Biden's "America Leads" Follows "America First"
Biden’s “America Leads” Follows “America First”
For Friedens Forum, May 2021
After the disaster of four years of Trump’s fascist, racist and incompetent misrule, and his disastrous “America First” foreign and military policies, for the majority of U.S. Americans Biden’s presidency comes as a relief. That said, Biden’s and his mandarins’ insistence that the U.S. must lead comes with its own dangers, especially the danger of great power, even nuclear, war.
Biden’s policies that are bringing the pandemic under control in our communities, that revitalize the economy. and address the systemic causes of debilitating inequalities are all to be celebrated. But Biden’s record on foreign and military policies, led by some of the most interventionist figures from the Obama Administration, harken back to the worst days of the Cold War.
Nevertheless, Biden has taken positive foreign and military policy actions. He extended the New START Treaty, rejoined the Paris Climate agreement, and committed to reduce U.S. climate change emissions. At this time, despite its early missteps by insisting that elements of the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran be renegotiated, it appears that arrangements for the U.S. to be welcomed back into the Agreement will be in place prior to Iran’s coming election. Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will bring the war against the Taliban, which never should have been fought, to an end. That said, Washington the seeking Central and South Asia bases from which U.S. special forces can intervene in Afghanistan in the future. Also valuable is Biden’s reduction of U.S. complicity in Saudi Arabia’s disastrous Yemen War, although it continues to provide essential services for Saudi Arabia’s offensive air force.
The most dangerous dimensions of the Biden insistence that the U.S. must lead, are its actions that deepen the Thucydides Trap (the inevitable tensions between rising and declining powers) and build on Trump’s 2018 National Security Strategy. The 2018 doctrine changed the national priority from the focus on the misnamed “War on Terror’ to preparations for great power wars.
True, Biden is conducting his own policy reviews, but their essence was revealed in the Administration’s Interim National Security Guidance. It recognized the changing “distribution of power across the world”, driven in large measure by China’s “economic, diplomatic, military and technological power”. Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, National Security Advisor Sullivan and Secretary of Defense (War) Lloyd Austin are working to restore the nostalgic vision of Cold War U.S. European and Asia-Pacific hegemony. And, with Kurt Campbell, the lead author of Obama’s Asia-Pacific Pivot now the leading Indo-Pacific figure in the National Security Council, and Victoria Neuland of Maidan Revolution fame as undersecretary of state for political affairs, they are “leading” with aggressive confrontational military polices and actions.
Secretary of Defense Austin has recently named the Indo-Pacific region as the Pentagon’s priority. And the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft put it bluntly, confirming that the U.S. is “doubl[ing] down on efforts to contain a rising China and maintain its eroding military dominance in the region.”
Biden and company have ratcheted up the confrontation with China with provocative and so-called “freedom of navigation” operations. These provocative forays have been conducted close to China’s South China Sea islet bases constructed in disputed territorial waters. Biden and company are chipping away at the seminally important “One China” policy, building on Trump’s dangerously provocative increases in diplomatic and military support for Taiwan. And, building on Obama and Trump initiatives, they are creating an Indo-Pacific NATO in the form of the QUAD alliance, as well as fully backing Japan in its territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islets with China.
Worse, the new NATO 2030 doctrine completes the transformation of the pact into a global alliance, now also designed to contain China.
Also in Asia is the continued state of war between the U.S. and North Korea. Biden’s Korea policy review has wisely rejected Obama era “strategic patience”, which fueled Kim Jung-Un’s nuclear buildup, and the Bolton/Trump all or nothing immediate total disarmament demand. Biden and Blinken have signaled their openness to step by step/action for action negotiations, but they have ruled out the most obvious first step: a confidence building declaration that the seven-decade old Korean War is finally over. One thing is certain, the status quo of the last several months will not long endure.
In Europe, President Biden’s has committed to revitalizing the NATO alliance rather than addressing NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders which lies at the core of the last three decades U.S.-Russian tensions. While Biden moved quickly to extend the New START Treaty and proposed a summit with Putin, plans for deployment of the ‘more usable” B-61-12 nuclear warheads to the continent are moving forward, as are plans to deploy new intermediate range missiles to Europe and East Asia. Biden and Blinken have increased support for Ukraine, which likely encouraged the recent military brinkmanship there. Similarly, the massive DEFENDER EUROPE 21 military exercises have done nothing to reduce tensions. And continuing U.S. naval and air force operations in the Baltic Sea, including simulated B-52 attacks on Russia, and the U.S. naval presence in the Black Sea continue unabated carrying with them the danger than an incident, accident or miscalculation may trigger a conflict that could escalate beyond control.
Biden’s call for a U.S.-Russian summit is raising expectations, but it may be premature. Serious work and actions to reduce tensions and mutual animosities must come first to ensure a successful summit. A rushed, potentially confrontational, photo-op conclave could make matters worse. Failing to reach substantial agreements and renewing mutual recriminations, as happened in the 1961 Kennedy-Khrushchev summit that contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, must be avoided.
Instead of its illusory, arrogant, and confrontational America must lead approach to the world, Biden should be pursuing détente with Russia and China, based on the Common Security paradigm that contributed to the end of the Cold War in 1987 with negotiation of the INF Treaty. Faced with the existential dangers of nuclear war, the climate emergency, and the Covid-19 and future pandemics, cooperation is imperative for human survival. Solutions in each of these areas are known, including nuclear disarmament, ceasing combustion of fossil fuels and investment in green technologies, and international health-related collaborations. Missing are the elite’s vision and the popular will.
As we face the 21st century’s existential threats, we would do well to honor the painfully earned 20th century wisdom of the Russell-Einstein Appeal. Human survival and the quality of our lives depends on remembering our humanity and forgetting the res.
*Dr. Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security and Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau. His books include Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.