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1 September 2021

Why “the Biden doctrine” on foreign policy is here to stay

American voters have long supported increasingly isolationist presidents.

By Stephen Bush

How important was the speech Joe Biden gave last night? The headline-grabbing parts are his defence of the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan – his argument that the purpose of the intervention ended with the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, and that reneging on Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban would mean turning a “forever war” into a “forever exit”. 

But the most important part of his statement is surely the following: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”  

No one can be sure what the future holds but it’s worth remembering that in 2008, Barack Obama defeated a more hawkish candidate in the shape of Hillary Clinton in the primary before defeating a more hawkish candidate in the shape of John McCain in the presidential election, while Donald Trump positioned himself as a more isolationist politician than Clinton. Interventionists have a great deal of “soft power” in Washington, DC, but they haven’t demonstrated much “hard power” as far as winning votes in elections goes.  

Whatever happens to Biden politically, what you might call “the Biden doctrine” on American foreign policy will almost certainly be more enduring – and that reality is something that all politicians in the democratic world will have to adjust their own foreign policy to. 

[See also: Why the UK government can’t simply blame Joe Biden for the Afghanistan debacle]

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