The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
Four years ago, as Joe Biden prepared to leave the vice-presidency, he told the World Economic Forum that the United States would continue to lead the “liberal international order” and “fulfill our historic responsibility as the indispensable nation.” The years that followed were not kind to Biden’s assurances. President Donald Trump rejected a world-ordering role for the United States, unleashing “America first” nationalism instead. More important, perhaps, Trump exposed the shallow domestic political support for the high-minded abstractions for which foreign policy elites ask soldiers to fight and citizens to pay. By the time of his presidential campaign in 2020, Biden no longer spoke much about the liberal international order or American indispensability. He emphasized healing the country’s domestic wounds and influencing others “not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
But Biden will need to be much bolder if his presidency is to succeed. He is inheriting a long-standing U.S. grand strategy that is systemically broken and that no tonal adjustment or policy nuance can fix. For three decades, successive presidents—Trump included—continually expanded U.S. wars, forward deployments, and defense commitments in the pursuit of armed dominance across the globe. The price of primacy, as I wrote in these pages last year (“The Price of Primacy,” March/April 2020), has been severe. By seeking global dominance rather than just its own defense, the United States has acquired a world of antagonists. These antagonists have in turn further increased the costs and dangers of dominance. As a result, U.S. foreign policy has failed in its most essential purpose: it has made the American people less safe where they live.
The Biden administration enters office intending to restore American primacy, not preside over its destruction. Yet realities will intrude. As Biden addresses urgent priorities in his early days—repairing democracy at home, ending a mass-killing pandemic, averting climate chaos, rescuing U.S. diplomacy—he will find, if he takes a hard look, that the burdens of primacy contradict his own goals at every turn.
Biden has immediate decisions to make that will either set him on a constructive course or ensnare him in the same way, over the very same issues, as his predecessors. He has pledged to bring the United States’ “forever wars” to an end and enhance diplomacy in the greater Middle East. In his first hundred days, he will have two time-limited opportunities to do so. First, he can revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reverse the pressure toward war ahead of Iran’s presidential elections in June. Second, he can abide by the Doha Agreement with the Taliban and withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May. On both, he will have to go big or see his efforts fail later.
Getting back into the nuclear deal will not be easy after the Trump administration senselessly punished Iran for holding up its end of the bargain. But Biden will require even more discipline and creativity in order to make the strategic changes needed for the deal to endure. The Obama administration suffered from excessive modesty when it concluded the agreement in 2015. To domestic audiences, it maintained that Iran remained a major threat to the United States. In the Middle East, it compensated Iran’s foes with aid, arms sales, and support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. These allowances made sense if the goal was to maintain U.S. military dominance of the Middle East. But they also fueled the forces that led the United States to leave the nuclear deal under Trump.
The Biden administration must learn the right lesson. Not only should it come back into compliance with the agreement immediately, eschewing any temptation to use Trump’s sanctions as leverage, but it should unapologetically pursue a new era of normal diplomatic relations with Iran. Rather than reward U.S. partners in the region, Biden should fulfill his pledge to terminate U.S. support for Saudi intervention in Yemen, slash arms sales to the kingdom, and cut aid to Israel. Such measures are simply what is required to rescue American diplomacy in the Middle East. By the same stroke, however, the Biden administration would change U.S. grand strategy in the region, disentangling the United States from its excessive identification with one constellation of actors against the other.
Biden is inheriting a long-standing U.S. grand strategy that is systemically broken.
Afghanistan offers another early opportunity for Biden to make rapid and lasting improvements. The Trump administration has handed him a mere 2,500 ground troops in the country and an agreement to withdraw the rest. Biden should accept the unwitting favor. His best chance to end the United States’ war in Afghanistan is now. He should order a full military withdrawal, scrapping his campaign plan to leave behind a residual counterterrorism force. Such a force is unnecessary to deter terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan, where the United States long ago achieved its mission of decimating al Qaeda and punishing the Taliban. Now, moreover, failing to withdraw fully would abrogate the U.S.-Taliban deal that Biden has inherited, causing the Taliban to abandon talks and pursue further gains on the battlefield.
Some U.S. officials will no doubt disagree, arguing for delaying withdrawal to allow more time for the parties within Afghanistan to negotiate a final settlement. But such negotiations can take place without U.S. forces, whose presence might even impede Afghans from finding a stable balance of their own. For the United States, half measures will perpetuate endless war. If Biden starts moving back the goalposts for withdrawal, he will embolden domestic critics to argue, in effect, that U.S. forces must remain under any circumstances, whether to preserve hard-won gains or to forestall further losses.
If Biden acts decisively, he will emerge from his first six months having broken the grip of the old strategic logic and established proof of concept of a new one that puts the identifiable interests of the American people ahead of the futile quest for global dominance. As he engages diplomatically with Iran and ends the United States’ war in Afghanistan, Biden will face predictable accusations of abandoning U.S. partners and emboldening U.S. adversaries. For example, H. R. McMaster, Trump’s former national security adviser, has contended that pulling back U.S. forces would fail to tame bad behavior by Iran, the Taliban, and others.
Biden can use the bully pulpit to show how badly such arguments miss the point. The point is not to transform Iran or the Taliban into benevolent actors; it is rather to render them no longer threats to and problems for the United States. Iran will continue malign activities in the Middle East, and the Taliban will remain repressive, but they would have little to gain by targeting the United States if the United States were to stop attempting to control events in their neighborhood. By jettisoning grandiose objectives, the United States can shed unnecessary enemies and free itself to advance its interests. It can regain control over its foreign policy.
After scoring early successes in the greater Middle East, the administration could then apply its strategic logic elsewhere: step back from the frontlines to reduce the United States’ liabilities and make the gains that matter. North Korea presents a prime example. Having failed in every attempt to rid the regime of nuclear weapons, the United States should play a different game. It should accept that the regime will possess a nuclear capability for the foreseeable future, encourage peace building on the peninsula, and move to normalize relations. One day it might even be able to remove U.S. troops from the South. Such action is the best way to address the North’s threat—not by defusing all its bombs but by removing potential reasons for them to target the United States.
If Biden acts decisively, he will emerge from his first six months having broken the grip of the old strategic logic.
It will be more difficult for the Biden administration to exhibit restraint in relations with Russia and especially China. It will also be more important, lest the failures of U.S. policy that have afflicted the Middle East over the past two decades expand to Europe and East Asia in the next two decades. Biden has already signaled a desire to work with Beijing on public health and the environment and with Moscow on arms control. But these laudatory aims will ultimately be overwhelmed by rigid adherence to grand-strategic primacy, by which the United States, seeking to dominate each region permanently, fuels intense security competition with rising or assertive powers.
Biden can set clear priorities early by scrapping the last administration’s self-fulfilling construct of “great-power competition.” His first National Security Strategy should recognize that pandemic disease and climate change constitute far more direct threats to the American public than does the specter of armed attack by rival states. Further, it should highlight that China, as the world’s number two power and the leading producer of low-carbon energy technologies, remains an essential partner in addressing both challenges.
In order to limit antagonisms counterproductive to U.S. interests, Biden should resist growing calls to commit explicitly to waging war with China to defend Taiwan. He should proceed to revamp U.S. military strategy in East Asia. Rather than exercise dominance, the United States should equip its allies and partners to deny dominance of waterways and airspace to China. In Europe, he should call a halt to NATO enlargement, breaking with three decades of expansion that saddled the United States with unwarranted commitments, damaged relations with Russia, and stifled European initiative. Through prudent retrenchment, the United States can coexist with China and Russia and find the right mix of competition and cooperation as U.S. interests dictate. The alternative is to spend the rest of the twenty-first century guaranteeing conflictual relations, risking great-power war, and crowding out domestic investments.
The United States faces existential challenges at home, as Biden appreciates. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has pledged to judge each policy “by a basic question: Will this make life better, easier, safer, for families across this country?” The American people need every part of their government to work to improve their lives and strengthen their democracy. A grand strategy of armed primacy does the opposite. It sustains animosity with the world, whips up fears of foreigners and supposed internal enemies, and lavishes more than half of federal discretionary spending on the Pentagon year after year. It straitjackets domestic renewal.
For the same reason, Biden has a surprising opportunity. He would foster national unity by pulling back U.S. forces abroad. Fully two-thirds of veterans, like the wider public, support bringing all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. It is finally time to deliver on the public’s demand to do less nation building abroad and more building in America. The United States remains an indispensable nation—to its people. Only by serving them can it play a responsible role in the world.