The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
“To govern is to choose,” French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France reminded his fellow citizens in explaining why the once proud empire that he led should give up its colonies in Indochina in the 1950s. One suspects that Mendes-France would not have gotten very far in the modern U.S. Democratic Party. In this late stage of the American empire, the administration of President Joe Biden often seems to believe that to govern in foreign policy is to choose nearly everything.
Biden’s early foreign policy speeches, in a grand American tradition, contain a vast panoply of lofty goals. He will prioritize democracy and human rights by “meet[ing] this new moment of advancing authoritarianism” coming from China, Russia, and elsewhere. He will prioritize allies by “revitalizing America’s network of alliances and partnerships” and renewing the commitment to defend friends. And he will prioritize the U.S. middle class by acknowledging that “every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind.” It all sounds great, but clearly the front of the line will be very crowded.
The competing imperatives of democracy promotion, global leadership, and “a foreign policy for the middle class” contain stark, if unrecognized, tensions. In part, those tensions stem from the limited time and attention available to the U.S. president and his senior staff; any time Biden spends standing up for allies in the South China Sea will not be spent on the concerns of the U.S. middle class. But to a greater extent, the tension comes from the limited resources and political capital that the United States has for negotiations with both its allies and its adversaries.
If the United States prioritizes the defense of eastern Europe, it cannot push as hard on its European allies to make trade concessions that might promote U.S. jobs. If the United States focuses on getting a new Iran nuclear deal, it cannot lean as hard on Saudi Arabia to lower energy prices or abstain from killing journalists. The United States might impose sanctions on a Russian-German gas pipeline to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine, but then the U.S. economy will suffer, particularly if the Russians or Germans impose sanctions in retaliation. Such tradeoffs are inevitable but rarely articulated by policymakers.
So far, the Biden administration has, at least rhetorically, insisted that it can pursue all its objectives without making sacrifices or encountering tensions. Such a foreign policy of broad commitment is no longer sustainable. Indeed, the administration’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan implies that it understands the need to limit its commitments. The key question for an emerging Biden doctrine is whether it will succeed in reducing U.S. responsibilities or become tangled in its excessive promises.
The usual response by U.S. foreign-policy makers to any tough choice is to insist that the United States can do it all, that it can, in the old cliché, “walk and chew gum at the same time.” It is a luxurious approach to foreign policy, but one that reflects the United States’ vision of itself as a country that has limitless wealth and power if it can only summon the will to use it.
Alas, the United States cannot afford the level of luxury that it achieved in the halcyon days after the fall of the Soviet Union. The rise of other powers, particularly China, means that the United States no longer has the option to devote resources to every problem in the world. Growing domestic political polarization has eviscerated the consensus needed to create a consistent foreign policy. And skyrocketing U.S. debt and an aging society will eventually force the United States to reduce its spending on defense and national security. Progressives on the left and Trumpians on the right harp on the need to prioritize the U.S. economy in setting foreign policy. Voters will not reward a Biden foreign policy that meddles in distant problems in the name of U.S. global leadership while appearing to neglect issues at home.
But these concerns melt away inside the Washington foreign policy bubble. Much of the media, the majority of foreign policy experts in Washington, D.C., think tanks, and some factions within Congress demand that the United States do something whenever a problem or a crisis arises anywhere in the world. Just in the first month of the Biden administration, protests in Russia, the coup in Myanmar, and a civil war in Ethiopia all occasioned demands for action.
A foreign policy of broad commitment is no longer sustainable.
This is a venerable Washington tradition. During the administration of President Barack Obama, for example, the foreign policy establishment pressured the government to intervene in the civil war in Syria. Obama did not want to get involved in that war, but this pressure meant that the U.S. government and Obama himself paid more attention and invested more political capital on the crisis in Syria than on any other foreign policy issue, especially in the years between 2011 and 2013. It is hard, after all, for U.S. officials, including the president, to wake up every morning and read articles by people they know and respect about how the administration’s inaction in some distant land is causing enormous suffering.
But this very human response to peer pressure does not necessarily reflect U.S. foreign policy interests or domestic political realities. The question of what the United States should do in Syria sparked enormous debate in Washington, but the topic barely arose in the 2012 presidential election: the voting public simply did not care. By the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, simply lamented that the United States had been too involved in Middle Eastern civil wars. Foreign policy specialists in Washington have become adept at asserting that the public supports whatever policy they prefer; one can find support through judicious polling for all manner of U.S. engagement abroad. But it is clear from recent elections that Americans place a much higher priority on domestic issues than on whatever foreign policy views they express to pollsters.
In retrospect, the Obama administration should have followed the president’s instincts and largely ignored the Syrian civil war. The Trump administration, for all its many sins, showed that it is possible to ignore the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishment without any political repercussions.
The Biden administration needs a foreign policy that recognizes these realities and that shows the voters that it is focused on the United States. But it also needs to avoid falling into the Trumpian trap of needlessly alienating U.S. allies and turning its back on international institutions that serve U.S. interests in the long term.
The administration seems to understand the need for this balancing act. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken has articulated, every foreign policy action must have an explicit and clear explanation for how it promotes U.S. economic prosperity. “We’ve set the foreign policy priorities for the Biden administration,” Blinken noted in his first major speech in March, “by asking a few simple questions: What will our foreign policy mean for American workers and their families? What do we need to do around the world to make us stronger here at home? And what do we need to do at home to make us stronger in the world?”
This focus on the middle class is Biden’s clearest break from the foreign policy of the Obama administration to which he has otherwise remained quite faithful. It represents practically a revolution, at least rhetorically, for a foreign policy team that is staffed almost entirely by Obama veterans. The economic framing should help counter the inevitable Trumpian critique that any Biden foreign policy initiative is a “bad deal” for the U.S. economy.
Blinken’s approach also embraces a reasonably long-term view that recognizes, for example, that U.S. participation in multilateral organizations and international treaties represents enlightened self-interest. “Wherever the rules for international security and the global economy are being written,” he promised, “America will be there, and the interests of the American people will be front and center.”
But it is much less clear where the United States will not be. As Mendès-France might have noted, it is also important what the Biden team does not do. There are no revolutions that are purely additive. True change in foreign policy will require not just adding tasks to the United States’ long list of responsibilities but also shedding ones that have become unsustainable. For can-do U.S. policymakers, many of whom have personal stakes in existing foreign policy commitments, reducing responsibilities is harder than taking on new ones. The administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September shows that they understand the need to reduce U.S. commitments overseas. But obstacles lie ahead: the announcement sparked a furious reaction in Washington, and there are doubts that the administration will actually deliver a withdrawal that both Obama and Trump also promised.
If the Biden team wishes to remake U.S. foreign policy, it needs to do more than just withdraw from Afghanistan. It must think systematically about how to broadly reduce U.S. commitments to peripheral interests that focus time, energy, and resources on problems that do not matter to the U.S. public and are not necessary for maintaining U.S. security, even if they do preoccupy the Washington bubble. Of course, the United States will need to remain engaged in the world, even on occasion militarily, but in every case, the president should be able to explain in clear and simple terms why a given engagement directly contributes to U.S. security and prosperity. Otherwise, the United States should disengage.
With the important exception of the Afghanistan decision, it is painfully difficult at this early stage to describe what the president’s energetic team intends not to do in foreign policy. It has maintained the Trumpian obsession with China, restarted (indirect) nuclear talks with Iran, and tweeted out an interest in virtually every simmering civil conflict and human rights violation in the world from Ethiopia to Myanmar.
Learning to do less will require great adaptation. The Biden administration should begin by downplaying the Iranian nuclear deal, which is something of an obsession for Washington and virtually unknown outside the Beltway. Ideally, this would mean pulling out of the negotiations and allowing the regional parties to seek a solution. Alternatively, the United States could support European or other multilateral efforts at brokering negotiations without taking the lead. In response to this suggestion, U.S. foreign policy practitioners will no doubt repeat the mantra that without active U.S. leadership, the Iranian nuclear issue cannot be resolved. But decades of U.S. actions in the region under both Democratic and Republican administrations have only helped push Iran toward a nuclear program and contributed to successive war scares.
Perhaps it is time to try another approach that recognizes that the American middle class does not have a stake in the struggle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia; it does not benefit from U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and sanctions against Iran and countries that do business with Iran. A real focus on a foreign policy for the middle class should mean abandoning Washington’s fixation with Iran.
The United States should also cut down its military commitments overseas, not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq, Europe, and the broader Middle East. It should finally end the “global war on terror” and cease the worldwide effort to chase obscure terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa that have no capacity to attack the United States. And it should question whether the country really has much interest and capacity to promote democracy in faraway regions of little strategic import, such as Ethiopia and Myanmar.
A real foreign policy for the middle class should mean abandoning Washington’s fixation with Iran.
Allies and alliances should remain important, but only to the extent that the president can clearly describe how each relationship directly promotes American interests and prosperity. Balanced alliances in which allies contribute to U.S. security and even help reduce U.S. defense spending in exchange for U.S. political support would fulfill that criteria. Providing protection for weak and strategically questionable client states on the borders of China or Russia is more difficult to justify.
Such discipline would encourage U.S. officials to zero in on the foreign policy issues that really matter to Americans, principally trade, immigration, international technology standards, and climate change. These are in themselves very hard and contentious issues that involve difficult tradeoffs and complicated domestic politics. The Biden administration is already devoting a lot of energy and resources to them, as evidenced by special envoy John Kerry’s frenetic activity on the climate front and the administration’s sustained efforts to defuse the immigration crisis on the southern border. But the president’s first two foreign policy speeches gave very little space to these issues relative to traditional problems, such as Afghanistan, Iran, and the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS), all of which are far lower on the public’s priority list.
Of course, as foreign policy specialists frequently note, leaders need to lead. The public does not always (or even usually) have a clear-eyed view of its own long-term interests in foreign policy. But judging by the last few decades of confused and often tragic U.S. mistakes in foreign policy (most notably the catastrophic 2003 invasion of Iraq), the specialists may not be much more perspicacious. The foreign policy establishment is too far out in front if “leading” the public requires hyping threats and setting forth complex chains of causation to describe how, for example, an extremist group in Nigeria or Somalia might threaten the American homeland.
The Biden administration contains within it a strong impulse to reconnect foreign policy to the concrete needs and demands of the American public. But it also embodies at times a stronger impulse to return to the United States’ traditional approach of global leadership, which may be popular inside the Beltway but does little to address domestic concerns. At the moment, the administration is taking the luxurious approach of following both impulses. It needs to choose.
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