It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Can Biden Sell His Domestic Agenda as a Win Against China?

From climate change policy to COVID-19 relief, Biden’s domestic and foreign-policy goals are coming under fire. 

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses Congress.
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris behind him in Washington, on April 28. Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Emma Ashford: Hello, Matt! How’s it going? I’m just finishing up a nice burger for lunch and catching up on all the latest climate summit news.

Matthew Kroenig: Ha. So, you are eating red meat? I heard U.S. President Joe Biden was going to ban that as part of his climate plan.

EA: Might as well enjoy it while I can, right? But it was rather funny that the two biggest news stories to emerge from this week’s international climate summit were both largely manufactured controversies: whether Biden wore a mask while on camera unnecessarily and whether his climate plan would require Americans to eat only four pounds of red meat a month. I’m not sure whether that says more about the news media or about the lack of any real news emerging from the summit.

Emma Ashford: Hello, Matt! How’s it going? I’m just finishing up a nice burger for lunch and catching up on all the latest climate summit news.

Matthew Kroenig: Ha. So, you are eating red meat? I heard U.S. President Joe Biden was going to ban that as part of his climate plan.

EA: Might as well enjoy it while I can, right? But it was rather funny that the two biggest news stories to emerge from this week’s international climate summit were both largely manufactured controversies: whether Biden wore a mask while on camera unnecessarily and whether his climate plan would require Americans to eat only four pounds of red meat a month. I’m not sure whether that says more about the news media or about the lack of any real news emerging from the summit.

MK: Manufactured? Thank goodness. I think I’d rather shut off the power to my home than forgo rib-eye steaks.

EA: I wouldn’t worry too much. You never really hear about climate champions in Germany or the United Kingdom, for example, giving up sausages.

MK: You are right. The summit didn’t lead to any major diplomatic breakthroughs, but it did reveal some of the underlying international political issues in addressing climate change.

I think human-made climate change is a problem (even if sometimes exaggerated), but I am skeptical the plans announced this week will do much to address it.

EA: For once, I completely agree. Climate change is a classic collective action problem. For every country that’s willing to make some changes in energy consumption, there are others that can’t or won’t alter their behavior. And it’s different in every country: The United States has a serious problem with methane from beef farming and Brazil has issues with deforestation while India faces the dual problems of growing industrial emissions and pollution from rural areas where wood burning stoves are still common for cooking and heating. That’s why the Paris Agreement was voluntary, not compulsory.

And even though the beef issue was mostly a fake controversy, there is a grain of truth to it: Meeting the carbon reductions that scientists say are necessary to prevent substantial global warming will require seriously difficult policy choices. For some countries, it might be changes in diet; for others, it might be forgoing economic development and industrialization. And for all the bold statements from leaders this week, I just don’t see enough countries being willing to make those hard choices.

China is good at green propaganda, but it emits almost double the amount of carbon dioxide as the United States, and it has plans to build hundreds of new coal-fired power plants around the world.

MK: As usual, the real problem here is China. I ask my students who are the leaders on combating climate change, and they often say Europe and China. They condemn the United States for pulling out of the Paris Agreement, but the data tell a different story. EU and U.S. carbon emissions continue to drop (even while the United States was outside of the Paris accord largely due to the shale gas revolution), while China’s emissions soar. China is good at green propaganda, but it emits almost double the amount of carbon dioxide as the United States, and it has plans to build hundreds of new coal-fired power plants around the world.

EA: It’s more complicated than that. China is certainly a big offender. But so are many other states, including U.S. allies and partners. India announced last week that it will build a number of new coal-fired plants. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal; the Australian prime minister wasn’t allowed to speak at this climate summit because the country refuses to set climate targets. And when it comes to states like Brazil and India, there’s also a somewhat legitimate argument that developing countries today shouldn’t be forced to constrain their growth when rich Western countries weren’t in earlier decades.

MK: You are right that it is not only China, but that country now accounts for 28 percent of global emissions, so we can’t solve this problem without China’s help. And Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promises for China to be carbon neutral by 2060 provide little solace. My wife would not be pleased if I vowed to help out more around the house within several decades. To be sure, China is a leading investor in green technologies, but this is because it wants to dominate all 21st century technologies—and it is doing it with solar panels made with slave labor.

People talk about climate change as an area for U.S.-China cooperation, but it is simply another zone of competition. Making progress on this issue will require coercing Beijing to stop building coal-fired power plants.

EA: Well, as we’ve seen repeatedly in other countries, the best way to do that is to increase access to greener fuel sources like natural gas or renewables. And again, it’s a global problem; we can’t just focus on China and pretend it’s all its fault. Look at the Germans, for example, who shut down a bunch of perfectly functional nuclear power plants for domestic political reasons.

For me, the bottom line is that I see the climate problem as politically insoluble. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked leaders to come to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November with bold ideas, but it’s hard to see that happening. Given the choice, I’d probably focus government attention less on these big international gestures and more on funding mitigation technologies like carbon capture—things that don’t need impossible political breakthroughs.

MK: I agree that major progress will be hard. Perhaps we are both too old? I lectured on this issue at Georgetown University this week, and my students see this almost as a religious issue; many from their generation believe we must take drastic unilateral action regardless of what China or any other country does.

EA: We’re just not woke enough, Matt.

MK: Turning from one hot-button issue to another, we got a new genocide designation out of Washington this week, but this one was for an atrocity that occurred more than a century ago. What do you make of the Biden administration’s designation of an Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottomans during World War I?

EA: I think it hardly matters as a policy choice, except for how revealing it is. I mean, everyone basically acknowledges that the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire was a genocide (or some kind of crime against humanity). But even though a lot of presidential candidates have promised to recognize it formally as such, none did until this week. It says a lot about Turkey’s falling political capital in Washington that the Biden team decided to do this.

Do you approve?

MK: I think the designation is accurate. I believe in democracy and human rights and, by any commonsense interpretation, the Ottomans committed genocide against the Armenians.

But this was a policy decision, and I wonder about the wisdom and the timing of that decision. U.S.-Turkey relations are already fraught. Even though the strained relations are mostly Ankara’s fault, I think Washington should prioritize trying to improve relations with a NATO ally. I don’t see what sticking a finger in its eye over an event that happened a century ago helps Washington accomplish at this moment.

EA: See, people accuse realists of not caring about human rights. And I’d be the first to argue that we shouldn’t have recognized the genocide if it really hurt U.S. interests. But the U.S. relationship with Turkey is already so bad; there’s no good reason not to do it. Nor is there a particularly good reason to try and improve relations with Turkey. This isn’t 1950, and Ankara has acted against U.S. interests as often as it has acted in support of them in recent years.

MK: Well, I’d prefer to keep our friends as friends. Speaking of friends, India is struggling with a massive surge in COVID-19 cases. After dithering for days, the United States has agreed to provide aid, but some think it was too little too late. Will India recover from this crisis, and has U.S. vaccine diplomacy taken a hit?

The fact the Biden team spent days on the fence before deciding to send aid to India didn’t look good to anyone.

EA: It’s been a while since we covered vaccine diplomacy. And I think the Biden team is really getting this wrong at the moment. Certainly, I approve of prioritizing U.S. vaccinations over exports. But there are stockpiles of vaccines from AstraZeneca that haven’t been approved for use in the United States. The White House announced this week that it’s sending some of that stockpile, but there seems to be a lot of internal pressure to stockpile at home just in case of future disruptions. Biden should instead be shipping those abroad now.

And there are lots of other ways the United States could help India. As cases—and particularly severe cases—fall here at home, Washington can lend other countries some of the necessary medical equipment to fight their COVID-19 surges. The fact the Biden team spent days on the fence before deciding to send aid to India didn’t look good to anyone.

MK: I agree. The U.S. government received low marks for its initial handling of COVID-19, but I was confident it would turn things around. Now, the United States is among the world’s leaders in vaccinating its population at a time when Chinese scientists are admitting to the low efficacy rates of their vaccine and Brazil is rejecting the Russian vaccine.

This is an opportunity for the United States to show global leadership in addressing the pandemic globally, and India is among the United States’ most important partners for dealing with China’s rise. The slow response was disappointing, but I am glad that the Biden administration has gotten in gear and agreed to help New Delhi.

EA: It’s a harbinger of things to come though. Part of what complicated this response was legal requirements surrounding the Defense Production Act, which restricted the export of vaccine components abroad.

The United States (and the United Kingdom) are massively ahead of the curve in terms of COVID-19 vaccinations, but the rest of the world has barely even started. If Biden and Johnson want to win global goodwill, then we need a coherent plan to facilitate global vaccine access, including access to the components needed to make those vaccines, access to the necessary patents, and adequate supplies. The Biden team has done an amazing job ramping up vaccination at home in its first 100 days; it needs to turn that attention to the rest of the world now.

It’s not just the right thing to do. I don’t particularly want to wake up in December to discover some new, vaccine-resistant variant of COVID-19 has developed overseas and made it back to the United States.The Biden team has done an amazing job ramping up vaccination at home in its first 100 days; it needs to turn that attention to the rest of the world now.

MK: Exactly. It is enlightened self-interest. It is a globalized world, and a continuation of the pandemic anywhere can cause problems for the United States. We want to go back to a world with open trade and travel, and it is only by combating the disease everywhere that we can make that possible.

Perhaps we should finish with Biden’s big speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening? It was mostly about domestic priorities, but there are international implications. Most notably, he announced a major new legislative initiative to provide expanded government-provided education, child care, and paid leave. What is your take?

EA: Sounds nice, but it’s not really a foreign-policy priority, is it? This is one complaint I have about the Biden administration’s approach to national security: Domestic politics is important, but it often seems like the White House is just trying to use foreign policy as a justification for the domestic agenda. A lot of the speech was centered around domestic infrastructure, building human capital, and economic initiatives. But it was framed in terms of China. As Biden put it, “We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.”

MK: Yes and no. The United States needs to be strong at home if it is going to be strong abroad, and there is a useful government role in providing infrastructure and education. There is also fairly solid bipartisan support for some of these measures, such as spending on real infrastructure like roads and bridges.

The United States needs to be strong at home if it is going to be strong abroad, and there is a useful government role in providing infrastructure and education.

I worry, however, that the Biden administration is taking it too far. This is already coming on top of a massive COVID-19 relief bill, a massive infrastructure bill that redefines many long-held Democratic priorities as infrastructure, and now this. Republicans are opposed to the specifics because they are expensive and go beyond their stated objectives. (Senior care may be valuable, but it is not infrastructure.)

I would prefer a more modest approach that can win bipartisan support; domestic unity can also be a source of strength on the world stage.

EA: That said, Biden actually talked a lot more about foreign policy than I would have expected. Usually, these speeches have a few throwaway lines about America and freedom, but in addition to the China angle, Biden also talked a little about the United States’ standing in the world, the risks of decline, the importance of arms control, the necessity of ending the War in Afghanistan, and the importance of cooperating even with unpleasant states like Russia, Iran, or North Korea when it’s in its interests.

There was a lot to like in the speech. I just wish he’d spent less time justifying every domestic policy initiative as necessary for great-power competition. There are plenty of good domestic rationales that would be better.

MK: Biden did discuss the role of democracy versus autocracy in great-power competition with China and expressed his confidence in the system’s ability to compete. I was pleased to see this passage because this is a central cleavage in today’s global order (and because it was also the central argument in my latest book).

EA: Thank goodness we finally found something to disagree on! I was worried we’d have to rename the column “It’s Agreeable.”

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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