The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
If elected president, Joe Biden will inherit a United States that has abdicated its leadership role in the world and lost its claim to moral authority. He will also take the reins of a country still in the throes of a pandemic, still reeling from the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus, and still deeply polarized. This wreckage will exceed even President Barack Obama’s inheritance of a financial crisis and two foundering wars. Biden and his team will have to find some way to reshape U.S. foreign policy and revive the United States’ sense of its purpose in the world.
It won’t be easy. A Biden victory in November would offer the temptation of seeking to restore the United States’ post–Cold War image of itself as a virtuous hegemon. But that would badly underestimate the country’s current predicament. The United States hasn’t just lost ground; the ship of state is pointed in the wrong direction, and the rest of the world has moved on. Global concerns about U.S. credibility aren’t simply tied to the calamitous presidency of Donald Trump—they’re rooted in the fact that the American people elected someone like Trump in the first place. Having seen Americans do that once, foreign leaders and publics will wonder whether the United States might do it again, particularly given the fealty of the Republican Party to Trump’s nationalist, authoritarian brand of politics. In this environment, it is essential for a President Biden to find opportunity not in the past but in the present—in the wake of the recent crises that have upended American life and in the green shoots of the remarkable popular uprising that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
The extraordinary mobilization against structural racism and injustice offers an opportunity to renew the United States’ sense of purpose. A large part of the country’s claim to global leadership has been the evolutionary and redemptive elements of its story—the fact that the United States is a multiethnic, multicultural society that has, through constitutional democracy, chipped away at institutional racism and the lingering power of white supremacy. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson understood this when, in 1952, he filed a letter to the Supreme Court as it considered Brown v. Board of Education: “The continuance of racial discrimination in the United States,” he wrote, “remains a source of constant embarrassment to this Government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations; and it jeopardizes the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world.”
At a time when the world has lost confidence in the U.S. government, the global demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have shown that there is still a United States that the rest of the world wants to identify with. American protests are of a piece with other mass mobilizations in recent years: climate strikes, demonstrations against economic inequality, and the protests in defense of Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties. Despite its flaws, democracy is the only form of government that can take the necessary corrective action to address such challenges on behalf of citizens. If Biden wins and his incoming administration can harness that energy and reflect it in policies, then the defeat of Trump could offer a pivotal opportunity to renew American democracy at home. Beyond that, it could also provide momentum for a democratic renewal around the world, taking on structural inequality and crafting a global order that better responds to the aspirations of everyday citizens.
If elected, how should Biden seize this opportunity? To begin with, it is important to have a clear sense of what a new Democratic administration should not do. It would be wrong to return to the failures of post-9/11 U.S. policy in response to the harsh reality of Trump’s own colossal errors. Yes, Trump’s approach to the world has been an unmitigated disaster. His signature initiatives have resulted in the opposite of their objectives: North Korea is enlarging its nuclear arsenal, Iran has resumed its nuclear program, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has tightened his grip on power, and China has not altered any of the institutional practices that Trump’s trade war was meant to stop. Trump’s slogan “America first” has only turbocharged American decline: global confidence in the United States has collapsed, U.S. alliances have eroded, the liberal international order is unraveling, and China is expanding its influence and selling its techno-totalitarian model of government as an alternative to liberal democracy. The absence of any U.S. leadership in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has opened a window onto a new world disorder, one in which crude nationalism makes effective collective action impossible and conflict almost inevitable.
But fixating on Trump’s missteps obscures the fundamental reassessment necessary for U.S. foreign policy. Some members of the foreign policy establishment (I’ve labeled them “the Blob”) who were unhappy with the direction of policy during the Obama years argue that Trump’s bungling is additional proof of the need to revive a more muscular brand of U.S. exceptionalism. They argue, time and again, that Trump has continued a course that Obama set: disentangling the United States from foreign wars, promoting greater burden sharing with other countries, and accommodating the emergence of alternative political models and rising powers such as China.
This revisionism is comically absurd. One of the organizing principles of Trump’s foreign policy is to dismantle Obama’s principal achievements: the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the thawing of relations with Cuba, and perhaps even the New START treaty. That’s hardly continuity. What is more fundamental, this line of thinking muddles an essential distinction. Obama was deeply critical of the George W. Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq, the single most catastrophic foreign policy decision of my lifetime, and one that enjoyed broad support from the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Trump has made some rhetorical feints toward Obama’s worldview, echoing his critiques of U.S. interventionism. But Obama and Trump proposed opposite treatments for this disease. During his presidency, Obama tried to redirect U.S. foreign policy toward a new set of multilateral arrangements, strategically important yet overlooked regions such as the Asia-Pacific, and neglected issues such as climate change and pandemic preparedness. Trump, on the other hand, has simply blended isolationism with occasional spasms of belligerence and a steady stream of rhetoric straight out of Fox News.
The decisions of the Obama era that have aged the worst are those that were most in line with the predilections of the Blob: the surge in Afghanistan, a massively overfunded plan to modernize the United States’ nuclear weapons infrastructure, and support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. By contrast, some of the most contentious decisions of the Obama era are the ones that have aged the best: most notably, the Iran nuclear deal, which has been sadly vindicated by the fact that the dire scenarios the deal’s opponents conjured up have all materialized since Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from it.
Trump has blended isolationism with a steady stream of rhetoric straight out of Fox News.
Trump may have turned his back on the liberal international order, but he has also followed core tenets of the post-9/11 playbook of the Blob. The United States has never been more tightly aligned with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2017, U.S. planes bombed a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical weapons attack. The United States has never been more hostile toward Iran. The United States has sent nearly 20,000 additional troops to the Middle East since Trump took office, hardly a withdrawal from the region. The defense budget has ballooned to over $700 billion. The United States effectively has a policy of regime change for Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. The Trump administration regularly engages in the kind of performative bluster that was demanded by many who felt that Obama was insufficiently strident in his assertion of American exceptionalism.
An incoming Biden administration cannot afford to reprise a failed set of ideas and policies that are out of step with the moment. For instance, Washington doesn’t have the time or the political capital abroad to waste the first year of a new administration designing an approach to Iran that indulges the agenda of Gulf Arab states that relentlessly undermined the last Democratic president. The fact that the United States was on the verge of a war with Iran while COVID-19 was beginning to spread from China to the rest of the world demonstrates the fallacy of Washington’s perpetual obsession with the Islamic Republic. Given the fact that the United States went back on its word, it would be a huge accomplishment just to return to the baseline of the JCPOA, which serves the core U.S. national security interests in Iran and could provide a foundation for future diplomatic initiatives.
There is a dangerous chasm between the expectations of those voters who might elect Biden and the instincts of those in the foreign policy establishment who will clamor for a return to a United States that acts like a hegemon. If he listens to his voters and not hawkish denizens of the Beltway, Biden would be wise to signal an end to the United States’ permanent war by repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, terminating the United States’ support for the ongoing moral and strategic catastrophe in Yemen, and unwinding a corrosive relationship with Saudi Arabia. Instead of lending the veneer of a peace process to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation of Palestinian land, the United States should publicly lay out its positions on final-status issues for two states and stand behind them internationally and in any future effort for peace. Instead of repeating the same debates and mistakes of the last two decades, it’s time to move on.
What should be the animating priorities for a new administration? First and foremost will be the response to COVID-19. Immediate steps have to be taken to bring domestic public health measures in line with the latest scientific recommendations. Globally, the United States can earn back goodwill by working to ensure that the dissemination of any potential vaccine proceeds as swiftly and equitably as possible and that the profit concerns of pharmaceutical companies don’t cause needless delays. That project will have many associated challenges, including the resumption of global travel and supply chains. A Biden administration should recruit new talent into the government to stamp out COVID-19, even if only on a temporary basis. And as Washington repairs its ties with international institutions such as the World Health Organization, U.S. policymakers should establish a more robust health security infrastructure—with increased funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, collaborative offices abroad to monitor and respond to outbreaks, and multilateral scenario planning to apply the lessons of COVID-19 to future epidemics.
The action needed to address the current pandemic should be part of a broader reappraisal of American priorities and global leadership. Americans must understand that there can no longer be any contradiction between what the country does at home and what the country does abroad. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this necessity more clearly than the fact that some of the same Americans calling for sanctions on China for suppressing peaceful protests in Hong Kong also called for the military to suppress peaceful protests in Washington. A Biden administration cannot indulge this form of hypocrisy. In refashioning U.S. global leadership, a President Biden must make domestic action the starting point of his foreign policy.
This effort must necessarily begin with American democracy itself, which is no longer the exemplar it once was. A Biden administration must move immediately to accomplish badly needed democratic reforms in the United States, including extending and protecting voting rights, working to end gerrymandering, and promoting transparency about and limiting the role of money in U.S. politics. The Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the racial disparities and the abiding force of white supremacy in the United States, but they have also shown how much a broad majority of Americans want to reckon with injustices in their country. A Biden administration must reform a law enforcement and criminal justice apparatus that reflects the legacy of white supremacy, as well as rewrite a tax code that rewards wealth at the expense of people who do the essential work. Biden should frame such measures as part of an international effort to revitalize democracy around the world—from Hong Kong to Hungary to the American heartland.
American democracy is no longer the exemplar it once was.
A Biden administration would also have to rebuild ties with democratic allies on a foundation of shared values. Should he win, Biden should make good on a promise to convene a summit of the world’s democracies in the first year of his presidency. The meeting should identify national commitments to reinvigorate established democracies, while taking steps to support democratic institutions and human rights in fledgling democracies and autocracies. The participants should devise coordinated measures to promote transparent governance, crack down on tax avoidance, and help those states transitioning to more democratic systems. This should include efforts to root out corruption. Over $1 trillion in dark money moves across borders every year, fueling everything from Russian influence operations to rampant graft. The beneficial-ownership loophole should be closed in the United States, so that bad actors can’t park their money in the country without disclosing whose money it is. Multilateral efforts to track illicit money flows should be strengthened, and the United States and its allies should not be shy about disclosing the illicit wealth and corruption networks of illiberal leaders.
This effort to reconsolidate the free world is inseparable from U.S. security concerns about Russia. What the United States and Europe need, more than any individual policy, is a systematic effort to create antibodies against authoritarian attempts to interfere in democracies. Working in step with other democracies around the world, they need to strengthen the West’s own institutions to provide a more resilient democratic example and unabashedly advocate democratic values. This push should extend to institutions such as NATO and the European Union, which should be recast as alliances of democracies. If countries such as Hungary and Turkey keep sliding toward illiberalism, they should be threatened with sanction or expulsion.
The United States should drop any reluctance to speak out against human rights abuses—whether they take place within the borders of U.S. partners, such as Saudi Arabia, or in major powers such as China and Russia (whose propaganda machines are not shy about commenting on internal U.S. matters). Washington should move away from counterproductive embargoes against Cuba and Venezuela and employ more targeted tools, such as sanctions that punish culpable individuals, not whole nations. In all that it does, the United States should aim to speak and act in coordination with the greatest number of countries possible, to counteract any fears they may have in standing up to flagrant human rights violations in Xinjiang or the swallowing up of Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy.
That necessary spirit of solidarity should extend to the realm of technology. U.S. social media companies, such as Facebook, have helped spread disinformation that has ravaged the world’s democracies. The United States should start regulating such companies. This is not, as some technology companies argue, a matter of limiting free speech; it’s a matter of regulating algorithms that promulgate the kind of hate and disinformation that can fuel everything from a breakdown of social cohesion in the United States to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The United States should also catch up to the European Union in establishing stricter privacy protections.
A similar mindset of democratic resilience should accelerate U.S. commitments to innovation. The United States badly needs to invest in its own research and development, particularly as the world adopts more uses for artificial intelligence and the so-called Internet of Things. Globally, instead of scolding countries that feel that they have no alternative to Chinese technology, the United States should deepen its collaboration with like-minded countries in the development of 5G networks and the protection of intellectual property and critical cyber-infrastructure. Similarly, the United States and other democracies should work together to develop rules governing the use of these technologies, which could then pave the way to a fresh set of multilateral negotiations with China rather than an endless and escalating bilateral confrontation.
Each of these priorities is connected to the United States’ fundamental identity as a nation that welcomes immigrants; the country’s democratic example is inseparable from its sense of itself as a striving nation of outsiders, and its capacity to innovate has depended on welcoming the best and brightest from around the world. Immigration replenishes the U.S. workforce, enriches American society, spurs entrepreneurship, establishes global connections, and imbues the United States with perspectives that reflect the world’s diversity. Yet the Trump administration has weaponized immigration as part of a culture war rooted in white nationalism—surrendering moral authority, sacrificing the benefits of immigration, and driving anti-refugee and anti-immigrant policies that target people all over the world.
A Biden administration should move in the opposite direction. It should rescind the Islamophobic travel restrictions, discard inhumane border and deportation policies, and resume a working asylum process with additional resources to process claims. Immigrants who lack authorization to work or live in the United States but have been in the country for a long time should be offered a path to legal status, preferably through legislation rather than an executive order. Efficient, legal immigration and the education of foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities are national assets—and they should be treated that way. The resettlement of refugees in the United States should return to the level approached at the end of the Obama administration—a minimum of 120,000 people per year.
Finally, the leading threat to U.S. national security is climate change, and Americans can no longer afford to indulge voices that deny its existence, nor can they treat it as merely an environmental concern. The world is hurtling toward an apocalyptic future of rising temperatures and sea levels, population displacement, and extreme weather events that will make the disruptions of COVID-19 look quaint by comparison. Nearly every other major national security challenge that Americans already face—terrorism, failing states, great-power conflict, pandemics, and mass migration—will be exacerbated.
The leading threat to U.S. national security is climate change.
And yet the United States is nowhere near taking or leading the necessary action to limit global warming to roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the level scientists say is necessary. Instead, the Trump administration has moved in the opposite direction—pulling out of the Paris agreement and unraveling Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions. Leadership at the state and local levels and in the private sector has mitigated some of the damage, but only the federal government can mobilize the action needed at home, and only the United States can galvanize the required collective action abroad.
On day one of a Biden administration, the United States should rejoin the Paris agreement and set to work developing the most ambitious contribution to emission reductions possible. The country’s credibility and ambition abroad will be tied entirely to its actions at home. In addition to returning to—and building on—the environmental regulatory framework of the Obama years, a Biden administration should seek to pass climate and energy legislation in its first year. Consistent with proposals for a Green New Deal, this package should invest heavily in energy efficiency, renewables, and international climate mitigation and adaptation, and it should do so with an eye toward job creation and infrastructure development in marginalized communities.
Combating climate change must also become a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy for the world to have a chance at decarbonizing the global economy. In Obama’s second term, the Paris agreement was achieved not simply through negotiations; climate change became a priority for the United States in nearly every bilateral and multilateral relationship. That emphasis must be fully integrated into the way the State Department and other agencies are organized and staffed around the world and into the way Washington approaches other governments at every diplomatic level, from that of the president to that of embassies. For example, Washington should try to compel Beijing to bring the Belt and Road Initiative, its vast infrastructure project, in line with the strictures of the Paris agreement, and it should encourage New Delhi to meet its international commitments and Brasília to protect the Amazon rainforest. Climate change should become a sustained, top priority in the G-7, the G-20, and the World Trade Organization.
Progress on all these fronts—democracy, technology, immigration, and the climate—is fundamentally interconnected. If Washington doesn’t fortify democracy and push back against authoritarian nationalism, then the collective action needed to address mass migration, climate change, and pandemics will prove impossible. It is no coincidence that the countries that have handled COVID-19 the worst—Brazil, Russia, and the United States—are led by far-right nationalists who use technology as a tool of disinformation, demonize minorities, and ignore climate change. Nor is it a coincidence that the collapse of American democracy has propelled the rise of an alternative model from China. The answer to that challenge is not to embrace some new Cold War with the Chinese Communist Party; it is to pursue a broader national project that can reenergize the United States and promote collective action abroad.
Just as the divide between foreign and domestic policies must be eliminated, so, too, must the artificial separation between foreign policy and domestic politics be removed. In the United States and around the world, forces on the right have recognized that foreign policy is an extension of their domestic political projects. The left, on the other hand, has been reflexively reluctant to blend the two.
In the United States, this hesitation has allowed all foreign and national security policies to be viewed through a right-wing prism. This tendency has deep roots, from the collapse of the liberal national security establishment after the Vietnam War, through the Republican Party’s mythologizing of its role in the victory of the Cold War, and, most acutely, in the post-9/11 era, when U.S. leaders sought to project toughness as a form of legitimacy. The catastrophic outcomes of the George W. Bush administration’s state-sponsored torture, militarization of foreign policy, and invasion of Iraq seem only to have fomented a more belligerent and even bigoted creed of American exceptionalism. Instead of reckoning with foreign policy failures, the current iteration of the Republican Party has sought to blame others, with Trump constantly searching for villains and scapegoats, from Obama to immigrants to the antifascist movement known as “antifa.”
The Democratic Party, in turn, has been needlessly defensive. In the Obama era, its timidity led to a reluctance to stand behind the party’s principles, even when the Democrats were on the right side of issues. The prison at Guantánamo Bay is bizarrely still open almost 20 years after 9/11, at a cost of millions of dollars per prisoner, because too many Democrats have feared being called weak. In the ferocious debates over the JCPOA, too many Democrats felt the need to qualify their support, issuing hawkish caveats about the inadequacies of the deal and repeating the myriad ways in which Iran was a bad actor. Why would voters opt for less belligerent candidates in elections up and down the ballot if they’ve been led to believe that U.S. policy toward Iran requires a belligerent stance? On various issues, including immigration and climate change, too many Democrats are unwilling or unable to make the sustained arguments necessary to reshape public opinion.
The calamitous failures of the Trump administration offer an opportunity to discard this defensiveness. There is no need for Democrats to feel reluctant to challenge the misguided priorities of a country preparing, for instance, to tear up arms control agreements and spend nearly $1 trillion modernizing its nuclear weapons infrastructure. Why not make the case to the American people that this money would be better spent elsewhere and that a new nuclear arms race is tantamount to insanity? Even when it comes to issues on which national opinion is largely on the side of Democratic policies—for instance, ending a misguided and inhumane embargo on Cuba—fear of provoking a single conservative slice of the electorate in a few neighborhoods in Miami regularly ties the party in knots, perpetuating idiosyncratic and failed policies toward both Cuba and Venezuela.
What Republicans have consistently understood is that the appearance of firm convictions and a willingness to fight for them has more popular appeal than an apolitical and defensive approach. But now in 2020, Republicans have followed their own logic into a rabbit hole. In rhetoric and deed, Republicans have betrayed the United States’ values, coddled its adversaries, and subjugated its interests to the political whims of an incompetent authoritarian. There is a lot of room for the Democratic Party to establish itself as the defender of democratic values, strong alliances, and U.S. leadership—but only if it takes that project seriously.
The Democrats need to have broader horizons. For the last decade, the political project of an increasingly far-right Republican Party has become enmeshed with other right-wing movements in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Across the West, in particular, right-wing parties share sources of financing, media and disinformation platforms, political strategies, and consultants. As president, Trump has been brazen in trying to boost the political fortunes of like-minded autocrats.
Progressives must not shy away from the international dimensions of this fight. A Biden administration should unabashedly oppose right-wing campaigns to transform politics in the United States and other democracies. And just as right-wing populists directed the backlash to the 2008 financial crisis against liberalism itself, a Biden administration should do whatever it can to ensure that the backlash to the current economic crisis hits the correct target: the collection of right-wing nationalists around the globe who couldn’t solve the structural inequality, corruption, and failures of governance that triggered the rise of populism in the first place. Although there are necessary limits on what a U.S. administration can do, the Democratic Party and American progressives should seek more systematic cooperation with like-minded parties around the world. Progressives working in the United States on issues such as voting rights, democratic reform, and racial justice should deepen their coordination with progressives elsewhere, learning from and supporting one another.
To succeed, the Democrats must make the case for a distinct form of American exceptionalism. Here, there is a profound difference between the two parties. For the Republican Party that chose Trump as its standard-bearer, there seems to be a belief that might makes right—that the size of the country’s defense budget, its willingness to pursue regime change, its muscular assertion of American economic and military power, and its very identity as the vanguard of a predominantly white, Christian civilization imbue the United States with an inherent exceptionalism. For Democrats, particularly progressives, there is a belief that right makes might—that the United States’ capacity to correct its imperfections at home, its identity as a multicultural democracy that welcomes immigrants, its adherence to the rule of law, and its concern for the inherent dignity of people everywhere are what give the country a moral claim to leadership.
The Democrats must make the case for a distinct form of American exceptionalism.
The U.S.-led liberal international order was an enormous achievement that blended elements of both of these worldviews. But Washington has passed through the dusk of that era. In the awakening that Americans have seen this summer in their own streets, the country now has an opportunity to shape what emerges from the collapse of the American superpower during the COVID-19 crisis. Biden has described the prospect of his presidency as a bridge to the future, a chance to restore a sense of normalcy at home and abroad, while advancing toward a different kind of United States. That effort should include a different kind of world order, one in which the United States leads without dictating the terms, lives by the standards it seeks for others, and combats global inequality instead of fueling it.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in speaking out against the Vietnam War and against poverty, once cautioned: “The problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.” So they are today. A movement that insists on that truth, and a presidency that reflects it, could meet the perilous moment and build a bridge to a nation and a world more equipped to pursue justice, equality, and peace.