Joe Biden Could End Up Being A Wartime President

Notwithstanding his pledges of uplift and healing, history suggests post-pandemic peace is rare, and Democratic wars are not.  

Former Vice President Joe Biden, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, wears a protective mask while exiting a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.(Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
Former Vice President Joe Biden, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, wears a protective mask while exiting a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.(Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Successful Democratic candidates for the presidency of the United States invariably campaign with promises of domestic largesse and moral uplift. They nearly always end up taking their country to war. Can Joe Biden be a rare exception to that rule, if he succeeds in defeating Donald Trump on November 3? That will depend not just on how well he and his national security team conduct U.S. foreign policy. It will also depend on how stable the world around them is. The bad news is that post-pandemic peace is another historical rarity.

First, the Democratic Party’s amazing century-plus track record of running on progressive policies and then going to war. Consider Woodrow Wilson, reviled by today’s progressives for his racist views, but nominated and elected in 1912 as a progressive.

Wilson’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Baltimore was a classic in the genre of American uplift. “We must speak,” he told the delegates, “not to catch votes, but to satisfy the thought and conscience of a people deeply stirred by the conviction that they have come to a critical turning point in their moral and political development. We stand in the presence of an awakening Nation, impatient of partisan make-believe. … Nor was the country ever more susceptible to unselfish appeals to the high arguments of sincere justice.”

“The Nation has been unnecessarily, unreasonably, at war within itself,” declared Wilson. But now “the forces of the Nation are asserting themselves against every form of special privilege and private control, and are seeking bigger things than they have ever heretofore achieved. They are sweeping away what is unrighteous in order to vindicate once more the essential rights of human life.”

In office, Wilson offered progressive policy as well. His “New Freedom” agenda cut protectionist tariffs, introduced the first federal income tax, passed the Clayton Antitrust Act and created the Federal Trade Commission, not to mention the Federal Reserve. Reelected partly on a pledge to keep the United States out of World War I, however, he did just the opposite in April 1917.

The pattern repeated itself for the next hundred years. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was swept to power amid the Great Depression with the promise of a New Deal. “Let us now and here highly resolve,” FDR told his fellow Democrats at their 1932 convention in Chicago, “to resume the country’s interrupted march along the path of real progress and of real justice and of real equality for all our citizens, great or small.” Uplift was duly followed by a raft of legislation designed to reduce poverty and inequality by increasing the power of the federal government. Despite even stronger anti-war sentiment than Wilson had faced, Roosevelt led the United States into World War II in 1941.

Harry Truman’s acceptance speech at Philadelphia in July 1948 continued the tradition: “The Democratic Party is the people’s party, and the Republican party is the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be. … In 1932 we were attacking the citadel of special privilege and greed. We were fighting to drive the money changers from the temple. Today, in 1948, we are now the defenders of the stronghold of democracy and of equal opportunity, the haven of the ordinary people of this land and not of the favored classes or the powerful few.”  Having won a famous surprise victory over Thomas E. Dewey, Truman unveiled his domestic “Fair Deal” early in 1949. Less than 18 months later, North Korea invaded South Korea and America was back at war.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson between them set new standards for both rhetorical uplift (Kennedy) and progressive legislation (Johnson). Yet by 1968 neither his civil rights legislation nor the Great Society could salvage Johnson’s presidency from the wreckage of the war in Vietnam.

Subsequent Democratic presidents strove mightily to avoid LBJ’s fate. Yet the world would not leave Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in peace to pursue their domestic agendas. Carter’s presidency was dealt fatal blows by the hostage crisis after the Iran Revolution of February 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ten months later. Clinton spent years trying to avoid foreign entanglements, in Somalia, in Rwanda and in Bosnia, until the last of these forced him into military intervention. Obama may still believe his decision not to intervene in the Syrian Civil War was one of his best, but the red line on the use of chemical weapons — which turned out to be a pink dotted line — was in truth the most ignominious chapter of his presidency.

Joe Biden’s speech on Thursday night was the continuation of a very long tradition in lofty Democratic rhetoric, traceable all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. “If you entrust me with the presidency,” declared Biden, “I will draw on the best of us not the worst. I will be an ally of the light not of the darkness. It's time for us, for We the People, to come together. For make no mistake. United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America. We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.” Whoever wrote that speech had done their homework.  At times I wondered if an algorithm had mashed it up on the basis of all previous Democratic acceptance speeches.

The common feature of all but one Democratic acceptance speeches since 1912 is the tiny proportion devoted to foreign policy. The exception is John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech in Los Angeles in 1960, which was roughly half Cold War rhetoric designed to outflank Richard Nixon on national security. Biden didn’t go there. Less than 3% of his acceptance speech was on foreign policy, and it was bromidic as well as brief. Biden pledged to “stand with our allies and friends,” to desist from “cozying up to dictators” (mentioning no names), and not to “turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers” or “foreign interference” in U.S. elections. That was it. The only mention of China was apropos of the need to make America less dependent on Chinese-made medical supplies and protective equipment. To listen to Biden’s speech, you would not know that the United States is already up to its neck in Cold War II, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out here and elsewhere.

No doubt a majority of people who tuned in to Biden’s speech share his unspoken wish that this Second Cold War will simply go away the moment he is sworn in. Biden it was who launched his bid for the Democratic nomination with the observation that the Chinese were “not bad folks, folks” and were “not competition for us” — and who earlier this month seemed ready to promise an end to U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports.

I have bad news. It wasn’t Donald Trump who started Cold War II; it was Xi Jinping. And, as I pointed out two weeks ago, his vision of a resurgent China challenging the United States not merely economically but ideologically and geopolitically is widely shared by Chinese intellectuals and (though it is hard to be sure) many ordinary Chinese people. Notice, too, that anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States has increased almost as much among Democrats as among Republicans in the past few years.

How likely is the world to be a peaceful place between 2021 and 2024, the putative first and likely only term of a Biden presidency? Not unreasonably, Biden’s speech last Thursday focused on the adverse impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the United States. Yet the key question for an incoming Biden administration will not be what to do about the pandemic, as I suspect — one cannot be certain — it will largely be over by January next year. The key question will not be — as many Democrats think — how best to spend all the money the United States can possibly borrow, now that all fiscal and monetary restraint has been cast aside. The key questions will be how generally unstable the post-pandemic world will be and how specifically toxic the Sino-American relationship will get.

History does not give much ground for optimism on these scores. More often than not, as in 1918–19, times of war have been followed by times of plague, but the direction of causation has also run the other way. The great plagues of the ancient world — smallpox in the Athens of Pericles (429–426 BC) or the Antonine and Justinianic plagues that struck the Roman Empire —did not usher in periods of peace. To give just one example, not long after bubonic plague swept through his empire, beginning in 541 AD, the Emperor Justinian waged a successful campaign to reclaim Italy from the Ostrogoths, as well as resuming his war with the Sassanid (Persian) Empire.

The Black Death of the 1340s was among the most disastrous pandemics in history, killing between one-third and three-fifths of the population of Europe. Yet it did not prevent one of history’s most protracted conflicts from getting underway. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France began on June 24, 1340, with the destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of Sluys by Edward III’s naval expedition. Six years later, despite the ravages of the plague, Edward launched a cross-Channel invasion, capturing Caen and marching to Flanders, inflicting a heavy defeat on Philip VI’s army at Crécy, and proceeding to conquer Calais. The French king’s ally, David II of Scotland, then invaded England, only to be defeated. In 1355, Edward III’s son, the “Black Prince,” led another force into France, winning a major victory at Poitiers. A third English invasion went less well, leading to a temporary peace in 1360, but the war resumed in 1369 and continued intermittently until 1453.

At the time, nobody knew that the two countries were embarking on a “Hundred Years War.” That phrase was not coined by historians until 1823. But such is history. Most people still do not grasp that Cold War II has begun. Cold War I was a forty-year affair. But who is to say that the U.S.-China conflict will not be another hundred years’ war?

One disaster begets another. A pandemic creates a cascade of economic, social and political problems, which in turn can often precipitate cross-border conflicts. Watch, for instance, as COVID-19’s disruption of food production all over the developing world, but especially in Africa, leads not just to hunger but to population displacements and political frictions.

For that matter, look around at what’s already happening. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, Russia and Turkey have effectively partitioned Libya, Chinese and Indian soldiers have skirmished hand-to-hand on their border, the port of Beirut has blown up, toppling the Lebanese government, revolution has broken out in Belarus and there has been a military coup in Mali. Is peace at hand? Well, there has been an unexpected breakthrough in the Middle East, with the normalizing of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (a deal for which Jared Kushner deserves more credit than he is receiving). But anyone who thinks Iran is going to suspend its nefarious activities in the region just because Joe Biden is in the White House doesn’t understand the regime in Tehran.

The central issue at stake between the United States and China is not Trumps’ tariffs, nor his attempt to have a U.S. tech company take over TikTok, nor Xi’s suppression of pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, nor his genocidal policies against the Uighurs in Xinjiang — nor even the extent of China’s culpability for the Covid-19 pandemic. The central issue is Taiwan and it is due to blow up in a few weeks’ time, when new U.S. regulations come into force that will cut off Huawei from all imported semiconductors made with either American technology or software. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tim Culpan argued last week, this really is the “nuclear option,” because it “threatens to kill the company, which invites retaliation from Beijing.”

Ever wondered why it was that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941? As Harvard’s Graham Allison recently reminded us, it was because of intolerable economic sanctions imposed by the United States. Yes, that’s right: under the Democratic President Joe Biden most wants to be associated with.

Last week’s virtual convention was a great opportunity to hate on Republicans, and especially on Donald Trump. But for all his many flaws, Trump has upheld a great GOP tradition — of not starting foreign wars. The exception to the rule of Republican dovishness over the past century was of course George W. Bush, who got America into two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. (George H. W. Bush’s war to liberate Kuwait was Bismarckian in its short duration and low cost in life.) The rest — Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan — were notable for the small number of young Americans they sent into battle: vastly fewer than their Democratic counterparts.

“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” is a line from Virgil, usually translated as “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” I feel the same way about Democrats when they make uplifting speeches full of promises about billions (sorry, make that trillions) of dollars to be spent on public health, education, health care and infrastructure. If there is one man I can readily imagine—inadvertently, of course, and with the best of intentions and the most uplifting of rhetoric—turning Cold War II into World War III, it is the self-anointed heir of FDR, Joseph Robinette 1 Biden Jr.

((Adds reference to George H.W. Bush in penultimate paragraph.))

  1. According to Biden family lore, “allegedly the Robinettes came over with Lafayette and never went home.” Now remind yourself what Lafayette came over for.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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