United States President Joe Biden’s speech in Congress this week underlined the depth and detail of his transformative national agenda. But his hurried muttering about America’s powerful rivals also revealed the vagueness and inconsistency of his foreign policy.
His administration has been refreshingly bold and transparent in its domestic agenda, but annoyingly casual and ambiguous in its foreign policy.
The absence of an urgent major strategic challenge – of the scale of 9/11, the Korean, Vietnam or Gulf wars – and the devastating impact of the pandemic have relegated foreign policy to the bottom of the US administration’s agenda.
This has allowed Biden to speak like a “liberal internationalist”, but behave like a “pragmatic realist”. He rejoined the multilateral agreements and international institutions that were abandoned by his predecessor and announced a final military withdrawal from Afghanistan, but his commitment to democracy and human rights there and elsewhere has remained rhetorical at best.
His foreign policy team has designed a pragmatic, cost-benefit “foreign policy for the middle class”, yet has been boasting of America’s hot pursuit of global leadership, seemingly at all cost.
It has emphasised humility but laid claims to surplus morality, consistently preaching to fellow world leaders and vowing to prevail against China and other world powers.
It is no wonder some believe the administration has been unexpectedly tough, while others reckon it is terribly weak. Biden may have foresight and experience, but he has no clear, comprehensive or comprehensible strategy to speak of.
Or perhaps there is one, but it is more of a stratagem than a grand strategy. It allows administration officials to speak out of both sides of their mouth, to say one thing and do another, in a way that unsettles adversaries and flusters nagging allies.
So, Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a killer”, but basically maintained the status quo. He warned him against further “aggressive actions”, but then invited him to bilateral and multilateral summits to discuss global peace and security.
The president committed to the Iran Nuclear Deal, but engaged in diplomatic acrobatics to extract more concessions from Tehran and obtain greater latitude from the sceptical Congress.
Although Biden declared all that is Trump toxic, he has shrewdly used his predecessor’s sanctions and other punitive measures to seek more concessions from the likes of Iran, China, and Russia.
Biden also vowed to end all support for Riyadh’s “offensive war” in Yemen, but has left the door open to do whatever he deems necessary to “defend” Saudi Arabia from future threats.
Ditto for recognising the royal connection to the “outrageous” killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while maintaining his predecessor’s policy of appeasement.
Biden’s most important foreign policy challenge, his China policy, is also ambiguous, but Beijing is not easily fooled or flustered. The so-called “balancing act” towards China is neither actual nor balanced.
In short, the current ambiguity may have bought the administration more time and space to deal with the chaos and instability it inherited from that “very stable genius”, Trump, who for four years wreaked havoc in US foreign policy.
It may have also been necessary to reconcile America’s increasingly limited means with its exceedingly lofty goals. But it is no alternative to a long-term strategy that is indispensable for a world power.
The president has claimed once again that “America is back”, “America is on the move” and advised not to bet against America, that is destined to “prevail”, including in its “extreme competition” with China. But he has not shown how he plans to achieve American resurgence.
Biden may project confidence and he may issue warnings and ultimatums, but these cannot compensate for the lack of an actionable strategy that guides the country’s foreign policy during his term in office.
The Trump presidency has demonstrated why a superpower like the US cannot substitute a grand strategy for guile and game for long.
Such gimmicks are destined to weaken US alliances and unite frantic adversaries. Lack of strategic visibility could also lead to misunderstanding and terrible unintended consequences.
Unlike Trump, Biden is keen on standing up for America’s liberal values, regardless of the countless times they have been compromised, calling out autocrats for their excesses and condemning bloody dictators for their crimes.
And that is a good thing. A very good thing. Except it has proven thus far inconsequential, if not meaningless, in the Middle East.
After serving eight years as vice president, Biden does not seem convinced by Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy. In geopolitics, especially when confronted with rising China and emboldened Russia, either you lead from the front or you do not lead at all.
But again, this requires a grand strategy – one that inspires confidence among sceptical Europeans and alienated Asians; one that guarantees their future security against Russian bullying and intimidation; one that compensates them for any potential losses from any future alignment against China.
That is not to say the US should strategise for another Cold War. Rather the opposite – as I have long argued. It must avoid confrontations and foster dialogue at all cost.
Biden’s last week’s Climate Summit has shown how the US is indispensable as a leader of a major global effort on such a momentous issue as global warming. But his predecessor had also proved that America could and would stifle consensus and block progress on critical global issues.
Over the years, America has proven capable of being a benevolent and a malevolent force in the world, depending on its priority values and interests.
Biden must show why and how security and prosperity are not necessarily inconsistent with freedom and human rights, and why global power politics does not have to be a zero-sum game.