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For US President-Elect Biden, A Foreign Policy Informed By Many, Many, Many Road Trips – Analysis

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By Mike Eckel*

(RFE/RL) — Before he was president-elect, before he was vice president, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Delaware. For many of those years, he served on the chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee, including two stints as its chairman.

That gave him a prominent perch to push his view of the United States’ place in the world: Call it internationalist, call it transatlanticist, call it liberal interventionist.

Those policies are expected to be drastically different from those of President Donald Trump, who scoffed at alliances like NATO, pulled the United States out of major arms control and nuclear agreements, and roiled relations with the biggest U.S. trading partners, among other things.

Biden’s career in the Senate also gave him opportunities for extensive foreign travel. By one count, he traveled to dozens of countries. The Washington Post estimated he met with scores of foreign leaders and dignitaries from nearly 60 countries and territories, either while abroad or in the United States.

And that was all before he entered the White House as vice president in January 2009.

“Because of all the travels he has done, [Biden] has represented the U.S. in so many ways, over so many periods of time,” Peter Chase, a former U.S. diplomat now based in Brussels with the German Marshall Fund, told RFE/RL. “He truly embodies the post-World War II foreign policy of strengthening the rule of law. That’s what he’s done over his entire career.”

Biden himself touted that in the early days of his election campaign.

“Whether I’m right or not, I know as much about American foreign policy than anyone around, including even maybe Kissinger,” he told a fundraiser in May 2019, referring to the legendary U.S. foreign policy guru, Henry Kissinger. “I say that because I’ve been doing it my entire adult life.”

Biden’s transition team, in charge of preparing for him to take office in January, did not respond to a request for a list of his foreign travels.

The U.S. Senate has relatively strict reporting rules on when and how lawmakers can travel abroad — an effort to prevent ethical violations or lobbying. But the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Senate does not maintain records of senators’ foreign trips –something they are required by law to disclose – for more than six years beyond their filing.

That means Biden’s trips going back decades are harder to come by. But by using congressional records and public sources, RFE/RL has compiled a list of some of Biden’s more notable foreign travels, particularly to Eastern Europe, South Asia, the Soviet Union, and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Biden To Moscow: 1979

Biden joined the Foreign Relations Committee just two years after he was first elected to the Senate in 1973. With arms control among his main interests, Biden traveled to Moscow in August 1979, not long after the Senate failed to ratify the SALT II Treaty, to meet with the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko.

“I think the prospects of Soviet-American relations are good, but to be very blunt about it, it’s important that we first pass the SALT II agreement, which will improve them, and, secondly, get about the business, immediately, of dealing with SALT III, and the question of European forces — yours and ours,” he told an interviewer.

He also mentioned Soviet emigration policies, which at the time were under criticism from the United States, in particular for restrictions on Soviet Jews leaving the country.

The SALT II treaty eventually was shelved, and ultimately replaced in the waning days of the Soviet Union by the START I treaty.

Biden To Moscow: 1988

Biden went back to the Soviet capital in January 1988 as Washington and Moscow sought to finalize another crucial arms control agreement. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty had been signed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and the U.S. Senate was gearing up to debate and vote on its ratification, which happened in May of that year.

Biden’s comments were not broadcast by the Soviet news program Vremya, but the voice-over from the announcer paints a largely positive picture of the visit.

“The Soviet leadership proceeds from the assumption that the American side likewise will act in accordance with the full recognition of its great responsibility,” the announcer said.

Biden To Bosnia: 1993-94, 2001, 2009

Yugoslavia had imploded into a warring mess of ethnic hatred by 1993 when Biden visited Sarajevo, the besieged capital of what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. Back in Washington, Biden had joined with other senators, Republicans and Democrats, advocating for a measure to allow weaponry to be sent to Bosnia to help it fight back against Serb-backed forces.

In a speech he gave years later, he described what it was like to travel to the city.

“I remember flying into this city in 1993, seeing the large homes on our approach to the airport, and realizing that the homes had become shells, empty except for the snipers who had taken up residence,” he said. “In town, we saw buildings destroyed, the tops blown off, the sides pockmarked with bullets.”

During the same trip, Biden traveled to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and met with strongman Slobodan Milosevic. According to his memoir Promises To Keep, Biden said he spoke with Milosevic bluntly: “I think you’re a damned war criminal and you should be tried as one,” he claimed to have told the Serbian leader.

In 1994, Biden went back to Sarajevo along with Republican Senator Bob Dole, who was the lead co-sponsor of the measure to lift the arms embargo, which passed the Senate in 1995.

In 2001, he went back, and then eight years later, after he was elected vice president under President Barack Obama, Biden returned to Sarajevo, on a trip that also included stops in Belgrade, Pristina, and Skopje.

In an unusual address to Bosnian legislators in May 2009, he congratulated the country on the progress it had made since the end of the war. But then, in a speech whose unusual bluntness reflected his hallmark style, Biden scolded lawmakers for “a sharp and dangerous rise in nationalist rhetoric” in recent years.

“Forgive me for saying this in your parliament, but this must stop,” Biden said. “Let me be clear: Your only real path to a secure and prosperous future is to join Europe as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Right now, you’re off that path,” he said.

Biden to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan: 2009, 2011

After he and Obama won the 2008 election, one of the last trips Biden made as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee was to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. By his own count, it was at least the 10th trip he had made to South Asia.

The timing of the trip, however, just a couple of weeks before he and Obama were inaugurated, raised eyebrows in Washington, where some observers speculated about mixed signals being sent when the switchover to the new administration had not yet occurred.

Biden’s Senate office insisted the trip was done in his capacity as the chairman of the Senate committee.

“The fact-finding delegation will make it clear to foreign leaders that they are not there to speak on behalf of the U.S. government, or convey policy positions for the incoming administration,” the news release said.

Two years later, Biden went back to Kabul, where he sought to assure Afghans of a continuing U.S. presence.

“We are not leaving in 2014. Hopefully, we will have totally turned over [security responsibilities] to the Afghan security forces to maintain security in the country,” Biden said after meetings with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “But we are not leaving, if you don’t want us to leave. And we plan on continuing to work with you, and it’s in the mutual self-interest of both our nations.”

Fast forward to 2020: Trump has pushed to pull out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, even as violence persists and the Taliban remains a potent threat to the weak central government in Kabul.

For his part, Biden has said U.S. forces must be withdrawn gradually, under the right circumstances, and a residual forces would likely remain to help thwart potential terrorist groups.

Biden to Kyiv: 2015

Biden drew heavily on his foreign policy experience when he took on the portfolio of Ukraine during and after the mass protests in 2013 and early 2014 that led to the ouster of the country’s pro-Russian president.

After Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and sparked a war in eastern Ukraine, U.S. financial and military support for Kyiv became critical to keep the government from collapsing. And Biden was the point man.

In December 2015, he traveled to Kyiv — one of six overall trips he made to Ukraine as vice president dating back to 2009. In a speech to the Ukrainian parliament, he praised Ukrainians for the ongoing fight against Russia-backed forces.

He also scolded them.

“You also have a battle, a historic battle against corruption. Ukraine cannot afford for the people to lose hope again. The only thing worse than having no hope at all is having hopes rise and see them dashed repeatedly on the shoals of corruption,” he said.

Biden’s push for Ukraine to clean up corruption ended with his successful push for the ouster of a prosecutor-general who was widely seen as ineffective or possibly corrupt himself. That led to intense scrutiny from U.S. Republicans, who spread accusations that Biden had sought to protect a Ukrainian natural gas company whose board included his son Hunter.

Trump eventually pressured President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son. When the phone call of Trump’s call was revealed, it led to Trump being impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate acquitted him early this year.

Biden in Munich: 2019

In one of his last major foreign appearances before launching his presidential campaign, Biden traveled to Germany to speak at the annual Munich Security Conference, a major gathering of European, North American, and other international officials and experts.

Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, spoke before Biden, and he criticized European allies for their support of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018.

Biden, meanwhile, used his speech to criticize Trump’s overall approach toward NATO, an approach that had deeply worried European allies who feared Trump might pull the United States out of the alliance completely.

“The America I see does not wish to turn our back on the world or allies, our closest allies,” Biden told the audience.

  • Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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