Biden limits his radicalism to the home front

The guitarist in the striped shirt in the background completes the picture. A video goes around that shows Donald Trump going through post-presidential life with less than, say, Jimmy Carter-ish equanimity. The clip shows him on a hotel kiosk, alleging dirty tricks in a six-month-old election, dressed as if a summons to resume his duties at the White House was not just possible but imminent.

Palm Beach’s Norma Desmond has at least two consolations. One, unlike the stranded fantasy in Sunset Boulevard, a return is possible. The betting exchanges favor him as the Republican candidate for the White House in 2024.

Second, while awaiting this restoration, he can see a gratifying number of his foreign policies still at work under a new president.

Trump had offered to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by last Saturday. Joe Biden’s reform consisted of pushing back the date by four months. Trump has refused to scold Saudi Arabia for its role in the murder of an American resident journalist and in a cruel war in Yemen. Under Biden, the kingdom has nothing to do with the “outcast” he promised to do. Trump pulled the United States out of the Iranian nuclear pact. Biden’s take-over of it was slower and more conditional than most had anticipated.

In all three cases, the Trump line was seen as an unreasonable dereliction: proof that the United States is the absent owner of the world. In all three, Biden kept more than he threw aside. Continuity involves a mixture of bad judgment in the new president and underrated wisdom in old politics.

The examples don’t end there either. Biden hasn’t been above a bit of vaccine nationalism. It was only after reprimands from his own camp that he raised Trump’s ceiling on refugee admissions. Any rapprochement with Cuba remains essentially theoretical. In Washington, the city that gave its name to a pro-trade consensus, Trump’s taste for self-sufficiency was briefly subversive. Biden is now in a position to offer a U.S. buyout program for general pickup. The same bad argument for economic protection, a much nicer argument: Liberals need to find solace where they find it.

And none of this touches on the bilateral relationship of the century. Biden’s posture towards China is truer for Trump than for that of Barack Obama, and by a margin that must render the awkwardness in the catch-up sessions of the former boss and his deputy. The rates are still there. The two marines still do shadow boxing.

Biden’s grievances with China have a moral, or at least a philosophical dimension: Trump, at his most anti-Beijing, didn’t care about his authoritarianism. But it involves more, not less, roads to a military confrontation under Biden. In his speech to Congress last week, he compared the US presence in “the Indo-Pacific” to what “we are doing in NATO in Europe”. Allusions to the Cold War have shifted from the columnist’s trope to how the sitting president views the other superpower. Hopes for a post-Trump detente now rest on – what? – Biden’s vague openness to cooperation in areas of mutual interest.

Trump’s grip on his successor’s worldview is not complete. It’s likely that Biden will never commit a deeper act than practically the first: the re-signing of the Paris climate agreement. It restores aid to the Palestinians (but not to the Israeli embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv). His tonal warmth towards his familiar allies, NATO and the very idea of ‚Äč‚Äčinternationalism are welcome, as all that is tonic matters.

It was natural, however, to expect more starting points. Foreign affairs is where a president is truly as powerful as the outward greatness of the post suggests. Congress is a complication, not a Bermuda Triangle for the best plans. If Biden wanted a clean break with the nationalism of the previous four years, he could be much further along with this project. No doubt its slowness owes something to the often disastrous fear of Democrats of being perceived as gentle. (Remember which party started and escalated the Vietnam War.) But the rest is a genuine hardening of views on the center-left in recent years. For a single-term president, Trump has changed the way the United States thinks about the world in astonishing ways. It is up to this world to live with the effects.

This is another reason to retain the idea that we are witnessing a Presidency of Mount Rushmore. Really important American leaders have tended to transform foreign policy. Judged by his early work, Biden simply longs to adjust it. In the snatches the world now sees of him, his predecessor radiates a tragicomic lack of relevance. In the highest affairs of the state, he remains unmistakable.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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