Capstones: Biden Aims for Balance

December 2020
By Alan W. Dowd

As President-elect Joe Biden pivots to the all-important work of governing, those of us who teach and write about foreign policy are pivoting to the less-important work of forecasting how a Biden administration might steer the ship of state.

Let’s begin with the foreign policy/national security challenge that has dominated the past two decades and past three administrations: “the wars of 9/11.”

President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to cut troop levels in Iraq to 2,500 and Afghanistan to 2,500 by January 15, 2021. Neither Trump nor Biden would care to admit it, but Trump’s drawdown is very much in line with Biden’s plans.

Biden argues, “We should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State.” This is not new terrain for Biden. As vice president, he drafted a memo detailing “profound questions about the viability of counterinsurgency” and pushed for a small-footprint counterterrorism mission. Given that, Trump’s drawdown could be seen as a gift to Biden. But if history is any guide, it may be a costly one.

Gen. David Petraeus calls the pullout from Afghanistan “even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq.” Without the “means to pressure extremist networks” in Afghanistan, he predicts “full-blown civil war and the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary.”

Even with U.S.-NATO forces operating in Afghanistan, ISIS is active in eastern Afghanistan, and al Qaeda is active in 12 Afghan provinces. According to the UN, al Qaeda is “heavily embedded with the Taliban,” which signed a peace deal with Washington this year. We forget at our peril that the Taliban allowed al Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a launchpad for 9/11.

“The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warns, echoing Petraeus. “Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands.”

That brings us to Biden’s approach to U.S. allies. Quite unlike his predecessor, who called NATO “obsolete,” Biden calls NATO “the single most important military alliance in the history of the world.” 

Hopefully, Biden will reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany. Under the Trump plan, more than half those troops would redeploy to America. With Russia literally on the march and constantly menacing NATO’s easternmost members, that makes little sense. As if to underscore this, the final version of the bipartisan 2021 National Defense Authorization Act blocks the troop-withdrawal plan until the new administration conducts a review and reports back to Congress.

“The world does not organize itself,” Biden reminds Americans, suggesting a welcome departure from both the president he served under and the president he succeeds.

President Barack Obama’s rationale for disengagement was based on an optimistic belief that the trajectory of history leads inevitably to a better world. Thus, he talked about the “arc of history” or consigned some regimes to “the wrong side of history.” Trump’s rationale for disengagement was based on a belief that the world is “a mess”—and won’t get any better, regardless of what America does or doesn’t do. The result, as Freedom House concludes of the Obama-Trump years is that “America’s global presence has been reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain.”

Biden seems ready to reverse this trend. “For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations, and advance collective security and prosperity.” If America fails to play that role, he warns, “Either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue. Either way, that’s not good for America.”

Biden’s plan to convene a Summit for Democracy suggests both a recommitment to America’s central role defending the liberal international order and perhaps a recognition that liberal democracies shouldn’t expect much in this effort from the UN and its subagencies—which are infected and crippled by dictatorships.

Biden recognizes that allies will be essential in addressing the challenge posed by China. “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations,” Biden argues.

Biden’s approach to the PRC promises to be firmer and tougher than that of the Obama administration largely because COVID19 exposed Xi Jinping’s China as an ends-justify-the-means regime that allowed a local public-health problem to mushroom into a global pandemic, lied to the World Health Organization about COVID19, allowed millions to leave the epicenter of the virus in Wuhan, ordered scientists not to share findings about COVID19-genome sequencing, and engaged in a premeditated scheme to hoard 2.5 billion pieces of medical protective equipment. Given that record, is there any surprise 73 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of China and an equal percentage blame Beijing for COVID19 deaths?

Biden wants to harness “the economic might of democracies” to meet the China challenge. Biden will benefit here from groundwork laid by the Trump administration: The Clean Path Initiative has opened the way to a secure 5G network for the free world. The Economic Prosperity Network is building uncompromised supply chains to prevent China from weaponizing medical supplies. The Quad security partnership enfolding the U.S., India, Japan and Australia has been revived.

Biden recognizes that America needs all the help it can get confronting the Beijing behemoth: “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles.”

China is a country of 1.3 billion. Its mushrooming GDP is already $14.1 trillion. Its annual military expenditure is $260 billion (growing 572 percent since 1999). It has a 2-million-man military, a 350-ship navy, and an intense focus on dominating its neighborhood.

Although America boasts a $21.4-trillion GDP and $738-billion defense budget, it has a billion fewer people than China, just 1.3 million active-duty troops, a 296-ship Navy, a defense budget that’s plateauing, and security commitments that are diffused and dispersed.

However, the U.S. combined with democratic partners in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Indo-Pacific enfolds some 2.8 billion people, 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending, more than 7 million men under arms, and what former JCS Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen called “a thousand-ship navy.” Biden recognizes that these allies are force-multipliers and outer rings of America’s security. He will find strong bipartisan support for this approach.

Biden wants to move “60 percent of our sea power to that area of the world, to let the Chinese understand that they’re not going to go any further.” This would represent a strong and needed signal to Beijing.

Of course, effective military signals and the sort of military capabilities necessary to deter China presuppose sustained investments in defense. Regrettably, Biden was part of an administration that downgraded defense spending and shelved deterrent military assets. For instance, even before the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration lopped off $500 billion in defense spending, the Obama-Biden White House had squeezed $487 billion from projected Pentagon spending. Thus, in a time metastasizing global instability, defense spending fell from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3 percent by 2016. During those years, Obama deactivated the Navy’s North Atlantic-focused 2nd Fleet, deactivated the Army’s Germany-based V Corps and withdrew every American main battle tank from Europe—the first time since 1944 Europe had been left unprotected by American armor.

The Trump administration has corrected these missteps, but with COVID19 recovery costs soaring one wonders if the Biden administration will be able to sustain needed investments in defense—and thus send deterrent signals to Beijing.

“We have to accept the fact that we can’t solve all of the world’s problems,” Biden said during his time as vice president. More recently, Biden has made clear that he would use military force “only to defend our vital interests.”

Most presidents say that sort of thing. There is wisdom in it. As President Theodore Roosevelt put it, “Ordinarily it is very much wiser and more useful for us to concern ourselves with striving for our own moral and material betterment…than to concern ourselves with trying to better the condition of things in other nations.” However, TR understood that such hard-nosed realism usually melts away when confronted by slaughtered civilians, starving babies, poisoned villages, orphaned children. And so, presidents send American troops into harm’s way to offer a helping hand to Cubans, Kurds and Kosovars, Haitians and Yazidis, Somalis and Libyans, Berliners and Bosnians.

The reason presidents deviate from the “vital interests” standard for intervention is that at some level the American people have internalized the biblical admonishment “to whom much is given, much is expected.” As Walter Russell Mead explains, once Americans had the means to help, they felt obliged to do so. “The fact that many believed they could do something,” he writes of humanitarian intervention in Cuba in 1898, “helped convince them they should do something.” Hence, TR argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed,” concluding that even when “our own interests are not greatly involved” sometimes “action may be justifiable and proper.”

A great and good nation like the United States doesn’t just “bear witness,” as Obama so often said. It acts, or it bears responsibility. “Those who have the greatest power and influence,” Vaclav Havel reminded America, “also bear the greatest responsibility.” 

The Biden of the 1990s would agree. When the Balkans descended into civil war, Biden was an early advocate for arming Bosnian-Muslims and using U.S. airpower to strike Bosnian-Serb targets. Likewise, he supported the U.S.-led NATO operation that protected Kosovar-Muslims and ejected Serbian troops from Kosovo. David Halberstam observed, “Biden had been almost without equal in urging the [Clinton] administration to act militarily in the Balkans.” In addition, Biden supported the toppling of terrorist tyrannies in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

Yet Biden opposed the 1991 campaign to expel Saddam’s army from Kuwait, opposed the 2007 surge in Iraq, opposed the 2011 Libya intervention, and led the effort to withdraw from Iraq in 2011—which opened the door to the Islamic State’s sweep across Iraq and Syria, which led to a humanitarian disaster, which predictably required the Obama administration to re-deploy U.S. forces to Iraq.

“The argument that we just have to do something when bad people do bad things isn’t good enough,” Biden says. “It’s not a good enough reason for American intervention and to put our sons’ and daughters’ lives on the line.”

He speaks quite literally in this regard. As a military dad, Biden has seen the costs of wars and deployments in ways most presidents never do. His evolution from humanitarian hawk in the 1990s to reformed noninterventionist today may be as simple as concern for those who bear the lion’s share of the burden of U.S. military intervention: America’s troops and their families. Presidents must have the compassion to consider that burden—keeping in mind that war has enormous human costs. But presidents also must summon a dispassionate detachment—keeping in mind that there are times when they must send a precious few into harm’s way for the greater good, whether to protect the interests of 330 million Americans or to provide relief to the helpless. We should pray that those times are few—and that the new commander-in-chief can strike that difficult balance.

Alan Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.