foreign policy

Joe Biden’s Perfect Foreign Policy Storm

A protester confronts police in Tunisia. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The scenes out of Afghanistan this past week — triumphant Taliban fighters crowding into a hastily abandoned presidential palace, civilians clinging to the undersides of American planes rescuing a lucky few from Kabul — marked the end of a war and perhaps the end of an era. But the Taliban takeover is just the beginning of the Biden administration’s foreign policy troubles.

The world has entered a new post-vaccine phase of the coronavirus pandemic. On a global scale, this phase is shaping up to be as deadly as any other, and in some places, it is deadlier. It also looks to be angrier. As most of humanity remains hunkered down, left to watch the vaccinated wealthy enjoy their freedom, people are rising up. This summer, protests have convulsed countries across continents, from Cuba to Colombia, Tunisia to South Africa, Australia to Thailand. Governments are falling (South Africa), cracking down (Cuba), and potentially taking an authoritarian turn (Tunisia).

Meanwhile, portentous visions of environmental destruction stream in from California, Greece, Turkey, Germany, and Japan. A few decades ago, American leaders rhapsodized that “globalization” would connect and thereby empower people the world over. Today, the most salient global connections are vectors for disease, disasters, and death. As a global pandemic and extreme weather converge, no other moment within recent memory has revealed our global condition — deeply intertwined yet unremittingly hierarchical — to be so tangible and consequential.

Mass instability may be in our future as well as our present. Some think we have entered an age of pandemics, of which COVID-19 is just the first. The latest forecast projects severe disruption from climate change lasting decades, even if emissions are drastically cut soon.

How astonishing, then, that a ravenous pandemic, mounting climate chaos, and the bloody evolution of the global war on terror, each of which has made a mockery of borders, has scarcely altered U.S. foreign policy or the debate surrounding it. The debacle in Afghanistan, for instance, produced a familiar chorus of voices calling for America to wage war literally forever, while mainstream media outlets like the New York Times warned that President Biden would bear history’s judgement for having “presided over a long-brewing, humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan.”

Such pleas deserve to be the last gasp of the forever warriors, but it’s unlikely. In Washington, the attachment to global military dominance is entrenched. That is partly because the military-industrial complex of which President Dwight Eisenhower warned has never been tamed. But it is also because the very concept of “engagement” across borders has been corrupted to prize coercion and to scorn constructive cooperation. This moment demands a wholesale change in how the United States conceives of international engagement, both to meet immediate crises and to recast American foreign policy thereafter.

For decades, those charged with guarding U.S. national security have treated armed force as the ultimate form of engagement. The acid test of acting in the world — as opposed to retreating to contemptible (and mythical) “isolationism” — is possessing the capability and willingness to kill a lot of people in it. Whatever armaments may be necessary to defend the United States, this is a perverse ethic. In every other realm of human endeavor, we recognize brute coercion to be the antithesis of engagement among people; the resort to force, in the household or on the street, marks the breakdown of sociable interaction. Yet in U.S. foreign policy, when the call sounds to “do something,” the outcry is unlikely to stop until the bombs drop.

This problem extends beyond the Cheneys and Rumsfelds of the world. Consider Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and the current head of USAID. In her generation-shaping book A Problem From Hell, Power nominally recommends that the United States undertake “steps along a continuum” to address genocides, but she makes clear which kind of action really counts. “Send in the troops,” she quotes one of her diplomat heroes telling the White House when asked what should be done in Rwanda. It’s this fixation on force that explains, to name one example, why officials and commentators were routinely able to claim the United States had declined to intervene in the Syrian civil war when in fact the CIA and Pentagon supplied aid and training in massive quantities to armed rebels; anything less than all-out invasion looks like inaction. It is also why climate change has to date figured peripherally in the top national security concerns of the White House.

This militarized outlook ends up impeding positive forms of engagement, even when the United States stops short of using armed force. It channels concern for human rights into animosity toward wrongdoers, putting the impulse to stop evil above the imperative to help. It turns democracy promotion into a warrant for punishing and sometimes invading non-democracies (while America’s authoritarian partners, useful in projecting power, get a pass). In a pandemic that afflicts everyone, it means that the United States has so far sent no vaccine doses to Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Syria, or Venezuela, among others. The more America prizes armed dominance, the more adversaries it accumulates and the more it restricts peaceful activities to its preferred portion of a divided world.

Reverse this logic, however, and opportunities emerge. An America that properly values engagement would meet universal threats universally: It would distribute vaccines and green technology as widely as possible and stop enlarging military alliances that divide the world. The United States would use aid to address the sources of democratic discontent, not as leverage to force governments to be free. It would admit refugees before it considered whether to wage war in the name of humanity. In short, the way to engage the world is to do so directly without fetishizing coercion as the first resort — or relying on it to be the last.

In Afghanistan, the swift collapse of the national government supported by the United States for two decades might seem to show that only American war-making can hold brutal forces like the Taliban at bay. In fact, the Afghan army’s weakness demonstrates that unless the United States intends to engage in perpetual warfare to prop up the governments it imagines for others, it has to find other methods to promote stability and human welfare. America can do so by admitting and assisting refugees created by conflict — an action that always helps, whereas armed intervention frequently hurts.

The Biden administration is now attempting to bring to the United States thousands of Afghans who assisted the U.S. war effort and face special risk. The president announced on Monday that 2,000 Afghans have come to America under special immigrant visas in recent weeks. He ought to go further by raising America’s global refugee cap dramatically. The Trump administration resettled refugees in record-low numbers despite the rising global refugee population. Biden’s initial increase of the cap to 62,500 per year still pales in comparison to the high of 231,700 in 1980. In Afghanistan, as in Syria and elsewhere, the United States would better serve itself and others by coercing less and helping directly.

Admitting refugees might not grab headlines like proclaiming an “axis of evil” does. It won’t qualify as “bold,” “muscular,” “clear-eyed,” or any of the other preferred terms of the foreign policy class. But it would be far more effective in alleviating suffering and promoting stability than occupying another country. Welcoming refugees ought to replace slaying monsters as the hallmark of a new American humanitarianism.

Even when the United States refrains from military intervention, its quest for dominance leads it to punish those it ought to engage. America’s treatment of Cuba illustrated the point well before the onset of protests last month against the government and its handling of the pandemic. The United States has imposed an economic embargo on the island for six decades, seeking to destabilize a regime that refuses to buckle. In response to the recent protests, Biden took the path of least political resistance. He maintained the embargo and imposed new sanctions while contemplating whether to allow Americans to transfer money to their Cuban relatives.

Like U.S. sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and scores of countries, entities, and persons, America’s embargo on Cuba is considered “tough.” It qualifies in U.S. politics as a positive form of action, even though all the embargo does is block activity, preventing Americans and Cubans from engaging in commerce and travel with one another. No one denounces U.S. policy as a cruel disengagement from Cuba. Yet an embargo — in a pandemic, no less — is exactly that.

But the other side’s cry of “hands off Cuba,” which seeks to end the embargo, is also mistaken. Though the objective is correct, the slogan mirrors its opponents’ conceit that either engagement is coercive or it does not count. The embargo should be lifted precisely so that Americans and Cubans can interact and transact. The aim is less to remove American hands than to extend them to meet Cuban ones. Right now, those hands should bear vaccines, as the Biden administration recently said it was willing to provide.

The Cuban government, suspicious of American motives, has balked at the U.S. request for an outside entity to monitor how Cuba would administer donated vaccines. It demands that America lift the embargo. That is a good deal, one that the Biden administration should take. Each country would benefit if it lost the other as an enemy and enjoyed a more normal relationship. And in the pandemic, we should want to get as many people vaccinated as possible in order to prevent new variants like Delta from emerging. If pandemic-fueled instability provides some with a rationale for squeezing the regime even harder, it ought to make the rest of us appreciate the urgency of promoting genuine engagement instead.

Tunisia presents another crisis that tempts Americans to indulge old ways but also points to better ones. In July, amid exploding COVID infections and widespread protests, President Kais Saied invoked emergency powers to concentrate authority in his office and suspend parliament for 30 days. In response, prominent U.S. lawmakers and commentators have proposed withholding aid in an attempt to force the president to reverse course. “The United States and the western democracies need to be all in, on the ground in Tunisia, stopping this before it gets out of hand,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham urged.

But blackmailing Tunisia back into democracy is risky. If the effort did not succeed swiftly, the United States would end up punishing Tunisians indefinitely. Graham’s call for robust engagement would actually produce prolonged disengagement. The Tunisian people, in turn, could well resent U.S. meddling. They overwhelmingly support the president so far, after a decade of democratic rule has failed to put food on the table. A street vendor sparked the revolution by lighting himself on fire in 2011, but now young men self-immolate by the dozens each year. The United States does not and need not possess the solution to Tunisia’s problems. It can nonetheless offer vaccines, loans, and aid to help address the sources of discontent in the country without holding Tunisians hostage to Washington’s political preferences.

“Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm’s way,” Biden said on announcing his decision to terminate America’s war in Afghanistan. He is right — perhaps more so than he accepts — because he has yet to apply his insight beyond Afghanistan. His administration still puts plenty of soldiers in harm’s way around the world, assuming U.S. military primacy to be essential to diplomatic and other forms of engagement. By reducing ground-troop levels, Biden may not be ending the war on terror so much as making it endless through reliance on low- and no-footprint special operations raids and drone strikes. And even if he were to remove the U.S. military from the greater Middle East, he nonetheless appears to be intensifying America’s geopolitical rivalry with China and potentially Russia. The two powers are “our true strategic competitors,” Biden remarked in his address on Afghanistan on Monday. It was probably the least politically controversial line of the speech.

But we have already seen what a foreign policy centered on armed dominance looks like. While multiplying animosities and wars, it has left the world vulnerable to a virus and on the brink of irreversible warming. It has subordinated genuine engagement to the false internationalism of force. And the consequences are set to get worse. As climate change intensifies, a cold war between the world’s top two emitters, America and China, is the last thing the planet needs. Far better for the leading powers to limit their rivalry and cooperate to develop green technology and provide it to the world. “As president, I’m adamant we focus on the threats we face today, in 2021, not yesterday’s threats,” Biden declared on Monday. He had better be adamant if he’s to rescue American engagement and direct it where it counts. The generation that follows him had better be, too.

Joe Biden’s Perfect Foreign Policy Storm