Attention to anyone in touch with the Biden foreign policy transition folks – I’m offering a deal.
I’ll stop charging that its top members (and especially Cabinet and similar nominees) keep spouting patently and dangerously vapid globalist foreign policy ideas if they provide some evidence that something other than patently and dangerously vapid globalist foreign policy ideas are going to shape their upcoming stewardship of American strategy and diplomacy.
So far, however, the evidence keeps showing that they have a long way to go, starting with Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken. In his remarks accepting the position (subject to Senate confirmation of course), this quintessential Clinton and Obama administration retread spoke movingly about his family’s Holocaust roots, but committed one of the cardinal sins of not only diplomacy but any policymaking or politicking: He advertised weakness.
On top of failing either to mention or – more likely – recognize that the international cooperation and multilateralism that’s he’s elevated from a foreign policy tactic to a goal in and of itself will inevitably have content, and that therefore America will often need to play hardball in order to ensure favorable outcomes, Blinken emphasized that “as the President-elect said, we can’t solve all the world’s problems alone. We need to be working with other countries. We need their cooperation. We need their partnership.”
It was nothing less than an open invitation for U.S. friends, foes, and neutrals alike to assume that such problem solving efforts matter more to the United States to them, and that they can therefore repeatedly roll Washington by playing hard to get, and often simply stonewalling until the United States caves in to their stances.
And if you think that America’s wealthy, powerful, and influential allies, whose agreement will be rucial to the success of any international cooperative efforts, would never sink to these tactics, you need to learn some Cold War history. Even when the free world faced a Soviet threat that all of its members viewed as existential, countries like (then) West Germany and South Korea, which literally lived on the front lines, successfully free-rode for decades on Washington’s defense guarantees because U.S. leaders continually spoke and acted as if they’d maintain these military (including nuclear) umbrellas at all costs because they were vital to America itself.
To make matters even weirder, shortly before the election, Blinken – the fetishizer of international cooperation and multilateralism — justified these globalist priorities with an argument drawn straight from the very foundation of America First-ism, at least as I’ve defined it.
I’ve written that America First is the foreign policy approach most suited to the United States is one understanding that, although the United States is not strong, rich, and or smart enough to create a benign global environment or meet truly global challenges all by itself, it is plenty strong, rich, and smart enough to remain safe and prosperous in a world sure to stay anything but benign.
So imagine how surprised I was to see this Blinken statement at a foreign policy conference in October, when he was firmly established as a leading Biden spokesman: A new administration’s approach to world affairs would include “humility, because most of the world’s problems are not about us, even though they affect us.”
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with addressing overseas situations that “affect us,” as opposed to representing mortal threats. If opportunities arise for the United State to better its lot, it’s of course reasonable to pursue them. But they shouldn’t be pursued until U.S. leaders ask themselves whether the best way to achieve such goals is by joining international cooperative efforts, or relying on any foreign policy approaches at all, rather than trying to build up its own capabilities and reducing its own vulnerabilities. As I’ve also written, in many instances, the latter, America First-y approach will be the superior or more promising, if only because the nation will always be able to influence its own affairs much more effectively than the affairs of others.
Finally, even when Biden aides do display some awareness that U.S. foreign policy needs to be something more than a content-free quest for cooperation, regardless of the stakes for Americans, they haven’t made much progress on figuring out what this content should be – or sharing the results with the public.
More than a year ago, the apparent President-elect’s choice for White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, wrote in the leading journal Foreign Affairs, that the central task of U.S. China policy must be to find a way to establish a modus vivendi with Beijing recognizing that the People’s Republic is here to stay as a great power. He stated that “Such coexistence would involve elements of competition and cooperation,” which sounds like yet another glib formula for emphasizing means over end. But Sullivan did specify that America’s policies must identify and seek outcomes favorable to U.S. interests and values.”
On broader matters, Sullivan even contended that “Going forward, Washington should avoid becoming an eager suitor on transnational challenges. Eagerness can actually limit the scope for cooperation by making it a bargaining chip.” Hopefully, he’ll communicate this “Don’t advertise weakness” to Blinken and the rest of a Biden administration.
So that’s progress. But in the year that’s passed since this piece came out, we’ve heard little from Sullivan or anyone else connected with Biden on what will be acceptable to a new adminstration and what won’t be, and less in the way of plausible tactics for achieving these goals or creating these conditions.
For example, Sullivan’s description in his article of ways to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan – or other targets in Asia – demonstrates no awareness that Beijing’s ability to hit the U.S. homeland with large numbers of nuclear weapons looks formidable enough to inhibit conventional American military responses strong enough to threaten Chinese gambits with defeat.
Sullivan allows that Washington will need to use “some enhanced restrictions on the flow of technology investment and trade in both directions,” in order to “safeguard its technological advantages in the face of China’s intellectual property theft, targeted industrial policies, and commingling of its economic and security sectors.”
But because Sullivan’s overarching goal appears to be avoiding the “Balkanization” of “the global technology ecosystem by impeding flows of knowledge and talent,” he’d place limitations on these curbs that would result in a piecemeal response to a systemic threat. And even individual restrictions that are approved would surely be watered down to the point of ineffectiveness thanks to Sullivan’s insistence that they be “undertaken in consultation with industry and other governments” – two groups that have displayed not the slightest inclination significantly to disrupt business with China that they’ve each found tremendously lucrative.
And in fact, Sullivan ends up ignoring his own sage advice about the limits of international cooperation and multilateralism for their own sakes by declaring a faith in their capabilities that looks stubbornly blind. Why else would he end his article with these declarations?
“Establishing clear-eyed coexistence with China will be challenging under any conditions, but it will be virtually impossible without help. If the United States is to strengthen deterrence, establish a fairer and more reciprocal trading system, defend universal values, and solve global challenges, it simply cannot go it alone. It is remarkable that it must be said, but so it must: to be effective, any strategy of the United States must start with its allies.”
Which sounds like we’re back to Blinken-ism. With my offer still firmly on the table.