The scope of Biden’s domestic ambitions has been a pleasant surprise. The president has called for new industrial policy to address the climate calamity, long overdue investments in infrastructure and housing, fair trade and “buy American” policies, tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations, bolstering economic rights, and beginning to redress racial inequities.
At the same time, Biden has long held that the United States remains the “indispensable nation” across the world. Although his national security aides acknowledge the priority of rebuilding the United States’ strength at home, they also say that the nation must lead. Climate, pandemics and global economic structuring are new priorities. These are in addition to an emerging great power faceoff with China and Russia, an effort to rally democracies against authoritarianism, a continuing war on terrorism, and a renewed commitment to enforce the “rules-based international order,” which translates into the United States continuing to police the world.
Biden’s “brightest and best” foreign policy managers say that they can balance these commitments by the exercise of what Hillary Clinton dubbed “smart power.” A renewed engagement of allies can share the burdens. Using drones and Special Operations forces, as opposed to major troop commitments, in the war on terrorism can reduce the costs.
The Defense Department, of course, will use the China threat to help lobby for bigger budgets, but the Biden team also clearly hopes that foreign threats can provide impetus for domestic reforms. For example, the growing faceoff with China — what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin calls “our pacing threat” — justifies industrial and trade policies to revive U.S. manufacturing, investment in R&D to retain our technological edge, and progress on racial justice and electoral reforms to display democracy’s blessings.
The wisdom of “smart power," however, is but an illusion. Allies may share burdens, but they can also disrupt plans, as illustrated by Israel’s suspected responsibility for blowing up facilities at an Iranian nuclear site even as the U.S. administration seeks to revive the Iranian nuclear deal. Adversaries disrupt unexpectedly, as illustrated by China’s new assertiveness in the South China Sea.
And while Biden asserts that “diplomacy is back” — promising to use military force only as a “last resort” — the president inherits a global posture unknown to most Americans. The United States is committed by treaty to the defense of about one-fourth of the world’s population. It maintains nearly 800 bases in more than 70 countries. And U.S. Special Operations forces operated in 138 countries in 2016. Not surprisingly, the U.S. military budget is greater than those of the next 10 nations combined, most of whom are our allies.
This level of constant military engagement generates an unending series of crises where the United States is already involved. “Smart power” offers no answer, as Clinton’s ”smart power at its best” — the disastrous intervention in Libya — demonstrated.
There is no easy way out. Surely, Biden’s team would be well advised to lower its sights. Reduce our commitments abroad, end the forever wars, shutter much of the empire of bases. Make it clear to allies that America’s priority is rebuilding its strength at home. Engage China and Russia in efforts to address climate change and contagion and to curb the accelerating nuclear and cyber arms races. Focus the competition on which country best provides for its people.
Every modern U.S. president and Congress perpetuate the U.S. military as the most potent in the world. A truly groundbreaking president would rein in the military operations that distract and drain us. It is clear that the United States cannot afford to be the “indispensable nation” across the globe and rebuild a vibrant democracy and economy at home. Great nations decline when they refuse to adjust to new realities. In his first days in office, Biden’s domestic policy reflects that awareness. The question is whether his national security policy will have a clue.