Even with divided government, Biden can make foreign policy changes

  • The most likely conclusion to the 2020 election is a government divided between Democrats holding the House of Representatives and White House and Republicans with a slim majority in the Senate.
  • A divided government usually means gridlock on most issues, but President-elect Joe Biden will have the power to pursue a foreign policy of restraint that many Americans have shown they support, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
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Recounts and court battles and Senate runoff races are yet to come, but the likeliest final conclusion of the 2020 election is a President Joe Biden entering office and serving with a narrowly Republican Senate, a Democratic House, and a conservative-majority Supreme Court. We’re probably back to divided government, at least for two years.

A partisan split like this typically means gridlock on the Hill and a steady stream of executive orders from the White House. For foreign policy, it should mean reform, restraint, and a pivot to peace.

American voters have been seeking peace with our presidential picks for years, after all. George W. Bush was elected promising to make the United States “humble” abroad, to reject nation building and decline to interfere in other nations’ affairs. Instead he invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, launched nation-building projects in both, and introduced drone warfare.

Barack Obama ran on a repudiation of the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s interventionism more broadly. He left office the only president in American history to complete two terms entirely at war, expanding American military intervention into Syria, Libya, and Yemen while maintaining it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia.

Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 and 2020 alike by castigating these two predecessors for the foreign policy legacy they left him. He called “going into the Middle East” the “worst” and “most costly mistake in the history of our country,” promising again and again to end “endless wars,” especially the war in Afghanistan.

Now he appears due to shortly leave office without concluding a single conflict, even having vetoed multiple bipartisan congressional attempts to extricate the United States from exacerbating Yemen’s civil war and humanitarian crisis.

And so we come to Biden, preparing to take office after likewise pledging to bring two decades of aimless, counterproductive, costly war and nation building to a close. While divided government may stymie many other portions of his agenda, it need pose no obstacle here. That’s so in two ways.

Trump

President Donald Trump with US troops during an unannounced visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, November 28, 2019.

Tom Brenner/Reuters


First, the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but once a military intervention is already underway, the president’s authority as commander-in-chief means he can end it at will. Biden does not need a cooperative Senate to fulfill his promise to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” including “end[ing] our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.” Divided government is no impediment to Biden making good here.

Also very much under presidential purview, even with divided government, is Biden’s pledge to “elevate diplomacy as the premier tool of our global engagement.” Though he’ll need congressional help if he wants to increase the State Department budget or confirm new ambassadors, Biden can nominate diplomatic candidates more reliably than Trump has and fill lower-level roles without Senate consent.

But the likely GOP-held Senate will be involved in some of Biden’s staffing process, which is the second way divided government could move us toward restraint.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), widely expected to continue as the leader of a Republican majority, is reportedly planning to “push Biden to go with more centrist options,” per Axios, expressing willingness to “work with Biden on centrist nominees but no ‘radical progressives’ or ones who are controversial with conservatives.”

This may have its most significant effects on domestic policy — keeping Biden from nominating, say, a Treasury Secretary Elizabeth Warren — and what someone in Washington defines as “centrist” does not necessarily mean restraint in American foreign policy.

In fact, as the above review of our last three administrations demonstrates, both party establishments tend toward an interventionist foreign policy of invasion, nation building, and diplomacy downplayed—and Biden and McConnell are about as establishment as they come.

But that review equally shows that most Americans, most of the time, want a more prudent approach to matters of war and peace. We have voted for an end to arrogant, hawkish interventionism so many times now. By this measure, restraint is centrism. Americans generally do not want to posture the United States as a meddlesome superpower, constantly and recklessly inserting our military into situations unconnected to vital US security interests.

For the next two years, a government split between both major parties could well mean more of the failures that have defined US foreign affairs the post-9/11 era. But foreign policy should be one point on which a divided government can be united, finally giving voters the peace they keep endorsing.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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