After taking the oath of office President Joe Biden may be tempted to resume policy as if it was January 20, 2017. But the nation and world with which he dealt as vice president no longer exist.
The first challenge will be political. There was no blue wave. Indeed, had President Donald Trump been only marginally less obnoxious, more competent, less offensive, or more empathetic, he would be returning for a second term and Biden would be the second shell-shocked Democratic paladin trying to understand how he had lost to such an ill-qualified and ill-regarded figure.
Far from suffering a collapse in support, Trump expanded his appeal in almost every demographic category, including Latinos and African-American males. The Republican Party likely will hold onto Senate control; the GOP also gained House seats, flipped two state legislative chambers, and won a governorship. The American people remain deeply divided and Biden could find early failure confronting bitter obstructionist Republicans, angry squabbling Democrats, and disappointed progressive activists.
The second challenge will be domestic. Foreign policy specialists have a long list of pressing priorities for the president. Biden, as a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, enjoys international affairs. However, ugly reality will force him to focus on matters at home.
Biden’s number one priority must be the COVID-19 pandemic. The most consequential event in American life for decades—only World War II, the Spanish flu epidemic, the Civil War, and Great Depression have transformed American life to a similar degree—much more remains to be done to stem rising infections, move vaccines into production, bolster the health care system, and spur economic recovery. Everything else, at home and abroad, other than a threat of nuclear war, pales in comparison.
The second most important issue for the incoming president will be restoring a modicum of fiscal solvency to the federal government. Tough choices must be made and difficult priorities must be set. Inaugurating grand new international adventures can’t rank high on the president’s list.
Washington entered 2020 with an expected trillion-dollar deficit run up in good economic times, after simultaneously cutting taxes and increasing spending. The government exited the 2020 fiscal year with $3.1 trillion in red ink due to the coronavirus pandemic. The deficit will run more than $2 trillion this fiscal year, and that could double if Congress passes another bailout/stimulus bill.
National debt held by the public currently stands at $21 trillion, more than 100 percent of GDP, the highest since America exited World War II. The Congressional Budget Office figures that existing policies will add another $10 trillion in red ink over the coming decade, while the coronavirus deficit could ultimately total another $16 trillion, due to reduced income tax collections and increased program expenditures. After that will come an explosion in entitlement spending, especially for Social Security and Medicare. CBO warns that the debt to GDP ratio could be 195 percent mid-century, approaching five times the average over the last 50 years and much higher than in Greece when its unsustainable debt load triggered the Euro crisis. Individual states, such as Illinois and New Jersey, already are in fiscal crisis. There is no spare cash to toss around.
The third challenge will be setting international priorities. Biden spent much of his career assuming U.S. primacy. The foreign policy community from which he likely will draw his top appointees shares his commitment to American global domination. Every week Washington, D.C. hosts numerous seminars covering Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, in which participants uniformly assert with great solemnity that events in their chosen region affect vital U.S. interests and require Washington’s urgent attention.
Today America is constantly engaging in military action or threatening military action on every continent but Antarctica. Washington subsidizes the defense of European nations which devote their resources to funding more generous social programs than are available in America; treats Russia as a defeated power to be forcibly confined within its own borders; shapes Middle Eastern policy for the benefit of Saudi Arabian and Israeli interests; assumes the U.S. should sort out a multi-sided civil war in Syria to the exclusion of more interested regional parties; attempts to force Iran to surrender its independent foreign policy; forgives friendly regimes as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Turkey for domestic oppression and foreign aggression; forever occupies Afghanistan to bring democracy to Central Asia; risks nuclear attack by North Korea to defend South Korea, whose national strengths vastly outrange those of the North; considers protecting Taiwan despite its extraordinary distance and unwillingness to act seriously in its own defense; treats failed, undemocratic, and lackadaisical Asian regimes as potential military dependents; risks a very cold and possibly hot war with China to preserve U.S. influence a continent away; and more.
The cost of maintaining sufficient force structure, lift capacity, and military facilities to pursue “primacy” is prohibitive, far greater than the price of emphasizing national defense over global engineering, of deterrence over power projection. Washington’s attempt to maintain a foreign policy which amounts to a global Monroe Doctrine, with America asserting its right to intervene against every nation in every region, will grow steadily less affordable. Serious resource limits must inevitably affect military spending and foreign policy.
Indeed, even candidate Biden felt it necessary to support a halt to “endless wars,” though he contemplated greater long-term military involvement for counterterrorism and other purposes. His recent dismissal of Beijing as an economic competitor appeared to downplay the prospect of military confrontation, though his advisers have evinced greater concern. His rapprochement with Europe might be mostly cosmetic, since the Trump administration spent four years increasing financial outlays on and troop deployments to the continent despite the president’s caustic rhetoric. Biden is less likely to cater to Riyadh’s whims, especially when the result is the slaughter of Yemeni civilians. Overall, the result could be an administration a bit less interventionist than during the Trump years in practice if not image.
However, the new president will need to more systematically set priorities for what he is prepared to defend, and how much he is prepared to spend doing so. The U.S. no longer can do it all. Which means the incoming president will be forced to abandon some of the military commitments that he once championed. That is the only plausible course for managing the foreign policy of a bankrupt republic.
The Middle East has been the traditional tar baby entrapping a succession of presidents while losing its great importance to America. The U.S. has become the world’s biggest energy producer and no longer needs to safeguard Israel, a regional superpower with nuclear weapons. Popular support for promiscuous war-making in the Mideast also has flatlined: Americans are tired of being lied into counterproductive and bloody vanity crusades. Biden will face pressure to moderate Washington’s ambitions and deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, despite the outrage expressed by many Democrats when Trump made a similar case for leaving.
Europe also will pose a serious challenge for the incoming president. For all his experience in international affairs, Biden demonstrated extremely poor geopolitical judgment when he asserted: “the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our—our security and our alliances is Russia.” This is manifestly false, the same sort of idée fixe that afflicts Madeleine Albright and many others.
Russia is much smaller and weaker than the Soviet Union; has no essential conflict with America, either ideological or territorial; and could be deterred by Europe, which enjoys overwhelming economic, demographic, and technological advantages. Moscow has behaved badly, but Washington has little credibility in complaining, having routinely interfered in other nations’ elections (including Russia in 1996), launched cyber-attacks (remember Stuxnet), and committed aggression that violated international law (Serbia, Iraq).
Most important, Moscow is a declining power desperate to ensure respect and security, not a growing force determined to regain lost glories, like China. Although Biden might identify with European leaders, current allied policy toward Russia ensures its enduring hostility and tilt toward China, effectively reversing Richard Nixon’s great strategic maneuver of 1972. This will be ever harder to justify at a time of increased budget stringency. Desperately needed is a modus vivendi that both Washington and Moscow can live with, perhaps rooted in a promise to halt NATO expansion.
Even America’s presence in Asia is not sacrosanct. It is ever more difficult to justify U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula seven decades after the Korean War, with the South well able to match whatever conventional forces its smaller, poorer, and weaker northern adversary can deploy. And if North Korea becomes capable of striking the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons, involvement in what began as an old-style conventional conflict could ultimately result in the destruction of American cities. Such a possibility would increase popular doubt as to the wisdom of entanglement in what amounts to the continuing Korean civil war at 75 years and counting.
As for China, it threatens American influence, not American security. Is the former worth war with a nuclear power? If Japan is at risk, should it not rely on Japanese rather than American lives and money for its defense? Is Washington prepared to lend its navy to a semi-failed state like the Philippines to protect such minor geographic features as Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef? How many lives is the U.S. willing to risk for the defense of Taiwan, a task comparable to China protecting Cuba from America? None of these objectives would be easy to fulfill over the long-term. Committing to all of them—on top of addressing domestic crises and continuing to remake the Middle East and safeguard European welfare states—would be no mean feat.
Joe Biden and many of his supporters may be tempted to see his presidency as a restoration of the Obama administration and reapplication of traditional Democratic foreign policy nostrums. However, underlying realities have changed dramatically. Donald Trump didn’t find the right answers. But he did ask some of the right questions. The incoming president will need to do better if he is to meet the dramatic challenges facing our nation.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.