Afghanistan is the most pressing issue ahead, and Blinken left no doubt that Biden will bring U.S. troops home without putting a time frame on any withdrawal. When I asked whether Biden had made a mistake by setting a withdrawal deadline at his news conference, by saying he couldn’t “picture” U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year, Blinken answered emphatically:
“It’s a totally accurate reflection of his thinking. I think that’s not a mistake at all . . . . We’ve been at this for 20 years, and . . . he’s been clear that . . . as president that he wants to bring the conflict to a responsible end, and that involves, among other things, bringing our troops home.”
Blinken is trying to cobble together a plan for a stable transition as U.S. troops leave. I’m told that U.S. negotiators have shared some detailed ideas for transition with the Taliban and the Kabul government, including basic governing principles, early elections and other power-sharing measures, and proposals for achieving a durable cease-fire.
Biden understands the danger that Afghanistan could slide back into civil war, or that al-Qaeda could rebuild its havens within two years after U.S. troops leave. But he thinks that if the United States tries to maintain a garrison in Kabul as the Taliban are seizing provincial capitals, this small residual force could actually impede intelligence collection and counterterrorism.
Discussing Afghanistan, Blinken used a phrase — “humility and confidence” — that clearly expresses a larger view that he and Biden share about American power. The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have taught Biden that the United States can’t dictate outcomes. But he remains convinced that American ideas can have, as Blinken put it, a “galvanizing effect.”
Biden adopts a similarly pragmatic approach to Russia. Asked how Biden could at once call Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer” and also work with him, Blinken described a realpolitik approach. “The president is very clear-eyed about two things,” he said. He needs “to hold Russia to account for any reckless or adversarial actions it takes” while being open to “areas in which it may be in our mutual interest to work with Russia.”
Blinken said he was “concerned” about Putin’s decision last month to move thousands of troops and heavy weapons to the Ukraine border. State Department officials fear that this is an effort to provoke the Ukrainians and test Washington — and that it could evolve into something much more dangerous. Officials praise the Ukrainian government for “admirable restraint” and “not taking the bait,” but the Russians apparently haven’t stepped back. “The concern remains,” Blinken said. “We’re looking at it very carefully, 24/7.”
Biden’s approach to China is a similar mix of stressing U.S. interests and exploring areas of cooperation. Blinken said the message Biden told him to deliver to the Chinese leaders in Anchorage last month was that Chinese actions in Xinjiang, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or the South China Sea aren’t simply internal matters, but threaten the rules-based international order. “Our goal is not to contain China, hold China back, keep it down,” Blinken underlined.
In a world moving at “hyperspeed,” Biden has embraced very traditional ideas about American global leadership. “What he sees time and again is that . . . when we’re not leading,” then someone else, increasingly China, “tries to assert itself in our place” in a way that may harm American interests or values, Blinken said. “Or no one shows up,” resulting in “chaos and law of the jungle,” which also hurts the United States and its friends.
Biden’s view of American leadership may expand to new forms of cooperation. Blinken mentioned a coalition, initially centered on “fellow democracies” and including other key stakeholders, such as global technology companies. The goal would be to solve “big ticket” problems that can only be addressed collectively, such as pandemics, climate change and disruptive technologies.
Seeking a pragmatic balance between values and interests is a perennial concern of U.S. foreign policy. Biden’s 21st-century understanding of the limits of U.S. military power, combined with a traditional emphasis on U.S. engagement, may differentiate him from predecessors Donald Trump and Barack Obama, who struggled with the same dilemma but had less experience.
I came away from the conversation with the same image I’ve had since Biden took office — of a genial, white-haired guy driving a Ferrari. Biden’s ideas about the world are rooted in the past, but they’re tempered by a lifetime of cutting deals — and a very modern version of the art of the possible.