If there’s one candidate among the Democrats vying for the presidency who needs no introduction, it’s Joe Biden. He held national political office for 44 years as a US senator and vice president. His current run for the White House is his third.
And if there’s one contender who can claim true expertise in foreign policy, Biden is it. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 12 years and served as the Obama administration’s lead in Iraq, Ukraine, and Central America. He may have more hands-on experience in international affairs than all of the other 23 current Democratic candidates combined.
But despite his extensive record, Biden’s worldview is not easily typecast. He’s been labeled a dove and a hawk, an idealist and a realist, an internationalist and a nationalist. He’s backed free trade and won the backing of protectionist trade unions. He’s advocated for nation-building in the Balkans and against it in Afghanistan. Of the wars fought during his watch, Biden opposed US military action in Vietnam, Kuwait, and Libya, but supported it in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
A unifying principle encompassing this varied record is hard to discern; for much of his career, he’s eschewed ambitious, visionary designs. But with a forceful foreign policy campaign speech in New York earlier this month, Biden embraced one, staking his candidacy on the cause of democracy, at home and abroad. “I will ensure that democracy is again the watchword of US foreign policy,” he proclaimed, because “democracy is the root and wellspring of our power, and the source of our renewal… It’s the heart of who we are.” “The overarching purpose of our foreign policy,” Biden proclaimed, “must be to defend and advance our…democratic values.”
After “repairing and reinvigorating our own democracy,” a President Biden would “put strengthening democracy back on the global stage.” He committed to convening a Summit for Democracy, uniting freedom-loving leaders across the public, private, and civil society sectors to safeguard open societies, combat corruption, and advance human rights. He pledged to confront Russia and China, rising authoritarian powers challenging the liberal international order. And he vowed to fortify NATO, “an alliance of values…far more durable, reliable, and powerful than partnerships built on coercion and cash.” “No army on Earth can match the electric idea of liberty,” Biden asserted. The United States, “built on that ideal,” must “once more harness that power and rally the free world to meet the challenges facing us today.”
In claiming the democracy mantle, Biden follows a bipartisan tradition carried by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Each of these presidents, in his own time, advanced a “freedom agenda” to defeat the Soviet Union, resist tyranny and terrorism, and consolidate American power. This commitment waned under Obama; Trump has all but reversed it in what some describe as “democracy demotion.” In returning the United States to the role of democracy’s chief exemplar and exponent worldwide, Biden’s platform fits his bid to be a restorative president, contrasting with his more disruptive Democratic rivals.
Biden’s pledge of allegiance to a democracy-driven foreign policy appears aimed more at his would-be general election opponent, however. President Donald Trump, he argues, poses an “extreme” threat to democracy at home and overseas. In contrast, Biden asserts that he would “not coddle dictators” and would “give hate no safe harbor.” “There will be no more Charlottesvilles, no more Helsinkis,” he vowed, connecting violent neo-Nazi protestors in Virginia whom the president seemed to grant “moral equivalence,” and the election-meddling Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, whom Trump “shamefully” appeased in Finland.
Above the campaign fray, Biden’s freedom agenda also reflects his deeply held religious convictions. “My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life,” he shared during the 2012 vice presidential debate. Personally pious—Biden regularly attends mass and prays the rosary—he is also mindful of the public policy implications of his faith. “[My] sense of fairness and justice and [my] disdain for those who abused their power…flow from the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
These doctrines include Catholic social teaching, which Biden regularly cites in his economic speeches on the “dignity of work.” This teaching can be traced to Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, which focused on the conditions of industrial workers and espoused key Catholic doctrines of the common good, the preferential option for the poor, and perhaps most importantly, the dignity of the human person.
Pope John Paul II expanded upon this teaching by developing its political dimension. His 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rerum novarum, responds to the rise of totalitarianism in the intervening century and the contemporaneous fall of communism in his native Poland and throughout the Warsaw Bloc. He squarely aligned the Church against repressive authoritarian regimes, which deny “the transcendent dignity of the human person,” and in favor of democracy, which respects human dignity by ensuring “the participation of citizens” and recognizes “the exercise of the right and duty to seek God…the foundation of every authentically free order.” Prophetically, Pope John Paul II warns in his encyclical that “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
Biden made no mention of Catholic social teaching in his New York speech; he tends to avoid moralizing in foreign policy, often justifying his positions in pragmatic terms instead. Among the first Senate votes he cast was in opposition to the Vietnam War, which he explained by saying, “I wasn’t against the war for moral reasons. I just thought it was a stupid policy.” In his current presidential bid, he seeks to rally the free world “not to launch some moral crusade, but because it’s in our enlightened self-interest.” But the unspoken influence of the connected Catholic concepts of dignity and democracy—cemented by Pope John Paul II, a towering moral authority during Biden’s formative political years—is undoubtable. Biden’s faith does not dictate his foreign policy, but it surely shapes it.
This influence includes Catholicism’s understanding not just of human dignity, but of human tragedy also. Biden’s political career was bracketed by two faith-shaking family tragedies—the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident just before he was first sworn-in as senator from Delaware, and the loss of his beloved son Beau to brain cancer in the closing days of his time as vice president. In reflecting on these heartbreaks in his autobiography, Biden draws inspiration from Psalm 36: “How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” Religion provides him a refuge and comfort during the blackest times.
Religion also provides him with moral clarity. Biden is fond of quoting Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Faith sees clearest in the dark.” The tragedies he’s endured and the experience he’s gained have instilled in Biden a clear-eyed realism regarding human frailties and failures consistent with the Catholic doctrine of original sin. His chief foreign policy advisor, Antony Blinken (for whom I worked in the Clinton White House), describes Biden’s perspective as “start[ing] out from a very idealistic position, but that idealism is tempered by experience and reality.” He knows that “we can’t simply go in and flip a switch and fix everything.”
Biden’s realism was evident in controversial and courageous stands he took on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He supported waging both, but challenged the conventional wisdom regarding America’s role in shaping the future of the two war-torn nations. In Afghanistan, having reluctantly concluded its leader Hamid Karzai was hopelessly corrupt, Biden advocated for shifting from the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy popularized by General David Petraeus to one focused on counterterrorism, prioritizing the fight against al-Qaeda over the fight against the Taliban. In Iraq, he initially doubted the ability of its corrupt central government to unify Shia, Sunni, and Kurds, and proposed an innovative plan to further federalize the nation consistent with its constitution, balancing unity with autonomy and supporting self-determination. Both proposals reflect Biden’s reassessment of original war aims based on realities, including the persistence of corruption and the limits of American power, and although neither was adopted at the time, both may prove prudent in time.
Biden’s religiously rooted realism is also reflected in a signature issue of his—corruption, and its “weaponization.” In his New York speech, and more fully in his Foreign Affairs essay earlier this year, he argues that Russia is exporting the endemic corruption central to Putin’s grip on power to undermine democratic rule in Ukraine and other neighboring nations. China’s Belt and Road Initiative of overseas infrastructure investment and the “debt slavery” it encourages risks similar illiberal influence. Having spotted this threat, Biden advocates combatting it by uniting our democratic partners to strengthen cyber defenses, enhance transparency and resist aggression in all its forms, including the “soft subversion” pioneered by Putin.
But perhaps the most pronounced influence on Biden of Catholic social teaching, especially its emphasis on the dignity of the human person, is in the personalized approach he takes to politics, especially in the international arena. “I believe all politics is personal,” he explained, “because at bottom, politics depends on trust, and unless you can establish a personal relationship, it is awfully hard to build trust. That is especially true in foreign policy, because people from different countries often…have little shared history and experience.”
Indeed, this unique insight led commentator Steve Clemmons to consider it a defining element of a distinctive “Biden Doctrine.” President Obama often dispatched him to repair rocky relationships with notable success. As Clemons recounts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Biden to mediate talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, despite Netanyahu’s distrust of the Obama administration. Biden’s honest brokering, premised on respecting the interests, concerns, and ambitions of both sides, facilitated a normalization of Israel-Turkey relations, which served US interests as well. “He may very well be the nation’s first ‘personality realist,’” Clemons writes—a style that channels Catholicism’s social and humanitarian sensibilities.
The Balkan wars at the close of the last century were formative for Biden, who was an early advocate for a “lift-and-strike” policy in Bosnia and of NATO airstrikes to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. His leadership in the region had a religious genesis. Biden claims “my interest in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia started with a very persistent monk,” who briefed the senator on the desecration of Catholic shrines in Croatia and other abuses at the hands of ethnic Serbs. I had the opportunity to work with Senator Biden during this time from my position on the National Security Council staff, and can attest to the passion and pragmatism he brought to the fight. His steadfast support for decisive American leadership to protect persecuted Christian and Muslim minorities alike in the region helped galvanize the NATO alliance and stave off potential genocide.
Nearly two decades later, Biden returned as vice president to the Balkans to help preserve the post-war peace and to join Kosovars in honoring his deceased son Beau with the naming of a highway leading to Camp Bondsteel, where Beau served as a military legal advisor and where an American peacekeeping force remains stationed. Biden recounted an earlier visit to the base when he introduced his Kosovar driver to a contingent of American soldiers at the gate—including an African-American female master sergeant, a Chinese-American private, and a Hispanic commanding officer. His driver had associated America with the US-supported economic reconstruction of his country. Biden differed, pointing to the diverse servicemen standing guard. “There’s America.”
Biden sees the humanity in foreign policy, and the democratic ideal reflected in the American people. His Catholic faith, with its powerful witness to the innate dignity of every human, shapes this view. The freedom agenda Biden champions as a presidential candidate flows from the teachings of the Church. As a Democrat and a Christian, Biden has charted a foreign policy building on his experience and his faith that distinguishes him from his campaign competition and that offers strong leadership to strengthen democracy in America and abroad.