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The Foreign Policy of Joe Biden: Assessing His Vice Presidential Legacy

Article by Andrew Mumford

December 8, 2020

The Foreign Policy of Joe Biden: Assessing His Vice Presidential Legacy

As pundits and world leaders start to interpret what kind of foreign policy platform President-elect Joe Biden will enact, there is good reason to look back on his eight years as Vice President under Barack Obama to see just how his extensive foreign policy experience is and why it led one media profile to ask if he was the most influential Vice President in history.[1]


Joe Biden initially rebuffed Obama’s request that he be vetted as a potential running mate, believing he could be more influential as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee than as Vice President. Biden also later revealed that when discussing the running mate offer with his family it was his sons who argued that his foreign policy experience would help the ticket – and arguably it did.[2] During his eight year stint as Vice President, Joe Biden travelled to over two dozen countries as America’s envoy to help solve diplomatic crises.[3]


Yet before being selected as Obama’s running mate, Biden was perceived as ‘a victim of terminal logorrhoea’, creating a reputation as an affable but serial gaffe-maker.[4] It soon became clear, however, that out of the three shortlisted vice presidential candidates (Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, and Biden) that it was the Delaware senator that had the most foreign policy experience. Biden had been in the Senate for 36 years by that point, including four years as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. This foreign policy experience was important for Obama to harness as a way of countering criticism at his inexperience on the international stage.


With a staff that included five foreign policy assistants Biden clearly staked a claim to be Obama’s most vocal foreign policy advocate – something the President himself acknowledged. When asked in 2014 where he felt his Vice President’s greatest impact had been, Obama replied: ‘On the foreign policy front, I think Joe’s biggest influence was in the Afghanistan debate.’[5] Just a week before their inauguration in January 2008, President-elect Obama sent Biden on a fact-finding mission to both Iraq and Afghanistan to assess the state of the two wars the new administration was going to inherit. This utilisation of Biden as a foreign policy point-man would be a trend that would continue for much of their term of office.


Six months into his presidency, Obama gave Biden the responsibility for overseeing the American military withdrawal from Iraq – a war that Biden described as ‘the most frustrating issue of my forty year career in foreign relations.’[6] However, it was the war in Afghanistan – the original theatre of battle in the War on Terror – that came to dominate Obama’s foreign policy horizon. Biden immediately became the ‘in-house pessimist’ on Afghanistan and sought ways to minimise American involvement.[7] After receiving commanding officer Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for additional troops in Afghanistan in August 2009, President Obama spent the next two months chairing ten formal meetings in which key members of the administration, including Biden, discussed a review of the Afghan war strategy. Biden exploited his participation in these meetings as a way of demonstrating his influence in the foreign policy domain, even if it meant creating friction with other cabinet members.


In these meetings Biden received the active encouragement of Obama to argue the case for an overt counter-terrorism approach to Afghanistan (which emphasised the targeted killing of key Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders) in contrast to the counter-insurgency option preferred by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (which emphasised nation-building as a prelude to a reduction in violence). Biden and Gates clashed repeatedly over Afghanistan, especially over the need to inject a ‘surge’ of troops into the country. Gates claimed in his memoirs that Biden was deliberately stoking ‘distrust’ between the White House and senior military officers over the way forward in Afghanistan.[8] Once Obama had set the course for a ‘surge’ in Afghanistan of an additional 30,000 extra troops Gates went further by accusing Biden of disloyalty by actively working to show that the President ‘had been wrong…and that the war on the ground was going from bad to worse.’[9] In March 2011 Biden convened a meeting at the Vice President’s residency inside the grounds of the Naval Observatory to discuss the Afghan strategy. Biden placed himself at the centre of this ‘off-campus’ debate in order to press Gates for a drawdown in troop numbers. The Defense Secretary resented Biden using his position as Vice President to muscle in on foreign and defense policy issues and for ‘poisoning the well with the President with regard to… Afghanistan.’[10]


Despite these high profile clashes with Defense Secretary Gates (whose side-swipe at Biden in his memoirs for being ‘wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades’ grabbed headlines upon publication) Vice President Biden still enjoyed an enormous level of leverage over the direction of foreign policy in the Obama White House.[11] Biden would claim after he left office that Obama ‘did not look over my shoulder’ once he had tasked him with large foreign policy portfolios.[12] Like Dick Cheney before him, Biden continued to regularly attend the Principal’s Committee of the President’s top national security team.[13] He also tried to cultivate a diplomatic philosophy, which held that ‘all foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships.’[14] This was his way of building close working connections with world leaders ahead of talks – and is a trait we can expect to see manifest again once Biden enters the Oval Office in January.


Andrew Mumford is a Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and a former fellow at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. Twitter: @apmumford


Image by Gage Skidmore under (CC).


[1] Michael Hirsh, Joe Biden: The Most Influential Vice President in History?, The Atlantic, December 2012,

[2] Joe Biden. 2017. Promise Me, Dad. Pan Macmillan.

[3] Jody C. Baumgartner, The Vice Presidency in the Twenty-First Century, Pepperdine Law Review, Volume 44, Issue 3 Symposium: The United States Vice Presidency: In History, Practice and the Future, Article 4, 2017,

[4] John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, Harper Collins, October 2010,

[5] Evan Osnos, The Biden Agenda: Reckoning with Ukraine and Iraq, keeping an eye on 2016, The New Yorker, July 2014,

[6] James Traub, After Cheney, The New York Times Magazine, November 2009,; Joe Biden. 2017. Promise Me, Dad. Pan Macmillan.

[7] Peter Baker, Biden No Longer a Lone Voice on Afghanistan, The New York Times, October 2009,

[8] Robert M. Gates. 2015. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Penguin Random House.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Joe Biden. 2017. Promise Me, Dad. Pan Macmillan.

[13] Evan Osnos, The Biden Agenda: Reckoning with Ukraine and Iraq, and keeping an eye on 2016, The New Yorker, July 2014,

[14] Steve Clemons, The Biden Doctrine: Has the vice president made a lasting contribution in foreign policy?, The Atlantic, August 2016,

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