We are told, in a variety of journalistic passive constructions, that Vice President Joseph Biden “is expected to have an advantage on foreign policy” in the imminent debate with Representative Paul Ryan, who in his career thus far has been more of a home-front guy. Indeed, among the surfeit of reasons that candidate Obama chose then-senator Biden as his running mate (all of which, I’m sure, sounded good at the time) was that Biden’s thousand years hanging around the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were supposed to offset Obama’s own thin portfolio on politics among nations. (A dear friend and Obama supporter, cataloguing the president’s FoPo credentials for my benefit recently, led with young Barack’s 1983 bachelor’s degree in political science, with a concentration in international relations.)
No doubt, it would be a mistake for Ryan to underestimate Biden, both on foreign policy and at large. For all his verbal infelicities, the vice president has a reserve of gravitas that he seems to be able to tap at key moments, and nobody sticks in Washington for nearly half a century without mastering the art of sounding as if he knows what he’s talking about. The trouble is, on key foreign-policy issues over the years, the vice president doesn’t. That is, even if he scores some sort of debate “win” on a foreign-policy question — say, by breaking out a consonant soup of foreign-leader names and treaty acronyms — it won’t change the fact that Biden just might be, in Charles Krauthammer’s memorable formulation, “the Herbert Hoover of American foreign policy,” holding the record for being wrong on the most issues.
Which ones? Well, in the interest of space, let’s stick to the top five:
One: The Nuke Freeze
For 30 years, Biden’s has been a voice for the unsplitting of the atom. In the early 1980s, he was a steady foe of the renewed fervor with which President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl prosecuted the Cold War, and he became a supporter of the “nuclear freeze,” a movement-slash-footnote that sought to stop the production and deployment of nuclear weapons at precisely the moment when Reagan’s arsenal modernization was bankrupting the Soviet behemoth. A number of freeze resolutions died in the Senate despite support from Biden and other prominent Democrats such as Ted Kennedy. Meanwhile, the arms race helped catalyze the internal changes in Moscow that would produce the Gorbachev regime and, ironically, a strong American position for “trust, but verify”–style arms negotiations.
Nor has Biden quit. He continues to share his boss’s cosmically improbable goal of putting the nuclear cat back in the bag.
Two: Against SDI Just around the time Biden was trying to dismantle our offensive deterrent, he was fighting Reagan on our defensive deterrent, freelancing meetings with Soviet officials and fighting for an interpretation of U.S. treaty obligations that would block any efforts at anti-ballistic-missile defenses. The thinking behind the Strategic Defense Initiative — much derided as “Star Wars” — would evolve and eventually result in plans for the theater-defense systems that would protect America and its allies not from a full-scale Soviet strike (which was never going to be feasible anyway), but from the various rogue states and burgeoning nuclear powers of questionable rationality that bedevil the world today. This protection is a good thing, of course, and not the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction that so many worried about in the 1980s. But even without knowing that, people in the 1980s could have realized that SDI was mostly an exercise in “basic scientific research” (which I thought Democrats liked) and not a concrete, realizable weapons program designed to give the U.S. first-strike capability.