President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater, on Dec. 4, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater, on Dec. 4, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. AP / Andrew Harnik

The Hidden Dangers in Biden’s Foreign Policy

The president-elect’s stated agenda will antagonize China and lead to conflict.

President-elect Joe Biden is a product of the 20th-century U.S. foreign policy establishment and a Cold War-era hegemonic ideologue who voted for the Iraq war. He has the stubbornness of assumed strategic infallibility and will insist on presiding over the old way. He said as much in a spring 2020 Foreign Affairs essay that argued for a return to U.S. leadership in a post-Trump world, and his expected choice of Michèle Flournoy for defense secretary certainly advances this hawkish narrative.

But the old way is tired. The grand strategies of the last 100 years, promoted by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, are idealistic. A pragmatic approach to foreign policy is necessary to advance American interests and avoid military conflict in the 21st century.

It won’t be easy. Biden’s preference for American leadership is a prescription for returning to liberal hegemony defined by U.S. forward presence and involvement in world affairs. This approach invokes Madeline Albright’s label of the United States as the “indispensable nation” with the responsibility — informed by the logic of free markets and international institutions — to influence local politics and promote favorable world order. Few dismiss the necessity for the United States to maintain, at least, regional hegemony in the Western hemisphere and a leading position in global affairs. But there is debate between Americans and their allies over whether the United States should preside over the world order, or simply participate in it. 

Despite this, Biden will seek a return to U.S. unipolarity even in today’s more competitive and contested environment. His prescription requires commitments to sustaining the legitimacy of the international institutions and the web of allies and partnerships keeping the whole thing together. However, wedge driving behaviors, deglobalization trends, and the move toward economic reshoring strain alliances like NATO and further erode partnerships. As more European states consider “decoupling” from coalitions, NATO’s future and unrivaled U.S. leadership are more threatened than ever. Biden wrote in his essay that values will continue to bind Western alliances. This is an idealistic position rooted in a time when the United States represented a value system most willingly followed. 

Now there are other value systems competing for global influence. China will not be contained absent military confrontation. Biden’s campaign trail charge to “get tough with China,” prodded by Donald Trump, returns to dangerous Cold War-era communist containment strategies that will antagonize Beijing and escalate tensions. Instead, Biden should get smart — and pursue a favorable bipolar balance of power between the United States and China.

After World War II, hegemony worked because the United States enjoyed one-third of the world’s gross domestic product, a preponderance of military firepower, and nuclear exclusivity. Today, China is a nuclear-weapons state and seeks to depose the United States. It has economic agreements in place with a majority of the world’s countries; 138 and counting, including 18 of 30 NATO states. And America’s house is in disarray. Biden’s plans assume that democracies will join him in creating a unified front against Beijing’s expansionism, including an American-led world. But how? 

Getting “back at the head of the table,” Biden wrote, requires the U.S. to leverage its relationships to restore a rules-based world order. That order exists more in form than function. There is little reason to expect revisionist China and Russia to go along with Western-led agendas, international institutions, and law unless convenient to their goals. In fact, from the big picture to individual issues like trade, China often is in the driver’s seat. 

And what of American hard power? In a significant pledge, Biden insists that the United States use military force “only to defend U.S. vital interests.” But restrained use of force is more consistent with realist thought than the interventionist agenda Biden otherwise advocates through “using special forces…to advance national interests.” Is he a closet realist or a confused liberalist? And what of U.S. treaty obligations? 

Take Biden’s approach to NATO. He claims that the U.S. commitment to the alliance “is sacred, not transactional.” But perhaps a transactional approach has merit. Trump’s decision to reduce U.S. troop levels in Germany on the basis of “delinquent” defense spending was purely transactional. The Obama administration promoted the same commitment but stopped short of Trump’s threats to withdraw U.S. support. Biden claims that values are stronger than cash. But China and 138 states committed to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative seem to disagree, in some cases setting aside competing values and ideologies in favor of interest-based transactional arrangements. China’s economic arrangements with more than half of the NATO member states indicate at the very least that NATO’s value system is compromised. 

The future Biden administration should favor a pragmatic approach to foreign relations; one that seeks competing transactional arrangements with countries on China’s bucket list to prevent Beijing’s unfettered economic and military expansion. Doubling down on the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation efforts is a good start.

The U.S. is $27 trillion in debt. Defense spending cuts are possible and the U.S. must be more deliberate with its interventions and overseas commitments. Biden needs to recognize the fiscal realities and Washington’s weakened position from which to set the rules in an increasingly contested world where forward deployed forces are less influential and at greater risk. The Biden administration should engage in transactional balancing behavior – rather than seeking hegemony – by maintaining a deterrent military, reserving forward engagement for existential threats to U.S. vital interests, and pursuing mutually constitutive state economic and security arrangements premised on institutional fallibility and avoidance of self-binding ideology.

Seeking liberal hegemony may or may not lead the U.S. to war, but if Biden attempts to contain China, then conflict is inevitable. Things are different today. There is opportunity in the pragmatism of transactional balancing. The future U.S. defense posture calls for logic and measure rather than disconnected ideology. In the 21st-century international security environment, it is the pragmatist’s approach that will prevail.