Joe Biden is still stuck in the 20th-century world

US President Joe Biden, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the US State Department during his first visit in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the US State Department, February 4, 2021.

  • Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden committed his administration’s foreign policy to the pursuit of the US’s “cherished democratic values.”
  • But Biden and his team appear wedded to 20th century narratives about the world and the US’s role in it, writes Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

You may have noticed: The Blob is back. Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party.

So if you’re looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defense, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you’ll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you’re looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.

The boss shows them how it’s done.

Just two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden visited the State Department to give American diplomats their marching orders. In his formal remarks, the president committed his administration to “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

His language allowed no room for quibbles or exemptions. In our world, some things can be waived – SAT scores for blue-chip athletes being recruited to play big-time college ball, for example. Yet cherished values presumably qualify as sacrosanct. To take Biden at his word, his administration will honor this commitment not some of the time, but consistently; not just when it’s convenient to do so, but without exception.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October.

Less than a month later, the president received a ready-made opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to those very values.

The matter at hand concerned Saudi Arabia, more specifically the release of an intelligence report fingering Mohammad bin Salman, aka MBS, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of that country, for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist employed by The Washington Post. The contents of the report surprised no one. The interesting question was how the new president would respond.

Months earlier, during the election campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally, as a “pariah state” that possessed “no redeeming value.”

Previously, Donald Trump had cozied up to the Saudi royals – they were his kind of people. As far as candidate Biden was concerned, the time for romancing Riyadh had ended. Never again, he vowed, would Washington “check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”

Let it be said that a preference for lucre rather than principles succinctly describes traditional US-Saudi relations going back several decades. While President Trump treated the “friendship” between the two countries as cause for celebration, other American leaders gingerly tip-toed around the role allotted to arms and oil.

In diplomacy, some things were better left unsaid. So, to hear candidate Biden publicly acknowledge the relationship’s tawdry essence was little short of astonishing.

While a member of the Senate and during his eight years as vice president, he had hardly gone out of his way to pick fights with the Kingdom. Were Biden to replace Trump, however, things were going to change. Big time.

Threading the needle

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011.

As it turned out, not so much. Once inaugurated, Biden found ample reason for checking American principles at the door. Shelving further references to Saudi Arabia as a pariah, he tweaked Washington’s relationship with the Kingdom, while preserving its essence.

The term chosen to describe the process is recalibrate. In practical terms, recalibration means that the US government is sanctioning a few dozen Saudi functionaries for their involvement in the Khashoggi assassination, while giving Mohammad Bin Salman himself a pass.

MBS’s sanctioned henchmen would do well to cancel any planned flights into New York’s JFK airport or Washington’s Dulles, where the FBI will undoubtedly be waiting to take them into custody. That said, unless they fall out of favor with the crown prince himself, the assassins will literally get away with murder.

Recalibration also means that the United States is “pausing” – not terminating – further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the pause, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has explained, is “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy.”

Translation? Don’t expect much to happen.

Inside the Beltway, lobbyists for US arms merchants are undoubtedly touching base with members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from exporting weapons to that very country. Said lobbyists need not burn the midnight oil, however. Mr. Khashoggi’s demise has complicated but will not derail the US-Saudi relationship. Given time, some version of the status quo will be restored.

US Air Force Army airmen soldiers Prince Sultan Air Base Saudi Arabia
US airmen and soldiers arrive at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2019.

Just one more example of American hypocrisy? Within the Blob, a different view pertains. Consider the perspective of former senior official and longtime Middle Eastern hand Dennis Ross. “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Mr. Ross told The New York Times.

Biden, he added approvingly, is now “trying to thread the needle.” Mustering the wisdom acquired from decades of service deep inside the Blob, Ross pointed out that “there isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need them to play a role – on Iran, on competing with the Chinese.”

Ultimately, it’s that simple: The United States needs Saudi Arabia.

As a respected member of the foreign policy establishment, Ross speaks with the authority that gets you quoted in the Times. Informing his perspective is a certain iron logic, time-tested and seemingly endorsed by history itself. Take that logic at face value and Washington needs Saudi Arabia because it needs to police the Persian Gulf and its environs, as required by the decades-old, never-to-be-questioned Carter Doctrine.

The United States needs Saudi Arabia because the Kingdom already plays a not-inconsequential role in the drama accompanying energy-hungry China’s emergence as a great power. And let’s face it: The United States also needs Saudi Arabia because of all that oil (even though this country no longer actually uses that oil itself) and because MBS’s insatiable appetite for arms helps to sustain the military-industrial complex.

So the pieces all fit into a coherent whole, thereby validating a particular conception of history itself. The United States needs Saudi Arabia for the same reason that it needs to remain part of NATO, needs to defend various other allies, needs to maintain a sprawling worldwide constellation of bases, needs to annually export billions of dollars worth of weaponry, needs to engage in endless wars, and needs to spend a trillion-plus dollars annually pursuant to what is usually described as “national security.”

More broadly, the United States needs to do all these things because it needs to lead a world that cannot do without its leadership. The trajectory of events going back more than a century now, encompassing two world wars, the Cold War, and the forever wars of the post-Cold War era, proves as much. End of discussion.

Second thoughts?

trump sword dance saudi arabia
President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Not all historians bow to the iron logic to which the Blob subscribes, however. Recent events are prompting a few dissenters to entertain second thoughts. Among them is Professor Martin Conway of Oxford University. Now, Professor Conway is anything but a household name. When it comes to name recognition, he doesn’t hold a candle to Dennis Ross, nor is he someone The New York Times consults on issues of the day.

So should we attend to Professor Conway’s contrarian perspective? Very much so and here’s why: Compared to Ross or the sundry Blobbers now in Joe Biden’s employ, Conway is not a prisoner of a curated past. He’s open to the possibility that the sell-by date attached to that taken-for-granted past may well have expired.

Consider his provocative essay “Making Trump History,” recently published online in H-Diplo. (A more accurate title would have been “History as Illuminated by Trump.”)

By and large, Conway writes, scholars deem Trump to have been “an insult to the historical narrative,” a living, breathing “refutation of deeply held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the US are supposed to work.”

Their reflexive response is to classify Trump as an outlier, a one-off intruder, a conviction seemingly affirmed by his failure to win a second term. With his departure from the White House, the resumption of normalcy (or at least what passed for the same in Washington) has theoretically become possible. Biden’s job is to hasten its return.

Conway entertains another view. He speculates that normalcy may, in fact, be gone for good. And the sooner the rest of us grasp that, he believes, the better.

Conway boldly rejects the media’s preferred Manichean account of the so-called Age of Trump. Rather than insulting the traditional Washington narrative, he suggests, Trump simply supplanted it. Wittingly or not, the new president acted in concert with political opportunists in Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere who, in advancing their own ambitions, trampled all over the familiar storyline devised and refined to make sense of our age.

Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. troops in Maidan Wardak province January 11, 2011.

As a first step toward grasping what’s now underway, Conway urges his fellow historians to “bury their narratives of the twentieth century” – on a par with asking Ohio State or the University of Alabama to give up football. Conway then suggests that a new past he calls a “history of the present” is emerging. And he identifies “three trig points” to begin mapping the “uncharted landscape” that lies ahead.

The first relates to the collapse of barriers that had long confined politics to familiar channels. Today, democratic politics has “burst its banks,” Conway writes. The people once assumed to be in charge no longer really are.

Presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians compete with (and frequently court) “footballers, TV celebrities, and rap artists” who “communicate more directly and effectively with the public.” Who do you trust? Mitch McConnell or George Clooney? Who has your ear? Nancy Pelosi or Oprah Winfrey?

Conway’s second trig point references the bond between citizens and the state. The old contract – individual duties performed in exchange for collective benefits – no longer applies. Instead, the “new politics of the bazaar” shortchange the many while benefiting the few (like the mega-wealthy Americans who, during the coronavirus pandemic, have so far raked in an estimated extra $1.3 trillion).

Egged on by politicians like Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the less privileged have figured this out. Biden’s efforts to pass yet another Covid-19-related relief bill responded to but could not conceal the real story: the emergence of an anti-establishment populism.

His final trig point wipes out the old-fashioned “political frontiers of the left and right.” In the History of the Present, politics emphasize “identity and grievance.” Citizens lend their support to causes centered on “emotions, group identity, or aspirations,” while rendering once-accepted notions of class and party all but irrelevant. “Institutional structures, ideological traditions, and indeed democratic norms” are being “replaced by a less disciplined and more open politics.” Passions govern, imparting to the History of the Present unprecedented levels of volatility.

Conway doesn’t pretend to know where all this will lead, other than suggesting that the implications are likely to be striking and persistent. But let me suggest the following: For all their rote references to new challenges in a new era, President Biden and the members of his crew are clueless as to what the onset of Conway’s History of the Present portends.

Throughout the ranks of the establishment, the reassuringly familiar narratives of the 20th century retain their allure. Among other things, they obviate the need to think.

Wrong thread, wrong needle

BIDEN-TRUMP

Nowhere is this more emphatically the case than in quarters where members of the Blob congregate and where the implications of Conway’s analysis may well have the most profound impact. Conway’s primary concern is with developments within what used to be called the West.

That said, the History of the Present will profoundly impact relations between the West (which, these days, really means the United States) and the rest of the world. And that brings us right back to President Biden’s awkward effort to “thread the needle” regarding Saudi Arabia.

Someday, when a successor to Buzzfeed posts an official ranking of 21st-century crimes, the vicious murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul won’t even make it anywhere near the first tier.

His assassination will, for instance, certainly trail well behind the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, not to speak of various other US military actions from Afghanistan to Somalia undertaken as part of the so-called Global War on Terror.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, President Bush and his successors cited those very “narratives of the twentieth century” to which Professor Conway refers to justify their interventions across the Greater Middle East. The most important – indeed beloved – narrative celebrates the US role in ensuring freedom’s triumph over evil in the form of various totalitarian ideologies.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden.

Attach all the caveats and exceptions you want: Hiroshima, Vietnam, CIA-engineered coups, the Bay of Pigs, the Iran-Contra scandal, and so on and so forth. Yet even today, most Americans believe and virtually anyone responsible for formulating and implementing basic US global policy affirms that the United States is a force for good in the world.

As such, America is irreplaceable, indispensable, and essential. Hence, the unique prerogatives that it confers on itself are justified. Such thinking, of course, sustains the conviction that, even today, alone among nations, the United States is able to keep its interests and “its most cherished democratic values” in neat alignment.

By discarding the narratives of the 20th century, Conway’s History of the Present invites us to see this claim for what it is – a falsehood of Trumpian dimensions, one that, in recent decades, has wreaked untold havoc while distracting policymakers from concerns far more urgent than engaging in damage control on behalf of Mohammad Bin Salman.

A proper appreciation of the History of the Present will only begin with the realization that the United States needs neither MBS, nor Saudi Arabia, nor for that matter a sprawling and expensive national security apparatus to police the Persian Gulf.

What this country does need is to recognize that the 20th century is gone for good. Developments ranging from the worsening threat posed by climate change to the shifting power balance in East Asia, not to mention the transformation of American politics ushered in by Donald Trump, should have made this patently obvious.

If Professor Conway is right – and I’m convinced that he is – then it’s past time to give the narratives of the 20th century a decent burial. Doing so may be a precondition for our very survival.

Sadly, Joe Biden and his associates appear demonstrably incapable of exchanging the history that they know for a history on which our future may well depend. As a result, they will cling to an increasingly irrelevant past. Under the guise of correcting Trump’s failures, they will perpetuate their own.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.” His new book, “After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed,” is due out in June.

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The world has changed, and now Biden needs to change how the US deals with Saudi Arabia

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011.

  • President Joe Biden’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.
  • Blowing up the relationship wouldn’t be wise, but the US does need to stop treating Saudi Arabia like it’s still the 20th century, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel DePetris.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is in a state of turbulence.

Persistent drone and missile attacks by the Houthis, including a March 7 strike on a major Saudi oil export facility at Ras Tanura, has led Washington to reiterate its “unwavering” commitment to the defense.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi underscores just how urgent a recalibration of US-Saudi relations really is.

The Biden administration has taken pains to thread the needle between accountability for the killing of a journalist and permanent US resident and the need to maintain a constructive relationship with the kingdom. In general, this is the correct approach. As despicable as bin Salman’s behavior has been since he rose from obscure prince to day-to-day ruler, the US blowing up the entire relationship would not be wise.

This, however, doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t in need of serious work. The US has too often based its engagement with Saudi Arabia as if the world was still in the 20th century.

President Joe Biden needs to reset the terms at an institutional level, getting away from an oil-for-security paradigm no longer as durable today as it was 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Instituting a travel ban on problematic Saudis, slapping financial sanctions on certain Saudi entities and cutting Prince Mohammed off from Biden are surface-level gestures. What Washington needs is real reform.

Mohammed Bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman, then Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, arrives at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016.

Washington and Riyadh established their strategic relationship at the tail end of World War II, when US President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud struck a transactional arrangement that would come to be known colloquially as the oil-for-security scheme.

In return for the Saudis opening their taps and providing a reliable supply of crude oil into the market, the US would grant the kingdom the defense articles and military training needed to protect itself from external threats. The understanding proved to be a pragmatic and largely effective one for both countries, both of which were wary of the Soviet Union and concerned about what Soviet expansionism in the Middle East would mean for the world’s most valuable energy source.

For US officials at the time, having one of the world’s biggest oil producers in Washington’s corner was simply common-sense.

Times, however, have changed. The Soviet Union, America’s adversary for over 45 years, has been in the history books for nearly three decades. While fossil fuels remain vital for the global economy, the tremendous progress being made in green energy is giving the world, including the United States, an opportunity to diversify its energy sources and thereby lessen its dependence on crude oil.

As a consequence, Riyadh has lost some of its influence over geopolitics. In 1991, the US imported 1.8 million barrels of Saudi oil per day. According to the Energy Information Agency’s own data, that figure has gone down to 530,000 barrels per day – the lowest since 1985.

Just because the US is importing less Saudi oil, of course, doesn’t mean the kingdom’s oil reserves are not important. But what it does mean is that the old oil-for-security model that has dominated bilateral relations for so long is less relevant in 2021 than it was during the Cold War.

Back then, a rival superpower dictating Persian Gulf oil prices was at least a plausible scenario for US policymakers and defense planners. Nobody can seriously make the same argument today – Iran and Russia are far too weak militarily and economically to reach hegemonic status, and China doesn’t seem particularly interested in bogging itself down in the Middle East.

Riyadh Saudi Arabia

The Biden administration’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.

The president’s decision last month to end offensive US military support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen was a big step in the right direction, distancing Washington from Riyadh’s reckless air campaign and sending King Salman and his favorite son a message that the US won’t automatically be at the beck and call of the kingdom – especially when the kingdom’s own actions are a big part of the problem.

But a recalibration will stall if the Biden administration thinks all it needs to do is reprimand Crown Prince Mohammed and put the brash heir in his place. And it won’t succeed at all if Washington neglects three critical points: 1) Saudi Arabia is not a formal US treaty ally, 2) US and Saudi interests are more likely to diverge than coalesce, and 3) What is good for the kingdom in the Middle East does necessarily correlate with what is good for the US.

Biden has a golden opportunity to rewrite the old, 75-year-old contract governing the US-Saudi relationship, one where the US approaches the kingdom like any authoritarian state with a terrible human rights record: skeptical and at arms-length, but ready to do business when US national security interests demand it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

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Biden is on the verge of making the same dangerous mistakes as the presidents before him

Biden speech
President Joe Biden during his inauguration at the US Capitol, January 20, 2021.

  • President Joe Biden enters office amid simmering tensions with US foes all over the world.
  • The costs of pursuing US global preeminence have been made clear, and it’s time for US leaders to take a different path.
  • Frank Giustra is co-chair of the International Crisis Group. Andrew Bacevich is president and cofounder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

If the escalating tensions between the United States and China aren’t causing you concern yet, you’ve not been paying attention.

Any conflict between the two superpowers would result in unimaginable devastation – if not physical, at least economic. And don’t forget: both China and the United States possess nuclear arsenals.

There’s a lot going on right now in our Covid-besieged world. But war remains an omnipresent danger. Antagonism between the United States and China is only one source of concern. The broken relationship between the US and Iran is another.

A year ago our two countries came dangerously close to full-scale war. After Tehran-backed forces launched several missiles at a military base in Iraq housing US troops, Washington retaliated by assassinating Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and both sides walked back from the brink. But tensions between the US and Iran remain high. Next time, we might not be so lucky.

Joe Biden Iraq
Biden, then Vice President, talks to soldiers at Camp Victory, on the outskirts of Baghdad, July 4, 2009.

The bad blood between Tehran and Washington derives from many sources. Yet one proximate cause stems from the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran nuclear deal, as a part of a crude “maximum pressure” campaign.

That campaign failed abysmally, and in a hopeful sign, the Biden administration has now signalled its interest in rejoining the JCPOA. The journey from aspiration to achievement is likely to be arduous. But the effort is a necessary one.

Sadly, the Trump administration’s reliance on coercion in dealing with Tehran falls within a tradition of American statecraft which long predates Trump himself. Since World War II and especially since the end of the Cold War, a succession of administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, have opted for force, overt and covert, direct or through proxies, to shore up US global preeminence.

Trump revived the incendiary slogan “America First.” But keeping American first, by whatever means necessary, defines the through line of US policy going back several decades. Taking stock of that approach and measuring its costs have become an urgent priority.

In a famous speech, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, son of a president and destined himself to occupy the White House, warned Americans against the temptation to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

To indulge in this temptation, Adams believed, was to risk involving the United States “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”

aircraft carrier
Sailors watch the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis sail alongside the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Pacific Ocean, May 5, 2015.

This aptly describes the situation in which the United States finds itself today, mired in senseless “forever wars,” maintaining over 800 foreign bases, seeking to contain the rise of China by military intimidation, and expending roughly a trillion dollars a year for what is loosely termed national security, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans are felled by disease. There is something radically amiss with the reigning ideas of security.

It is time for a change. America needs policies that emphasize diplomacy, promote peaceful coexistence, and regard military intervention as truly the option of last resort. Interestingly, American public opinion has been moving in the direction of non-intervention. Which raises the question, why haven’t we seen the public’s will make its way to the decision makers in Washington?

President Dwight Eisenhower once warned against the dangers of the “Military Industrial Complex.” Simply put, the defense industry is big business. It makes a lot of money and creates some jobs, which, in turn, buys lobbying power.

The defense industry is not the only one exerting influence on Washington. There are also many foreign powers that support the status quo because it benefits their own political interests in their respective regions. Both groups have vast resources to spread around and gain influence. Too often, the results are unnecessary conflicts or tensions with countries – from Cuba to Libya to Iraq to Iran – that don’t pose a significant threat to the American people.

Institutions such as the two that we are privileged to lead offer an alternative conception of America’s role in the world, emphasizing military restraint and diplomatic engagement. Might the moment to try such an approach now be at hand?

Frank Giustra is co-chair of the International Crisis Group. Andrew Bacevich is president and cofounder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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Biden needs to take the Wayne Gretzky approach to foreign policy

Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden meets with US troops in Afghanistan, January 11, 2011.

  • President-elect Joe Biden’s instinct is to look for common ground, so it will be difficult for him not to try for bipartisanship in the short-term.
  • But the politics of conviction, not the politics of compromise, have best chance of bringing about a fruitful cross-party consensus on the most important international issues, writes Dr. Peter Harris, a professor of political science at Colorado State University.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Joe Biden has promised to unite Americans. It is an important task, and one that Biden’s entire career has prepared him to accomplish as president of the United States. But there is one area where Biden ought to shun togetherness – at least for now – and cut a more independent path: foreign policy.

Biden’s instinct is to look for common ground, and so it will be difficult for him not to try for bipartisanship in the short-term. Over the long haul, however, it is the politics of conviction – not the politics of compromise – that stand the best chance of bringing about a fruitful cross-party consensus on the most important international issues facing the United States.

The conventional wisdom is that US foreign policy is more credible, effective, and enduring when it rests upon solid bipartisan foundations at home. This traditional view is right but offers limited guidance in the current context.

Political polarization and hyper-partisanship in Congress make it difficult to achieve grand bargains of any sort. And when it comes to foreign policy, the holy grail of bipartisanship is even more elusive given that both parties are internally divided on core foreign-policy questions.

Biden will have to confront these headwinds. Under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, “establishment” Republicans in the Senate have turned obstructionism into an art form. The newly minted Trumpist wing of the GOP is certain to oppose Biden at every turn.

At the same time, Biden must manage competing factions among Democrats, not least of all an emboldened progressive wing that has yet to accept Biden’s position as leader of the party.

Joe Biden
Biden listens to a protester during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, March 9, 2020.

Bipartisanship will not be possible if it means trying to blend the preferred foreign policies of every faction in Congress. The cross-cutting cleavages will be too many to bridge. As president, Biden should instead lay down markers for what a future bipartisan consensus might look like.

Borrowing from Wayne Gretzky, he should skate to where the puck is going – not to where it has been. This means nudging foreign policy in the direction of multilateral cooperation, diplomatic sophistication, and especially military restraint – a broad-brush approach that enjoys growing support in Washington and across the country.

Biden should start by rejoining those international agreements and organizations that were abandoned by President Trump – the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council, to name just some.

This is low-hanging fruit. For while there are Republicans in Congress who will criticize Biden for returning to the “globalism” of the pre-Trump era, opinion polls show that the American people are largely disposed toward international cooperation.

Second, Biden ought to reject the inevitability of conflict with China and make serious efforts to smooth relations with Beijing. Democrats are divided on the question of China, but most are wary of sleepwalking into a new cold war – let alone a hot one. So are many Republicans. The worsening of the US-China relationship is one of Trump’s most dangerous legacies. Biden must repair the damage.

At minimum, Biden should end the self-defeating trade war with China, explore ways to reduce military tensions in the Asia-Pacific, and propose bilateral cooperation to tackle the (still-raging) COVID-19 pandemic and kickstart the global economic recovery that the whole world is depending upon. These are modest positions that most rightminded Democrats and Republicans could get behind.

Of course, there are areas where a robust approach to China is sorely needed, such as human rights and climate policy. President Trump rarely pressed Beijing on these issues. Biden will enjoy the enthusiastic backing of his party if he makes them central to his China policy. He might also attract support from Republicans reluctant to endorse a policy of unalloyed conciliation.

Biden Xi Jinping China
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden, Peng Liyuan, and Jill Biden stand for the US National Anthem at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, September 24, 2015.

Third, Biden must follow through on a military withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021. Ending America’s longest war should be the central pillar of a general policy of retrenchment from West Africa to Central Asia.

The United States has been at war somewhere in this vast region since the 9/11 attacks – usually fighting in multiple warzones simultaneously. At some point, the American public needs to be assured that there will be an end to the fighting, killing, and dying.

Fighting fewer wars will allow the United States to shrink the gargantuan amount – $750 billion – that it currently spends on the military each year. Of course, it is predictable that GOP hawks will call Biden weak on national security if he proposes cuts to the defense budget. Others, however, are open to the argument that military spending needs to be brought under control.

For their part, Democrats have been coalescing around the idea of a “rightsized” military for some time, recognizing that the United States today does not face a major foreign threat to its national security.

Biden has portrayed his presidency as a bridge to the future. This seems appropriate given his age and the circumstances of his election. But when it comes to foreign policy, Biden will have to be clear about the precise future to which he wants to build a crossing. He could do far worse than embracing the Gretzky Doctrine – moving to where politics seem to be headed rather than fixating on where things currently are or have been.

To be clear, these policies will not garner strong bipartisan support in the short-term. Nor, though, would any other set of foreign policies in the current political climate. Instead of trying to appease his critics, Biden would do better to call their bluff. Does either the Democratic Party or the GOP want to be the party of crude unilateralism and endless war? If so, let them run candidates on that platform in 2022 and 2024. Chances are, it will not serve them well.

It will take courage for Biden to plot a new course for US foreign policy. As FDR once confided: “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and to find no one there.” But try to lead Biden must.

The case for a new foreign policy is strong. In the long run, it might well turn out that even the most recalcitrant Democrats and Republicans have no choice but to reconcile themselves to a foreign policy of international cooperation and military restraint – the only bipartisan consensus worth having.

Dr. Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University.

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