‘Strategic Empathy’: How Biden’s Informal Diplomacy Shaped Foreign Relations

President Barack Obama had a China problem. His national security team knew the Chinese Communist Party was getting ready to anoint a new leader. But his aides wanted to better understand the man they expected to assume power, Xi Jinping. It seemed like a job for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Mr. Xi was China’s vice president at the time, Mr. Biden’s counterpart and natural interlocutor. Beyond that, Mr. Obama and his aides hoped Mr. Biden’s ingratiating charm and decades of interactions with foreign leaders might allow him to penetrate Mr. Xi’s officially scripted facade.

Beginning in early 2011 and over the next 18 months, the two men convened at least eight times, in the United States and in China, according to former U.S. officials. They met formally, took walks, shot baskets at a rural Chinese school and spent more than 25 hours dining privately, joined only by interpreters. Mr. Biden made a quick “personal connection” with the Chinese leader, even if he sometimes confounded his Mandarin interpreter by quoting hard-to-translate Irish verse, said Daniel Russel, an aide present at several of the meetings.

“He was remarkably good in getting to a personal relationship right away and getting Xi to open up,” Mr. Russel said. Mr. Biden’s gleaned insights — especially his assessment of Mr. Xi’s authoritarian intentions — informed Mr. Obama’s later approach, several Obama aides said in interviews.

To voters unsettled by President Trump’s disruptive approach to the world, Mr. Biden is selling not only his policy prescriptions but also his long track record of befriending, cajoling and sometimes confronting foreign leaders — what he might call the power of his informal diplomatic style. “I’ve dealt with every one of the major world leaders that are out there right now, and they know me. I know them,” he told supporters in December.

Brett McGurk, a former senior State Department official for the campaign against the Islamic State, said Mr. Biden had been an effective diplomat by practicing “strategic empathy.”

Mr. Biden is a foreign-policy pragmatist, not an ideologue; his views have long tracked the Democratic mainstream. For a decade before the Iraq War, he was known as a hawk, but more recently he has become a chastened skeptic of foreign intervention. In lieu of grand strategy, he offers what more than 20 current and former American officials described in interviews as a remarkably personal diplomacy derived from his decades in the glad-handing, deal-making hothouse of the Senate. It is an approach grounded in a belief that understanding another leader — “what they want and what they need,” in the words of James Rubin, a former Biden aide who later served as the State Department spokesman — is as important as understanding his or her nation.

“It’s very Lyndon Johnson-esque,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who attended many meetings with Mr. Biden.

Yet Mr. Xi has clearly tested the limits of that approach. Mr. Biden’s record is short on public warnings that the Chinese leader could become the “thug” that the presumptive Democratic nominee calls him today. And as American relations with China slide from bad to worse, Mr. Biden is facing uncomfortable questions about why he didn’t do more to stiffen Obama administration policy toward Beijing — about why his strategic empathy didn’t come with more strategic vision.

That is a point the Trump campaign has sought to make by weaponizing Mr. Biden’s diplomatic dance with Mr. Xi. A series of Trump campaign ads shows Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi clinking glasses against an audio backdrop of Mr. Biden waxing lyrical about friendship and cooperation with China. The Biden campaign calls such criticism preposterous from a president who has himself repeatedly praised Mr. Xi as a friend and a “great leader.” But the attack is part of a broader Trump indictment of Mr. Biden as “China’s puppet” — a Washington establishment fixture who misread China and Mr. Xi.

Mr. Biden’s critics insist that his emphasis on the personal is not effective at all, that it covers for flawed judgment and a lack of principle. “It’s little wonder that he claims world leaders have told him they support his election — they want to get back to eating America’s lunch again,” said Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman. He pointed out that Mr. Biden had voted to authorize the Iraq war and said he favored “appeasing” Cuba.

The effectiveness of Mr. Biden’s diplomatic style — and how well it might translate to the presidency — is hard to measure. As a senator, he produced no landmark foreign-policy legislation or defining doctrines. As vice president, he was largely a facilitator and adviser to Mr. Obama, often overshadowed by the secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and then John Kerry.

Asked in an interview to cite instances where his approach to diplomacy proved successful, Mr. Biden pointed to his work wrangling international support for the Paris climate accords and for the coalition to fight the Islamic State, though those were both projects in which others, including Mr. Kerry, played major roles.

“I can’t think of any place, to be honest with you, that it didn’t work,” he added.

“For example,” he continued, before pausing. “Well, I could give one example, but I don’t think it helps me — especially if I get elected, with that particular leader still around.”

ImagePresident Trump, joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, criticized the government of China in May at the White House.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Soon after his January 2001 inauguration, President George W. Bush invited Mr. Biden to the Oval Office. A foreign-policy novice, Mr. Bush was seeking insights into world leaders he was soon to encounter. Mr. Biden later wrote that the new Republican president “had all these other policy people to talk to, but he wanted to talk with another politician who had sat down with these leaders, who maybe had a read on the personalities and the motivations.”

Mr. Biden’s political trademark was a blue-collar Everyman style that seemed more suited for state fairs than state dinners. But from the start of his Washington career, he had prioritized foreign policy — albeit preferring personal relationships to the book smarts of seasoned diplomats who sometimes rolled their eyes at him. “There’s an old Chinese saying, better to travel 10,000 miles than read 10,000 books,” Mr. Biden likes to say.

In 1979, a 37-year-old Mr. Biden met with China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, in Beijing, and later recalled the value of seeing firsthand Mr. Deng’s “very real fear of the Soviets.” The same year he visited Moscow for nuclear arms talks with Kremlin officials including the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. After a senior official was evasive about Soviet tank numbers, Mr. Biden offered a vulgar retort that a translator diluted to, “Don’t kid a kidder,” he later wrote.

Credit…George Widman/Associated Press

By his first run for president in 1988, Mr. Biden considered himself an expert diplomat. “I knew the world and America’s place in it in a way few politicians did,” he wrote in a memoir. He marveled at the “personal intimacy of diplomacy.”

After he withdrew from that campaign, he used his growing seniority on the Foreign Relations Committee to raise his profile on global issues. He would oppose the 1991 war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, but a few years later, he was among the few voices urging President Bill Clinton to take military action in the Balkans.

Mr. Biden’s thinking was shaped in part by an encounter with the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. During an April 1993 meeting in Belgrade, Mr. Biden has recalled, he told Mr. Milosevic: “I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one.” (Whether Mr. Biden uttered those exact words has been disputed, although Mr. Rubin, who was present, called the encounter “the most intense grilling I ever saw an American give to a foreign leader.”) He came away convinced that Mr. Milosevic was “evil,” he later wrote, and that the United States should bomb Serbian forces.

When Mr. Obama chose Mr. Biden as his 2008 running mate — in part for the direct foreign-policy experience that Mr. Obama lacked — it made for a glaring contrast with Mr. Biden’s Republican rival, Sarah Palin. To drive home the point, Mr. Biden’s office released a “partial” list of nearly 150 world leaders from some 60 countries with whom he’d met over his career — including nine Israeli prime ministers, six Russian leaders, five German chancellors, along with Queen Elizabeth II, Bashar al-Assad, Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela.

In tapping Mr. Biden, Mr. Obama had overlooked his running mate’s 2002 Iraq war vote, which Mr. Biden — at the time a leading Democratic advocate of a muscular American foreign policy — now says he regrets. Looking forward, the new president tasked Mr. Biden with overseeing postwar Iraq, telling aides, “He knows the players.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama were an odd diplomatic couple. For the foreign leaders who viewed the president as distant and unrelatable, Mr. Biden — who also played a lead role in Ukraine and Latin America — served as an antidote.

“In his calls Biden would, like a senator, spend the first however many minutes just talking about the other person’s life, how they’re doing, how their family was,” said Ben Rhodes, a former senior foreign-policy aide to Mr. Obama. “He used to illustrate that himself by boasting that he knew the names of every grandchild of Masoud Barzani,” the powerful Iraqi Kurdish leader. “And his point was that, because I know the names of all his grandkids, I can ask him to do hard things.”

“Which was the opposite of Obama, by the way,” Mr. Rhodes added. “He usually wanted to get right down to business.”

Mr. McGurk, the former envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, recalled how Mr. Biden constantly asked after the health of the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a cancer scare. The approach made it easier for Mr. Biden to navigate more difficult conversations, said Mr. McGurk, who stayed on into the Trump administration but quit after the president withdrew troops from Syria.

Credit…Pool photo by Kayhan Ozer

For Mr. Biden, this was not just personal style but a philosophy — one that he said in the interview “used to drive the real diplomats crazy.”

One of Mr. Biden’s oldest friends among sitting foreign leaders is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whom he has known‚ and argued with, for decades. For a time, the Israeli displayed in his office a photograph from Mr. Biden with the inscription: “Bibi: I don’t agree with you on a damn thing, but I love you — Joe Biden,” according to a Biden aide who saw it.

The relationship was tested when Mr. Biden, on a March 2010 visit to Israel, learned that Mr. Netanyahu’s government had approved 1,600 new housing units for Israelis in Palestinian areas, flagrantly defying American policy. White House officials were furious, and some argued that the vice president should leave the country before a scheduled dinner at Mr. Netanyahu’s home that night.

Mr. Biden stayed on, believing he could reason with the Israeli leader, and over dinner chastised Mr. Netanyahu, who blamed a rogue housing official. “Bibi made all sorts of rationalizations,” said Dennis Ross, a National Security Council aide who was on the trip. “Biden basically rolled his eyes and said something to the effect of, ‘Come on, Bibi — this is Joe. I know what’s going on.’” Mr. Netanyahu agreed to delay the housing construction, and the immediate crisis passed.

Mr. Ross said that Mr. Biden’s method “builds a trust, and then you can say really hard things when you need to — and not just get a brick wall.”

As his long-ago encounter with Mr. Milosevic shows, Mr. Biden can also do confrontation.

That was showcased, a bit uncomfortably, during the Trump impeachment. In 2015, Mr. Biden had browbeaten Ukraine’s leaders to fire a corrupt federal prosecutor as a condition for a $1 billion American loan guarantee. “I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,’” Mr. Biden said in a 2018 public appearance. Mr. Trump seized on the remarks to suggest, without evidence, that Mr. Biden had acted improperly.

Credit…Alexei Druzhinin, Pool/RIA Novosti, via Associated Press

Mr. Biden clearly relishes such stories: He often recalls a 2009 meeting in Moscow with Vladimir V. Putin, then serving as prime minister, in which Mr. Biden says he placed a hand on the Russian’s leader’s shoulder and said: “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes. I don’t think you have a soul.” Or the 2004 meeting in Libya with the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi (“the strangest bird I think I’ve dealt with,” he recalls today), whom he called a “terrorist” to his face.

Mr. Haqqani, the Pakistani diplomat, recalled a 2009 meeting in Islamabad during which Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, suggested that the United States would abandon Afghanistan because its people were afraid to fight there. The comment sent Mr. Biden “into a moderate rage,” Mr. Haqqani said. “Don’t you think we are ever frightened!” he snapped. Mr. Zardari was impressed, but not offended, according to Mr. Haqqani.

“He can be blunt without being rude, which in diplomacy is a great asset,” said Mr. Haqqani, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

But Michael Doran, a national security aide in Mr. Bush’s White House now also at the Hudson Institute, argued that many foreign leaders see Mr. Biden, who he said had offended allies with his infamous gaffes, as unreliable.

“The claim that Biden’s relationships and experience are an asset has been a part of his standard rhetoric for years, but they mean nothing if people don’t trust him,” Mr. Doran said.

Another conservative Republican, John P. Hannah, who worked under three presidents and served as national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney, was more wiling to give Mr. Biden the benefit of the doubt.

“I’ve found that most presidents come to office overestimating their ability through sheer force of personality or personal biography to secure improved diplomatic outcomes,” Mr. Hannah said. “But it’s also been my experience that already having those kinds of relationships in place with other leaders can be, on balance, a net positive.”

Mr. Biden said he had come away from their meetings impressed by Mr. Xi, who became China’s president in 2013. “He’s a smart guy,” Mr. Biden said. “He would ask very revealing questions.”

Mr. Xi inquired about how the American political system works, the power of governors, and how much authority the American president wields over the military and intelligence agencies, Mr. Biden said. “So my conclusion was he was very much trying to do something that no one had ever done since Deng Xiaoping, and that is to actually control the government, not just the party,” he said. Mr. Xi has since emerged as a stern authoritarian.

During their initial courtship, Mr. Biden praised Mr. Xi as a friend who impressed him with “openness and candor.”

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Today, with the Chinese leader’s global reputation souring and Mr. Trump applying political pressure, Mr. Biden speaks of him in more critical terms.

Mr. Biden was scathing during a February Democratic debate, saying of his old interlocutor: “This is a guy who is — doesn’t have a democratic, with a small D, bone in his body,” he said. “This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uighurs in ‘reconstruction camps,’ meaning concentration camps.”

Still, asked in the interview how he now viewed Mr. Xi, Mr. Biden seemed to be walking a diplomatic tightrope. At first, he reverted to personal anecdotes, recalling how he had told Mr. Xi in 2013 that the United States would fly bombers “right through” a military air zone China had declared over disputed Pacific waters. And with a flourish of machismo, he recounted his answer when Mr. Xi asked why Obama officials kept referring to the United States as a “Pacific power,” a term some in China consider an affront.

“Because we are,” Mr. Biden said he replied.

“And he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah.’ Just stared. ‘You got that right,’” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden went on to suggest that Mr. Xi bore significant blame for China’s secretive initial response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in January, which many experts say cost the world valuable time. “It didn’t surprise me at all,” Mr. Biden said.

All of which might portend a hostile relationship between the men. Except Mr. Biden declined to go further.

“God willing, I may have to deal with him,” he said, “and I don’t want to burn all of my bridges here.”

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