While there is a long-shot hope that Donald Trump will remain president, things are not looking good. We have to consider, while remaining hopeful, what a Biden presidency will look like.
On issues of war and peace, we have a preview from his cabinet picks.
The Return of the Technocrats
The most prominent name to date is Tony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state. Undoubtedly qualified in the sense that he has experience in prior administrations and high-status educational credentials—a bachelor’s from Harvard and a Columbia law degree—he also has the uniquely Washington qualification of being frequently wrong and completely undaunted by his record of failure.
Blinken had a hand in the “humanitarian interventions” of Obama’s second term. He helped craft the disastrous Syria policy, which created a refugee crisis and permitted the rise of ISIS. He also supported military intervention in Libya, which led to anarchy, a refugee crisis, and the death of an ambassador. While working as a Senate staffer, he supported the invasion of Iraq. In short, he has fully embraced the hubris of regime change wars against countries that did not attack us, do not threaten us, and, in the cases of Syria and Libya, were bulwarks against Islamic fundamentalism.
Michèle Flournoy reportedly is on the short list for secretary of defense. Like Blinken, she is known for advocating the expansive use of American power and was involved in both the Clinton and Obama Administrations. She is notable for her close ties to defense contractors, supporting the Afghanistan surge in Obama’s first term, and would, if confirmed, be the first female secretary of defense. Of course, she is also a graduate of Harvard.
These choices remind us that Biden is a figurehead for the establishment and its army of technocrat functionaries. Because he is pliable and dependent, he became the rallying point for a coalition of government, business, and media insiders deeply hostile to Trump. This hostility arose because Trump demanded the unelected bureaucracy be accountable to the elected branches of government and to the American people. Their hostility began in unprecedented spying against Trump by rogue intelligence agencies and extended to a pretextual impeachment during an election year.
The First Peace Candidate Since Eisenhower
One of Trump’s more profound breaks with the establishment was his approach to foreign policy. He did not pursue grand plans, was skeptical of multilateralism, and mostly avoided pressure to continue fruitless wars in the Middle East. He was critical of the vague, globalist priorities that emanated from his predecessors, whether named Bush, Obama, or Clinton.
All three accepted America’s role as guarantor of world order. This flowed from the pretense that we live in a “unipolar era,” where America alone could shape events. This policy supposedly upheld the “rules-based, international order” that prevailed since 1945.
Of course, that world wasn’t terribly orderly, but, for a time, world wars did not happen because of the fortuitous balance between two large nuclear powers. After the Soviet Union collapsed, America held a preeminent position. But, instead of a “peace dividend” and a reduction of overseas commitments, the interventionists pursued vague policies of expanding markets, “humanitarian” regime change wars, and, after the September 11 attacks, tried to transform the Middle East.
This approach remains popular among the “smart set,” despite its meager results. In a recent Foreign Policy editorial, a collection of authors, including retired Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, argued that a new Biden Administration should do away with references to “America First” in national strategy documents. The piece is eye-opening, as it exposes the willful blindness stemming from the authors’ neoliberalism. For all the magical thinking about alliances, process, and the need for stability, missing is any realistic attempt to define national interests clearly and to set priorities, which is the essence of an authentic grand strategy.
What happens in Afghanistan or the South China Sea is more meaningful to the authors than what happens on our Southern border or, for that matter, in our nation’s capital. There is no acknowledgment that some things are less important than others, or that America may suffer from trying to do too much in too many places.
The authors give alliances top billing because they function to create “defense in depth,” as if America were at risk of being overrun by the Golden Horde. More important, the talk of “defense” ignores that we are not really defending ourselves when we impose our will on some far-flung part of the globe like Somalia, Syria, or the Caucasus. As with the Cold War’s fanciful ideas of a conventional war in Europe, the neoliberals selectively forget America’s nuclear arsenal, which nearly completely guarantees our sovereignty and territorial integrity, i.e., our defense.
The authors write:
The United States today is undermining the foundations of an international order manifestly advantageous to U.S. interests, reflecting a basic ignorance of the extent to which both robust alliances and international institutions provide vital strategic depth. In practice, “America First” meant “America alone.”
This argument does not stand up to scrutiny. In practice, alliances are temporary and ad hoc, rooted in common interests. NATO provided inconsistent support for our conflict in Afghanistan long before Trump came on the scene. This is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, remember, France, Spain, and Italy denied U.S. overflight rights to attack Libya for its support of terrorism. Similarly, some NATO members—France, in particular—stayed away from the 2003 Iraq campaign.
Every nation in NATO and any other alliance judges its own interests differently. We cannot count on them across-the-board, and, realistically, they probably cannot count on us. Would Americans really be willing to lose tens of thousands of its servicemen over Taiwan’s territorial integrity? Or to change Iran’s regime in a redux of the Iraq campaign? Would Americans go to war over Estonia or Turkey?
None of these places have any significant effect on our national destiny, other than in the neoliberals’ bloated conception of American interests. They define the whole globe as our business, whose “rules-based order” requires the United States to maintain “unipolar” supremacy forever.
Is American Empire Compatible With American Democracy?
While attacked nonstop as irresponsible, reckless, and defying norms, President Trump’s “America First” instincts expressed the American people’s abiding views. Even at the height of the Cold War, Americans would not stand for an extended and inconclusive war in Vietnam, just as they later rejected a never-ending war in Iraq. Americans are as quick to support as to reject foreign engagements, but they generally do not stand for long-term campaigns in the service of abstract notions like “stability” and “order.”
Thus, the most critical obstacle to the foreign policy agenda of Blanken, Flournoy, and Mattis is the American people, who simply do not want to be the world’s policeman. They understand, correctly, that the benefits of assuming this role have been inchoate and overstated, while the costs and risks are enormous.
A strategy built on defying the will of the American people is neither sensible nor sustainable. In this particular, Trump has not gotten sufficient credit for his own resistance to the deep state, which pulled out all the stops—even impeachment—when he vindicated his voters and refused to escalate in Syria and Afghanistan.
We cannot expect such independence from a President Biden. In addition to his physical weakness, he has the manifest moral weakness necessary to be the establishment’s man: cupidity, agreeableness, and dishonesty.
As revealed by his unattended campaign events, his real constituency is not the American people, but the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, the media, and the donor class. Those groups, unlike the American people, do not bear the cost, nor share the skepticism, of a government run amuck.
The establishment’s hostility to public opinion when it runs counter to the whims of its technocrats is an additional basis for skepticism regarding the claimed outcome of the recent election. For the establishment, democracy is a symbolic, feel-good term—a short-hand phrase denoting liberal values ranging from gay rights to free trade. Popular control of the government is secondary to this set of substantive policies. Thus, the establishment gladly ignores elections so these policies come to fruition, whether in Ukraine or in Utah, all the while claiming to be the champions of democracy.
This is why they resisted Trump, cast a cloud over his 2016 victory with nonsensical allegations of Russian collusion, and felt free to pursue an impeachment on the word of an angry lieutenant colonel and his “interagency” comrades.
For them, “democracy” is not about the will of the people and democratic accountability of elected officials. Rather, it is about a government that does what they want, and ruling class preferences dressed up as the fruits of science, reason, human rights, and other glorified propaganda.