The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
On August 31, 2021, a little more than two weeks after the government in Kabul fell, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a scorching defense of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. “To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest?” He continued: “The fundamental obligation of a President, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America—not against the threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow.” Despite the chaotic withdrawal, he was sticking by his decision to leave and excoriating his critics in blunt, emotional language.
Yet that bold decision—to defy his critics and bring an end to the longest war in U.S. history—was an aberration in Biden’s first year in office. Instead, his administration has pursued a foreign policy that is unclear on core issues. It swings between suggestions that foreign policy isn’t that important and peppy declarations that U.S. global leadership is back; between the idea that the United States faces a historic challenge from China and a process-driven desire to stay the course in all regions; between the notion that the United States must adapt to a rapidly shifting strategic environment and a nostalgic longing for the pre–Donald Trump status quo in U.S. foreign policy.
The president’s rhetoric often suggests that he could be a visionary on international affairs: the kind of leader the United States needs to make tough strategic choices facing the country, whether on nuclear posture, Middle East wars, or a pivot to Asia. But if he is to do so, his administration needs to get out of its defensive crouch, make tough choices, and own them. The president made the right choice on Afghanistan: to put aside political considerations and instead pursue “the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.” It’s time he applied that resolute approach to foreign policy more broadly.
As a former senator and vice president, Biden has more relevant foreign policy experience than any modern president, with the exception of George H. W. Bush. Biden has augmented that experience by hiring a strong team of foreign policy hands—and, perhaps more important, by eschewing policymaking by tweet. Indeed, in comparison with his predecessor, almost any president would look competent on foreign policy.
Which is why it is puzzling that the Biden administration has enjoyed so few unqualified successes in its first year. Its handling of New START—a core post–Cold War arms control treaty with Russia—is one such success, with the president signing a five-year extension that will maintain the treaty’s inspections and limits on Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons. The slow but steady progress on ending the former president’s trade war with Europe is another. And although conservative hawks criticized Biden for initiating talks on arms control and cyberspace with Russia in June 2021, there is little doubt that reopening the lines of communication on arms control with the world’s other nuclear superpower is a smart move. Indeed, even if Russia follows through on its threat to invade Ukraine, the United States would still benefit from continued cooperation on arms control, as we did throughout the Cold War.
Yet almost all of the administration’s other achievements have been more qualified. Although the Afghan withdrawal was undoubtedly the right decision, for example, the chaotic and poorly planned handling of the evacuation buttressed the consensus view in the mainstream media and among the foreign policy elite that it was a tremendous blunder. That split was reflected in polling: a majority of Americans supported Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, but only about a quarter believed that the administration did a good job of managing the withdrawal. That Biden’s approval rating has been underwater since then is surely making the administration more timid in its approach to international affairs.
The Biden administration is too timid in its approach to international affairs.
Likewise, the administration hoped that the so-called AUKUS (Australia–United Kingdom–United States) deal—in which the United States facilitated the sale of British nuclear-powered submarines to Australia—would demonstrate Biden’s commitment to building stronger partnerships in the Asia-Pacific. But any positive benefits the deal might have brought were eclipsed by the diplomatic fallout it caused with France, whose own submarine-manufacturing industry found itself suddenly bereft of $66 billion in Australian contracts, angering the Elysée and creating a new point of contention between the United States and one of its major European partners. Meanwhile, other measures that the administration has tried to cast as successes have been more rhetorical than substantive: the COP26 (26th Conference of the Parties) climate summit failed to reach agreement on core climate issues, and the administration’s pledge to become the arsenal of vaccines in the world’s struggle against COVID-19 has been mostly too little, too late.
Certainly, not all of the United States’ foreign policy woes should be laid at the feet of the Biden administration. The president inherited a deeply damaged polity reeling from the events of January 6 and the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. In the context of the country’s domestic political strife, the administration’s desire to connect domestic and foreign policy through “a foreign policy for the middle class” seems reasonable. The same could be said for strategic questions. Today, U.S. military power is in relative decline, and China, Russia, and other states are increasingly assertive in their home regions. In many ways, Biden has been handed the thankless task of shepherding the United States into a new era of global politics.
The Trump administration’s disastrous foreign policy legacy has also put the Biden administration at a serious disadvantage. Steps such as the former president’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal or his trade war with China have left the Biden administration with limited choices. Trump also squandered four years on pointless “maximum pressure” campaigns to induce Iran and North Korea to forgo further nuclear development. Trump’s unpredictability will also make it far harder for Biden to credibly commit his own successors to international agreements.
Trump’s legacy, however, is only one reason Biden’s foreign policy has notched so few successes. The Biden team has pursued self-sabotaging initiatives, such as holding a “summit for democracy” during its first year, even over the objections of some of its own supporters. The inevitable news stories about hypocrisy and unhappy allies excluded from the summit did nothing to bolster the United States’ reputation. Nor did the AUKUS deal or Biden’s baffling confusion about the nature of the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan, which he has mischaracterized on a number of occasions, leaving administration officials to clean up the mess. Meanwhile, key national security positions in government have sat unfilled for months, a delay only partly due to congressional intransigence.
That indecisiveness is also reflected in the administration’s mixed messages on core foreign policy questions. It is unclear whether Biden wants to deprioritize foreign policy to focus on domestic policy, as some administration officials have publicly mused. Biden has hinted that he wants to shift away from the Middle East, downsizing the National Security Council’s Middle East directorate and putting regional issues and allies on the back burner. Yet the administration hasn’t matched that rhetoric with actions such as reducing troop levels. The so-called end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, for example, was little more than verbiage; the approximately 2,500 troops in that country will remain there in “support roles.” In Syria, where the mission remains unclear, almost a thousand U.S. troops remain in an active conflict zone.
Biden spent months debating whether to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, squandering a valuable negotiation window.
Even when administration officials have taken steps toward course correcting in the aftermath of Trump’s foreign policy disasters, they have often seemed tentative. Despite Biden’s campaign promise to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, for example, the administration spent months debating whether to do so or to seek a new agreement. This delay, aimed at assuaging congressional hawks, squandered a valuable early negotiation window prior to elections in Iran that brought hard-liners to power. Any deal struck now is likely to be far worse than it could have been, and there is a serious risk of a “no deal” result. The administration has already begun planning a public relations campaign blaming the Trump administration for that outcome.
Much of this defensive crouch appears to arise from fear of criticism from Republicans and domestic interest groups. Consider the imbroglio over the nuclear posture review, which saw the official tasked with carrying it out, Leonor Tomero, leave her post under pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill. By all accounts, Tomero was in line with Biden’s own views on nuclear weapons policy. But the president cut her term in office short, reportedly because he feared congressional pushback to her recommendations. The nuclear posture review is now expected to make only incremental changes to the Trump administration’s approach.
A fear of potential domestic criticism appears to have constrained the administration’s Asia policy, as well. Asia hands have long argued that—in a region where economics and trade are the central priority for many states—U.S. economic statecraft will be as important as security policy in countering a rising China. This is why the Trans-Pacific Partnership formed the core of the Obama administration’s attempted pivot to Asia. Yet the TPP ran afoul of domestic interest groups on both the left and the right who argued that it would cost jobs. Trade deals are now widely perceived to be unpopular among the U.S. electorate. Even Hillary Clinton, who had served as U.S. secretary of state when the TPP was negotiated, did not support the initiative during her failed presidential run.
In the face of this antitrade sentiment, the Biden administration has embraced what it describes as a “worker-centric” trade policy. The result has been policy incoherence: rather than providing an overarching framework, the administration’s Asia trade policy is a grab bag of minor topics such as digital trade that are too insignificant to anger anyone. The administration has likewise pulled its punches on withdrawing from conflicts in Iraq and Syria, cutting arms sales to autocrats in the Middle East, and fighting kleptocracy around the world. In each case, it has suggested to supporters that it is making progress, while pursuing a circumscribed approach.
The lesson is clear: if the Biden team wants to be more than a historical footnote on U.S. foreign policy, it needs to be more decisive. Specifically, the administration should take action on the decisions it has embraced rhetorically. First off, it needs to make good on the president’s campaign promise to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” by removing operational military units from combat zones in Iraq and Syria and dramatically reducing troop levels in the region.
Biden needs to make good on his promise to “end the forever wars.”
Biden must also put forward a practical economic policy for the Asia-Pacific. As Kurt Campbell, the White House’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, put it at a recent event, “The United States needs to be instrumental in the framing of economic and commercial engagement and trade practices in the Indo-Pacific as China’s influence grows.” Rather than its current ad hoc approach, the administration should follow through on that promise by embracing a broader conception of economic statecraft that includes aid, infrastructure, and even immigration, as well as trade, and by recognizing that security interests may require the United States to embrace trade agreements that are not solely fixated on U.S. economic interests, whether it is an attempt to rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the successor agreement to the failed TPP) or to enter into other economic agreements in the region.
On a number of other important issues, the administration has yet to make consequential choices—and must do so soon. For example, it must decide whether its China strategy will continue the ill-defined, zero-sum Trump legacy of “great-power competition.” Part of that is deciding its goal in competing with China: outside analysts have argued for everything from regime change in Beijing to avoiding great-power war through “competitive coexistence.” Thus far, the administration has not taken a clear stance.
The Biden team also needs to figure out its approach to European strategic autonomy. It has embraced permanent structured cooperation, or PESCO, the European Union defense initiative, and officials have called for Europe to become “more capable militarily.” At the same time, however, the administration’s approach to the Ukraine crisis has been to supplant Germany and France in negotiations with Russia and to pledge more military support to eastern Europe—in essence, asserting the primacy of the U.S. security umbrella. Finally, it needs to decide what to do about the U.S. nuclear arsenal: Biden should follow through on his campaign pledge to reduce “our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.” Yet that would require applying pressure on the Pentagon, which the administration seems loath to do.
The good news for administration officials is that these decisions are liable to be less politically costly than they might assume. There are many downsides to domestic polarization, but there is one upside, and that is relative freedom of action. After all, if Biden is going to be criticized regardless—for example, on the Iranian nuclear negotiations—then he might as well pursue the options he believes will produce the best results, not simply those that are liable to engender the least vitriol from his opponents.
As the administration’s own Interim National Security Strategic Guidance put it in March, “This moment calls upon us to lean forward, not shrink back—to boldly engage the world to keep Americans safe, prosperous, and free.” A more successful foreign policy will require Biden to more frequently live up to that standard.
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