In January, Joe Biden will become the 46th commander-in-chief of the US armed forces. He may also be the last man in position to reverse the wreck of US post-Cold War foreign policy and preserve what remains of the liberal international order. Is he up to the task?
The Trump administration’s declaration of an “era of great-power competition” has been vague. In practice, it has meant an almost exclusive focus on China — a necessary but hardly sufficient component of a global grand strategy. And it has meant diminishing attention to the other two legs that provide structure to American geopolitical leadership: Europe and the Middle East.
Trump is setting the conditions for further withdrawals in his final months of office, particularly when it comes to the post-9/11 “endless wars.” The US military presence in Afghanistan is in jeopardy. In the run-up to the election, Trump tweeted that all of the 5,000 troops still there should be “home by Christmas.” That, in turn, prompted Pentagon leaders to formally express concerns that such a move would be risky and undercut the Kabul government in negotiations with the Taliban. Shortly thereafter, Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other senior defense officials, bringing in former Army Col. Douglas Macgregor — a passionate advocate for limiting US military engagements — and counterterrorism chief Christopher Miller.
In his initial message to the Defense Department, Miller sent a confused message. He began by insisting “This war isn’t over. We are on the verge of defeating Al Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error and see the fight through to the finish.” Yet in the very next sentence he claimed, “All wars must end. … We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
To varying degrees, American administrations have been in a “come home” mood for three decades. George H.W. Bush was cautious about stepping too far back from the vanguard, but limited Operation Desert Storm to a speedy restoration of the sovereignty of Kuwait. The Clinton administration devoted itself to expanding health care coverage at home and avoiding “nation-building” missions abroad, a strategy taken to heart by President Obama. Even George W. Bush believed, based on the initial success of the Afghanistan invasion, that finally ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein would quickly lead to peace and stability in the region. Only with the 2007 Iraq Surge did an American president begin to come to grips with the nature of the post-Cold-War world. Ironically, the reward for that insight has been that Iraq is now seen as a horrible strategic mistake.
It’s hard to imagine Biden breaking these now-well-entrenched prejudices. Even in the case of Afghanistan — or further troop withdrawals from Europe or South Korea — there will be a strong incentive for Biden to throw up his hands and blame Trump without reversing the withdrawal. As vice president, Biden was extremely wary of the Afghanistan commitment, resisting Obama’s half-hearted attempt at a surge and charging that the military leadership was gaming the process. The leading candidates for senior national-security positions in a Biden administration are rightly described as moderate, but their careers have been of the go-along-to-get-along sort. Biden also leads a shaky coalition of aging moderates and raging leftists, absorbed by domestic politics and a country beset by a pandemic. And the costs of reasserting American global power are high.
Even in the case of China, Biden inherits a poor position. The Trump administration — and the COVID crisis — may have changed the domestic politics of China strategy, but they failed to take the two most important steps toward deterring Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive moves. First and foremost, their transactional approach to diplomacy foiled the chances to build a durable containment coalition; consider how they handled the issue of 5G networks, for example. Second, their unwillingness to provide sufficient defense budgets and modernize the US military has left our forces neither large enough nor capable enough to perform the full range of missions assigned.
So it is little wonder that even those allies most pleased to see the back of Trump are wary of what is to come. And those who most benefitted from Trump are, in fact, girding themselves for a post-American world. The supposed pinnacle of Trump statecraft, “Abraham Accords,” provide a grandiose cover for an unstable and inherently weak coalition; the “Atlantic Charter” it is not. America’s traditional partners in the Middle East are losing their super-power protection while their enemies consort with America’s great-power adversaries. Considering Biden’s position as a “least bad, not Trump” president, his temptation to temporize might be powerful. There’s too much to be done in the span of a single administration and too many domestic priorities. Therefore, Biden’s presidency may close the curtain on the world America has made.
This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute blog.