With the three previous presidents unable to find a direction for American foreign policy, can Joe Biden do better?
The Biden intellectuals, advisors, and supporters argue that the primary efforts of his presidency should be on the raging domestic problems: Getting the pandemic under control; reviving the economy; and stabilizing the currently fractured American political situation. But the rest of the world will not go away, and inevitably, the Biden government will have to deal with events external to the United States.
Already we see events in the rest of the world moving on and drawing the attention of the Biden administration: The arrest of Mr Navalny, the Russian opposition leader that the Russian government recently attempted to poison, and the military coup d’état in Myanmar being the most dramatic.
Early indications are that Biden is following a very aggressive response, pointing to a very interventionist foreign policy. This is unfortunate and indicates an outdated assessment of the power and influence of the United States. Once the United States demands the military takeover in Myanmar be rolled back and the civilian government returned to power, Biden has to make it happen. Yet, it is very doubtful if this can be achieved. The speed with which Biden dove into the Myanmar developments indicates a real lack of judgment.
Biden has also taken a stand on the war in Yemen, reducing American support for the war and increasing the efforts to reduce starvation in the Yemeni population. Biden also faces decisions on the American role in Afghanistan. The American Congress, in December 2019, mandated the formation of the Afghanistan Peace Process Study Group to review the alternative paths that might be taken. The Study Group has just issued its report calling for no further reductions in American troops without the Taliban following the signed agreement, thus effectively undoing one of Trump’s objectives. Which direction will Biden go?
The dominance of the United States in the world from 1920 to 2000 is over and America’s leaders will have to come to terms with this even if they have difficulty accepting this reality. Trump did recognize this and struggled to change American foreign policy to conform with the new reality. His attempt was unsuccessful due to his wrong understanding of international economics and his peculiar approach to changing American foreign policy.
Trump believed that the institutions of American national security and foreign policy were flawed and needed to be changed or curtailed. He thought that institutional change was very difficult, so the best approach was to limit their power.
He tried to reduce the staff and budgets of the State Department and USAID; he encouraged senior diplomats to resign; he denigrated the Intelligence Community and tried to corrupt them by forcing them to interpret the world as he did. He was very anti-military as can be seen by the way he lived his life, and in particular his treatment of Senator McCain. He treated his generals without respect.
He, however, enjoyed spending money on the military as it was popular and his corporate supporters were keen. But overall his dismissal of all these organizations as useless was part of his effort to redirect American foreign policy from the historical imperial role as hegemon during the 20th Century to a limited role focused on generating wealth for the United States. Trump had two objectives: Shift the economy to a current account surplus and make all allies pay more and the United States less. He failed in both.
All of the great thinkers on American foreign policy have had the same viewpoint: That the United States should run the world, cooperatively with its allies. Trump was correct; if you want to redirect the United States to a more limited role then you need different people to run things.
The decline of America the hegemon
Biden has brought back officials whose world view is exactly what Trump was trying to end. Biden himself is a believer in America, the hegemon, and Biden’s team is trying to move United States foreign policy back to the position of being the world leader.
The details of this return are yet to emerge. Looking back over the past 20 years, one sees under Bush 43 the most aggressive projection of American military and economic power since WW2; followed by a hesitant Obama, uncertain of himself and unable to use American power well.
The results were disastrous in the Middle East, with China, and with Russia. Trump continued this undirected, foundering application of American power. With three presidents unable to find a direction for American foreign policy, can we expect Biden and his team to do better?
Attempting to return to the position of 2000 will fail. The shape of the world economy has changed; the meaning and distribution of military power has changed; and new technologies are shifting ways to govern and to produce goods and services. The position of the hegemon has relatively declined.
We will briefly examine four areas: China, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia.
All foreign policy experts agree that the relationship between the United States and China is the key problem of American foreign policy. The Trump administration deliberately attempted to raise the tension level, resulting in a very sour relationship between the two countries.
The approach of the past year was to raise the conflict to one of religious zeal. With the Chinese Communist Party given the role of Satan and the Trump team the avenging angel. This intellectually and analytically vacuous argument leads to a policy impasse with no resolution.
Conflict areas include navigation in the South and East China seas, imprisonment of the Uyghurs, unfair trade practices, breaking agreements on Hong Kong governance, and a terrible record of human rights abuses. American strategic power is far greater than China’s, and from China’s viewpoint, the American military presence in Asia directly threatens China.
Despite all of this, the reality is that the Chinese economy is expanding rapidly. Both the Chinese and the American financial systems want in on this expansion. Capital flows between the two countries are large and continue to grow despite all of the snarling by politicians.
What is the best approach for the United States? The United States’ economic relationships should be based on moving towards free trade and free financial flows; a nationalistic strategy is against the interests of the United States.
Due allowance is needed with respect to labour and environmental practices as well as recognition of property rights. There is a need for new approaches. The United States should strive to get along with China. In due time China’s current autocratic behaviour will moderate.
Direct attacks on China to force change in human rights policy will never work. I believe policy must aim at restoring trade and finance with better safeguards. Moderation and economic cooperation will ultimately lead to the collapse of the autocratic state. The Pompeo vision of the Christian avenging angel must be shunned.
The current condition of Latin American countries is dreadful. Economic growth is slow and declining; most countries are heavily in debt, making it more difficult to deal with the need for support for those who have lost jobs due to the pandemic. Income and wealth distribution is increasingly skewed in favour of the rich.
There is a widespread shift away from the democratic norms, replaced with rising autocratic political behaviour. The pandemic has hit the countries south of the United States very hard. Observers are pessimistic about the future. There is reportedly little cooperation among the Latin American countries. It is a region that slides deeper into political conflict with its long history of exploitation of the poor by governments controlled by rapacious elites.
Nationalists and populist political parties are gaining strength. The Chinese are deeply involved in providing financial resources and constructing infrastructure. The position of the United States is in tatters; the Monroe Doctrine, the most basic principle of American foreign policy, is a discarded relic. Biden was Obama’s point man on Latin America for eight years and achieved little. Can he do better this time around?
The Middle East
The American adventures in the Middle East continue to bewilder. The region is in confusion and continues to be deeply self-destructive; it is hard to see how this can get any better.
For the United States there is only one clear and reasonable path: Close all bases and withdraw all military forces, stop weapons supply to the region, and encourage the Europeans and the Japanese to follow a similar path.
This restriction should also apply to Israel. The United States should explicitly abrogate any defense agreements including persuading its NATO allies to cut Turkey out of the Alliance. Every one of these Middle Eastern countries is a model of injustice and poor governance. This includes Israel, once one recognizes their responsibility for the Palestinians.
The United States has tolerated this for decades, allegedly due to the need for oil. Well, higher oil prices are exactly what is needed to achieve a real shift away from fossil fuels. Abandoning the Middle East, allowing the region to take care of itself, is the best thing that can be done to save the planet from the consequences of global warming.
There is no need to worry about Russian and Chinese activities in the area. The interest of the Russians is to have high oil prices which requires that the Middle East producers pump less; which they will not do. The Chinese will find life is not so simple dealing with the rulers of the Middle East. The Chinese want lower oil prices; the Middle East oil producers want higher prices. Chinese abuse of the Uyghurs is also a significant problem for China in the Middle East.
There are three forces at work in the Middle East that defy understanding of their future: (1) The Sunni-Shiite conflict (2) The powerful support from some elite families for a violent, aggressive version of Islam (3) The complete lack of hope for a future good life for young persons.
One must conclude that the regional elites must find their own way. This is no place for an active policy by the United States.
The rest of Asia
Currently the United States has far too great an involvement in Asia. There are four countries that really matter to American interests: Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The United States should reiterate its determination to maintain close economic, military, and political ties to these four successful states.
China should be told that if North Korea does not end its nuclear weapons programs, the United States will encourage South Korea and Japan to build nuclear weapons. All military alliances with countries in Southeast Asia should be terminated and American forces withdrawn, remaining only in Japan and South Korea.
The same should be done in South Asia. The United States has no interest in any military relationship with India.
Reality is that the values that have emerged in Asia over the past decade are at variance with those of the western alliance and the Northeast Asian countries.
Trade and investment can continue on such terms as can be agreed but the security protection element in the treaties is no longer of benefit to the United States, given the attitudes of the Asian partners.
A deviation from values
It is not the task of the United States to tell other societies how to live. Equally, no country has any right to American protection, markets, or capital. We have seen a widespread abandonment of values that are important to the western world. It is not to say that the values of the West are superior but they are what they are.
Within the United States there is a great convulsion of values and right behaviour going on. It is hard to know what will emerge from that. But one can be sure that these domestic conflicts will greatly weaken American interest in the rest of the world.
Biden’s effort to reestablish pre-2000 American leadership will fail. We can only hope that he will concentrate on the domestic challenges facing the United States.
Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.