What Happens Now?

A Biden administration (if that's what we're getting) likely means a return, for better or worse, to a more familiar US foreign policy.

Ed. note: Truth be told, we were hoping the race would be a little closer to being called by now, but Daniel and I both feel it’s close enough at this point to just do it and be legends, by which I mean “publish this piece.” Nevertheless, we should start with a disclaimer that as of this writing there is still a chance that Donald Trump could win reelection, either through the normal ballot counting process (unlikely) or by challenging that process in the courts (still unlikely but not as unlikely as the former). So please keep that in mind as you read.

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2020 was the most important election of our lifetimes.

Just like 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, and so on. Since the 1984 presidential elections, as the Google N-gram below suggests, American media has argued that every subsequent election is the most important in history. But, of course, they all can’t be. And to analyze honestly the effects of a given vote, we must be objective about the failures and successes of the administration being replaced. Simply put, was the administration of Donald J. Trump the worst—or, at the very least, among the worst—in US history?

Historians will no doubt debate this question for decades to come. But with signs pointing toward a Joe Biden victory and thus the end (at least for now) of Trump’s presidency, it’s fair to start cataloguing his legacy.

First and foremost, it’s pretty clear that the Trump administration must take primary responsibility for the United States’ disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, there have been about 9,100,000 reported COVID cases in the United States, and 230,400 people have died from the virus. This is a world-historical failure, the consequences of which haven’t begun to be felt.

Second, Trump himself is a buffoon who likely committed crimes both before and during his time in office. According to The Intercept, Trump may have committed tax fraud, bank and insurance fraud, and crimes related to campaign finance, bribery, and obstruction of justice. No one of his character should lead anything, let alone the United States.

Third, it appears that Trump and his coterie pursued a strategy of voter suppression meant to deny ordinary Americans the ability to vote, betraying a very basic democratic right.

Though one can almost certainly list a litany of other violations committed by Trump and those connected to him, these three alone suggest that, in certain ways, Trump really was worse than other presidents.

In other ways, however, Trump did far less damage to the world than those who came before him. Despite his unlawful and reprehensible behavior, Trump, unlike George W. Bush, started no Iraq Wars. Nor did he, like Barack Obama, destroy a country like Libya under the guise of “humanitarian intervention.”

This is not to say, of course, that Trump’s foreign policy was a moral and ethical one. In contrast to other presidents, who at least pretended to care about democracy, Trump has made hay of drawing closer to anti-democrats like Narendra Modi of India, with whom the United States just signed a deal to give India military information; Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whom Trump praised for doing an “unbelievable job” in a drug war that has killed thousands of people; and Vladimir Putin of Russia, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and Xi Jinping of China, all of whom Trump has lauded as “sharp” and “smart.”

Trump has further alienated long-standing allies, especially those in NATO, and in so doing has damaged the United States’ standing as a “responsible” member of the international community (though it goes without saying that the United States always looked more “responsible” from London, Paris, and Berlin than it did from Mexico City, Baghdad, or Kabul). 

Most important, on the structural level, Trump has done almost nothing to draw down the American Empire. The United States still spends an enormous amount—about $740 billion—on its military. This is more than the next ten countries combined, a list that includes China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil. It continues to maintain a global organizational structure consisting of approximately 750 overseas bases (compare this to China, the United States’ supposed existential enemy, which controls only one overseas base, in Djibouti). And finally, there remain over 190,000 US soldiers stationed in about 140 foreign nations, around 70 percent of all the countries in the world.

For all the anti-militarist rhetoric Trump displayed during his first campaign for the presidency, he has simply done almost nothing to change fundamentally America’s posture in the world. The United States continues to play the role of global hegemon.

If Biden’s apparent victory is confirmed—something that, at the time of writing, remains in question—it’s worth considering whether his administration will pursue a different approach to foreign affairs.

Of course, it’s difficult to know for certain what Biden’s foreign policy will be, given that we don’t yet know whom he will appoint to the most important foreign policy positions—National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and, to a lesser degree, Secretary of State.

But to provide a tentative answer to this question, we can examine a piece Biden published last spring in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs, titled “Why America Must Lead Again,” which laid out his basic approach to foreign policy. Though the essay is too long to summarize, I’d like to highlight and discuss some points that jumped out to me.

First, Biden promises to “once more have America lead the world.” This is classic euphemistic language similar to that deployed by the “foreign policy establishment,” or what Ben Rhodes, Obama’s close advisor, once referred to as the “Blob.” In this discourse, “leadership” means hegemony, which suggests that Biden will continue to waste an enormous amount of money and resources on the US military and its system of global bases. As he puts it, he “will ensure” that the United States retains “the strongest military in the world.” Under Biden, a commitment to armed primacy will remain extant.

Second, Biden claims he’s going to “set our annual refugee admissions at 125,000, and seek to raise it over time.” Under Trump, there has been a grotesque reduction in the number of refugees allowed into the United States—right now, the nation accepts about 15,000 people per fiscal year. But Biden’s plan to raise this number to 125,000 is, frankly, no great shakes, especially given the fact that the United States directly caused so much of the deracination that has plagued the world in previous decades. To take the most prominent example, Brown University’s Costs of War project estimates that, as of 2020, 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or have become refugees due to the 2003 invasion and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State. While it’s no doubt an improvement that Biden plans to let in 125,000 refugees, this remains a pathetic amount that should be met with moral outrage.

Third, Biden asserts that he’ll reinstitute rules that supposedly make war-fighting more transparent and humane. Perhaps the most important of these is the rule, enacted by Obama in July 2016 and repealed by Trump in March 2019, that forces the US government to release annually to the public information on any civilians killed in American drone strikes in non-traditional war zones. (Whether one can trust the government about these numbers is, naturally, an open question.) By emphasizing the importance of the rules of war, Biden contributes to the long-held liberal dream that (wrongly) insists that regulations can make war more humane. In other words, Biden refuses to question the assumption that underpins drone strikes, which is that the United States has the right and duty to intervene anywhere it wants in the world. Instead, he wants to make such interventions “cleaner.”

Fourth, Biden claims that he “will secure our borders while ensuring the dignity of migrants.” The centerpiece of this plan is to “focus on the root causes driving immigrants to our southwestern border” by initiating “a comprehensive four-year, $4 billion regional strategy that requires countries to contribute their own resources and undertake significant, concrete, verifiable reforms.” While this might at first blush appear like a good plan—few people, after all, support corruption—to my ears this sounds like imperialism by another name, with the United States once again forcing Latin American countries to reform themselves along American lines in exchange for US aid. Instead of attempting to address the fundamental imbalance of power between the Global North and Global South, an imbalance caused by 500 years of colonialist and racist domination, Biden instead offers what can at best be described as a pseudo-imperialist band-aid.

Fifth, Biden embraces atavistic Cold War-era language that claims the United States and its allies are representatives of a“free world” presumably devoted to democracy, liberalism, and peace. In so doing, Biden implicitly endorses a Manichean framing of international relations that, as I described in a previous Foreign Exchanges piece, has long had negative consequences for US foreign policy. Indeed, similar to many of his establishment fellow travelers, Biden seems devoted to stoking a “New Cold War” with the People’s Republic of China. He argues, for instance, that China “is playing the long game by extending its global reach [and] promoting its own political model” throughout the world. As such, Biden insists the United States must “get tough” and challenge China’s rise. How such rhetoric could possibly promote cooperation “with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security”—cooperation that Biden also says is necessary—remains unclear.

Sixth, Biden retains a firm commitment to the NATO alliance, which he describes as “sacred.” In this, as in other areas, he remains tied to the strategies of the past. NATO was founded in 1949, when the weakened nations of Western Europe faced a Soviet Union that could reasonably be described as a threat (even if, in my opinion, this threat was always overblown). The world of 2020, however, is not that of 1949: European nations are rich, stable, and strong, and, moreover, know what is best for themselves. Previous generations of Americans would have been aghast at learning the United States maintained a permanent military position in Europe, and it’s long past time that our troops—and our money—return home.

Finally, Biden subscribes to an ahistorically rosy picture of twentieth-century history. As he puts it, “for seventy years, the United States … played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity.” Here, Biden engages in nostalgia for the “liberal international order” that the United States supposedly constructed and led after World War II. Unfortunately, outside of the North Atlantic core of the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany, the liberal international order was neither liberal, international, or an order; rather, it was premised on the domination, exploitation, and, sometimes, invasion, of countries in the Global South. Abandoning the Pollyanna shibboleths of establishment history and confronting the realities of what US “leadership” actually meant for most of the world is crucial if the nation is ever to help chart a positive, democratic, and genuinely global path forward. Biden, it appears, has little interest in doing so.

Nevertheless, there are some positive elements to Biden’s proposed foreign policy. He’s likely to try to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, i.e., the Iran nuclear deal) as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change. While the latter doesn’t go nearly far enough to arrest global warming, it’s a necessary step in the right direction. As to the former, it remains to be seen whether Biden will simply reverse the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the JCPOA, or whether he will counterproductively use Trump’s actions as an “opportunity” to extract additional concessions from Iran in return for a renewed US commitment to the deal. One hopes Biden doesn’t demand more from Iran, as this runs the risk of heightening US-Iran tensions, especially as we approach an Iranian presidential election in which anti-American sentiment is likely to be a major factor.

Moreover, it does seem that Biden, and the Democratic Party writ large, has genuinely turned against “endless wars” in the Middle East. As Biden says, “it is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure.” Nonetheless, Biden simultaneously expresses a desire to “defea[t] al Qaeda and the Islamic State” and insists that Americans “must maintain our focus on counterterrorism, around the world and at home.” If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that formulations such as these are recipes for permanent mobilization and permanent war. Indeed, Biden makes clear that he’s willing to “us[e] a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners against a common enemy” when the need arises. Under Biden, US foreign policy in the Middle East will likely remain at least somewhat geared toward war.

Simply put, Biden remains in thrall to the shibboleths that have defined US foreign policy since 1945. For him, the United States has the right to “lead” the world and intervene everywhere and always. With Biden as president, the structural conditions of US foreign policy—the bases, the money spent, the forces deployed—will remain unchanged. And depending on whom he appoints to important positions, we may even see a bit more foreign adventurism than we witnessed under Trump. The transformation of US foreign policy will once more be delayed, awaiting a president with a novel vision of the world, who is able and willing to expend significant political capital on drawing down the empire.