Biden must not restore foreign policy, but reform it
Though the incoming Biden administration seems intent on restoring a presumed superior version of American leadership from the past, what is most needed is a reformation of how we deal with the rest of the world
The good guys and the bad guys. Friends and enemies. Black and white. Since at least World War II, American foreign policy has been viewed through an all-or-nothing lens in which actors are routinely considered either all good or all bad. It’s not hard to understand why — it’s a lot easier to categorize states or groups as a monolith. But doing so unnecessarily harms our interests.
It’s time we begin dealing with the world as it is, in all its messy greyness. Doing so will make our nation more secure and prosperous. Though the incoming Biden administration seems intent on restoring a presumed superior version of American leadership from the past, what is most needed is a reformation of how we deal with the rest of the world.
As we’ve seen for decades, Washington is prone to view foreign actors in black-and-white terms. The Reagan administration famously referred to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. President Bill Clinton demonized the Serbs and lionized the Croats, Bosnians, and Albanians during the Balkan crisis in the late 1990s. Following the terror strikes of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush infamously declared an Axis of Evil and that there were only two kinds of nations in the world: “You are either with us or with the terrorists.”
The Obama administration continued the trend when it at first declared select jihadist groups in Syria as good or “moderate rebels” and sent hundreds of millions of dollars in both overt and covert support while branding others as irredeemably evil and aggressively fought them. For his part, President Trump muddled the script by treating some friends roughly and treating some adversaries more gently, but he did choose to make China the “bad guy” of his administration, both economically and militarily.
The truth is that each of these presidents had a point in the targets of their displeasure. The USSR was an atrocious regime. The Serbs did commit war crimes. Nations that supported terrorists were a threat. And China has committed espionage and other nefarious actions against the United States. Treating each as an irredeemable, all-or-nothing enemy, however, unnecessarily complicates our relations abroad and actually lessens our ability to produce policies and actions beneficial to our interests.
Presently, America’s leading foreign policy figures reflexively treat several states as permanent and exclusive enemies. The “outlaw” government of Iran, the “rogue regime” North Korea, and the socialist Venezuela and Cuba. Washington routinely claims each of these countries is a threat. We constantly look for ways to undercut and weaken each with sanctions and other policies, and other than Trump’s few meetings with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, we have virtually cut off diplomatic engagement with each. It should be self-evident by now, painfully so, that such policies have been abject failures.
First, when we cut off communication with another country, we deny ourselves of significant leverage in moderating behaviour we find odious or problematic. Second, by refusing to engage with these nations on areas of mutual interest, we surrender the opportunity to gain an advantage, even from an otherwise unpleasant regime. Third, by constraining or eliminating communication with potential adversaries, we increase the possibility of misunderstanding or miscalculation, which could lead to a military clash that neither side wants.
What makes more sense is to engage with the world with eyes wide open, acknowledging bad or pernicious behaviour while also keeping the door open for opportunities to benefit our security or economic opportunity. It is manifestly evident that relying almost exclusively on the coercive tactics we’ve used over the past half-century has neither produced anything of value for the U.S. nor has it made our country safer. Embracing the reality that we can simultaneously engage both positively and negatively is harder to do but much more beneficial.
For example, we can resist, even fiercely, Chinese efforts to steal our intellectual property and call them out for human rights abuses while still cooperating with them on areas of mutual benefit such as trade and an anti-terrorism focus. If we want to reduce the threat of military conflict with North Korea and Iran, we need to have open lines of communication. The Trump administration said it wanted to negotiate a new deal with Iran that included ballistic missiles, something Barack Obama’s nuclear deal didn’t include. Without talking, however, no deal is even possible — and the risk of miscalculation and accidental war increases.
Engaging with regimes we dislike does not harm our national security, as our powerful conventional and nuclear forces undergird our safety no matter what. But taking the world as it is, ugly regimes and all, will allow us to reduce the risk of conflict and increase our economic opportunities abroad.