alliances, allies, Biden, China, Constitution, defense budget, Finland, Lippmann Gap, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, nuclear umbrella, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Sweden, Taiwan, Ted Galen Carpenter, treaties, Ukraine, Walter Lippmann
The foreign policy headlines have been coming so fast-and-furiously these days that they’re obscuring a dramatic worsening of a big, underlying danger: The dramatic expansion spearheaded lately by President Biden in America’s defense commitments that’s been unaccompanied so far by a comparable increase in the U.S. military budget. The result: A further widening of an already worrisome “Lippmann Gap” – a discrepancy between America’s foreign policy goals and the means available to achieve them that was prominently identified by the twentieth century journalist, philosopher, and frequent advisor to Presidents Walter Lippmann.
The existence of such a gap of any substantial size is troubling to begin with because it could wind up ensnaring the nation in conflicts that it’s not equipped to win – or even achieve stalemate. As I wrote as early as March, 2021, a Gap seemed built in to Mr. Biden’s approach to foreign policy from the beginning, since he made clear that America’s goals would be much more ambitious than under the avowedly America First-type presidency of Donald Trump, but also signaled that no big increase in America’s defense budget was in the offing.
Since then, Biden aides have expressed a willingness to boost defense budgets to ensure that they keep up with inflation – and therefore ensure that price increases don’t actually erode real capabilities. But no indications have emerged that funding levels will be sought that increase real capabilities much. Congressional Republicans say they support this kind of spending growth to handle new contingencies, but the numbers they’ve put forward so far seem significantly inadequate to the task.
That’s largely because most of them have strongly supported Biden decisions greatly to broaden U.S. the foreign military challenges that America has promised to meet. As for the President, he’s specifically:
>not only supported the bids of Finland and Sweden to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but stated that the United States would “deter and confront any aggression while Finland and Sweden are in this accession process.” In other words, Mr. Biden both wants to (a) increase the number of countries that the United States is treaty-bound to defend to the point of exposing its territory to nuclear attack, and (b) extend that nuclear umbrella even before the two countries become legally eligible for such protection via Congress’ approval. It’ll be fascinating to see whether any lawmakers other than staunch non-interventionists like Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul question the Constitutionality of this position; and
>just this morning declared that he would use U.S. military force to defend Taiwan if it’s attacked by China even no defense treaty exists to cover this contingency, either, and even though, again, there’s been no Congressional approval of (or even debate on) this decision.
This Biden statement, moreover, lends credence to an argument just advanced by my good friend Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute – that although Ukraine has not yet joined NATO officially, ad therefore like Taiwan lacks an official security guarantee by the United States, it may have acquired de facto membership, and an equally informal promise of alliance military assistance whenever its security is threatened going forward.
As a result, Ted contends, “the Biden administration has erased the previous distinction between Alliance members and nonmembers” – and set a precedent that could help interventionist presidents intervene much more easily in a much greater number of foreign conflicts without Congressional authorization, let alone public support, than is presently the case.
To be sure, lots of legal and procedural issues have long muddied these waters. For example, the existence of a legally binding treaty commitment doesn’t automatically mean that U.S. leaders will or even must act on it. Even America’s leading security agreements (with the NATO members, Japan, and South Korea) stipulate that the signatories are simply required to meet attacks on each other in accordance with their (domestic) constitutional provisions for using their military forces. (At the same time, breaking treaties like these, all else equal, isn’t exactly a formula for winning friends, influencing people, and foreign policy success generally. As a result, they shouldn’t be entered into lightly.)
Further complicating matters: America’s constitutional processes for war and peace decisions have long been something of a mess. The Constitution, after all, reserves to Congress the power to “declare war: and authorizes the legislature to “provide for the common Defense” and to “raise and support Armies.” Yet it also designates the President as the “Commander in Chief” of the armed forces.
There’s been a strong consensus since Founding Father James Madison made the argument that limiting the authority to declare war to Congress couldn’t and didn’t mean that the President couldn’t act to repel sudden attacks on the United States – that interpretation could be disastrous in a fast-moving world. But other than that, like most questions stemming from the document’s “separation of powers” approach to governing, the Constitution’s treatment of “war powers” is best (and IMO diplomatically) described as what the scholar Edward S. Corwin called a continuing “invitation to struggle.”
Undoubtedly, this struggle has resulted over time in a tremendous net increase in the Executive Branch’s real-world war powers. But the legal issues still exist and tend to wax in importance when presidential assertiveness leads to conflicts that turn unpopular.
I should specify that personally, I’m far from opposed yet to NATO membership for Finland and Sweden. Indeed, their militaries are so strong that their membership seems likely to strengthen the alliance on net, which would be a welcome change from NATO’s (and Washington’s) habit of welcoming countries whose main qualification seems to be their military vulnerability (like the Baltic states) and tolerating long-time members that have been inexcusable deadbeats (like Germany).
Similarly, as I’ve written, because American policymakers recklessly allowed the country’s semiconductor manufacturers to fall behind a Taiwanese company technologically, I now believe that Taiwan needs to be seen as a vital U.S. national security interest and deserves a full U.S. defense guarantee.
Yet I remain worried that the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy risks plunging the United States into a conflict with Russia that could escalate to the nuclear level on behalf of a country that (rightly) was never seen as a vital U.S. interest during the Cold War.
So my main concern today doesn’t concern the specifics of these latest Biden security commitment decisions. Instead, it concerns the overall pattern that’s emerging of talking loudly and carrying too small a stick – and ignoring the resulting Lippmann Gap widening. However Americans and their leaders come out on handling these individual crises, they need to agree that the responses urgently need to close the Gap overall. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine satisfactorily dealing with any of them on their own.