WILL A Biden administration’s foreign policy be radically different from that of Donald Trump? Apart from symbolic acts like rejoining the unenforceable Paris Climate accords, probably not. Eras in U.S. foreign policy are begun and ended by dramatic world events, not regularly-scheduled presidential elections.
Following World War II, the United States rapidly demobilized. Then the shock of the Korean War led it to reverse course. The initial stage of the Cold War lasted from 1950 until the mid-1960s, when the Johnson administration realized that it could not prevail in the Vietnam War and had to beg for terms. Even before Richard Nixon, the détente period began, with the United States trying to extricate itself from Indochina while seeking to lower tensions with the Soviet Union and China. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the shock that began the second part of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan, which came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
The Gulf War in 1991 inaugurated the foreign policy era in which we still live. The swift and seemingly-easy military victory of the United States over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Gulf War in 1991 created an exaggerated sense of American omnipotence and an attraction to wars of regime change among policymakers of both parties. While they have differed on the details, all Democratic and Republican presidents from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden, including Trump, have agreed on the objective of preserving U.S. hegemony in East Asia, while extending American military power as far as possible into Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
In Eastern Europe, the disintegration of the Soviet Union created power vacuums which the United States sought to fill by expanding NATO to the borders of Rump Russia. The U.S. plan to incorporate both Georgia and Ukraine into its military sphere of influence, along with Poland, Hungary, and the rest of the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe, has been thwarted by Russian intervention in both countries.
In the Greater Middle East, from North Africa to Central Asia, the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States in 2001 gave the Bush administration an excuse for a war of regime change in Iraq, in addition to the war in Afghanistan. Since then, three of the artificial multi-ethnic states created by the British and French in the region and held together only by despots—Iraq, Syria, and Libya—have disintegrated along ethnic and factional lines. In contrast, the genuine nation-states in the region with strong senses of national identity—Iran, Turkey, and Egypt—have preserved their unity. Just as it has sought to fill the power vacuum in Eastern Europe left by the withdrawal of the Red Army, so the United States has sought to fill the power vacuums in the Middle East in Iraq, Syria, and Libya—having created two of these power vacuums, in Iraq and Libya, and having prolonged chaos in Syria by waging a proxy war to topple Bashar al-Assad.
In both Eastern Europe and the Middle East, then, the United States from Clinton to Biden has been an aggressive, revisionist power, seeking to expand its informal empire at the cost of high American casualties, countless local lives, and trillions of dollars. In East Asia, however, the United States is on the defensive, challenged by the rise of China.
Under Barack Obama, the containment of China—the “pivot to Asia”—took the form of what might be called trilateralism, after the old Trilateral Commission of the 1970s. According to this strategy, while balancing China militarily, the United States would create trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade blocs with rules favorable to the United States that China would be forced to beg to join in the future. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was intended as an anti-Chinese, American-dominated Pacific trade bloc, while the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) sought to create a NATO for trade from which China would be excluded.
Obama’s grand strategy collapsed even before the election of 2016. TTIP died, chiefly because of hostility from European economic interests. In the United States, the fact that the TPP treaty was little more than a wish-list of giveaways to U.S. finance and pharma interests and other special-interest lobbies made it so unpopular that both Hillary Clinton and Trump renounced it during the 2016 presidential election season.
Trump, like Obama, sought to contain China, but by unilateral rather than trilateral measures. The Trump administration emphasized reshoring strategic supply chains like that of steel in the United States, unwilling to offshore critical supplies even to allies in Asia and Europe and North America. This break with prior tradition would have been difficult to pull off even under a popular president who was a good bureaucratic operator, unlike the erratic and inconsistent Trump.
The Biden administration, staffed with Obama veterans, may be in effect a third Obama term. Biden may seek a détente with China on some issues. But Democratic foreign policy elites as well as Republicans view China more harshly than they did four years ago. The most likely scenario, then, is an attempt to restore Obama’s trilateral strategy of building the biggest possible coalition of allies against China.
An emphasis by the Biden administration on alliances may succeed in the case of the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India “Quad” (Quadrilateral alliance). The UK may support America’s East Asian policy as well. But Germany and France, the dominant powers in Europe, view China as a vast market, not a threat, so Biden will fail if he seeks to repeat Obama’s grand strategy of trilateral containment of China.
Democratic foreign policy elites are much more Europhile and Russophobic than their Republican counterparts. In part this is a projection of domestic politics. In the demonology of the Democratic Party, Putin stands for nationalism, social conservatism, and everything that elite Democrats despise about the “deplorables” in the United States who live outside of major metro areas and vote for Republicans. The irrational hostility of America’s Democratic establishment extends beyond Russia to socially-conservative democratic governments in Poland and Hungary, two countries that Biden has denounced as “totalitarian.”
In the Middle East, unlike Eastern Europe, a Biden administration is likely to sacrifice left-liberal ideology to the project of maximizing American power and consolidating the U.S. military presence, with the help of autocracies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Any hint of retrenchment will be denounced by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that lined up behind Biden, so do not expect an end to any of the forever wars under Biden. Quite the contrary.
Michael Lind is Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The American Way of Strategy. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.