Not since the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower has the United States elected a chief executive with formidable experience in international security policy. President Biden has decades of foreign policy experience in the White House and the Senate, which is extremely unusual in American presidential politics. Therefore, he should be held to a high standard; thus far, his performance has been flawed.
Biden initially took care of the low-hanging fruit left behind by the fractured presidency of Donald Trump. Biden returned the United States to the World Health Organization, the Paris climate accord, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which allowed the United States once again to assist pathetic Palestinian communities throughout the Middle East. Biden is trying to repair relations with our traditional European allies as well as the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However, the nuclear submarine deal with Australia, which infuriated France, suggests a diplomatic deaf ear.
It remains to be seen if he can actually bring an end to the “forever wars,” but at least the use of drone warfare, responsible for an unconscionable number of civilian deaths, has declined. If the White House hadn’t stood on the sidelines while Congress was passing a record-breaking defense bill, we might even think that the Biden administration was willing to reverse the militarism of the past two decades. And if the Pentagon and the CIA weren’t using drones in Syria, Somalia, and the Horn of Africa, we might believe there was a genuine effort to abate, if not end, the “forever wars.” Continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia and continued truckling to the Israeli government suggest no real change in policy toward the Middle East, home to several “forever wars.”
Sadly, the overall picture for national security policy in terms of personnel, policy, and process is dismal, with no indication that the Biden foreign policy team has coalesced on key substantive matters or that a genuine process has been developed for addressing the international aspects of arms control and disarmament, climate change, and pandemic prevention. Biden needs to recognize that the nation essentially went berserk after the 9/11 attacks, and it was wrong to pursue “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the real solution could be found with international diplomacy and international cooperation.
Biden’s personnel situation is particularly disappointing in terms of the caliber of the individuals themselves as well as the entrenched process of “group think.” General Lloyd Austin never should have been appointed to the post of Secretary of Defense, and Antony Blinken, a life-long Democratic staffer, does not appear to be up to the task of conceptualizing and implementing foreign policy. The teams dealing with Russia and China are cut from the Cold War cloth of the past, which helps to explain the lack of movement with both Moscow and Beijing as they forge a quasi-alliance willing to challenge the United States on numerous fronts.
Key members of the team have been associated with the mistaken use of military force in the recent past. Secretary of State Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Agency for International Development director Samantha Power were heavily involved in the disastrous decision to conduct regime change in Libya ten years ago. These individuals also favor the supply of additional military assistance to Ukraine, when it is obvious that only a diplomatic solution can stabilize the Russian-Ukraine border. Biden’s assurance to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that the United States “will respond decisively” to Russian use of force was particularly ill-advised.
At the State Department, deputy secretary Wendy Sherman and assistant secretary Victoria Nuland are mouthing the usual Cold War shibboleths. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands regarding Ukraine are not all together unreasonable, and now it is up to the United States to make the diplomatic corrections that must follow the repudiation of our commitment to the Soviets in 1990 regarding U.S. limits on force deployment in Central and East Europe. Confidence-building-measures are needed; a deconfliction zone on the Russian-Ukraine border would be a good starting point.
The United States needs to recognize that the expansion of NATO was a terrible strategic blunder. Moreover, we expanded NATO in the worst possible way that only assured future friction with Russia. We were wrong to expect that our cooperation with Boris Yeltsin’s Russia in the 1990s would be permanent, and totally underestimated the willingness of Putin to blow up bilateral relations with the United States over our militarization on Russian borders. As long as Biden denies the blunders of his predecessors, we will be hostage to his reliance on a military alliance that draws on Cold War thinking. Thus far, Biden has chosen a solution that will worsen the problem.
The China team is probably the best example of ideological rigidity. It is led by NSC director Sullivan; his deputy Kurt Campbell; Rush Doshi; and Eli Ratner, who was appointed assistant secretary of defense in order to educate Secretary Austin, who has little depth on Asian security issues. The China team is the best example of “group think;” the entire team has embraced the policy of containment of China. The team apparently believes containment worked forty years ago against the Soviet Union and will produce favorable results against China. If Biden’s team genuinely believes that China is reminiscent of the struggling Soviet Union of decades ago, then there is little chance for resolving the bilateral dilemmas regarding China and Russia for that matter. Again, Biden has chosen a solution that will worsen the problem.
(My own view is that “containment” had little or nothing to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed like a house of cards simply because it was a house of cards. The intangible element that is never discussed in the Soviet collapse is the corrosive role of Russian cynicism, which meant that the leaders could no longer lead. The United States is on a similar track regarding massive cynicism, but I’m not predicting a U.S. collapse; rather we’re finding the United States almost ungovernable.)
The Biden administration needs to conduct a serious strategic review. The President gave such a task to the Pentagon upon entering office, but any request for a Pentagon review will certainly produce a case for greater military spending. The Pentagon will demand more hammers, and every potential problem will appear to be a nail. The strategic review should be conducted by the National Security Council and the Department of State with significant outside participation and review. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has been AWOL for the past twenty years, should be conducting its own review.
We learned in Trump’s first year that his reliance on the Wall and the Muslim travel ban would ultimately be the cornerstones of a failed national security policy. It would be similarly unfortunate if Biden’s reliance on defending the expansion of NATO and believing in containment of China become the cornerstones of his national security policy.