The Biden doctrine, if only…

The five pillars of a new US foreign policy strategy look great on paper but seem impossible in practice.

President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's response to the coup in Myanmar in the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex on February 10, 2021 in Washington [AP/Patrick Semansky]

Three decades after the United States emerged from the Cold War as the undisputed world superpower, the Biden administration is inheriting an overstretched, overstrained and overburdened country, thanks in no small part to the grandiose and reckless neoliberal and neoconservative policies of its predecessors.

The Bush Sr administration presided over unprecedented geopolitical expansion following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, spearheading the enlargement of NATO and launching the First Gulf War that paved the way for permanent US military presence in the Greater Middle East.

This was followed by the Clinton administration’s doctrine “from containment to enlargement” that pursued a neoliberal foreign policy aimed at “expanding markets and democracies” in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Then came the Bush Jr “war presidency”, which after the 9/11 attacks, embarked on a so-called “global war on terror” and launched two major wars within two years.

The Obama administration refocused its efforts on fixing the US economy following these disastrous wars and the 2008 financial crisis. It committed to downsizing the US’ strategic commitments around the world and “pivoting to Asia” in a failed attempt to contain a rising China, militarily and economically.

The Trump administration followed in its predecessor’s footsteps, albeit in a populist and chaotic manner. But instead of leading the country forward, President Donald Trump evoked a bygone era in an incoherent attempt to “make America great again”.

As a long-serving senator, Joe Biden supported the US wars in Grenada and Panama in the 1980s; in the Balkans in the 1990s, and in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. The only time he opposed a war – the 1991 Gulf war – he later regretted it.

All of this draws a clear pattern of hawkishness.

However, Biden has also regretted his support for the disastrous 2003 Gulf War and has since held back support for US military action, including the surge in Afghanistan, the NATO bombing of Libya, and even President Barack Obama’s “red line” in Syria, which threatened to punish the Syrian regime if it used chemical weapons.

So as you see, there is also a pattern of cautiousness here too, which I believe will prevail in the foreign policy strategy of the Biden administration over the next four years, along with greater emphasis on strengthening multilateralism and reshaping geo-economics.

This is clear from Biden’s national security agenda which promises to restore America’s prosperity and leadership.

The agenda is based on a study, conducted by veterans of the Obama administration at the Washington think tank, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It takes stock of the past 30 years and proposes a “foreign policy for the middle class”.

Two of the authors, Jake Sullivan and Salman Ahmed, became Biden’s national security adviser and his director of the State Department Policy Planning, respectively.

But what does it really mean? And will it work?

The first pillar of this agenda echoes Trump’s “America First” doctrine but takes a broader, more progressive view of geo-economics beyond trade in manufacturing goods. So while the Biden administration defends free trade, it commits to offsetting any collateral damage through domestic investments that serve middle-class America.

The second pillar rightly assumes that globalisation “has disproportionately benefitted the nation’s top earners and multinational companies and aggravated growing economic inequality at home” and therefore commits to revamping the trade mechanisms to correspond better to the needs of the average American.

The third pillar delineates a more creative approach that breaks domestic-foreign silos to render foreign policy more responsive to domestic needs. This has become a priority with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, as the US and other developed nations found themselves dependent on China and others for essential medical supplies.

The fourth pillar wisely recognises the need to “banish” lofty or arrogant foreign policy goals that are detached from domestic needs and foresees shifting defence spending towards research and development that advances the US innovative edge. It advocates abandoning transactional relations à la Trump in favour of broad and constructive engagement with the international community.

The fifth pillar seeks to restore the international credibility of US leadership and strengthen existing alliances while leaving the door open for improvement of relations with global competitors like China and Russia.

So while it may initially take a tough position on Moscow and Beijing, the Biden administration will likely adopt a pragmatic approach to national security which rejects the idea of restoring US primacy in a unipolar world, escalating a new Cold War with China, or waging a cosmic struggle between the world’s democracies and authoritarian governments.

But the agenda is nonetheless quite ambitious and may require many years if not decades to materialise, if at all. Why?

First, it runs contrary to the conventional wisdom of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which one former Obama adviser has mockingly called the “Blob”.

Second, there is little to restore and much to fix and remake, as the world has already moved on since the Cold War.

And third, the 78-year-old president is a man of continuity, compromise and consensus. He lacks the necessary oomph and drive to see this ambitious agenda through. He is more likely to consult Republicans on the other side of aisle and allies on the other side of the Atlantic than to dash forward with his Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

In other words, Biden may talk the talk, but it is doubtful if he can walk the walk. Or, if he has the energy to tackle the urgent crises that have been either aggravated or neglected by his predecessors in, say, the Middle East.

So while his administration is rightly pressuring Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen, it has so far avoided tackling the equally horrific war in Syria, where Russia is far harder to persuade.

It is advocating a return to the Iran nuclear deal but is not taking the necessary immediate steps to rejoin it.

It is criticising the Egyptian regime’s dismal human rights record but has proceeded with a $200m arms sale to the Egyptian army.

It is speaking favourably of restoring relations with the Palestinians but does not seem ready to pressure Israel to freeze settlement building or end its occupation.

And it is taking its sweet time deciding what to do about its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone figuring out its endgame there.

In sum, it is one thing to draw an ambitious agenda for national renewal and agree to a national security doctrine of sort and a whole other thing to see them through.

This is especially true when it comes to a world power like the US, where shifting direction is more like steering a tanker than turning a speedboat.

So expect Biden to move quickly to undo Trump’s undoing of Obama, but then move slowly, consult patiently, prioritise deliberately, and act proportionately.

Considering the painful past four years, not to say, decades, I would be happy if Biden even starts the process of undoing the megalomaniac mindset that has thus far shaped US neoliberal and neoconservative foreign policy.

If only.