Can Joe Biden’s Value-Centric Foreign Policy Succeed In The Middle East?

Can Joe Biden’s Value-Centric Foreign Policy Succeed In The Middle East?

In practice, a values-based foreign policy is often viewed by autocratic governments as dangerous meddling in their internal affairs which has a negative impact on the relationship and does little to change the reality of governance on the ground.


Following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, some in the West believed that the arc of history bent toward the inevitable global triumph of liberal democracy over authoritarianism. States who sought out patronage or cooperation with the world’s largest and most advanced economy would have little choice but to humor American insistence that they respect basic human or political rights. Also, given the weak economies and lack of political influence of the alternatives to the United States and Europe during the 1990s, including Russia and China, there were few if any other appealing models to emulate.

However, the process of continued global democratization proved challenging over time and raised the question of whether the 1990s had been the high-water mark for liberal democracy around the globe. Some difficulties in the Middle East included: democratizing Iraq amidst the chaos that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion; the undesirable results of “free and fair” elections in Egypt and the Gaza Strip in 2005 and 2006 respectively; and the failure of the Arab Spring to bring about stable democracies in the Arab world save, perhaps, Tunisia. This raised serious questions about the desirability of democratizing the Middle East, a region which had few of the pre-requisites for participatory political life (high levels of literacy, free press, organized political parties) and in which the United States (and Israel) were viewed with hostility by significant portions of the general public.


In parallel, policies to promote American values abroad encountered domestic challenges. They include: The sagging belief among Americans in their own democracy—let alone in the need to export it—popular sentiment that the government should marshal resources to tend to problems at home, and the learned experience among policymakers (particularly those focused on the Middle East) that the United States has a very limited ability to affect the outcome of developments and it is very costly to try. The result was that Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama adopted a more “hands off” approach to the enforcement of international norms which appears to have encouraged states like Turkey, Syria, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to flout them. As it stands, President Trump seems interested in promoting human rights and democracy exclusively in reference to particular hostile regimes such as Iran and Venezuela while papering over the transgressions of partners—a fact which undermines the White House’s credibility on the matter.

The Trump administration’s current deprioritization of efforts to promote human rights and democracy around much of the globe is reflective of both the president’s transactional approach to foreign policy as well as a broader sentiment in the United States, particularly prevalent among Republicans. According to a 2019 public opinion poll by the Center for American Progress, only 9 percent of respondents believe that promoting democratic rights and freedoms abroad should be among the top three foreign policy priorities of the U.S. government. Similarly, according to a 2018 Pew report, “Though neither party rates the promotion of democracy in other nations as a particularly high priority, Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to say this should be a top foreign policy goal (22% vs. 11%).” President Trump’s pragmatic rather than ideological approach to Saudi Arabia was evident in his statement that regardless of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the United States would not jeopardize its national interests which are served by partnering with the Kingdom, and his reference to President Sisi of Egypt as “my favorite dictator” indicated a disregard for the severe political repression carried out by the Egyptian regime.

Will the current trend in U.S. foreign policy herald in a more permanent shift of gravitating toward interests rather than values?

There is good reason for skepticism that U.S. foreign policy is at a major turning point in which it shifts perpetually towards interests, as the ebb and flow in support for democracy and human rights has long been a long-term feature. According to Bradford Perkins’s 1994 article on the subject:

“[Americans] had, they firmly believed, risen against tyranny, avoided sanguinary excesses, and created a republic – such was God’s path for the world. Thus they welcomed antimonarchical risings but, in frequently repeated ‘cycle of hope and disappointment,’ recoiled when revolutions moved toward repression, Bonapartism, or deep social change.”

Even the Trump administration, which is more transactional than its predecessors, has proved unwilling to fully renounce the importance of promoting values. While the U.S. response to China’s mistreatment of Uighurs was initially subsumed to a major trade deal with China, the White House eventually took action by signing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 which allows the U.S. government to penalize those responsible for the human rights violations in Xinjiang—a step which was supported by key figures in the Republican Party. Yet, it is important to note that this took place within the context of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to move beyond “phase one” of the U.S.-China trade deal reached in January 2020. However, Trump’s approach may in fact be in line with what many Americans see as smart policy, as Joseph Nye observed that the American public is reluctant to accept high costs “in cases where [the] only foreign policy goals are unreciprocated humanitarian interests.”

Given President Trump’s departure from the emphasis many of his predecessors placed on values and alliances in foreign policy, it is not surprising that his challenger from the Democratic Party, Joe Biden, has emphasized his intention to implement a more values-oriented multilateral foreign policy. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Biden wrote:

"During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda."

Presumably, this will include a concerted effort to shore up relations with Europe and to shift away from longstanding Middle Eastern allies who diverge from Western norms on human and civil rights. Biden is poised to hold traditional U.S. allies to account for human rights violations, as he tweeted in July 2020 regarding President Sisi of Egypt that there would be “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’” Regarding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Biden said of Saudi leaders “We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”

However, it is unclear what if anything the Biden administration would do differently than its predecessors in order to more successfully implement a values-based foreign policy. It seems that the overall reason for declining U.S. public interest in both the Middle East and democracy promotion is the U.S. government’s perceived mishandling of both in recent decades. Ideally, Biden’s approach should allow the White House to advance its values while maintaining its strong relationships with essential partners in the region. In practice, as has been evident in cases such as Turkey and Egypt, a values-based foreign policy is often viewed by autocratic governments as dangerous meddling in their internal affairs which has a negative impact on the relationship and does little to change the reality of governance on the ground. If Biden’s goal is to confront authoritarian governments in order to change their policies in meaningful ways, he ought to delimit clear goals, means to achieve them, and the costs he believes the United States should be willing to pay to that end. However, if the confrontation is the goal rather than the means, either because it satisfies the progressive wing of the Democratic Party or because on a moral level some actions cannot be allowed to pass without reproach, then those complex dilemmas regarding policy planning are less salient.

How a More “Values-Based” U.S. Foreign Policy Could Affect Israel

Regarding Israel, promoting U.S. values appears to be something of a partisan Rorschach test. For traditional Republicans, who are generally more supportive of Israel than their Democratic counterparts, according to recent polls, Israel represents the only democracy in the Middle East. For many progressive Democrats, Israel is most closely associated with problematic policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the “opposing side” in the struggle for social justice in the United States. But while the pro-Palestinian narrative of progressive Democrats finds a more receptive audience among those younger than thirty in the party, the percentage of Democrats who have a favorable view of Palestinians and unfavorable view of Israel remains negligible at 13 percent.

On the regional level, a U.S. foreign policy that is more insistent on promoting liberal democratic values in the Middle East could stress relations with U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. The distancing of those key regional players from Washington could have mixed results for Israel. On the one hand, it may promote Israel’s integration into the region as the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) will likely look to Israel as an alternative security guarantor with overlapping threat perceptions.