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Opinion | Biden Wants to Return to a ‘Normal’ Foreign Policy. That’s the Problem.

Jake Sullivan, the vice president’s former national security adviser, is now senior adviser to his campaign. Writing in The Atlantic this month, Mr. Sullivan argued that the United States must re-embrace American exceptionalism, returning to a foreign policy of global leadership with “a renewed belief in the power of American values in the world.”

Many of Mr. Biden’s other advisers also seem to want to return America to the pre-Trump interventionist consensus. Nicholas Burns — a formal campaign adviser — was a strong proponent of the 2003 Iraq War. And Antony J. Blinken, who preceded Mr. Sullivan as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and is now a top foreign policy aide on the campaign, co-authored an essay in 2019 with the neoconservative Robert Kagan condemning Mr. Trump’s willingness to consider removing troops from Afghanistan and criticizing Barack Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria. (Mr. Blinken was also previously a contributing Opinion writer for The Times.)

Other former Obama hands are involved in more informal campaign roles: Samantha Power is well known for advocating intervention in Libya, Syria and elsewhere. And Michèle Flournoy, widely touted as a possible secretary of defense, argued just a few weeks ago that the United States must make “big bets” with military spending to maintain our military capabilities.

Progressive voices — including those from the Obama administration — seem to have been left out of the campaign. That’s a shame, not least because this year’s Democratic primary was notable for its debates on foreign policy. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren helped push important conversations on key issues like military spending and the use of force, reflecting the hunger of the Democratic base for something new. (And it’s not just the Democratic base. Mr. Trump’s antiwar rhetoric in 2016 was popular with Republican voters, too.)

By seeking to restore American leadership, Mr. Biden is also likely to miss the opportunity to build a more constructive, less militarized foreign policy that sees allies as real partners, not just as followers. Such an approach would push to increase burden sharing, something Mr. Trump has championed, if inelegantly. It would focus on multilateral diplomacy — rather than simply pushing American demands — wherever possible. And it would seek to dial down tensions with China rather than intensify them through increased military presence or sanctions.

At the end of the day, there’s little doubt that Mr. Biden’s foreign policy would be better than that of Mr. Trump. From his lawless assassinations in the Middle East and his contempt for diplomacy to his incessant attempt to drum up confrontation with China, Mr. Trump has been a destabilizing force in the world.

But his unusual presidency did create an opportunity for Americans. It allowed them to question old — and flawed — assumptions about our country’s approach to the world. By taking us back to the past of American foreign policy, Mr. Biden is doing the opposite. He might think he’s returning us to normalcy. Instead, he’s squandering his opportunity to build American foreign policy back better.

Emma Ashford (@EmmaMAshford) is a research fellow in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute.

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