The Head of Every Table: Joe Biden’s Impossible Foreign Policy Aspirations

The Head of Every Table: Joe Biden’s Impossible Foreign Policy Aspirations

The Head of Every Table: Joe Biden’s Impossible Foreign Policy Aspirations

If the president and his team don’t rethink the United States’ presence across the world, our real security will be the first casualty.


Introducing key members of his national security team, Joe Biden exulted, “America is back. Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Once again, sit at the head of the table. Ready to confront our adversaries, and not reject our allies.” In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Antony Blinken—said to have a “mind meld” with the president—echoed the sentiment: “America at its best still has a greater ability than any country on earth to mobilize others for the greater good.”

The Blob is back. Biden’s foreign policy team of “immaculate professionals” is experienced, smart, and tested. They have also been present at the creation of many of the debacles that have marked US policy in recent years—the Afghanistan war, the invasion of Iraq, Syria, Libya, the expansion of NATO, and the trade deals that benefited US multinationals but have proved ruinous for American workers.

Sobered by those failures, virtually all—including the president—now voice opposition to “forever wars” and “regime change.” Biden promises a “foreign policy that works for the middle class.” The lodestar of their policy, however, remains unchanged: America is, as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright first trumpeted, “the indispensable nation,” with a self-appointed charter to order and police the globe.

Biden takes office in a world that is dramatically changed. Stark threats posed by climate change, contagion, corruption, and rising economic insecurity are clear and pressing. The establishment consensus has collapsed. The “power of America’s example” that Biden extols has been soiled, most recently by Trump’s infamies, culminating in the sack of the Capitol. The imperative to rebuild our economy and our democracy at home is inescapable. China’s economic success has made it more powerful, more assertive, and more repressive. Extending NATO to Russia’s borders has been met with militarized response and escalating tensions. America remains mired in endless wars to no evident purpose.

Just as progressive economists and leaders have elaborated clear alternatives to the neoliberal consensus that proved so devastating to America’s working people, dissenting foreign policy analysts, historians, and progressive leaders have put forth alternative national security strategies. Institutes like the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft have offered an alternative pole of policy, dialogue, and analysis.

An alternative strategy would give priority to address the greatest threats to our security: the existential threat of climate change, the deadly threats of global contagions, and the economic and social disruption wrought by pervasive corruption and extreme and growing inequality. These require radical rethinking of priorities at home and abroad, intense and global diplomatic engagement, the creation of new global institutions, and the redirection of existing ones.

The resources, focus, and energy to meet these threats can be mobilized only if the United States also turns to military restraint and retrenchment. Instead of new confrontations with both China and Russia, with forces aggressively positioned on Russia’s borders and in the South China Sea, priority would be given to engaging both countries in shared concerns: the threat of climate and contagion, forestalling a new generation of nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare. The forever wars in the Persian Gulf would be brought to a close; the counterproductive “war on terror” ended. The United States would reduce its unparalleled forward deployment of forces, cut back on military spending, and bolster its “soft power.”

In his first days in office, Biden gave immediate attention to the new reality. Declaring climate change an “existential threat,” Biden moved to revive US participation in the Paris Climate Accord, named former secretary of state John Kerry as his special climate envoy, issued an executive order calling for an “all of government” mobilization, and announced plans to convene a global summit on the threat in April. He also indicated his desire to work with Beijing on public health and climate and agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the START Treaty limiting nuclear arms.

Similarly, Biden made the campaign against Covid-19 the first priority of his administration, rejoined the World Health Organization, and reestablished the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security, signaling that the United States will play a larger global role in fighting the disease and organizing to meet future pandemics.

Biden has pledged to issue a presidential directive establishing “combating corruption as a core national security interest,” vowing to lead efforts for transparency, shutting down illicit tax havens, and seizing stolen assets.

Although a lifelong cheerleader of corporate trade deals, Biden has promised a new fair trade policy that would work for “America’s working families,” issued an executive order ramping up “Buy America” policies, and called for increased investment in research and development and what is essentially an industrial policy focused on rebuilding a green infrastructure to revive US manufacturing and innovation.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, hails a “kind of convergence of the left and the center,” and promises that “common priorities are coming into focus: an elevated concern for the distributional effects of international economic policy, a concentration on combating corruption and kleptocracy…an emphasis on diplomacy over the use of military force, an enduring commitment to democratic allies.”

Restraint and retrenchment, however, aren’t in the Biden vocabulary. His early appointments include many of the establishment’s most ardent interventionists. The oxymoronic humanitarian hawk Samantha Powers will head USAID. The bellicose neoconservative Victoria Nuland, last seen handing out cookies to demonstrators in a US–orchestrated coup against the elected president of Ukraine, is named undersecretary for political affairs. Avril Haines, Biden’s director of national intelligence, was the lead author of Obama’s drone playbook that authorized assassinations across the world. Sullivan and Blinken didn’t share Biden’s reservations about regime change in Libya and Syria.

Despite talking of “convergence” with the left, Sullivan argues that after Trump there is a “window of opportunity” to “reconstitute the old consensus on new terms.”

Perhaps the greatest impediment to a transformed security strategy is the congealing establishment consensus that the United States must ramp up pressure on both Russia and China.

In his first foreign policy speech, Biden promised to meet this “new moment of advancing authoritarianism,” targeting both China and Russia. He pledged to “confront China’s economic abuses, counter its aggressive coercive action,” and “push back” on its attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.”

Biden’s appointment of Kurt Campbell as White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific elevates the champion of the “Pivot to Asia,” virtually ensures an escalating face-off with China. While agreeing that China’s challenge is more economic and technological than military, Campbell argues that the United States must “reengage” in the Pacific, maintain its “forward presence,” and deter China by investing in everything from long-range cruise and ballistic missile to unmanned carrier-based strike aircraft and high-speed strike weapons.

Similarly, Biden announced that the days of the United States “rolling over” in the face of Russia’s action “are over,” vowing to “raise the cost on Russia.” In the campaign, Biden called for providing more arms to Ukraine, moving NATO troops to Russia’s borders in Europe, and making Russia pay for its cyber interventions. He reiterated his desire to see NATO expand to include Ukraine and Georgia, a virtual recipe for conflict.

In his presidential campaign, Biden voiced support for limiting presidential war-making powers, stowed his support for the Iraq disaster into the memory hole, and boasted of his reservations to Obama’s Afghanistan surge. Upon taking office, he terminated US support for the Saudi assault on Yemen and sought to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

But Biden isn’t for ending the wars, just changing the strategy. In the campaign, Biden argued in reference to US presence in Iraq and Syria that if America were to “walk away and not have any troops anywhere,” the terrorists would “come to us.” Instead of unpopular large-scale deployments of troops, Biden champions “counterterrorism plus,” with increased use of special forces, drones, and bombs.

Similarly, although Biden and his aides declaim against regime change, they already treat Venezuela as an exception, promising to ramp up pressure on the Maduro regime in Venezuela and organize allies to support the US-designated pretender-to-the-presidency of that country. He also argues that Turkey should pay a heavy price for its military campaign against the Kurds in Syria and proposes stronger support for President Erdogan’s domestic opposition.

Biden also pledges to strengthen a military force that is unrivaled. He will maintain America’s empire of about 800 bases in over 160 countries across the world. The US Navy will continue to police freedom of the seas across the seven oceans. These institutionalized commitments are costly. Worse, they constantly generate threats new and old.

In desperate need of rebuilding its economy and its democracy at home, and facing emerging threats demanding new levels of global cooperation and creativity, the United States can no longer afford the pretension that it is the global unipower, the indispensable nation. It can’t simultaneously address the new real security threats and ramp up great power competition, sustain forever wars, and continue to police the world. If Biden and his team, sobered by their past debacles, don’t use these perilous times to rethink and reimagine our presence across the world, then our real security will be the first casualty.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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