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IDEAS

Biden’s same old foreign policy

Our new president offers a clean break in many ways, but he’ll still try to have the United States run the world.

US military helicopters seen in 2020 at one of America's hundreds of overseas military bases, Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.
US military helicopters seen in 2020 at one of America's hundreds of overseas military bases, Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.Hong Ki-won/Associated Press

Change is coming! A new administration in Washington seems set to break decisively with the cruel and cynical policies of the last four years. Many in the United States have reason to cheer.

In the rest of the world, not so much.

President Biden favors free education at community colleges and a $15 minimum wage. He has chosen brilliant doctors to direct the response to the pandemic. His secretary of education supports public schools, his secretary of labor is a former union leader, and his interior secretary is a Native American activist. In these and other ways, Biden is more than just a return to the pre-Trump era. He hopes to reimagine America for the 21st century.

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Little of that ambition, however, shines through in Biden’s emerging foreign policy. During his administration, from all appearances, the United States will continue trying to run the world. Hegemony is a powerfully addictive drug.

This month’s shattering eruption of violence in Washington should fuel Biden’s desire for change. No one can predict how deep that change will be, but one thing is all but certain: It will only affect domestic policy. Trump often suggested that he wanted to end foreign conflicts but did not end any. The same may ultimately be said for Biden.

The new president, and most of the men and women he has chosen to direct American diplomacy over the next four years, are Obama-era retreads, bred in the tradition of limitless American ambition and power. The world has changed dramatically since they were ousted four years ago, but few of them seem to have changed their view of it. The incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, made clear during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he still believes America must oversee the world.

“When we’re not leading,” Blinken asserted, “either some other country tries to take our place . . . or, maybe just as bad, no one does. And then you have chaos.”

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The core of US national security doctrine is “full-spectrum superiority,” which the Department of Defense defines as the ability to project military power around the world “without effective opposition or prohibitive interference.” But as this month’s rioting in Washington makes clear, nations can be secure only if their citizens are healthy and well educated, their environment protected, and their societies fundamentally stable. Keeping our country secure does not require us to react if the wrong political party comes to power in another country. It does not require us to sanction and threaten governments we dislike. Contrary to what Americans have been told for generations, our security does not require us to depose foreign leaders, take sides in civil wars, maintain more than 800 military bases overseas, or spend most of our discretionary budget on the military.

If there can ever be an ideal moment for Americans to grasp the true meaning of “national security,” this is it. Yet in the United States, it is considered reasonable to insist that government cannot afford to guarantee health care, education, and housing to all but can and must build a new fleet of submarines at $2.8 billion apiece.

Our rivals must see our obsession with military hardware, and with maintaining the ability to use it around the world, as deliciously self-defeating. The United States is spending itself into mind-boggling debt in order to pay for extravagant weapons systems to defend against yesterday’s threats. Meanwhile, other countries build strong health care systems and dynamic universities, pour money into scientific research, and seek ways to pull poorer people into middle-class prosperity.

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In order to pay for our urgent domestic needs, and to stop creating more enemies abroad, the Biden administration should rethink American foreign policy as thoroughly as it rethinks domestic policy. We should stop taking sides in foreign conflicts. The most obvious place to start would be the Middle East. If we take our heavy thumb off the Middle East scale, ultimately governments and other regional forces will reach their own equilibrium. Let Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Syria, and their neighbors come up with their own security architecture, rather than our trying to impose one from thousands of miles away.

We could do the same in Europe. Our strong guiding hand was necessary in the years after World War II, but it no longer is. Instead of resisting the idea of “strategic autonomy” for Europe — meaning that Europe would make its own security choices rather than following American guidance — we should embrace it. Europe is quite capable of setting its own course without supervision from overseas. If that means closer relations between Europe and Russia, fine — we needn’t see everything that’s good for others as bad for us.

In these regions, as well as in Africa and Latin America, the United States should stop trying to impose our America-centric vision. That leaves just one glaring challenge: China. It is the most complex challenge in the history of American foreign policy.

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Our policy of intensifying confrontation in China’s neighborhood is not only counter-productive but dangerous. China and the United States are rivals but are not locked in a Cold War-style ideological battle for world domination. Keeping China down is a highly unrealistic goal. Curbing its ability to export a repressive political model sounds more promising, but given the condition of American democracy, we’re in less than an ideal position to try. Our interest is in cooperating wherever possible, without losing sight of evident disagreements. America can keep pace with a rapidly rising China only by creating a society that is as healthy, well-educated, and prosperous as China’s. Submarines and aircraft carriers won’t suffice.

In past eras, countries could fight their way to security. In today’s America, shaped by a health crisis, deep social injustice, and intense political anger, that is not possible. The most radical epiphany President Biden could have is that national security starts at home.


Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.