Delusions of Dominance: Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t TryRoundup
tags: foreign policy, militarism
STEPHEN WERTHEIM is Deputy Director of Research and Policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a Research Scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Four years ago, as Joe Biden prepared to leave the vice-presidency, he told the World Economic Forum that the United States would continue to lead the “liberal international order” and “fulfill our historic responsibility as the indispensable nation.” The years that followed were not kind to Biden’s assurances. President Donald Trump rejected a world-ordering role for the United States, unleashing “America first” nationalism instead. More important, perhaps, Trump exposed the shallow domestic political support for the high-minded abstractions for which foreign policy elites ask soldiers to fight and citizens to pay. By the time of his presidential campaign in 2020, Biden no longer spoke much about the liberal international order or American indispensability. He emphasized healing the country’s domestic wounds and influencing others “not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
But Biden will need to be much bolder if his presidency is to succeed. He is inheriting a long-standing U.S. grand strategy that is systemically broken and that no tonal adjustment or policy nuance can fix. For three decades, successive presidents—Trump included—continually expanded U.S. wars, forward deployments, and defense commitments in the pursuit of armed dominance across the globe. The price of primacy, as I wrote in these pages last year (“The Price of Primacy,” March/April 2020), has been severe. By seeking global dominance rather than just its own defense, the United States has acquired a world of antagonists. These antagonists have in turn further increased the costs and dangers of dominance. As a result, U.S. foreign policy has failed in its most essential purpose: it has made the American people less safe where they live.
The Biden administration enters office intending to restore American primacy, not preside over its destruction. Yet realities will intrude. As Biden addresses urgent priorities in his early days—repairing democracy at home, ending a mass-killing pandemic, averting climate chaos, rescuing U.S. diplomacy—he will find, if he takes a hard look, that the burdens of primacy contradict his own goals at every turn.
Biden has immediate decisions to make that will either set him on a constructive course or ensnare him in the same way, over the very same issues, as his predecessors. He has pledged to bring the United States’ “forever wars” to an end and enhance diplomacy in the greater Middle East. In his first hundred days, he will have two time-limited opportunities to do so. First, he can revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reverse the pressure toward war ahead of Iran’s presidential elections in June. Second, he can abide by the Doha Agreement with the Taliban and withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May. On both, he will have to go big or see his efforts fail later.
Getting back into the nuclear deal will not be easy after the Trump administration senselessly punished Iran for holding up its end of the bargain. But Biden will require even more discipline and creativity in order to make the strategic changes needed for the deal to endure. The Obama administration suffered from excessive modesty when it concluded the agreement in 2015. To domestic audiences, it maintained that Iran remained a major threat to the United States. In the Middle East, it compensated Iran’s foes with aid, arms sales, and support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. These allowances made sense if the goal was to maintain U.S. military dominance of the Middle East. But they also fueled the forces that led the United States to leave the nuclear deal under Trump.
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