The second chapter of Biden’s foreign policy thinking is the hawkish phase, from 1991 to 2003, in the shadow of the Gulf War and the end of the Cold War. Biden quickly regretted his vote against war in 1991 and criticized Bush senior for ending the campaign too soon and leaving Saddam in power, causing “immense human suffering within Iraq.” Buoyed with confidence about seizing the sword, Biden championed U.S. intervention in the Balkans, called Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević a war criminal to his face, and described the Bill Clinton administration’s inaction in the region as, “a policy of despair and cowardice.” Biden supported the Kosovo War in 1999 as well as the Afghanistan War in 2001. He also sought to check Saddam’s “relentless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,” and in October 2002, voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq.
Is the Biden doctrine really a hawkish manifesto, as some on the left claim? Biden’s bellicose pivot in the 1990s reflected the broader American zeitgeist. The rapid U.S. victory in the Gulf seemed to bury the Vietnam syndrome in the Arabian sands. From 1991-2003, over one hundred polls asked Americans whether to remove Saddam by force, and every single one found majority support. After the 9/11 attacks, Washington was gripped by fears of a potential alliance between terrorists and tyrants, and Biden was one of 77 senators who authorized the use of force to topple Saddam.
Biden the Dove
The Iraq War opened a new chapter: Biden the dove. The senator saw the invasion of Iraq as a national and personal failure. He had hoped that congressional backing for war might spur a tougher United Nations response and avoid hostilities entirely, but the hawks surrounding Bush were set on fighting. “I made a mistake,” he explained. “I underestimated the influence of Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the rest of the neocons. I vastly underestimated their disingenuousness and incompetence.” His fears about the aftermath of regime change in Baghdad proved prescient, as the war became a costly quagmire.
Since 2003, Biden has been generally skeptical about the use for force. He opposed the surge of troops in Iraq in 2006-2007, the surge in Afghanistan in 2009, and the Libyan War in 2011. He raised doubts about the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden in 2011, as well as the decision to draw a red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Biden did back the campaign against ISIS and favored the escalation of drone warfare, but he criticized Trump’s decision to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
Have we finally found Biden’s true nature? Perhaps—but again, his dovish turn is bound up with the wider “Iraq syndrome” in American society, where even Donald Trump and the Republican Party rail against forever wars. Biden is no kite in the wind, however. As vice president, he was consistently more dovish than Obama—on Afghanistan, on Bin Laden, on Syria, and on Libya (an intervention that Obama later called his biggest mistake). Biden’s personal experiences powerfully reinforced his awareness of the cost of war. In 2015, his son Beau died of brain cancer, and Biden said the disease may have been caused by exposure to military burn pits in Kosovo and Iraq.
Is the real Biden the dove of 1991, the hawk of 2002, or the dove of 2020? The answer is all of them. And so, in the end, the Biden doctrine may be a mirage. He’s not an ideologue who seeks to impose a foreign policy program. Neither is he a narcissist who views every diplomatic issue in terms of his individual benefit. Rather, Biden is a man of his time, a man who shares many of his party’s and his country’s strengths and weaknesses, a man who has lived and learned in the shadows of war, a man once tempted by the possibilities of power and now tempered by the realities of force. Biden’s foreign policy journey is not over. As president, he may pivot in a more hawkish direction, as memories of the Iraq War fade and new challenges emerge from China and Russia. Biden recently 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.”
Biden’s desire to reach agreement with opponents across the aisle and allies across the ocean makes it hard to decipher a unique foreign policy creed. But rigid doctrines are overrated. The record of recent presidents who tried to personalize and dominate foreign policy is not encouraging. America needs Biden more than it needs a Biden doctrine.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.