Biden’s bluster: Strategy, vanity or gamble

President Biden seems to be borrowing more than a few pages from Ronald Reagan’s 1980s foreign policy playbook.

Biden in Japan
US President Joe Biden attends a press conference at Akasaka guest house, in Tokyo, Japan, May 23, 2022. [Nicolas Datiche/Pool via Reuters]

What’s up with Joe? He’s all bluster and bravado nowadays even though, as a good Catholic, he knows that vainglory is the worst of the seven sins!

Only months after his humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden is raising the stakes against both world nuclear powers, China and Russia, while boasting of America’s unmatched military superiority, as if nuclear wars are winnable. He appears to walk away from major foreign policy consensus on a whim, only for the White House to kinda walk it back.

In a major departure from the decades-long “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan, Biden has declared this week from Japan that the United States will in fact come to the island’s defense if attacked by China. But the White House has insisted there was “no change of policy”.

And that wasn’t his first time. A few weeks ago, Biden advocated regime change in Russia, declaring in Poland that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power“, only for the White House to walk back his escalation, insisting there was no policy change. But Biden refused to retract his statement that expressed his “moral outrage”, and instead accused Putin of war crimes, genocide and trying to wipe out Ukraine.

All of which begs the question: Is this a case of Biden being Biden; loose-tongued and lacking in self-discipline, especially as a jet-lagged 79-year-old man speaking to a foreign audience? Or, has the US in fact adopted “strategic clarity” with regards to Beijing on Taiwan and committed to “regime change” in Moscow after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? The difference cannot be overstated as the potential consequences of a global showdown could mean worldwide death and destruction.

The fact that Biden made a similar statement on Taiwan during a televised town hall meeting in Baltimore last October; that he has taken a combative tone with China and Russia since taking office, and that he has long held hawkish views on foreign policy, including when he served in the administration of President Barack Obama, signals that he meant or has at least considered what he was saying. And, as the US commander-in-chief, it is his views that actually matter in Washington when it comes to matters of war, and which could lead to further escalation with both Moscow and Beijing.

For long a Cold War liberal, who advocated standing up to the Soviet Union, Biden has largely transitioned into a liberal interventionist after the union’s collapse, advocating military interventions on behalf, or under the pretext of, humanitarian and democratic causes, especially when it suited him. For example, he voted against the Gulf War in 1991 for fear of a backlash, but then voted in favour of the 2003 Gulf War, which eventually caused even more of a backlash.

But he seems to have since learned his lesson from the many US failures in the Middle East, changing his mind about deploying US troops to remake countries or change governments. And yet, instead of leaning inwards towards isolationism or retreat from the world, Biden is now aiming upwards. He aims to abandon the high-cost, low-yield types of military interventions like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan in favour of lower-cost, higher-yield global containment – which delivers prestige abroad and popularity at home without sacrificing American blood and treasure in the world’s hot spots.

Biden summarised this point in a critical speech on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, when he said: “Our true strategic competitors – China and Russia – would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilising Afghanistan indefinitely.”

Within months of leaving Afghanistan, Putin handed Biden the pretext to up the ante by invading Ukraine, enabling him to revive, strengthen and expand the dwindling NATO alliance, under US leadership. China’s apparent complicity with Putin’s belligerent war in Ukraine has also enabled Biden to strengthen US-Asia alliances against a potential Chinese intervention in Taiwan.

For Biden, Russia and China pose one and the same geopolitical challenge regardless of the differences between the status of Ukraine – an independent state – and that of Taiwan.

To revive US alliances with Europe and Asia, Biden has framed the US rivalry with Russia and China as a global clash between democracy and autocracy, all the while enlisting the support of various autocrats on America’s side. Not only is he rehashing Cold War mantras, but Biden is also borrowing more than a few pages from President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s playbook – the same playbook he condemned back in 1987 as an utter failure. Like Reagan, who understood that Americans needed to recover their pride without making more sacrifices after their humiliation in Vietnam, Biden hopes to restore the pride Americans lost in Afghanistan, without further sacrifices in faraway military entanglements. Towards that end, like Reagan, Biden is supporting US allies in Europe and expanding its military bases, while arming clients fighting proxy wars in the Middle East and beyond.

Biden, like Reagan, is projecting toughness and increasing the defence budget to a whopping $782bn, while avoiding any moves that may lead to a showdown with Russia or Iran. Just as Reagan supported the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Biden is supporting Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invaders – he is helping them fight so that Americans do not have to. He even promised to shield Americans from the energy and economic costs of the war. But unlike Reagan, who pursued diplomacy and arms control in his dealings with Moscow rather successfully, despite its invasion of Afghanistan, intervention in Poland and its massive military and nuclear buildup, Biden seems to have all but abandoned diplomacy and arms control. And unlike Reagan, who only waged a single 36-hour war against the tiny island of Grenada during his entire eight-year presidency, Biden seems to be seriously considering war with China over a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan.

It is a dangerous game of brinkmanship. It may have worked in the past for the likes of Reagan and John F Kennedy, but getting to the brink without getting into war is an utterly reckless gamble when it involves nuclear states defending their national security. That’s why Biden must restrain his vainglory before it all gets out of control, just as he needs to tame other cardinal American sins, wrath and greed, in favour of corresponding virtues, humility, temperance, and diligence.