Realism and liberalism in Joe Biden’s foreign policy record

Explore the complexities of foreign policy leadership through Carr's utopians vs. realists distinction, from Woodrow Wilson's idealism to Joe Biden's pragmatic approach. Discover how theory and practice interplay in modern international relations.

This post is by Dr Haro Karkour, Online Tutor for Queen Mary Online's MA in International Relations and MSc in International Public Policy. Haro's research focuses on International Relations (IR) Theory.

During the Queen Mary Online MA International Relations, students will find themselves introduced to a distinction in Edward Hallett Carr’s seminal text The Twenty Years’ Crisis. The distinction is between the ‘utopians’ and the ‘realists’.

Utopians, according to Carr, approach the world through the lens of their theory. Practice needs to conform to this theory. Realists, on the other hand, prioritise the world over theory. Theory needs to conform to practice. 

Woodrow Wilson: The ultimate utopian leader

Carr applied this typology to a range of leaders at the time of his writing in the 1930s. Woodrow Wilson was the ultimate utopian leader, according to Carr. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson rejected the balance of power politics that dictated the practice of European diplomacy for centuries.

Rather, Wilson had a liberal theory to which the Europeans ought to conform: a Fourteen’s Points speech that stipulated peace should be based on liberal democracy, self-determination and the free market. The world however did not conform to Wilson’s liberal vision.

The reality check: When idealism meets realpolitik

Collective security failed in Manchuria and Abyssinia when the interests of the powerful did not dictate to come to the succour of the powerless. The Second World War demonstrated that liberal ideals of democracy and self-determination did not end all wars.

An association between idealism and liberalism was born, and reality did not conform to liberal theory. Despite this, Wilsonian liberalism remains an influential force in US foreign policy.

Wilsonian liberalism in US foreign policy

For example, critics argued that it was the source of continuous interventions in the post-Cold War era from Kosovo in 1999 to Libya in 2011, and behind the failed attempts at ‘nation building’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. These critics do not only come from realist circles, but also from the current president himself, Joe Biden, who ordered the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

Biden: A realist or a pragmatic idealist?

This raises the question: is Biden a realist? The answer is yes and no, and it reveals more about Carr’s typology than Biden himself.

The answer is yes because Biden, on one hand, emphasised that the US national interest ought to conform to the security situation on the ground, rather than liberal visions about democratisation and nation-building.

‘Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland’ Biden announced in his remarks on Afghanistan on 21 August 2021, ‘I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency or nation building’.

Furthermore, if liberal theory says that free trade would lead to peace, Biden's trade policy is based on an assessment of facts: how trade with China affects US national security.

The complex nature of foreign policy: No leader is purely utopian or realist

Biden’s Science and CHIPS Act, therefore, limits ‘free trade’ in sensitive industries that have national security repercussions.  

Despite Biden’s realism, liberalism remains part of his foreign policy. As US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken put it, ‘President Biden is committed to a foreign policy that unites our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership, and one that is centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights’.

Biden’s First State of the Union Address framed the conflict in Ukraine as a ‘battle between democracy and autocracy’. It was not simply American security that was under a threat, but the ideal of democracy itself, which ought to be defended.  

Is this a contradiction in Biden’s foreign policy or in Carr’s typology? The answer is neither nor.

Carr's typology and its relevance in modern international relations

No leader can be purely realist or purely liberal. As Walter Lippmann argued a long time ago, the definition of US national security requires a statement about values, for without values or a way of life to defend, there would be little for America to secure.

Furthermore, American presidents are required to address their own people, and foreign policy in a democratic nation cannot steer too far off its own liberal ideals that offer it legitimacy in the first place. On the other hand, a foreign policy based purely on liberal ideals would require a denial that the nation’s interests are implicated in its values.

Understanding the duality of foreign policy leadership

The distinction that Carr makes therefore is only an analytical one, to help International Relations students and policymakers make sense of the likelihood of success or failure of particular foreign policy decisions. It ought not be confused for the real world, which includes elements of both. 

Topics: MA international relations

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