Absent the specific context of American politics in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, President-elect Joe Biden has proudly served a lifetime in politics as very much a member of the traditional establishment. This means, in foreign policy circles, most of his positions are pinned to what have always been formal American positions, some of which go back literally decades in time. Now add to the fact that Biden has just won an election where the defeated incumbent actually grew to believe in the vitriol with which his most ardent followers sent him to Washington in 2016, ie, Trump’s job more than anything else while in the White House was to undermine the power of the DC Beltway crowd and ‘drain the swamp’ with all of its requisite institutions. One of those institutions for Trump was NATO. While it is true Trump slowly dialed back some of his highly critical rhetoric against the organization over the last four years, it was clear the outgoing president did not see the organization as valuable and would be unlikely to call upon it to serve any vital role in his vision of foreign policy.
Thus, when considering the incoming presidency of Joe Biden, combining together his long history of traditional support for long-existing foreign policy institutions and his understandable desire to stand in direct opposition to previous Trump positions, the future of NATO looks bright if also uninspired. Indeed, as far back as 2016 before Trump actually won the presidency, Biden went on record to declare how remaining a part of NATO and honoring all of its obligations and responsibilities was a “sacred honor” and questioned whether Trump even understood what some of those duties (like protecting Article 5 dealing with the Baltics) actually meant. It would be difficult for Biden to more dramatically express support for NATO as he did here, going beyond diplomatic alliance and discussing it in far more emotional, personal terms. Jump forward to today and there really isn’t anything new indicating a change in Biden’s take on the organization.
In his lead-up to victory this month, out on the campaign trail in 2019, Biden slightly shifted tactics to reinforce the importance of NATO in the face of Trump’s quasi-isolationist, go-it-alone positions across most foreign policy issues. In this take, Biden moves beyond sacred duties and historical obligations and emphasizes how it would simply be “disastrous” for the United States to think it could continue to be seen as the world’s global policeman or try to perform such a role without relying on international alliances of like-minded organizations. NATO, for Biden, stood out as one of the ideal organizations meant to help the United States move forward. He even came out with tired Cold War melodrama to scare the American public, unequivocally stating that a second term for Donald Trump would likely not just mean the end of NATO as a functioning organization but the de facto acquiescence by the United States to “bad actors” in the greater European region like President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation.
It is this formulation that is the most significant in terms of Biden support for NATO. His traditionalism means there is no push or desire to see any mission evolution or adaptation for the organization. The NATO of 1965 is perfectly fine for a Biden presidency in 2020. In short, its need is to function as a bulwark alliance against any and all Russian initiatives and maneuvers. If Biden wants to lean on alliance partnerships for a sharing of responsibilities, then it is clear the NATO version of this is to treat the Russian Federation exactly as the organization treated the Soviet Union fifty years before. This is where traditionalism can become problematic. While it would be naïve to see the Russian Federation in 2020 as a willing ally to the United States or Western Europe, it is still an overstatement and hyperbolic political melodrama to purposely position Russian interests as being a perfect mirror to the danger and tension felt by the world during the height of the Cold War with the ideological battle between the United States and Soviet Union. It is this failure to be innovative in new policy and to be willing to consider new relationship positions, instead maintaining traditional strategic alliances and adversarial dualities, that means a Biden presidency will see a reinvestment in NATO relevance while maintaining depressingly familiar political rhetoric that will miss opportunities for new engagement.
When we look at some of the issues that could fall under the concerns of NATO during a Biden Presidency and involve Russia, they can be extensive but also tend to be described in media and diplomatic circles in purposefully hostile terms that are often overstated. For example, Russian interests in the Arctic Circle are plans to dominate and exclude all others; engagement with Belarus is an effort to forcefully absorb the country into the Russian Federation; reinvestment and modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is an attempt to make NATO’s deterrence posture impotent; countering NATO’s attempts to place air defense batteries closer to the Russian border is an example of ‘Russian provocation.’ As one might expect, Russia has its own perspective on the necessity of these interests and maneuvers but does not describe them in the same intensive adversarial manner. In other words, Russia accepts the natural tension that exists on an issue-by-issue basis but isn’t looking to return to a Cold War-style rhetoric that makes almost any positive engagement between East and West impossible. This is the real problem to be faced with an incoming Biden Presidency: reinvesting in the relevance of NATO and wanting it to share in some of the diplomatic and/or military responsibilities that might arise on the European continent is fine, even wise. But reinvesting in NATO with political rhetoric that shoves the continent back into 1965 simply to avoid the burden of policy/relationship innovation is a horrible step backward.