Has US Foreign Policy Doctrine Changed?

Tsuneo Watanabe


Has US foreign policy doctrine (foreign policy principles) significantly changed under the Biden administration from the previous tenets of American foreign policy? Or has it changed little in its basic stance? It is generally recognized that the United States has lost the capacity to sustain the global order, which was once underpinned by its dominant economic and military power in the post-World War II world. Given changes in American power relative to the rest of the world, it is only natural that US foreign policy must also change.

For example, it is unreasonable to assume that the Biden administration is still carrying on the post-Cold War policy of the New World Order, supported by a strong US presence, which the G. H. Bush administration advocated in the wake of its victory in the Gulf War. It is natural to conclude that the G. W. Bush administration's unilateralism criticized for starting the Iraq War and the US unipolar structure behind it have also vanished due to the resulting difficulties of 20 years from the Iraq War and the erosion of public support at home.

In addition, the United States faced domestic discontent and divide; its foreign policy inevitably became inward-looking or passive. The Trump administration's imposing of unilateral tariffs based on "America First" and the Biden administration's continuing the former administration's protectionism under the guise of a "foreign policy for the middle class" are clear signs of the decline of American liberalism.

Has the United States gone so far as to abandon its role in shaping and maintaining the international order? In his book "Word Order," written in 2014, before the Trump administration came to power, Henry Kissinger gives an overview of the history of American leadership in maintaining the international order. Kissinger points out that "every international order must sooner or later face the impact of two tendencies challenging its cohesion: either a redefinition of legitimacy or a significant shift in the balance of power." 1 He cites the collapse of the Communist international order caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union as an example of the disruption of order when "one of its major components ceases to play its role or ceases to exist."

On the other hand, Kissinger outlines the contribution of the US presence to shaping the international order and then makes the optimistic observation, "A purposeful American role will be philosophically and geopolitically imperative for the challenges of our period." 2 At the same time, he compares history to a stream of water, referring to the difficulty of understanding history that, like water, is ever changing.

After Kissinger's book appeared, the inward-looking Trump administration came to power, and the Biden administration also adopted the inward-looking tendency. These two administrations may have reduced the US role in maintaining the international order but did not go so far as to abandon that role. In its national security policy, the Trump administration proposed "peace through strength," articulating the US role in defending the international order against revisionist powers such as Russia and China. 3 The Biden administration's national security strategy also follows this line. 4

This paper is intended to focus on multiple factors taken from the history of US foreign policy and the Biden administration's current foreign policy to examine whether US diplomatic doctrine has undergone significant changes.

Changing US Perceptions of US-China Relations and the International Order

Arguably, the Biden administration's foreign policy is fully aware of the relative decline of US influence in the existing international order. Notable is the difference in nuances between the first paragraph of the G. W. Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) and that of the Biden administration's 2022 NSS.

The G. W. Bush administration's NSS begins with the following passage:

The United States possesses unprecedented—and unequaled—strength and influence in the world. Sustained by faith in the principles of liberty, and the value of a free society, this position comes with unparalleled responsibilities, obligations, and opportunity. The great strength of this nation must be used to promote a balance of power that favors freedom. 5

The Biden administration's NSS, on the other hand, starts to read as follows:

We are now in the early years of a decisive decade for America and the world. The terms of geopolitical competition between the major powers will be set. The window of opportunity to deal with shared threats, like climate change, will narrow drastically. The actions we take now will shape whether this period is known as an age of conflict and discord or the beginning of a more stable and prosperous future. 6

Thus, we have only to compare the first paragraph of the NSS of each of the two administrations to see the difference in nuances regarding the US perceptions of the international order and the country itself. The 2002 NSS shows the overwhelming confidence in America's superiority and the strong sense of mission to protect a freedom-based international order, while the 2022 NSS's sense of crisis about the international order and its low-keyed description of the US role in it make it hard to believe that the same nation issued these different documents with a 20-year interval in between.

As Kissinger notes, psychological factors may play a crucial role in creating such a perception gap. If that is the case, it may be another thing whether the perception gap reflects each administration's objective perception of power. Under the G. W. Bush administration, foreign and security policies were led by the so-called neoconservatives who had a sense of mission for the democratization of the world and a desire to achieve this by using US power. This policy line widely differs from the Trump administration, which deliberately excluded neoconservatives.

On a more objective comparison, US military spending, enjoying the world's largest budget, was $877 billion in 2022, whereas China, the second largest, is estimated to secure $292 billion worth of spending, close to one-third of the United States. 7 However, as of 2002, the US military spending was $378.46 billion, 8 while China's was $30.28 billion, less than one-tenth of the United States'. 9 These figures alone would be enough to demand US political leaders to change their perception of the international order and US influence.

Comparing the international environment as of 2002 and today, the threat to the United States in 2002 was international terrorism. Although the United States perceived in those days Russia and China as "countries at a strategic crossroads," they were at least cooperative partners in addressing international terrorism. In 2022 that witnessed Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February and the escalation of the US-China confrontation, Russia and China were recognized as strategic competitors. 10

Continuities and Differences Between Traditional US Foreign Policy Doctrines and the Biden Doctrine

Let us compare President Biden's foreign policy with the traditional American foreign policy doctrines. As for the latter, we consult the diplomatic views of Henry Kissinger, a scholar of international relations and politician with extensive diplomatic experience who served as US secretary of state and national security advisor to the US president.

The factors in US foreign policy that Kissinger emphasizes are realism and idealism—two genes that define it. Historically, he considers Theodore Roosevelt's way of "Speak quietly and carry a big stick" and a foreign policy based on the balance of power as representing the American tradition of realist foreign policy, to which Kissinger himself belongs. 11 Kissinger describes T. Roosevelt's view: "[F]oreign policy was the art of adapting American policy to balance global power discretely and resolutely, tilting events in the direction of the national interest." 12 Roosevelt believed if the United States broke with the isolationism represented by the Monroe Declaration, and if, as the only country commercially vibrant without threatening its regional competitors and as both an Atlantic and a Pacific power, it intervened to preserve an equilibrium of forces in every strategically important region, "America would emerge as the decisive guardian of the global balance and, through this, international peace." 13

T. Roosevelt favored Japan's victory in the Russo-Japan War (1904-1905) as it would be in the US interests to halt Russia's eastward expansion into Manchuria and Korea, while he concluded that the Japanese victory could threaten the US position in Southeast Asia. Kissinger commends Roosevelt as having opened the path for the United States to contribute to managing the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

Kissinger, on the other hand, considers President Woodrow Wilson as a leader who planted a gene of idealism in US foreign policy: he intervened in World War I under the banner of the universalization of morality—an alien idea to European diplomacy—and launched a postwar peace initiative to "make the world safe for democracy" instead of achieving a balance of power in Europe. 14 However, Kissinger does not appear to highly evaluate Wilson's post-WWI initiative of the League of Nations based on the ideological concept of collective security. Kissinger understands that Wilson's greatness does not lie in conceiving the collective self-defense setup but in stirring up feelings among Americans that they are special, thereby rallying public support through the power of ideas. 15

According to Kissinger, each of the 12 postwar American presidents enthusiastically affirmed America's distinct role in the world and declared it self-evident that the United States should embark on a selfless quest for the solution of conflicts and for equality among all nations. They claimed that American principles could apply to the entire world. 16

Kissinger is critical of the prolonged US intervention in the Vietnam War, in which he was involved as a government official, and of the G. W. Bush administration's initiation of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is also critical of the G. W. Bush administration's "Freedom Agenda," which aimed to propagate democracy in the Middle East by democratizing Iraq. Although the 2002 NSS repeats the gist of the NSC-68 memorandum (1950), which articulated America's role in the Cold War, the crucial difference between them is that the 1950 document sought to utilize American values in the defense of the free world, while the 2002 NSS called for removing tyranny in all regions in the world. 17

Kissinger notes that domestic debate within the United States is a clash between idealism and realism and that when the country did not act on the two principles for the benefit of itself and other countries, its foreign policy failed to reflect American ideas or to gain practical diplomatic benefits. He cites as such an example the G. W. Bush administration's starting the war in Iraq. 18

Kissinger's erudite works help us to summarize US foreign policy since T. Roosevelt in terms of its basic diplomatic stance as follows: (A) fulfilling national interests in security and the economy; (B) taking responsibility for maintaining the international order, and (C) disseminating American ideas of democracy to the rest of the world. These are America's foreign policy goals to date or factors in its doctrine. The best approach to achieve these foreign policy goals may be an appropriate combination of realism to implement a balance of power and idealism to implement political and economic liberalism.

Hypotheses Regarding the Biden Administration's Foreign Policy Doctrine

Various hypotheses have appeared regarding President Biden's foreign policy doctrine. The present author's hypothesis, based on US government proposals and the opinions of experts, is that the United States, while upholding the primary principles of human rights and democracy, will be aware of the relative decline in its military and economic power and will adopt a flexible stance in accordance with the reality of the situation. 19 In the following four cases, the Biden administration appears to be conducting foreign policy in line with the above doctrine.

Case 1: Foreign Policy Toward India

India is importing a large amount of Russian crude oil, which has become available at cheaper prices due to sanctions imposed by the West in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. India's crude oil imports from Russia in January 2023 totaled 19.96 million tons, up 1.7% from the previous month and 3.5% from the previous year. 20 Although India is the world's largest democracy, the Modi administration's Hindu nationalism has exposed Muslims and other religious minorities to violence and serious human rights abuses.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Modi was invited to the United States as a state guest and held a summit meeting with President Biden on June 22, 2023. Outside the White House, where the US-India summit took place, there were mass protests against India's repression of minorities and of the media. President Biden refrained from criticizing Modi on that point and instead agreed to a joint production of engines for the F18 Hornet fighter jet by General Electric Company and an Indian state-owned enterprise. President Biden's policy toward India prioritizes India's values, which support the country's anti-China actions on the geopolitical chessboard, over democratic values. 21

Case 2: Foreign Policy Toward Saudi Arabia

With an eye on next year's presidential election, the Biden administration's overriding priority is to lower gasoline prices and curb inflation at home. Therefore, it has been attempting to pragmatically settle a dispute with Saudi leader Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman over the murder of Washington Post columnist Khashoggi.

President Biden visited Saudi Arabia during his Middle East trip on July 13-16, 2022 to mend relations with the Crown Prince. Khashoggi's fiancée and the Washington Post CEO criticized Biden for being photographed in a friendly fist bump with the Crown Prince before attending a meeting. 22

Later, the Saudis cut oil production to the disappointment of Washington, but the Biden administration's foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia has not changed. President Biden's Saudi policy, which initially began with an ideological emphasis on human rights and democratization, has since shifted to a pragmatic stance reflecting the current domestic and international political and geopolitical situation.

Case 3: Foreign Policy Toward China

The Biden administration is promoting a policy of rivalry and competition with China in security and in the economy; tensions between the two superpowers are rising. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Blinken's visit to China on June 18-19, 2023 demonstrates the desire on both sides to restore diplomatic channels, at least at the ministerial level. In addition, Treasury Secretary Yellen clarified the purpose of her visit to Beijing on July 6-9 stating, "My purpose is to make sure that we don't engage in a series of unintended escalatory actions that will be harmful to our overall economic relationship with one another." 23 The US policy toward China can be evaluated as pragmatic at least in its direction, for it is attempting to avoid unintentional conflicts that could lead to major losses in security and the economy while maintaining pressure on China through competition and rivalry.

Case 4: Support for Ukraine and NATO Summit

During the July 11-12 NATO summit in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Turkey agreed to Sweden's accession to NATO, and the member states confirmed Sweden's membership. The inclusion of Sweden and Finland has strengthened NATO's military alliance against Russia on the northern European front. However, the summit joint statement was criticized for failing to provide a clear timeline or plan for Ukraine's NATO accession.

Meanwhile, at the US initiative, the joint statement expressed full support for Ukraine's right to security, reaffirmed the commitments made at the 2008 Bucharest summit regarding Ukraine's NATO membership, agreed to remove the Membership Action Plan (MAP) requirement for the country's case, and pledged speeding up the accession process. 24

Sweden's NATO membership was made possible by Turkey's withdrawal of its reservations, which was prompted by the Biden administration's acceptance of the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey despite concerns about human rights issues in the country. 25 The Biden administration's policy of support for Ukraine is considered to follow its foreign policy line that prioritizes the responsibility for maintaining the international order over the ideas of democracy and human rights.

Three Factors Defining US Foreign Policy and Biden's Foreign Policy

The Biden administration's foreign policy has so far upheld the primary principles of human rights and democracy and adopted a flexible stance in accordance with the reality of the situation, well aware of the relative decline in its military and economic power. This indicates that President Biden's foreign policy incorporates the three factors of US foreign policy set forth above as a hypothesis: (A) fulfilling national interests in security and the economy; (B) taking responsibility for maintaining the international order, and (C) disseminating American ideas of democracy to the rest of the world.

Factor (A) indicates the administration's greatest priority of "maintaining US military, economic, and diplomatic superiority over China." Factor (B) refers to the involvement of Asian allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia, in addition to European allies, in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Factor (B) ultimately contributes to achieving Factor (A); but it seems to put more emphasis on the maintenance of international order than on the policy toward China.

Although the United States may not have succeeded in disseminating American ideas of democracy to the rest of the world, it has not abandoned that role given the series of "Summits of Democracy" led by President Biden. The 2022 NSS, which defines US rivalry with China and Russia, emphasizes the value of democracy in the world in a section titled "The Nature of the Competition Between Democracies and Autocracies." 26

The foremost difference between Biden's foreign policy and G. W. Bush's foreign policy may lie in the balance among the factors (A), (B), and (C). As Kissinger points out concerning the war in Iraq, the Bush administration, overestimating relative US superiority of power, aimed to strengthen the US position and stability in the Middle East through the democratization of Iraq but ended up undermining US national strength and credibility. Focusing too much on (C), the United States implemented a wrong policy by overestimating its assets necessary for achieving (A) and (B). The balance of those factors in foreign policy at that time may have been (A) < (B) < (C).

The military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq initiated by the G. W. Bush administration, or the 20-year "Long War," have undermined US national strength and legitimacy and limited US foreign policy. The Trump and Biden administrations attempted to lighten those burdens. The Biden administration made a rather hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, for which the Trump administration had paved the way, in defiance of domestic and international criticism. The Trump and Biden administrations tried to reduce the burden of involvement in Middle East affairs to counter China, their biggest rival, on the security and economic fronts.

However, Trump's foreign policy prioritized achieving national interests through the "America First" strategy, downplaying cooperation with allies, international order, or democratization. The balance of the three factors here may have been (A) >> (B) = (C).

President Biden's foreign policy, emphasizing the achievement of national interests, allocates, with a lower priority though, a certain amount of assets for the maintenance of international order and democratization. The balance among the three factors may be (A)>(B)>(C).

US foreign policy is likely to be shaped by changes in its relative power in the world and by psychological factors such as domestic political requirements, threat perceptions, and a sense of moral mission. At the same time, the key factors of US foreign policy doctrine, as Kissinger points out, persist like genes, although the balance among them would vary. At this point, there is no significant change in those factors.

Factors (A), (B), and (C) have been taken over by the Trump and Biden administrations. US assets for conducting US foreign policy are on an apparent decline, and this trend is affecting recent US foreign policy. It may be possible to conclude that US foreign policy has changed. Yet, as far as the Biden administration's foreign policy doctrine is concerned, its policy continuity is evident.

The future US foreign policy doctrine will be defined by genetic factors inherited in the history of the United States; changes in relative global power; and acquired factors such as American perceptions of and behavior in response to those changes. Regarding the future direction of US foreign policy, we should focus on how acquired factors will affect genetic factors.

The reason why Japan and European US allies were seriously alarmed by the Trump administration's America First diplomacy was that they tended to believe that the maintenance of the international order, shown by (A) >> (B) = (C) above, had nothing to do with achieving their national interests or would have negative implications. In the first debate attended by Republican presidential candidates held on August 23, 2023, the candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, a wealthy businessman seeking to win support from Trump supporters in place of the absent Trump, received loud applause from the audience when he opposed continued support for Ukraine. Former Vice President Pence and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who follow the traditional Republican diplomatic stance, asserted continued support for Ukraine and criticized Ramaswamy as inexperienced. 27

At this point, Trump is leading the Republican presidential nomination race with an overwhelming approval rating more than twice that of the runner-up; his return to power in 2025 will likely turn US foreign policy into a more inward-looking one, even more so than the first Trump administration, in which Pence and Haley held heavy responsibility. Then, US foreign policy doctrine would undergo a significant qualitative change.

(Senior Fellow, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

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