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Joe Biden's Foreign Policy Experience

Senate Committee, First Term Give Him Edge


Joe Biden's Foreign Policy Experience

Vice President Joe Biden talks to survivors of the Japanese tsunami at a temporary housing center in Natori, Japan, Aug. 23, 2011.

Photo by David Lienemann/White House
Updated August 30, 2012

While Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan brings little foreign policy experience to the GOP ticket, sitting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden brings a great deal of international experience to the Democratic ticket. Even though he has not made foreign policy, Biden has certainly influenced it while serving on Congress' most prestigious foreign policy committee. As vice president, he has stayed in touch with world leaders.

Obama selected Biden as his running-mate in 2008 specifically because Biden could augment Obama's lack of foreign policy experience. In Ryan, Romney chose not to do the same, banking that American voters will decide the race on one issue -- the economy.

So What Is Biden's Foreign Policy Experience?

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Biden is not a foreign policy maker in the fashion of a secretary of state. Nevertheless, he served as the chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations between 2001 and 2003, and again between 2007 and 2009. Between those chairmanships he was the ranking minority member of the committee.

However, it is not one of Congress' central roles to create foreign policy; rather, it influences foreign policy. Under the Constitution, the Executive Branch -- the presidency -- has great latitude to unilaterally conduct foreign policy.

In the Constitutional checks and balances system, the Senate approves presidential cabinet and diplomatic nominations -- such as for secretary of state and ambassadorships. The foreign relations committee reviews those nominees before their names arrive before the full Senate for a vote; thus the committee wields considerable power.

Note that membership on any committee in the Senate or House of Representatives is not just token service. Members are expected to study the issues in their field, and many of them become experts in that field. Paul Ryan certainly has as head of the House budget committee.

So, service on the Senate foreign relations committee does count as experience.

Incumbency Advantage

Biden can point to his term as vice president as something of a "continuing education" in foreign relations. That counts as part of his own incumbency advantage, which simply means the candidate in office already has a leg-up on his challenger.

Biden serves in the post-Clinton era, in which presidents usually give their vice presidents meaningful jobs. For most of America's 225 years under the Constitution, vice-presidents have had nothing to do, save break ties in the Senate, unless the president died or resigned. And presidents made no effort to change that. (In 1900, Teddy Roosevelt thought his political career was over when William McKinley tapped him to be his vice presidential running mate. In 1945, Harry Truman was so out of the loop that he never heard of atomic bombs until the day after Franklin D. Roosevelt died and he took over the presidency. He used those bombs on Japan just four months later.)

But Bill Clinton changed that when he made his vice president, Al Gore, point man on a variety of issues, such as the passage of NAFTA. Biden was instrumental in Obama's administration in getting Congress to pass the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty).

Biden has traveled to more than 30 countries as vice president as a liaison for his boss. Obama appears to have kept Biden in the official loop as well; remember the famous photo of Obama's team watching the Bin Laden Raid? Biden's right in there with them.

Still Not A Policy Maker

All that said, Biden is still not a policy "maker." We probably will not know to what extent -- if any-- Biden has had on any Obama policy decisions until histories of the administration begin appearing. Nevertheless, in the foreign policy heartbeat test -- you know, the one who's just a heartbeat from the presidency -- Biden still has the edge over Ryan.

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