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Biden's Foreign Policy Is All About Relationships. That's Harder Amid A Pandemic

Then-Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013. "I've traveled 17,000 miles with him," Biden told attendees at a campaign rally in Nevada earlier this year.
Lintao Zhang
AFP via Getty Images
Then-Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013. "I've traveled 17,000 miles with him," Biden told attendees at a campaign rally in Nevada earlier this year.

For former Vice President Joe Biden, foreign policy isn't primarily about position papers, global summits or treaties. It's about personal connections, forged over long and repeated face-to-face meetings.

Listen to Biden talk about foreign policy on the campaign trail and you hear him come back to the same theme, over and over. "I've met every major world leader in the last 35 years — not because I'm important, but because of the nature of my job," he told a crowd in Sparks, Nev., back in January, before in-person campaigning was halted.

During that event, Biden spoke at length about how he'd deal with the rest of the world, if elected president. And he touted some of those personal relationships.

Russian President Vladimir Putin? "He knows I know him. I've spent a lot of time with him."

Chinese President Xi Jinping? "I've traveled 17,000 miles with him."

"I always would kid [former President Barack Obama] — I'd say all politics is personal, particularly international relations," Biden explained in Sparks. "You've got to know the other man or woman's soul, and who they are, and make sure they know you."

So it's deeply ironic, then, that as the presumptive Democratic nominee campaigns for the presidency on a foreign policy platform that's focused on reengaging with allies the Trump administration has repeatedly alienated, his go-to approach to diplomacy is likely off the table, at least in the short term.

The coronavirus pandemic has made big international summits nearly impossible. The same goes for extended meetings, dinners or most other scenarios where a President Biden could sit down with other heads of government and forge the relationships he sees as so key to reaching agreements with other nations.

"For sure, his ability to connect with other world leaders — the focus that he puts on understanding where they're coming from, what their constraints are, what their options are, so that he can effectively negotiate on behalf of the United States — that does benefit tremendously from being able to be in the same place," conceded Tony Blinken, who has been Biden's top foreign policy adviser for decades and would likely play a key role in a Biden administration.

But just as a candidate who thrives on one-on-one, in-person interactions with voters has figured out how to campaign during a pandemic, Blinken is confident Biden could carry out long-distance diplomacy.

"You know, I've spent a lot of time with him over the years conducting diplomacy by telephone," Blinken said. "Conducting, now, it will have to be by Zoom or the equivalent. And it's doable. Is it as good? No. But is it doable, is it necessary? Yes."

Blinken's view is not universally held, however.

"I don't think the inability to get in an airplane and meet face to face changes things fundamentally," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Haass, who recently authored a book called The World, has known and worked with Biden for years and understands how much the former vice president values face time. But, Haass argued, other countries aren't thinking about charm.

"What they're going to care about is not the toasts after dinner," he said. "They're going to care about the substance of the foreign policy coming from them."

Biden's to-do list

On that front, there's a lot on Biden's to-do list for other countries to consider.

First and foremost on both the domestic and international front, said Blinken, is dealing with the coronavirus. "If we're fortunate, there will be a vaccine. But then it's got to be manufactured. It's got to be distributed. And if there's no vaccine, it's going to be testing, tracing, stockpile, safety standards," he said.

Biden laid out his foreign policy agenda in a prepandemic speech a year ago in New York City.

A big part of it, as Biden sees things: doing cleanup work after four years of President Trump.

"Donald Trump's brand of 'America First' has too often led to America alone, making it much harder to mobilize others to address the threats to our common well being," Biden said then.

Biden has said he'll prioritize repairing the relationships Trump has frayed — especially with NATO allies. He'd also reenter and rework the international agreements at the heart of the Obama administration's foreign policy, which Trump has since withdrawn from: the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

Biden has also vowed to confront the global rise of authoritarianism he and many Democrats have long argued Trump and his policies have helped enable.

"Trust in institutions around the world is down, and fear of the other is way up," Biden said last year. "Together, in my view, these forces have driven dangerous resurgences of extreme nationalism and illiberalism, of protectionism and xenophobia. And Donald Trump and demagogues around the world are leaning into these forces."

China: "the most important relationship"

While the coronavirus pandemic has upended domestic politics, Haass argues it hasn't fundamentally changed the trajectory of any of those big challenges, at least in a substantial way.

China, Haass said, "is the most important relationship of this era. It was already deteriorating before the pandemic. This deterioration has simply continued, or in some ways accelerated. It might have happened anyhow."

Whether Biden or Trump is in the White House next year, China will likely play an outsized role in foreign policy. Tension between the two countriesis at a high point, as the U.S. and China order each other to close consulates, expel or limit reporters and state employees from each other's countries, and as China has cracked down on political expression in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Trump and many congressional Republicans have repeatedly blamed China for losing control of the coronavirus, which originated in its Wuhan province, and letting it spread around the world.

Meanwhile, both the Biden and Trump campaigns have seized on U.S.-China relations as a campaign issue, and each is running ads framing the other candidate as the one who's "softer" on China.

Over the course of the campaign, Biden has repeatedly emphasized that as vice president, he was tapped by the Obama administration to meet frequently with Xi and establish a working relationship with the emerging world leader.

"I've spent more time with Xi Jinping, at least before [the Obama administration] got out, than any world leader has," he told Nevada Democrats in January.

But in a world without a COVID-19 vaccine, Biden would most likely be blocked from what would otherwise be a natural move: once again meeting directly with Xi, either in the U.S. or China, to begin addressing the two nations' growing tension points.

Biden would also likely have to abandon plans for the two international summits he had planned on convening in the U.S. early on in his possible administration. One would focus on strengthening democracy and pushing back on authoritarianism, and the other would tackle climate change.

Neither seems likely until a vaccine is developed and globally distributed.

Still, Blinken says one way or another, a President Biden would be engaging with other world leaders. "The United States has to show up again, has to be present again. And whether that's virtually in the first instance and eventually in person remains to be seen. But we have to get back in the game," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.