U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the United Nations in New York City, September 2021.
Eduardo Munoz / Pool / Reuters

President Joe Biden would like the world to believe that the United States is changing, and in big ways. The American infatuation with war has ended, he told the UN General Assembly last month. Going forward, the United States will no longer treat military power as “an answer to every problem we see around the world,” he said. Central to the president’s message was an acknowledgment that in recent decades, the United States has not classified force as a “tool of last resort.” On the contrary, the promiscuous use of force has become a hallmark of American statecraft, so much so that phrases such as “endless war” and “forever wars” have become staples of everyday political discourse. In this new era, U.S. global leadership remains important, Biden said, but the United States will lead “not just with the example of our power” but “with the power of our example.”

Assume that the president means what he said. Assume further that the Pentagon, the U.S. intelligence agencies, and the military-industrial complex (along with their allies in Congress and the media) concur with the commander in chief. How might his views translate into reality? What difference might they make? In that regard, Biden’s reference to force as a “tool of last resort” answers certain questions but avoids others. It provides broad but not particularly helpful guidance as to when to use force—not too soon, but presumably just in time—and none whatsoever regarding what might justify the use of force. And it dodges altogether the most crucial question: In the present age, what is armed force good for?

If Biden wants to turn this provisional doctrine into something concrete, he needs to build his administration’s policies and spending choices—and not just his speeches—around it. For example, the United States should play by the same rules governing the use of force as it expects other countries to play by. It should reduce its military footprint around the world and reconsider the $1 trillion it plans to spend on its nuclear arsenal over the next several years. These are some of the steps Biden could take if he genuinely wishes to signal that the United States has truly come “back” from the Trump era of “America first.” Yet simply reverting to the status quo that preceded (and helped pave the way for) Donald Trump won’t suffice.

The Rules Do Apply

If the president is serious about leading by example, he should bring the United States into compliance with preexisting norms from which it has routinely exempted itself, especially in the years since the 9/11 attacks. This means that Washington should fully abandon the idea of preventive war. In his West Point address of May 2002, President George W. Bush declared that the 9/11 attacks had rendered the Cold War–era principles of deterrence and containment defunct. “If we wait for threats to fully materialize,” Bush warned, “we will have waited too long.”

Less than a year later, he put this so-called Bush Doctrine into practice by invading Iraq, with disastrous consequences. On a major public occasion such as his next State of the Union Address, Biden should explicitly revoke the Bush Doctrine, unambiguously reinstating deterrence as the cornerstone of U.S. military policy. For too long, successive administrations have conceived of American military might as an expedient means to solve problems—toppling regimes deemed objectionable or bumping off alleged terrorists and other individuals Washington perceived as threatening. Biden should renounce this fantasy. That the United States today has no shortage of foreign adversaries stems at least in part—by no means entirely—from its past misuse of military power. Whatever its present difficulties with Tehran and Pyongyang, armed conflict is unlikely to provide a cost-effective solution.

By extension, Biden should renew the U.S. commitment to the UN Charter, ratified by a 98–2 vote in the U.S. Senate on July 28, 1945. Article 2 of the charter requires all members to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force” in any “manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Whenever it suited them to do so, successive U.S. administrations have ignored this proviso. Biden should affirm that Article 2 applies to the United States as much as to any other UN member state. And he shouldn’t stop there. Article 51 of the charter offers a caveat to Article 2. It recognizes “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs.” Biden should enshrine self-defense—not regime change, nation building, or the crossing off of putative evildoers on a “kill list”—as the overarching rationale for the use of U.S. military force.

Biden’s statements regarding “the power of our example” ring hollow when the United States continues to refuse to sign onto or respect key aspects of international law.

There are many other opportunities to demonstrate good faith by signaling a willingness to abide by norms to which most members of the international community have committed themselves. This includes honoring the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1949, which defines collective punishment as a war crime. By that standard, U.S. economic sanctions targeting Cuba and Venezuela are illegal and immoral. They have also proven to be ineffective and should be lifted. As with force itself, coercion by other means should become a last resort.

Biden should affirm the renewed U.S. compliance with the Convention Against Torture, ratified by the Senate in 1994 but largely ignored in the years after 9/11. And he should endorse Section 2340A of Title 18 of the United States Code, which makes it a federal crime for public officials to engage in torture outside the United States. Closing the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, once and for all offers one way to signal that the United States is moving beyond torture. Biden should also press the Senate to ratify several key treaties and international agreements, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1996), the Mine Ban Treaty, or Ottawa Treaty (1997), and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998). That a badly divided U.S. Senate led by partisans such as Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer is unlikely to take up these matters is no doubt the case. Yet if Biden is serious about aligning the United States with existing international norms, he will at least call upon the Senate to act. A gesture is better than silent acquiescence.

Biden’s statements regarding “the power of our example” ring hollow when the United States continues to refuse to sign onto or respect key aspects of international law. The existing pattern of U.S. behavior is not difficult to decode: Washington tends to oppose or ignore any international agreement that inhibits its freedom to coerce. If Biden means what he said to the UN General Assembly, that will have to change.

More Than Just Lip Service

If leading by example signifies something more than a throwaway bit of oratory, the president should detail what it will mean in practice. He can begin with the U.S. Department of Defense. Notwithstanding its official name, the Defense Department’s taken-for-granted purpose is not defense: it is power projection. The armed forces of the United States stand ready to deal with potential threats in distant places, such as the Persian Gulf, East Asia, and Europe. As the past two years have starkly revealed, threats that endanger the immediate safety and well-being of Americans where they live are, more often than not, an afterthought. For the Pentagon, this means that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea takes precedence over wildfires, hurricanes, floods, pandemics, and porous borders here at home, not to mention quelling the occasional insurrection. These become the responsibility of agencies whose budgets and resources pale in comparison to what the armed services routinely enjoy.

At issue here is the meaning of “national security. Since the end of World War II, the term has implied addressing military threats by relying on overt or covert military action. As a result, the Pentagon is accustomed to getting the lion’s share of resources earmarked for national security. Within the foreign policy establishment, this allocation of resources—the Pentagon being the big winner while others survive on relative scraps—is not even remotely controversial. Biden should insist on redressing this imbalance, allocating more money to agencies such as the Coast Guard, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Border Patrol, with the army, navy, and air force obliged to get by with a bit less.

Deeply invested in the status quo, the military-industrial complex will oppose any move away from the standard conception of national security. So if Biden is committed to change, he has his work cut out for him. Whether he is willing to spend the necessary political capital to take on the forces committed to existing arrangements remains to be seen. If, for example, Biden objects to the recent vote in the House of Representatives approving $768 billion in new military spending for 2022—the largest-ever military budget in total dollars—he has yet to say so publicly.

Where to begin trimming the U.S. overseas military profile? Europe.

Cutting the Pentagon’s budget would necessarily have major implications for the configuration and stationing of U.S. armed forces. Here, too, is an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate that he is serious about classifying force as a last resort and emphasizing noncoercive approaches to leadership. Closing one or more of the six U.S. regional combatant commands, which oversee U.S. military operations across vast geographic expanses, offers a good place to start. In that regard, United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which asserts “responsibility” over the entirety of South America and the Caribbean, should be the first to go.

The United States’ neighbors to the south face a variety of challenges. Chief among them are economic underdevelopment; fragile political institutions; domestic troubles related to corruption, crime, and the drug trade; and not least of all, climate change. That the United States should exert itself to alleviate these problems is no doubt the case. But none of them avail themselves to military solutions. Apart from offering employment to a four-star general or admiral, SOUTHCOM is about as relevant to present-day national security concerns as the crumbling coastal artillery emplacements still found flanking major U.S. ports.

More broadly, the Biden administration should also reduce the number of U.S. overseas bases abroad. There are currently some 750 in over 80 countries. Where to begin trimming the U.S. overseas military profile? Europe. Nearly eight decades after World War II and some three decades after the Cold War, it is no longer necessary for U.S. forces to garrison prosperous democracies such as Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, which are fully capable of defending themselves. In addition to reducing the U.S. military’s footprint, the Biden administration should also curb the export of American manufactured weaponry, which in fiscal year 2020 amounted to a world-leading $175 billion. Curtailing the sale of advanced arms to Saudi Arabia—currently exceeding $3 billion annually—offers a place to start.

The ongoing modernization of the U.S. nuclear strike force also offers a place to begin a shift away from militarism and a chance to redirect defense spending to more urgent priorities. Nuclear war (or a nuclear mishap) remains one of the most immediate threats to humanity. With minimal public debate, the United States is currently engaged in replacing its entire existing “strategic triad,” consisting of long-range bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles. This project will likely continue until midway through the next decade and will cost at least $1 trillion. And yet, as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States has vowed to “pursue negotiations in good faith” leading to “nuclear disarmament.” If Biden wants to demonstrate that he is serious about leading by example, he might consider treating U.S. obligations under the NPT with something other than lip service. Refurbishing rather than replacing the U.S. nuclear arsenal would do just that.

So, too, would foregoing the option of a nuclear first strike, meaning a preemptive attack to take out an adversary’s arsenal. A “no-first-use” pledge would not prevent the United States from retaliating in the event of being targeted by a nuclear attack. It would, however, signal that the United States is serious about removing the sword of Damocles that the nuclear powers have suspended over humankind since the early days of the Cold War.

A New Cold War?

The best testing ground for Biden to put his words into action is China. If force is truly the option of last resort, Biden will exert himself to prevent the increasingly adversarial U.S. relationship with China from becoming an all-out military competition. Allowing the U.S.-Chinese relationship to center on an arms race, comparable to the one that drove U.S.-Soviet antagonism in the 1950s, would be the height of rashness. Yet as the recently announced Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia suggests, Biden appears to be leaning in that very direction. In his speech at the UN, Biden said that the United States is not “seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.” But actions speak louder than words, and so far, Biden seems to be either accepting a new Cold War as all but inevitable or welcoming such a prospect. In either case, with the submarine deal, the credibility of Biden’s assertion that the United States now intends to lead by example begins to look rather thin. Perhaps Biden is banking on enhancing the military power of second-tier U.S. allies to make China more accommodating. If so, he is placing a very large and risky bet.

In respectable circles, “America first” rates as tantamount to blasphemy. It harkens back to the irresponsibility of the 1930s and the cluelessness of Biden’s predecessor. In fact, however, keeping America first—maintaining a position of global primacy—has long ranked as the paramount objective of the foreign policy establishment of which Biden is a card-carrying member. Members of that establishment accept it as given that the United States should enjoy privileges and prerogatives not allowed to any other country. The American people agree, classifying such privileges and prerogatives as their due. Perhaps the United States should consider the present moment as an invitation to reassess that proposition. At the very least, policymakers might consider the possibility that further misuse of military power will only serve to squander what remains of the United States’ privileged status.

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