Will Joe Biden Transform U.S. National Security for the Better?

How new political coalitions can change the landscape in Washington.

by Zack Brown, originally published in The National Interest. Listen to the whole episode on Press the Button

Less than twenty-four hours before major news organizations called the presidential election for the former vice president, national security expert Heather Hurlburt was already envisioning the consequences of a Joe Biden win. 

“There are going to be some huge changes right off the bat,” she said in an interview with the podcast, Press The Button. “I think there are reasons for optimism.” 

Hurlburt, a project director with New America, a Washington-based, public policy think tank, singled out President Donald Trump’s controversial “America First” approach to foreign policy, which she argued sees “international relations as a zero-sum game” and that emphasizes “short-term interests that tend to cluster around a kind of ethno-nationalism.” 

Under a Biden administration, she suggested, the United States would return to what she saw as a more “normal” global posture, with a renewed focus on multilateralism and a greater willingness to collaborate on international issues such as climate change and immigration. 

This is especially true when it comes to nuclear weapons policy, where Hurlburt accused the Trump administration of having a “cartoonish” mentality when it came to the size of the American arsenal and its increasingly open support for warfighting in US nuclear strategy. 

“Those are all areas where you’re going to see reversals,” she said, pointing to expected changes in the Pentagon nuclear budget and in the overall American attitude towards key arms control agreements, such as the New START Treaty with Russia and the Iran nuclear deal

All of which, Hurlburt maintained, will be helped by a warmer, more personal touch from the president-elect himself. “The one thing that’s actually a huge advantage is that in many cases Biden will have known these [foreign leaders] for decades because of his long tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” she said. “Any country you drop him in, the chances that he either knows the leader or someone close to leadership is very good.” 

However, supporters of the new administration should be careful to confine their enthusiasm within the realm of reality, warned Hurlburt. After all, once he enters office, Biden will face significant obstacles that could limit his opportunity for reform. 

“A thing that we’re going to have to underline over and over again is that this president is going to come to office during a pandemic and a prolonged economic crisis,” said Hurlburt. Either challenge on its own would dominate any administration’s agenda; the two of them together may swallow it whole, leaving little oxygen for sweeping changes in national security policy. 

Neither is the international outlook any more promising. Aside from a sharply deteriorating relationship with China that threatens to cripple future global cooperation, Biden will face a new and equally pressing challenge: convincing American allies that his policies have real staying power. 

“It’s important that everybody internalize that this isn’t going to be like 2009,” Hurlburt argued. “Our allies and partners have now lived through this back and forth and in some ways are starting to see it as the norm of American politics.” 

They have good reason to do so. With all likelihood, the 2020 elections will maintain today’s split Congress. And with Trump poised to remain the dominant force in his own party even after he departs office, Republicans on Capitol Hill will face little incentive to undermine his legacy through legislation. Of course, this still leaves Biden with a potent array of executive orders, but these can be upended by the next GOP administration, whether in 2024 or beyond. 

But there is a way out of this stalemate, and it lies in the nature of the two main political camps themselves. “American political parties are just big coalitions,” said Hurlburt. “They’re always available to be broken up and reassembled in interesting ways around specific ideas.” 

The potential for overlap isn’t too hard to imagine. Both progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans favor scaling back the United States’ vast military footprint. And despite the Trump administration’s embrace of “America First” policies, many Republicans still appreciate the need for strong global institutions. 

If Biden can dial down partisan tensions long enough to take advantage of these natural alignments, he may increase his chances of securing lasting reform. As for Hurlburt, she remained cautiously optimistic. “You have a really interesting mobile geometry for coalitions that can form behind new approaches to nuclear and security policy,” she said. 

“And that, to my mind, is the longer-term business we’re all in right now.” 

The entire interview with Heather Hurlburt is available here on Press The Button.

Zack Brown is a policy associate at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.