What Joe Biden Can Learn from the Greek War of Independence.

AuthorGlastris, Paul
PositionEditor's Note

Few presidents have entered the White House with as much foreign policy experience as Joe Biden--30 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, four as its chairman, eight as vice president during a time of war and global financial collapse. Yet he is already struggling to manage one of the central tensions of American statecraft--between the need to make cold-blooded decisions to protect U.S. interests and the belief, strongly held in many quarters, that the United States also should defend and advance democracy and human rights beyond its borders.

In a February 5 speech before State Department employees, Biden called for a diplomacy "rooted in America's most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity." A few weeks later, his administration released a report confirming that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that led to the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The administration also imposed sanctions on 76 of the individuals involved and froze military sales to the kingdom. But Biden chose not to sanction MBS himself, out of fear of losing Saudi cooperation in countering terrorism and Iran. As a result, he was widely castigated in Congress and the press for being a hypocrite on human rights.

Donald Trump was the rare president who escaped this "idealism"-versus-"realism" quandary in international affairs, thanks largely to the incoherence of his own foreign policy views and the fact that he sincerely didn't give a shit about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law--and convinced his followers not to care, either. But he was also aided by the blunders of his predecessors that gave democracy promotion a bad name. George W. Bush launched a catastrophic ground war in Iraq with hyperbolic statements about "ending tyranny in the world." Barack Obama gave eloquent rhetorical support to Arab Spring uprisings but chose not to commit American might to defend them--except in the case of Libya, which didn't turn out too well. For examples of presidents more successfully balancing morality and realpolitik one has to go back to Bill Clinton's ending of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo or Ronald Reagan's brinkmanship with the Soviet Union.

But to fully appreciate how deeply rooted this tension in U.S. foreign policy is, it helps to look back even further, to when it first manifested itself two centuries ago during the presidency of James Monroe. Like Biden, Monroe governed during a time of rising autocracy. The European powers had recently come together at the Congress of Vienna to reestablish the monarchies Napoleon had overthrown. Their militaries were crushing democratic uprisings in Spain, Portugal, and Italy--and threatening to do so to independence movements in Latin America.

It was in this environment that Monroe articulated a foreign policy doctrine, mostly written by his secretary of state and White House successor John Quincy Adams, that today bears his name. The Monroe Doctrine declared that the United States would consider any attempt by a European state to oppress or control any country in the Western Hemisphere a hostile act. It was intended as a warning to the colonial powers not to...

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