Clinton, Biden and Sanders: Three Strands of Foreign Policy Thought Within the Democratic Party

by Venu Katta

October 7, 2015

The media’s summer fascination with the prospect of Joe Biden entering the 2016 presidential campaign has approached Hamlet-level dithering as it continues into the fall. And if internal reports are to be believed, even the Clinton campaign is on watch for the prospect of the Vice President entering the race for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Biden’s potential entry into the race, while portraying several political narratives, begs the question of whether or not there are true policy discrepancies with Mrs. Clinton that a potential Biden-campaign would address. Clinton, Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders often share many of the same broad political goals (even if they disagree on specifics). But the issue of foreign policy would, should Mr. Biden enter the race, present a meaningful three-way contrast of policy visions within the Democratic Party (relatively speaking) of liberalism, realism and non-interventionism, respectively. Understanding the distinct beliefs and, by extension, prescriptions of the candidates on international affairs better informs and clarifies the importance of the choice that lies before Democrats.

Mrs. Clinton has often advocated for a form of liberal intervention through an active foreign policy. The underlying interventionist worldview favors the United States with deference to multilateralism, upholding liberal values and confronting despotism through the use of force.  Then Secretary of State Clinton demonstrated this paradigm when she urged regime change in Libya in 2011. Of particular note is her rationale for advocating for U.S. action in ousting Muammar Gaddafi’s government—that of protection of human rights against a tyrannical dictatorship—and the manner in which the action was pursued—via NATO coalition implementation of a U.N. Security Council Resolution. Clinton further demonstrated the implications of this interventionist stance through her early and enthusiastic support of arming Syrian rebels against the Assad regime as well as her original support for the 2003 Iraq War, where her statement of support largely revolved around Saddam Hussein’s human rights violations and the imperative to support United Nations inspections.

This sampling of Clinton’s positions identifies her not simply as “hawkish,” but specifically as a liberal interventionist. It contrasts with the guiding principles of international relations Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders seem to espouse, and is a more active conceptualization of a Democratic foreign policy. However, the other two candidates do not dissent from the “Clinton doctrine” in the same manner. Mr. Biden’s realism and Mr. Sanders’s non-interventionism are also distinguishable, which better clarifies the degree to which all three potential Democratic candidates diverge.

While Joe Biden has been at the center of the Democratic party and held numerous senior-level foreign policy positions, such as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has shown a propensity to shy away from the use of force when strategic interests are not threatened. Though it is undoubtedly true Mr. Biden evokes some liberal tendencies in pursuing normative values in international affairs, similar to Mrs. Clinton, his greater willingness to balance such objectives against other relative factors make him a realist within the Democratic Party. Realism, best defined in international relations as the view of balancing against threats, seeking security and promoting stability as justified ends, is apparent in some of Mr. Biden’s dissents against Mrs. Clinton’s contemporary stances. For example, the Vice President emerged within the Obama administration as a strong advocate against intervention in Libya and the arming of Syrian rebel groups, believing that the strategic benefit to be gained did not outweigh the risk towards destabilizing the region and threatening U.S. interests. Mr. Biden also called for implementation of federalism in post-war Iraq to reduce sectarian tension and promote regional stability. Additionally, Mr. Biden supports the Trans Pacific Partnership as a means of balancing against China economically and politically by expanding U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region. This advocacy suggests more consideration towards stability and security than Mrs. Clinton’s interventionism.

These positions, while making Mr. Biden less hawkish that Mrs. Clinton, also distinguish him from Mr. Sanders, who has advocated for a non-interventionist foreign policy philosophy. His view that the United States should not be involved in the Middle East, or should drastically reduce military spending, permeates Mr. Sanders’s advocacy. In this respect, while Mr. Sanders’ policies may overlap with Mr. Biden’s (relative) realism and non-interventionism in seeking to avoid military action in Libya or Syria, it is born more out of Mr. Sanders’ belief that international objectives are less important to the U.S. than domestic objectives, rather than a reflection of realist interest.

Ultimately, while politics can be a contest of rhetoric and style, substance can and should play a role in differentiating candidates to voters. While Mr. Biden’s decision to enter the race is unclear, the three very real relative strands of foreign policy in the Democratic party will potentially form the most salient cleavage in the 2016 primary.

Venu Katta is a joint BA/MPP candidate at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor on the William & Mary Policy Review.