'Strategic empathy': A look at how presidential candidate Joe Biden's informal diplomacy shaped US foreign relations

Joe Biden’s political trademark was a blue-collar Everyman style, but from the start of his Washington career he had prioritised foreign policy

The New York Times July 06, 2020 08:18:19 IST
'Strategic empathy': A look at how presidential candidate Joe Biden's informal diplomacy shaped US foreign relations

Barack Obama had a China problem. His national security team knew the Chinese Communist Party was getting ready to anoint a new leader. But his aides wanted to better understand the man they expected to assume power, Xi Jinping. It seemed like a job for then-vice-president Joe Biden.

Xi was China’s vice-president at the time, Biden’s counterpart and natural interlocutor. Beyond that, Obama and his aides hoped Biden’s ingratiating charm and decades of interactions with foreign leaders might allow him to penetrate Xi’s officially scripted facade.

Beginning in early 2011 and during the next 18 months, the two men convened at least eight times, in the United States and China, according to former US officials. They spent more than 25 hours dining privately, joined only by interpreters. Biden made a quick “personal connection” with the Chinese leader, said Daniel Russel, an aide present at several of the meetings.

“He was remarkably good in getting to a personal relationship right away and getting Xi to open up,” Russel said. Biden’s gleaned insights — especially his assessment of Xi’s authoritarian intentions — informed Obama’s later approach, several Obama aides said in interviews.

To voters unsettled by President Donald Trump’s disruptive approach to the world, Biden is selling not only his policy prescriptions but also his long track record of befriending, cajoling and sometimes confronting foreign leaders — what he might call the power of his informal diplomatic style. “I’ve dealt with every one of the major world leaders that are out there right now, and they know me. I know them,” he told supporters in December.

Brett McGurk, a former senior State Department official for the campaign against the Islamic State group, said Biden had been an effective diplomat by practicing “strategic empathy.”

Biden is a foreign policy pragmatist, not an ideologue; his views have long tracked the Democratic mainstream.

For a decade before the Iraq War, he was known as a hawk, but more recently he has become a chastened sceptic of foreign intervention. In lieu of grand strategy, he offers what more than 20 current and former US officials described in interviews as a remarkably personal diplomacy derived from his decades in the glad-handing, deal-making hothouse of the Senate. It is an approach grounded in a belief that understanding another leader is as important as understanding his or her nation.

“It’s very Lyndon Johnson-esque,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who attended many meetings with Biden.

Yet Xi has clearly tested the limits of that approach. Biden’s record is short on public warnings that the Chinese leader could become the “thug” that the presumptive Democratic nominee calls him today. And as US relations with China slide from bad to worse, Biden is facing questions about why he did not do more to stiffen Obama administration policy toward Beijing — about why his strategic empathy did not come with more strategic vision.

That is a point the Trump campaign has sought to make by weaponising Biden’s diplomatic dance with Xi. A series of Trump campaign ads shows Biden and Xi clinking glasses against an audio backdrop of Biden waxing lyrical about friendship and cooperation with China. The Biden campaign calls such criticism preposterous from a president who has himself repeatedly praised Xi as a friend and a “great leader.” But the attack is part of a broader Trump indictment of Biden as “China’s puppet” — a Washington establishment fixture who misread China and Xi.

Biden’s critics insist that his emphasis on the personal is not effective at all, that it covers for flawed judgment and a lack of principle. “It’s little wonder that he claims world leaders have told him they support his election — they want to get back to eating America’s lunch again,” said Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman.

The effectiveness of Biden’s diplomatic style — and how well it might translate to the presidency — is hard to measure. As a senator, he produced no landmark foreign-policy legislation or defining doctrines. As vice-president, he was largely a facilitator and adviser to Obama, often overshadowed by the secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and then John Kerry.

Asked in an interview to cite instances where his approach to diplomacy proved successful, Biden pointed to his work wrangling international support for the Paris climate accords and for the coalition to fight the Islamic State group, though those were both projects in which others, including Kerry, played major roles.

“I can’t think of any place, to be honest with you, that it didn’t work,” he added.

“For example,” he continued, before pausing. “Well, I could give one example, but I don’t think it helps me — especially if I get elected, with that particular leader still around.”

Soon after his January 2001 inauguration, President George W Bush invited Biden to the Oval Office. A foreign policy novice, Bush was seeking insights into world leaders he was soon to encounter. Biden later wrote that the new Republican president “had all these other policy people to talk to, but he wanted to talk with another politician who had sat down with these leaders, who maybe had a read on the personalities and the motivations.”

Biden’s political trademark was a blue-collar Everyman style, but from the start of his Washington career he had prioritised foreign policy.

In 1979, a 37-year-old Biden met with China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, in Beijing, and later recalled the value of seeing firsthand Deng’s “very real fear of the Soviets.” The same year he visited Moscow for nuclear arms talks with Kremlin officials including the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. After a senior official was evasive about Soviet tank numbers, Biden offered a vulgar retort that a translator diluted to, “Don’t kid a kidder,” he later wrote.

By his first run for president in 1988, Biden considered himself an expert diplomat. “I knew the world and America’s place in it in a way few politicians did,” he wrote in a memoir. He marvelled at the “personal intimacy of diplomacy.”

When Obama chose Biden as his 2008 running mate — in part for the direct foreign policy experience that Obama lacked — it made for a glaring contrast with Biden’s Republican rival, Sarah Palin. To drive home the point, Biden’s office released a “partial” list of nearly 150 world leaders from some 60 countries with whom he had met over his career.

In tapping Biden, Obama had overlooked his running mate’s 2002 Iraq War vote, which Biden — at the time a leading Democratic advocate of a muscular US foreign policy — now says he regrets. Looking forward, the new president tasked Biden with overseeing post-war Iraq, telling aides, “He knows the players.”

But Michael Doran, a national security aide in Bush’s White House, argued that many foreign leaders see Biden, who he said had offended allies with his infamous gaffes, as unreliable.

“The claim that Biden’s relationships and experience are an asset has been a part of his standard rhetoric for years, but they mean nothing if people don’t trust him,” said Doran, now at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Biden said he had come away from meetings impressed by Xi, who became China’s president in 2013. “He’s a smart guy,” Biden said. “He would ask very revealing questions.”

Xi inquired about how the US political system works and how much authority the American president wields over the military and intelligence agencies, Biden said. “So my conclusion was he was very much trying to do something that no one had ever done since Deng Xiaoping, and that is to actually control the government, not just the party,” he said. Xi has since emerged as a stern authoritarian.

Today, Biden speaks of him in more critical terms.

“This is a guy who is — doesn’t have a democratic, with a small D, bone in his body,” he said during a February Democratic debate.

In the interview, Biden suggested that Xi bore significant blame for China’s secretive initial response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in January, which many experts say cost the world valuable time. “It didn’t surprise me at all,” Biden said.

All of which might portend a hostile relationship between the men. Except Biden declined to go further.

“God willing, I may have to deal with him,” he said, “and I don’t want to burn all of my bridges here.”

Michael Crowley c.2020 The New York Times Company

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