An especially frustrating aspect of the defense and foreign policy team that Joe Biden is assembling is the pervasive view among its members that U.S. foreign policy was in splendid shape before Donald Trump became president. Given that comforting delusion, it’s not surprising that their “solution” is merely to restore the status quo ante – return US policy to what it was under Barack Obama. Given the train wreck that actually characterized the Obama administration’s foreign policy, it is a very dangerous assumption. Obama and his minions managed to launch three new, disastrous US military interventions in the Middle East – Libya, Syria and Yemen. They also perpetuated the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan and reversed an initial decision to exit the Iraq quagmire.
The administration’s performance was not much better elsewhere. By meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs to help unseat the elected, pro‐Russia president, Washington further poisoned already fragile relations with Moscow. Tensions also continued to escalate with China, as the United States sought to execute a “strategic pivot” to East Asia, characterized by a buildup of US forces in the region and a surge of “freedom of navigation” patrols by the US Navy in the contested South China Sea.
Given that track record, merely returning to the policy status quo ante is a spectacularly bad idea. Nowhere is the need for meaningful change more urgent than with respect to Washington’s policy toward North Korea. Obama did little more than keep on autopilot the longstanding, sterile US strategy of trying to isolate the North Korean regime and compel it to relinquish its nuclear weapons. If Biden embraces that approach, we could be heading for a nasty confrontation with nuclear implications. New thinking and a new strategy is imperative.
Unfortunately, Biden and the Democratic Party as a whole show no signs of flexibility or creativity about policy toward North Korea. Indeed, the prevailing attitude has been profoundly reactionary and confrontational. Prominent Democrats, including Biden, even condemned Donald Trump for his modest efforts to promote a rapprochement with Pyongyang. Some of them denounced the president’s willingness even to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong‐Un, contending that according Kim such an honor implicitly “legitimized” his brutal dictatorship. President Trump “elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo,” intoned then‐House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) later exuded outrage in a tweet that Trump favored continuing a dialogue with such a monstrous leader. “It’s simply heartbreaking to know tonight that [Kim’s] biggest global cheerleader is the President of the United States of America.”
More recent comments from Biden himself offer little cause for optimism. In January 2020, he stated that there was “no way” he would agree to meet Kim without “preconditions” – meaning an ironclad commitment to denuclearization. During the final presidential debate with Trump, Biden stated specifically that he would meet with Kim only “on the condition that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity.”