Halfway through his first term in office, President Biden generally gets high marks for his foreign policy from the national security commentariat. Of course, he enjoys a cheap grace for not being Donald Trump and for surrounding himself with certified members of the “Blob.”
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, argues, as reported recently by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, that the president has “achieved the three national security goals he initially set: rebuild the US economy and rejuvenate the middle class; revive NATO and other global alliances; and withdraw US troops from Afghanistan to focus on current threats.” This raises more questions than it answers.
On the economy, Biden has won legislative victories that will provide long-overdue investment in domestic infrastructure, the first steps of an industrial policy for high technology, and a significant, if inadequate, investment in renewable energy. He also has sensibly sustained Trump’s break from the ruinous neoliberal trade policies of the past decades, although an alternative strategy remains undefined.
America’s beleaguered middle class, however, would be surprised to learn of its “rejuvenation.” Ominously, Biden has essentially conceded the inflation argument in ways that are likely to have brutal consequence. The Federal Reserve—and central banks across the world—are hiking interest rates, as if rising prices were driven by rising wages. The virtually promised result is a recession, with millions losing their jobs, wages stagnating, and, as the World Bank predicts, a costly global downturn.
Yet there’s little doubt that the major causes of inflation are the supply disruptions—those attending the Covid shutdown and reopening of economies across the world—extreme weather, the blowback of sanctions on Russia, and monopoly price gouging. Most of these are now chronic, not transitory, conditions. But there is no sign that the administration is moving forcefully to meet the destabilizing effects of climate, contagion, and monopoly that will continue to roil the economy.
Biden finally brought the folly in Afghanistan to an end. The immediate collapse, for which Biden was savaged, of its corruption-ravaged government was only further evidence that the United States should have gotten out years ago. Afghanistan, however, was only one front in the endless war that began on 9/11 and continues to this day. Troops remain in Syria, a glaring affront to the “rules-based order.” Biden returned soldiers into Somalia and sustained support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen. The drone strikes continue; special forces are dispatched to over 100 countries. There’s no sign that the Afghan withdrawal has led to a sensible and needed review of the War on Terror or of our commitments abroad.
Sullivan claims that the US understands it’s a multipolar world—“Countries don’t want to choose and we don’t want them to.” Specifically, “we have to take Latin America as we find it” and “maintain effective constructive relations.” This will surely astound Cuba and Venezuela, among others.
Biden’s team also has largely succeeded in rebuilding our alliances. The question, however, is to what end? Biden argues that America is ready to lead, the “indispensable nation” once more, with the allies serving essentially to bolster our capacity. The mission? According to the misnamed 2017 National Security Strategy, the mission is everything. A new global struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. A great power competition with Russia and China. A continued war on terror. Climate change. Contagion. Cyber security. Domestic rebuilding and more. Absent is any sense that America’s reach is limited, that choices must be made.
When everything is a priority, events drive choices. The administration’s major focus was to be China, described as a “peer competitor,” with the military-industrial complex salivating at the weapons buildup to come. Then came the invasion of Ukraine, elevating Putin’s Russia to the 21st century’s evil empire, with a staggering $100 billion of US weapons and aid thrown into arming Ukraine in one year.
By threatening Ukrainian membership in NATO, and ignoring objections to the alliance’s expansion across Russia’s political spectrum, the administration contributed to an invasion few thought would happen. The Biden administration has enlisted (increasingly divided) allies, imposed sanctions on Russia, armed the Ukrainians, and kept the US and NATO out of direct war with Russia. But the terrible costs are growing in Ukraine and in the West and the Global South.
The sanctions, ironically, may have caused more economic disruption in Europe than in Russia. Demonstrations in France, Italy, and Germany are expanding as Europeans face a winter of rising energy costs, closing factories, and increasing misery.
Lost in the horrors of war and the drama of confronting China are real security priorities that might better inform the “foreign policy for the middle class” that Biden promised.
Catastrophic climate change is wreaking more and more destruction and taking more and more lives. It will force millions from their homes. Biden has put the United States back into the Paris Agreement, named a well-traveled Climate czar, and passed the first big investment in renewable energy—but the US burned more fossil fuels last year than the year before, the world is continuing to heat up, and governments continue to fiddle.
Covid took the lives of 1 million Americans and counting. New contagions are inevitable, one byproduct of globalization and climate change. Yet our public health system is weaker now than before, our public opinion more divided, the investments needed in research are nowhere to be seen.
Biden says he’s dedicated to rebuilding the US economy as a first priority. Yet inequality continues to worsen; corruption is pervasive. Military spending continues to rise, even as social needs are starved. The costs of basics—health care, housing, college, retirement security—grow further out of the reach of most Americans.
“America is back,” the president boasts. The obvious question is, back for what?