In this Eastern Focus interview, dr. James M. Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), explains that Joe Biden sees his core global challenge as being less about promoting democracy than preserving it.
What would you expect to fundamentally change under a Biden administration in terms of foreign policy vision? To use the vivid image of the book you co-authored together with Ivo Daalder – “the Empty Throne” – will we be present at a restoration? To what foreign policy traditions are we going back?
I would frame President Biden’s approach like this: He is looking to recover a tradition of American leadership in the world that Donald Trump turned his back on. From Truman to Obama, American presidents believed that American leadership served not just its own interests, but the interests of others. The United States led the creation of a world order that Americans believed advanced and protected their interests even as it helped others. Donald Trump’s America First rejected that idea, arguing instead that America’s engagement in the world produced costs that greatly exceeded any benefits. That’s why America First morphed into America alone.
From Truman to Obama, American presidents believed that American leadership served not just its own interests, but the interests of others.
Joe Biden, like almost all post WW2 presidents, believes in the virtue of American leadership. But it is important to note that his foreign policy is not simply a restoration. He understands that “you can’t step into the same river twice”. Things have changed. You can’t ignore the fact that we had 4 years of America First foreign policy and America’s relations with many of its closest friends, allies and partners have been damaged and are in need of repair. The Biden team – composed of serious, seasoned, experienced foreign policy hands – understands that they face a very different situation compared to when they were last in government. They know that America’s diplomatic relationships need to be repaired. They also recognise that many US partners worry that a Biden presidency will represent only a temporary return to a traditional US foreign policy. An old saying applies here: Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Can Biden deliver on his agenda and on his promises? A skeptic can reasonably say that Americans voted for Donald Trump once, so what’s to stop them from voting for him again?
‘The policy of engagement with China hasn’t worked’
Let’s discuss the different strands existing in the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the great power competition. In the end the return of the great power competition has become a core feature of the contemporary international relations. It is no longer the 1990s or 2000s. The Democratic Party is no longer the one of the 1990s or 2000s. For example on Asia in particular “there is a new generation that emerged” in the words of Eric Sayers that displays a competitive-minded approach to Beijing (and here I would include Kurt Campbell, Ely Ratner, Kathleen Hicks, Mira Rapp-Hooper.
When we talk about the Democratic Party we first need to recognise that there are divisions within the party, including on foreign policy with splits between doves and hawks. Second, for many and perhaps most Democrats, job number one is not foreign policy, it is not restoring American leadership abroad. Instead it is about getting America’s domestic house in order. Indeed, many Democrats see two reasons why a successful foreign policy depends on fixing domestic problems. One is to persuade the American public that investments and actions overseas are worthwhile and not detracting from success at home. That is why the Biden Administration quite consciously uses the phrase a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’. The second reason is that America’s ability to lead has historically rested on American power, on the appeal of American values (soft-power), and on a reputation for competence. The United States was always the can-do country. It was the country where the president said on the Inauguration Day that in 10 years we would land a man on the moon and then did just that. It is safe to say that over the last dozen years the reputation of the US as a can-do power, as a competent power, has taken a blow. That happened first with the financial crisis in 2008-2009 and then again with the bugled response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many and perhaps most Democrats, job number one is not foreign policy, it is not restoring American leadership abroad. Instead it is about getting America’s domestic house in order.
At the same time there has been a sea change in foreign policy thinking over the last decade among both Democrats and Republicans. A consensus has formed in Washington that the policy of engagement with China hasn’t worked. Visions of what the engagement policy was supposed to produce varied, but the core belief was that we would invite China into this rules-based international order and that China would over time benefit from joining, realise the benefits, and then become a responsible stakeholder. The conclusion today– and this is a broadly held view in the United States – is that this bet didn’t pay off. We have witnessed particularly since Xi Jinping came to power a more assertive China that is seeking not to blend into the existing order, but to revamp it in a number of ways. Beijing’s engagement with that order, particularly on trade, has been strategic in the sense of exploiting the rules to benefit China economically, while not actually embracing them. This view of Chinese behaviour is something that unites the American firsters with a Biden return to American leadership. So the question becomes one of how you act on this changed perception.
Donald Trump’s answer was America First: we exert our power, we are the most important economy in the world and we can force China to bend to our demands. After 4 years the results are in on that experiment, and I would suggest it failed. China is stronger because the basic premise of Trump’s strategy of an America that can do it alone was wrong. Trump ran against allies saying they didn’t do enough, and then pursued a foreign policy which asked the US to deliver more. It didn’t work. So the Biden response is to work with our friends, partners and allies to come up with common responses to actions by China, whether in the military sphere, the economic sphere or on human rights. This is easier said than done, because even if you are going to get people to agree that China needs to be deflected or challenged, you get disagreements over where it should be challenged, how it should be challenged, who should do the challenging and who should foot the bill.
Biden argument isn’t we can contain China, but to persuade the Chinese not to do things to challenge our interests and our values. So the policy is not containment, but challenging Chinese behaviour that violates international norms.
It is certainly the case that the Biden foreign policy is going to look different than Trump’s on a number of issues – think climate change, human rights – but in other areas it is going to be similar. Of course not in tone. We’ve left behind the time when foreign policy is made by tweets at 3 a.m., we’ve left behind the time when senior administration officials disagree publicly over what the policy is, and we’ve left behind the time when the president makes foreign policy on the fly. Now we have a more disciplined, coherent, methodical administration. But the premise remains that China remains the challenge. We need to be very careful here. The Biden argument isn’t we can contain China, but to persuade the Chinese not to do things to challenge our interests and our values. So the policy is not containment, but challenging Chinese behaviour that violates international norms. We see that when we are talking about Taiwan, freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, and China’s human rights abuses. In this context the big question becomes – can the U.S. marshal sufficient support from its traditional friends, allies and partners?
But in these diplomatic efforts it is not just what the US does that matters. What others do also matters, particularly the Chinese. And they are clearly following a strategy of divide and rule that seeks to prevent Biden from building a coalition of states that will pressure China.
‘Reaganism doesn’t fit the situation the US finds itself in today’
Are we on the verge of a paradigm change or rethinking in terms of the role of state/government domestically? A Reagan in reverse? Or a Rooseveltian New Deal 2.0? Trillions will be spent on infrastructure, social benefits, green economy. Not long ago, the national debt used to be understood as the biggest threat to the US national security. Are you worried by the skyrocketing debt levels? Isn’t this spending spree financed through a large deficit a danger for the US strategic solvency?
It’s too early to say whether we will talk about Biden’s presidency as we do about Reagan’s or FDR’s. President Biden certainly hopes to usher in a paradigm shift at home even as he reinvigorates the US approach to the world abroad. Americans have lived for four decades under the echoes of Reaganism and its insistence that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.“ Reagan prefaced that claim, however, with the words “in the present crisis.” Biden and his supporters argue that whatever the wisdom of Reagan’s advice four decades ago, it doesn’t fit the situation the US finds itself in today. Forty years of disdaining government action has left America’s infrastructure in tatters, weakened its social safety net, and accelerated economic inequality. The solution, especially during a pandemic, cannot be turning to the same set of failed policies. Rather, government must act, and it must act boldly.
Of course, big actions come with big price tags. Growing public debt is a concern, even if deficit hawks have been wrong for decades in insisting that fiscal ruin lies just around the corner. And for all the talk about Biden’s spending plans, it is worth remembering that the US national debt jumped by more than a third on Donald Trump’s watch while America’s pressing infrastructure and social needs went unaddressed.
Forty years of disdaining government action has left America’s infrastructure in tatters, weakened its social safety net, and accelerated economic inequality. The solution, especially during a pandemic, cannot be turning to the same set of failed policies. Rather, government must act, and it must act boldly.
Biden’s argument is that the greater risk at the present moment is doing too little than too much. That is a bold bet to make. If it pays off, the US economy will grow faster, making the debt easier to carry, solving a lot of domestic problems along the way, and putting US foreign policy on firmer footing. If the bet fails, then the national debt could pose a future danger. But should the US should ever reach that day of financial reckoning, a succession of presidents and Congresses who ducked America’s fiscal challenges rather than address them would need to share in the blame.
While there is a new awareness on the disruptive rise of China, including in projecting its power and influence in Europe through companies, strategic assets and regional formats, there is no particular hurry in embracing a great power competition mindset in Europe. The recent investment accord with China is a case in point. What are implications for the transatlantic relationship? Do you see any potential strategic convergence between the Europe and the US in counterbalancing Chinese influence and projecting a common euro-Atlantic front?
I always worry about making generalisations about Europe. Europe has a robust set of countries that see some things alike and see some things differently. My sense is that overall, many Europeans are reluctant to get caught up in a great power competition. They believe that if they can minimise their exposure that they will maximise their benefits. But Europeans will find it difficult to avoid choosing sides. At the end of the day there are some issues that they can’t avoid. There are a number of Chinese policies that do concern people in Europe: human rights, Hong Kong, climate change – where the contribution of the Chinese power plants is a huge part of the problem – or regional intimidation. There are also European concerns about China’s predatory economic policies, namely, that China doesn’t play by the rules of the game but rather uses the rules to exploit others and create dependencies.
Many Europeans are reluctant to get caught up in a great power competition. They believe that if they can minimise their exposure that they will maximise their benefits. But Europeans will find it difficult to avoid choosing sides.
Some European leaders recognise that Europe has to confront the reality of China. But will Europe embrace the challenge? This will be influenced by several things: one is how well Europe is doing in tackling its own internal problems.
Another is how well the US plays its hand. The reality is, much as we extoll the transatlantic relationship, it has been buffeted over the years by all kinds of spats–on trade, the Iraq War, and the Vietnam War to name a few. So disagreement among friends is not unknown or uncommon and we should not idealise the past. We never had a moment of pure consensus, there always have been divisions. One of the tests will be how well the Biden administration understands the current state of relations–how adept are they working with their counterparts in Europe? Part of the success there is going to require the US not only to ask others to do something, but for the US to be willing to listen and give something.
Another factor to have in mind over the next 6 to 12 months is what is China going to do? Is Xi Jinping going to moderate his behaviour? One obvious strategy for a great power facing a potential opposing coalition is to create divisions in that coalition – whether by offering investments to Greece or the Czech Republic or negotiating favourable deals with the EU as a whole.
‘The West was built around the notion that we were democracies and that we shared several core beliefs’
Do you see the ‘alliance of democracies’, in itself a very Wilsonian concept, at the core of the Biden vision the way to restore US leadership and defend the liberal international order? Is this a realistic construct? The theoretical democratic solidarity is often trumped by pragmatic commercial interests.
The conversation we are having on Joe Biden’s call for a summit of democracies suggests that democracies working together is a novel idea. I would argue that for the last 75 years, the United States has led an informal league of democracies. The commitment between the United States and Europe, the transatlantic relationship, was never simply about shared interests. It was also about shared values and shared governmental approaches. This is not to say that NATO always had countries that were democracies – the outliers were for a time countries like Greece, Portugal or Spain.
But the general thrust of the West was built around the notion that we were democracies and that we shared several core beliefs: first, allowing people to change who governs them is a fundamental, universal value; two, it is the best way to arrange public affairs; three, we have an obligation to enable others to enjoy the benefits of democratic government. To me this is not something far-fetched, it is something we’ve been doing all along. We’ve been engaged in working with our fellow democracies on a whole range of issues.
The commitment between the United States and Europe, the transatlantic relationship, was never simply about shared interests. It was also about shared values and shared governmental approaches.
There is also this naïve assumption that you can only have a universal organisation like the UN, or a condominium of great powers like the Congress of Vienna, or regional organisations. The reality is that you can have a multiplicity of approaches. There is nothing wrong with having different forums, in part because you are trying to mobilise different people around different issues. I don’t accept this technocratic approach in which we have neat organisational lines and a hierarchy.
I will note that the importance of thinking about ourselves as being democracies is that it reminds us – whatever differences we have over digital taxes, subsidies, and the like – is that we share a fundamental commitment to a way of governing ourselves that we should not lose sight of. There is a tendency in human affairs to let small details take away from understanding what your common humanity is. It is important for us to work together.
Organisations remind people of common interests or create them. When China goes about selling the BRICs it is consciously trying to create a conception that these countries – different in so many ways in terms of economic interests, culture and political systems – share something in common and can thereby forge some common bases of action. That same logic applies even more strongly to building around the democratic core. It is more a philosophy that we need to recognise that as democracies, for all the differences that we might have on some particulars, we share core assumptions about the world and the international order.
‘It is hard to argue that US foreign policy interests would be better served by abandoning a commitment to democracy’
Is it too much to say that there are echoes of a Truman-esque moment in terms of US grand strategy? And I am thinking here to the emphasis of democracy vs. autocracy as an inflection point and as the contest of our times. The interim NSS guidance published in March talks in these broad terms and it suggests a grand strategy that aims at consolidating the democratic/free core. In the end, it was the core message that Biden himself projected during the recent Quad, G7 and NATO summits.
There are echoes of Truman’s foreign policy in Biden’s. Today, as then, the United States finds itself embroiled in a great power competition. Today, as then, that peer competitor insists that its political and economic model is superior to democracy and free-market capitalism. And today, as then, that peer competitor stirs alarm among many of its neighbours with its ambitions.
There are, of course, also important difference between the world today and the world of the late 1940s. The US and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined, whereas the US and Soviet economies were essentially disconnected. Both Beijing and Washington might like to reduce their mutual interdependence, but that will be hard to do. As a result, each capital has important economic incentives to favour cooperation over conflict.
Biden sees his challenge as being less promoting democracy than preserving it. That is why he has repeatedly framed his task as leading “the world in fighting to defend democracy.”
Another important difference is that democracies are far more common today than they were seven decades ago – and they have shown that they can prosper. True, we have witnessed a significant democratic regression over the past dozen years, including in the US, as January 6 attests. So Biden sees his challenge as being less promoting democracy than preserving it. That is why he has repeatedly framed his task as leading “the world in fighting to defend democracy.”
That task is easier to state than to accomplish. An immediate problem is the obvious deficiencies in America’s own democracy. It’s hard to lead a cause when others doubt your virtue. Beyond that, Washington’s ability to influence the success of democracies elsewhere has always been limited, and it has often sacrificed its democracy goals to secure other foreign policy ends. Biden is already confronting these limitations and trade-offs in places like Haiti, Myanmar, and Tunisia. Like many of his predecessors in the Oval Office, he will be criticised for fecklessness and hypocrisy because his rhetoric and actions won’t always align. But it is hard to argue that US foreign policy interests would be better served by abandoning a commitment to democracy.
There is a major debate about Taiwan these days in both US and US alliance system in the Indo-Pacific (especially Japan). We’ve seen even calls of ending US strategic ambiguity vis-à-vis Taiwan. To some extent the whole debate echoes the one that we’ve seen after WW2 about including/excluding South Korea in the perimeter of the American national security. And we know how that particular one ended. What has changed in the US perception and how important is Taiwan for the US security?
For all of the talk on Taiwan, US policy has not changed on a fundamental level and isn’t likely to change any time soon. The core principle, which goes back to 1979, is that the US adheres to a One China policy: the US does not regard Taiwan as an independent country. That is why the US doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Taipei. US relations with the island are governed instead by a piece of Congressional legislation – the ‘Taiwan Relations Act’– which essentially requires the US to support Taiwan and to work to ensure that any reunification with the mainland happens peacefully.
But tensions have risen in recent years because of the confluence of two things.
One is that Taiwan has emerged as a model of democratic evolution: from what had been an authoritarian system to a flourishing vibrant democracy that is not just successful in terms of elections but as a flourishing economy with incredibly competent leadership. Just look at how effective Taiwan – despite its close ties with China – was in preventing the COVID-19 pandemic from upending its society. If the US is at one end of the spectrum with a flawed response to the pandemic, Taiwan gets the gold star as top of the class.
How do you deter Beijing? What are the right steps to prevent an escalation in conflict? What steps should you avoid because they will accelerate a conflict? Sometimes acting can provoke.
The other element has been the increased aggressiveness of China. As Chinese rhetoric has increased and as Chinese actions have become more threatening – crossing the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) and testing the Taiwanese defense perimeter – the question arose over whether the United States is sufficiently signalling its support for Taiwan. The Trump administration moved away from a 30 year policy of keeping official contacts at a low level and Beijing obviously reacted harshly to that. The United States also stepped up arms sales to Taiwan. I anticipate that the Biden administration will continue that policy. That said, the Biden administration, like all the American presidencies, seems set to abide by the One China policy. It will say that reunification should take place on peaceful terms, and in no way should China coerce, intimidate or force Taiwan into a reunification. Of course that raises a major question. Xi Jinping has intimated if not said outright that China may consider non-peaceful means for achieving reunification. What will Washington do if China does move forcefully against Taiwan?One of the challenges for the US government is to figure out how to prevent that situation from happening. How do you deter Beijing? What are the right steps to prevent an escalation in conflict? What steps should you avoid because they will accelerate a conflict? Sometimes acting can provoke. On the other hand, not acting can invite aggression. Trying to find the sweet spot or the Goldilocks spot – something that is not too hot and not too cold, not too big and not too small – is a test of diplomatic skill.
Dr. James M. Lindsay is senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is a leading authority on the American foreign policymaking process and the domestic politics of American foreign policy.