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The Biden Doctrine

The longtime senator’s approach to foreign policy looks a lot like cloakroom coalition-building.
August 31, 2022
The Biden Doctrine
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Twenty months into Joe Biden’s presidency, there is an emerging trend in the administration’s foreign policy. The Biden team has been cobbling together groups of U.S. allies and partners, each comprising countries with shared interests within a geographic region. At the center of each group, setting the agenda, is the United States. This senatorial approach to foreign policy may be the Biden Doctrine: Form “gangs” of partners on issues of importance, and work to reach a desired outcome by exerting as much influence in as many groups as possible—especially when it’s impractical to go through the formal “committee” of a multilateral organization.

The major foreign policy accomplishment of the Biden administration’s first year was the creation of AUKUS. The partnership’s crown jewel is sharing nuclear submarine technology with Australia, but the agreement, in accordance with the U.K. government’s Integrated Defense Review, would also demand a greater degree of involvement from the United Kingdom in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS came on top of the administration’s increased investment in the Quad, a security partnership among the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. It was followed by the rollout of I2U2—a partnership among Israel, India, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States—and a botched attempt to re-energize the Organization of American States (OAS).

Two of these fora and partnerships, the Quad and OAS, existed before Biden became president, but his administration has boosted its investment in them. The Biden team has rhetorically elevated the Quad’s importance, increased the frequency of its meetings, and incrementally—though too slowly—added issues to the group’s portfolio. It also tried to elevate the OAS by hosting its 2022 summit in Los Angeles, but failed. The two others, AUKUS and I2U2, are new. But all four have a common theme: They are regional partnerships, mostly focused on regional problems, with the United States playing the role of convener and, to a greater or lesser degree, group leader.

The OAS summit, which excluded tyrannical Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, is a mechanism to stop the trend of rising authoritarianism in Latin America, create an Americas bloc against the growing Chinese, Russian, and Iranian influences in the Americas, and perhaps to find a solution to the Venezuela and the Nicaragua problems as well.

I2U2 is designed to make the participants share other’s concerns. Iran has always worried the Indians. Ideally, given the warm feelings about Israel in India, I2U2 would lead to Indian investment in Israel replacing Chinese investment. Israel and India are both countries whose technological know-how and innovation could prove a boon to the United States. Outer space technology is especially an important element of this. Both India and Israel have invested in space-based and anti-space military capabilities as competition in the “fourth domain” of warfare (after land, sea, and air) is intensifying. And China’s 25-year security treaty with Iran and its pursuit of a naval base in the Persian Gulf is a concern for all parties.

The Quad and the AUKUS are direct responses to the China problem.

Europe’s regional institutions are older, more established, and all told, doing quite well. NATO and the European Union have institutionalized European cooperation—with American involvement—and made Europe prosperous by keeping it whole and free (for the most part). Their habits of holding working-level, ministerial, and summit-level meetings are well established. The Biden administration has done as good a job as possible in rallying the members against Russia. Rather, the problem might be that these organizations are too large to be responsive and effective, especially as they require unanimity for security matters.

I2U2 started off modestly, and the first summit focused on uncontroversial issues of food security and clean energy—areas of disagreement, i.e., Iran and China, will come up once relations become tighter. In introducing the concept, the president’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan said, “we think I2U2 can become a feature of the broader region, just as the Quad has become a central pillar of the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States.” The first summit’s agenda was perhaps the least important part of I2U2. More important is that the group will create a psychology of partnership among the three other countries as a bloc and familiarize their bureaucracies and personnel with each other, building trust and working relationships for the future. Such a level of bureaucratic intimacy is a key in alliance management, something NATO and E.U. members have benefited from immensely during Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. The Quad will likely serve a similar purpose, as could a successfully revitalized OAS. The AUKUS members already share extremely close alliances rooted in shared tradition and many decades of close military, political, and intelligence cooperation.

Structurally, it makes sense that Biden, a mainstay of the Senate for 36 years (44 years if you count his vice presidency), would form a foreign policy doctrine based on issue-specific working groups and informal, working-level familiarity among staffs and bureaucracies. Substantively, doing more with less by giving guidelines and directions to allies and partners has been a Biden administration objective.

The Biden Doctrine might be informed by the administration’s failure in realizing Biden’s idea for the Summit for Democracy. The summit was, to say the least, a complicated project, with participants from dozens of countries invited, and almost all choosing to participate, along with representatives from civil society from around the world. The administration threw it together too hastily—even begrudgingly, to fulfill a campaign promise—and gave it neither direction nor structure. Because they decided to hold it virtually, it lacked the personal interactions and informal conversations that are vital to diplomacy. It is a pity that such a fantastic idea went to waste, but maybe the Biden team learned about its own limitations. The Biden Doctrine is taking small steps, speaking loudly about values, and keeping its eyes fixed firmly on immediate shared interests.

This is not a novel way of thinking. The Biden administration is learning from history. Rather than calling for an Asian NATO, as if the most successful military alliance in the history of the world can be copy-pasted, the administration is beginning with what led to NATO. The Treaty of Dunkirk was a 1947 Anglo-French agreement to defend West Germany. It was succeeded by the Treaty of Brussels the next year, a mutual defense treaty involving five European countries. And given the Anglo-French presence in West Germany, it was a deterrent against the Soviet Union. In 1949, it became NATO, involving the United States and 11 other countries.

By bringing together a small number of countries to cooperate informally, the Biden administration could be beginning a process that culminates in larger treaty organizations. The Quad is already evolving in this direction. The Trump administration’s Quad-Plus summit in 2020 included New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam, and the recent election of Yoon Suk-yeol as president of South Korea have added to the potential of enlargement.

Will the Biden Doctrine work? It is a precedented approach to a problem that has vexed American grand strategists and policymakers since the Korean War: How to maintain overall global peace and international hegemony without spending ourselves into oblivion? Compared to previous guarantors of international stability, the United States has been maximally efficient, getting the most (or, rather, the least) bang for its military buck. It has done this by attracting allies where previous hegemons dominated neighbors, rivals, or colonies. The U.S. alliance system has not succeeded in getting the junior partners to invest significantly on their own defense, but it has succeeded nonetheless.

If the Biden Doctrine helps the United States attract more allies by being flexible and tailored, then it might become the default policy for generations. Or the smiles and handshakes and nice words of summits—conducted mostly over Zoom rather than in person—might prove to signify nothing. Perhaps it’s worth a shot.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.