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Examining Biden's Foreign Policy Plans

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Producer Andrew Craig gathered those many voices and perspectives, and Ed McNulty edited them. Now a question. Is there a thread running through President Biden's Afghanistan decision and the sanctions leveled on Russia and the talks aimed at returning to the Iran nuclear deal? John Gans is a foreign policy and national security historian who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He has close ties to the administration, and he joins us now. Good morning.

JOHN GANS: Good morning. Good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should start with Afghanistan. You know, President Obama, of course, came into office also promising to end the U.S. military's role there but instead saw troop levels rise from, I think, 30,000 to, at one point, 100,000. Is Obama's former vice president just fulfilling that promise? Or do you see more Biden here than Obama?

GANS: I definitely see more Biden here. I think what you see in the past week, not just with this major decision on war but major new initiatives on Russia, China, climate change, Iran and other matters is the depth of experience and capacity he brings and the team he brings the table to really - no other American president in the post-World War II era has ever attempted this many new national security initiatives in such a short amount of time after taking office and also handled them as well. It was an incredibly impressive week in terms of management. But the question I think we all wonder is these are pretty traditional. These are decisions you wouldn't have been surprised to see in 2016 during the Obama administration.

And after four years of a very upsetting Donald Trump administration in terms of how it handled international relations and the damage done by a massive pandemic that is still roiling politics and security and economics around the world, the question is whether even expertly handled traditional foreign policy initiatives are enough to sort of calm a very restive world and serve America's interests, which have changed a great deal since the Obama administration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it has been, as you do say, a week of many foreign policy initiatives. I think it is, many people believe, too soon to say how competently the Biden administration will tackle them. This is, you know, the very beginning of the Biden administration.

GANS: Absolutely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am curious, though, about this. Biden is a multilateralist. Obviously, he believes in alliances. He believes in consensus. You mentioned President Trump and his America First take on global affairs. That had some appeal among the electorate, though. I mean, can Joe Biden afford to just ignore that?

GANS: No. And I do believe that's one of the risks. I think we've seen a lot of discussion this week and even just previously on the show about some of the risks of this move on Afghanistan in terms of the region and in terms of those who have supported the American initiative in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a huge fear that there's going to be a vacuum left there.

GANS: Exactly. But there is also a vacuum in American foreign policy. And I think this is probably a bigger risk and a bigger worry for the Biden administration right now, which is that Americans - Biden just didn't pull out of Afghanistan. He really put the end on the post-9/11 foreign policy era that was defined by America's commitment to Afghanistan and the broader move against terrorism. And so while he's ended that era, he hasn't actually painted a picture of what comes next. And at a time when there is a real debate at home between globalists like Joe Biden and more nationalists like Donald Trump and his supporters who want to bring - make America first and bring America home and close America's borders - that's a real challenge.

And Americans have traditionally needed a big national effort abroad, whether it was World War II whether it was the Cold War, whether it was the War on Terror, to stay engaged with the world. And so Biden and his team in the next few months really do need to paint a picture of what comes next and to keep Americans engaged with the world because the vacuum in Afghanistan could very quickly become a vacuum around the world where Americans want to come home because they see no reason to stay abroad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's interesting that you mentioned sort of the ideology underpinning foreign policy. Of course, George W. Bush had a foreign policy based on sort of the ideology, if you will, of advancing democracy, fighting against terrorism. Trump's was also ideological. Obama stressed pragmatism. Knowing what you know, what do you think will be the underlying principle of Joe Biden's?

GANS: I believe there's two things - threads that are coming together. The first is Joe Biden is a globalist. He believes in American engagement. He believes that America's problems become worse when it's not engaged. He's sort of a classic of the mid-20th century worldview that if we don't go there, they'll come here, and we need to stay engaged.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But lead from the front or lead from behind?

GANS: I think he's a lead from the front for sure. But I think his administration and some of the younger people in his administration - people like Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser - are trying - are seeing some of the sort of frustrations at home and saying America's foreign policy needs to serve its middle class. He's a big believer that we need to sort of connect what we're doing abroad with what we're doing at home. And so those are two interesting initiatives that have to come together, and we'll have to see if they're able to make sense of that and make that work.

I think the coronavirus presents both a risk and an opportunity. The coronavirus, as we all know, started as a foreign policy problem, right? It was a virus abroad that we saw coming, and we worried about. It roiled across China, roiled across Europe and then came into the United States. As Americans become more vaccinated and slowly develop towards herd immunity here, coronavirus is going to become much more of a foreign policy problem, where unvaccinated countries across the world are going to pose risks in terms of variants and as economic sort of challenges and sort of - and help as headwinds on the economy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's John Gans of the University of Pennsylvania. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much.

GANS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.