The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s global, muscular liberalism is an indefensible foreign policy in 2021

American and Chinese flags are displayed together in Beijing in 2018. (Andy Wong/AP)

Elbridge Colby is a principal at the Marathon Initiative. While serving as deputy assistant secretary of defense from 2017 to 2018, he led the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

The central theme of President Biden’s foreign policy is a global, muscular liberalism. Ensuring that democracy “will and must prevail,” Biden told the Munich Security Conference, is “our galvanizing mission.” This appears to mean taking on threats to democracy wherever they lie — challenging both China and Russia, which Biden has said posits “just as real” a threat as Beijing — while continuing the “forever wars,” halting reductions of U.S. forces in Europe, sanctioning the new military government in Myanmar, signaling a firm line against North Korea and more.

This might have been a defensible policy decades ago, when U.S. wealth dwarfed that of the Soviet Union and China. Or in 1999, before China’s rise, the sapping wars in the Middle East or the profound effects of the financial crisis had all been felt. But it is not a sensible policy today.

For the first time since the 19th century, the United States is not clearly the world’s largest economy. China is already larger by many measures and growing faster than we are, including in the wake of covid-19. And traditional U.S. allies are declining in relative wealth and power. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies face challenges as varied as Russia, Iran and North Korea; nonstate terrorists; pandemics; economic recovery; and climate change.

Given all this, Americans must refocus on what our foreign policy should be about. That means, beyond defending ourselves from attack, making sure we can determine our future free of external coercion and being able to trade and invest overseas on terms that promote a broad-based national prosperity. This requires ensuring that key markets, particularly Asia, are not dominated by a hostile power. Such a state could exclude us from these markets and use its growth and power advantages to dominate our national life.

This is not a partisan issue: Strong constituencies on both the left and right are tired of and frustrated by the proposition that U.S. foreign policy should entail safeguarding the success of democracy and development around the globe. Global, muscular liberalism of both parties has manifestly failed to deliver the strength and broad-based prosperity to allow us to shape our future on our own terms. Americans deserve better.

This doesn’t mean withdrawing from everywhere and hoping for the best. Nor does it mean muzzling ourselves about human rights abuses or democracy. But we need to look after U.S. interests in a competitive, rivalrous world — enlightened interests that frequently align with others, yes, but our interests all the same. “Realpolitik” has a cynical, old-world overtone. Yet it means focusing on what matters and working with others who share our interests.

To start, this involves concentrating on China, which is by far the most important entity in the international system other than the United States. If Beijing dominates Asia, the world’s largest market, China will be globally preeminent — and is likely to use its power to coerce and weaken the United States. Consider what China is already doing to Australia, Taiwan and other states. No other global threat — not Russia, Iran or North Korea — can do this. As Winston Churchill said, if we get things right in the decisive theater, we can put everything straight after.

This will require working with whoever would help achieve U.S. goals. The Biden team seems to be betting that democracies will align in a global struggle against what Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls “techno-authoritarianism.” But full-scale alignment is unlikely. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel has demonstrated, most prominently by striking a major investment pact with Beijing shortly before Biden’s inauguration, rhetorical fondness for the “rules-based international order” can exist alongside pursuit of self-interest. Many democracies, especially in Europe, don’t share U.S. threat perceptions, given our country’s history as a Pacific power. Recognizing this, we need to work with those countries willing to invest resources in confronting China, such as India and Vietnam, or those willing to help us shift effort away from lesser threats like Iran — even if those partner countries are not model democracies.

For the first time in a long time, the United States is not overwhelmingly predominant. That means we cannot afford to be profligate with our power, wealth and resolve. Rather, we must manage the threats we face — above all China — in ways that promote U.S. power and well-being, rather than vainly expending them in a global ideological struggle or retreating in hopes that the world will favorably stabilize on its own. Such a course is the only option responsive to the needs and risk tolerances of the great bulk of Americans. It is thus the only responsible foreign policy for our democracy in this day and age.

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