Say No, Joe
On U.S. foreign policy, there’s no going back to the status quo.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
As U.S. President-elect Joe Biden assembles a foreign-policy team of experts drawn from previous Democratic administrations—including former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken—some of its members may be tempted to turn back the clock and return the United States to its course of four years ago, before Donald Trump ever set foot in the Oval Office. It is an appealing fantasy, for sure—and one to which Biden gestured in his campaign pledge to “restore” U.S. global leadership from its alleged Trumpian aberration.
During his campaign, however, Biden struck different notes as well, indicating a desire not just to restore but also to change. Biden promised to end the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East launched and sustained by Trump’s predecessors. He vowed to terminate U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and stand against Saudi Arabia’s broader misdeeds. And he repeatedly emphasized that he had opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan in the hopes of building up the Afghan state under the Obama administration, proposing instead a narrower approach of targeting terrorists.
In taking these positions, Biden practiced good politics. He recognized the unpopularity of military entanglements and made it difficult for Trump to cast him as a warmonger. Now, Biden and his team have the opportunity to implement good policy as well by actually restraining U.S. military power from the White House.
The Biden administration can draw on familiar insights to do so. Four years ago, as he left office, President Barack Obama criticized what he called “the Washington playbook” for reflexively prescribing “militarized responses” to world events. Obama was right then and is only more so today, after four years of President Trump—who has bragged about U.S. weaponry and casually eaten chocolate cake while launching missile strikes. Overextended abroad, the United States has urgent needs at home, starting with recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. But the old playbook will invariably reappear, given its popularity among foreign-policy hands and, more fundamentally, the temptation U.S. power creates to meddle and boss others around. When this happens, the Biden administration will need to be ready to say no—no to unnecessary wars and no to further U.S. military overstretch. In five areas in particular, the administration ought to vow restraint from the get-go.
First, the Biden administration should not pursue global military dominance. The unipolar moment of the 1990s turned out to be just that—a moment that has long passed. In the meantime, countries like China have grown their economies and attained military capabilities to defend their borders and surroundings. The United States, for its part, has found that chasing global dominance brings endless wars and enormous defense costs. Military spending absorbs over half of the federal government’s entire discretionary budget, meaning that more money is spent on the Pentagon than on education, infrastructure, the environment, scientific research, diplomacy, and foreign aid combined. Pursuing dominance served the American public poorly even when no major competitor existed. It carries even bigger risks now.
Instead of pursuing dominance everywhere, Biden must work alongside U.S. allies to create a stable balance of power. With its nuclear deterrents, strong defenses, and geographical separation from many threats, the United States will be remarkably secure even if it opts not to police the world. Accepting multipolarity hardly means giving up on the exercise of military power; it means limiting power to that which has strategic purpose so as to obtain security at the least cost to Americans. Where U.S. adversaries improve their capabilities, the Biden administration should ask U.S. allies to similarly scale up—rather than put the United States on the front line of every potential conflict.
Second, the Biden administration must deliver on its promise to end what are often referred to as the United States’ “forever wars.” This could prove difficult: The last two presidents opposed “endless wars” rhetorically while extending them all the same. To avoid the same fate, Biden should take decisive action. He should create a robust timeline that ensures that the United States’ ground troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia come home by the end of his first term. He should end the “war on terror” as a rhetorical and policy framework, and subject drone strikes to strict scrutiny so that they become far rarer.
Biden has promised to bring “the vast majority of our troops home” from Afghanistan and the Middle East, a stance that suggests he might leave behind contingents to combat terrorists. That would be a mistake. In Afghanistan, the United States long ago achieved its key post-9/11 counterterrorism aims of decimating al Qaeda and punishing the Taliban. Ending “forever wars” means that all U.S. forces should come home, even if peace talks among the Afghan parties prove unsuccessful. The United States should then assess the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan just as it does elsewhere, freed from the sunk-cost logic of overemphasizing Afghanistan in U.S. policymaking simply because the United States has already expended so much effort there. If there are indeed terrorists who threaten the United States, they can be attacked by local forces or long-range U.S. striking power, if necessary.
U.S. troops should likewise depart from Iraq and Syria. They achieved their mission of destroying the Islamic State, and local forces can now handle its remnants. If the United States deploys combat troops preventatively—for the purpose of keeping terrorists from resurging— the country’s wars will never end; it can never be verified with 100 percent certainty that terrorists won’t come back in the future. Meanwhile, such missions place U.S. troops in peril, canceling out any speculative American lives saved through their deployment.
Third, the U.S. military cannot police the Middle East, and Biden should not ask it to try. In fact, once the United States’ current wars are brought to a close, U.S. interests in the region will scarcely warrant any troop presence at all besides what is needed to protect naval and perhaps intelligence-gathering facilities. Because the Middle East is experiencing a competition for influence among multiple midsized powers—Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel—no one state credibly threatens to dominate the region and its oil supply. The United States will obtain more security by doing less.
Biden has already committed himself to taking steps to disentangle the United States from Middle Eastern politics. He wants to end the failed “maximum pressure” campaign toward Iran and resurrect the Iran nuclear deal. He has also called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” suggesting he will downgrade the United States’ partnership with the kingdom. The Biden administration should build on these policies to systematically reduce America’s overidentification with one-half of the region and its excessive enmity with the other. Through evenhanded diplomacy—and avoiding any large U.S. troop presence—Biden can fulfill Obama’s goal of encouraging Middle Eastern powers to “share the neighborhood.”
Fourth, Biden must resist NATO expansion. For all his rebukes of European allies, Trump only increased U.S. security commitments to the continent. On his watch, the United States sent lethal weapons to Ukraine, intensified revolving military deployments in the Baltic States, and welcomed Montenegro and North Macedonia into NATO. That trend needs to stop, not least because the accession of the next candidates in line for NATO—Ukraine and Georgia—could provoke a dangerous response from Russia. The Biden administration should welcome initiatives from France and other European states to assume the primary responsibility for dealing with security challenges in their own region. By doing so, the United States would not only cut down on costs but also diminish the risk of being pulled into a World War III.
Finally, the next administration must temper U.S. militarism toward China. In this year’s Democratic platform, the party sensibly rejected a “cold war” posture toward Beijing. Despite the country’s deepening repression and belligerence, China remains an essential U.S. partner in combating pandemic disease and climate change—far more direct threats to the American people than the specter of an armed attack. The Biden administration should therefore preserve room for dialogue and cooperation with Beijing and keep military competition from defining the bilateral relationship.
For now, the People’s Liberation Army has focused its capabilities on winning local disputes around China’s coasts. U.S. allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, have the resources to defend themselves and do not wish to see their region descend into a Sino-U.S. standoff. In particular, the Biden administration should give a resounding no to growing calls to break from the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” by committing to wage war against China on behalf of Taiwan. It would be far better to help Taiwan bolster its own defenses and pursue a diplomatic course that keeps China at bay through both deterrence and reassurance.
By saying no to reckless interventions and commitments, the Biden administration would only be rejecting the false comforts of post-Cold War enthusiasms. For three decades, the United States’ pursuit of armed dominance produced all the pathologies that Trump took further—indefensible wars, strategic overstretch, runaway spending, and a culture fearful of endless threat. Trump unmasked these realities more than he created them. Biden should chart his own course.
Benjamin H. Friedman is policy director at Defense Priorities. Twitter: @BH_Friedman