In Biden’s case, however, this is bound to happen. The question is who articulates the doctrine.
Toosi’s story is well worth reading because it reveals two fundamental truths about searching for a Biden doctrine. First, trying to find it is not easy because his thoughts on foreign policy have changed in the decades he has been in public life. As Toosi notes, “[Biden’s] foreign policy views — or doctrines credited to him — have never been entirely static, in part because America’s relations with other countries are constantly shifting.”
The second truth is that Toosi identifies that the debate about the Biden doctrine is only tangentially related to President Biden and his foreign policy. The market for presidential doctrines is primarily supplied by foreign policy community watchers eager to conjure up an idea with heuristic punch and demanded by, well, folks like Toosi’s editors who like the clarity that such explanations provide.
Toosi made the right call in warding off her editor’s pressures because Biden has been in office less than five months. This administration has been better than most at articulating strategic guidance this early in its term, but it is still the early days. Sometimes there is no doctrine, but even when there is one, it takes a few more data points to elucidate anything useful.
So is the search for a Biden doctrine merely an intellectual exercise? That is not entirely fair, either. Presidents have an incentive to articulate foreign policy doctrines when they want to send clear and credible signals to the rest of the world. After four years of a … let’s say “chaotic” foreign policy, Biden has a particular incentive to clarify matters to the rest of the world and the rest of the country.
Biden’s long foreign policy record amplifies this incentive. Plenty of analysts are looking to divine his future foreign policy preferences from his past. That is not always the best predictor. History shows multiple presidents taking a different tack once they get elected. Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan were anti-communist hawks for decades before they were elected. Nixon eventually pursued detente with the Soviets and an opening to China. Reagan proved equally dovish with the right Soviet partner.
There is a substantive and a process reason to be interested in whether a Biden doctrine will emerge. The substantive reason is that it might suggest what Biden’s red line will be about the use of military force. Doctrine talk, distilled to its essence, is when a country will be prepared to use force. Biden’s red lines remain unclear.
The process reason to be interested is to find out whether the winner of the doctrine sweepstakes is someone whom Biden picks or someone who defines the administration before they want to be defined. Biden could pick someone within the ideas industry to be his foreign policy muse. Sometimes this is a conscious choice, as when President Barack Obama and national security adviser Ben Rhodes confided to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Sometimes it is not so conscious. As hard as Michael Anton tried to embody Donald Trump’s foreign policy voice, I’d wager that his ramblings to the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman proved to be more accurate. In Biden’s case, I could see someone like Tom Friedman or Jon Meacham being given the opportunity.
It is equally possible, however, that a smart foreign policy thinker will decipher the tea leaves for the administration. Five years ago, my Brookings colleague Tom Wright wrote the single-best predictive essay about how Trump would think about foreign policy. He just wrote something similar about Biden: “In Biden’s view, the United States and other democracies are in a competition with China and other autocracies. This is being exacerbated by a period of rapid technological change that could give China an opportunity to leapfrog the United States in certain areas.” Wright concludes that Biden “worries that they are competition for America, and not only that — they might win. This belief underpins the Biden doctrine.”
It’s still early for this administration. But there is a decent chance that Wright has preempted those aiming to copyright the Biden Doctrine.