15 September 2020

Biden’s foreign policy fairy tale threatens a strategic train wreck

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It is mid-September, under two months until the presidential election, and it’s finally time to start taking the polls seriously. And, at present, despite some slippage, you would rather be Joe Biden than Donald Trump.

The RealClearPolitics aggregate of polling has Biden up 51% to 43% nationally, and (more importantly) 49% to 45% in the battleground states, tighter but just outside the margin of error. While the race is far from over, if it were held today Biden would likely find himself the 46th President of the United States.

In the Democratic Wilsonian fairy tale, having vanquished Trump the wicked king, our hero would then proceed to put everything foreign and domestic back in order, as the true heir to the sainted Barack Obama. Having dealt with Trump the usurper, a rightful restoration would becalm a fraught America, as well as leavening tensions in the wider world.

While this story – like the best of the genre – is beguiling, it is also far from real. For, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe tragically pointed out, ‘you can never go home again’.

The world has definitively moved on from the Obama years, as the brief moment of American unipolar dominance has given way to the structural bipolar competition between rising superpower China and the established American hegemon. More interestingly, this new bipolar global structure is fundamentally different from the old bipolar Cold War world, then dominated by the US and the Soviet Union.

Then the two superpowers towered above their allies in a ‘tight bipolar’ age, where the dominant two largely called the geostrategic shots for their respective alliances of Nato and the Warsaw Pact. Even globally, much of the world divided simply between pro-Soviet and pro-American allies. In such a power structure, ‘managing alliances’ largely came down to organizing relative pliant friendly nations to follow the superpowers’ lead. This is the world in which Joe Biden has comfortably spent much of his life, and to which he would like us to return.

But, as Wolfe pointed out, we can never go home again to such a place, as it simply no longer exists. Today’s new era is instead characterised by ‘loose bipolarity’, wherein the great powers just below the US and China — Russia, India, Japan, the Anglosphere countries, and Germany/the EU — possess the kind of room for strategic manoeuvre that the Cold War allies of our bygone age could only dream about. Alliance management is no longer primarily a logistical challenge, of gathering pliant clients to serve as a multiplier for superpower gambits; instead these great powers are drifting, and have truly independent foreign policies of their own.

In opting, as he seems highly inclined to do, for an American restoration, Biden’s putative foreign policy amounts to making the right alliance management moves (a concept disastrously ignored by Trump) in the wrong era. Well-intentioned as he surely is, ironically it is Biden and not Trump who will perpetuate a full-on transatlantic crisis, and unwittingly force the sclerotic American foreign policy establishment to at last realise that the world has definitively changed.

Discovering German neutralism 

Like President Obama before him, Donald Trump simply is not very interested in either Europe or the EU. The same cannot be said of Joe Biden, who has dutifully (and rather uniquely) been toiling in the vineyards of transatlantic conferences for years. Indeed, I personally have met the former Vice President only twice, both times at an Aspen Italy seminar in Rome, where he was the only high Democratic official in attendance.

The Biden fairy tale has it that the obvious transatlantic drift of the past decade is primarily down to Trump’s general odiousness, that his rude contempt for Europe – with its overwhelmingly Wilsonian values and viewpoints – will be quickly forgotten once a committed transatlantic Wilsonian returns to the White House. This convenient excuse for transatlantic tensions is about to be exposed for the work of fiction that it is.

For in this new era of loose bipolarity, Germany, the dominant force in the EU, has moved – based on its own specific interests – to a far more neutral stance than the incoming Biden administration understands. No amount of soothing words, innate decency and even largely shared values will obscure the reality that Germany is no longer an ‘ally’ in the old sense of the term.

The number of fundamental policy disagreements between Washington and Berlin is practically limitless. Germany is not prepared, due to its habit of free-riding off of American defence spending and strong domestic public opinion pressure, to countenance serious contributions to the common Nato defence. In 2019, German defence spending amounted to a laughable 1.36% of GDP. To put it mildly, alliance solidarity this is not. 

In terms of macroeconomics, Germany is not about to change its own course, based on its specific interests. At a time when the US is increasingly calling on its allies to diversify their supply chains to hedge against a rising China, Germany – the world’s global trade champion – has no intention of ending the party, whatever Washington desires. For similar reasons, the Merkel government has been deaf to both US and southern European pleas to curb its immense current accounts surplus, making a transatlantic trade war far more likely. 

Even over the specific case of Russia’s general lawlessness, Germany is stubbornly intent on going its own way. Even faced with clear evidence of the Kremlin poisoning Alexei Navalny, Angela Merkel refuses to even consider halting the Nordtream 2 pipeline – a project which could double the amount of Russian gas entering Europe. We are in the absurd position that while America defends Germany from the Russian military threat, Germany carries on doing big business with the supposed common enemy.

When is an ally no longer an ally? When they no longer agree about Russia, China, defence spending, trade policy or macroeconomic policy. These seismic and structural shifts have been going on for years, even as the drift has been simplistically and erroneously laid at Trump’s doorstep. So, while Trump has certainly not covered himself in glory when it comes to alliance management, he surely is not the central problem.

In return for rhetorically supporting Europe and making common cause over values, unlike his two immediate predecessors, Biden will expect a strategic dividend from policy changes such as rejoining the Paris climate change agreement.

Instead, he will find a continent that is steeped in ambivalence towards America’s main strategic adversary: Germany refuses to rule out Huawei as its primary 5G carrier; Macron tries to chart an independent Gaullist path for Europe between the two superpowers; Italy has signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative and finds itself ever more enmeshed into Beijing’s orbit.

This will be the supreme moment when the scales at last fall from the American foreign policy establishment’s eyes, the fairy tale gone, and the true nature of alliance drift, based on fundamentally different interests, apparent for all to see. 

Ignoring the Anglosphere 

Perhaps worst of all, Biden’s out-of-date fairy tale will continue to obscure a far more favourable alliance reality that has emerged in the past few years, even as European neutralism has grown more pronounced: the rise of the Anglosphere. 

It is striking that even as Europe has retreated to neutralism towards China, much of the English-speaking world – Canada, Australia, the UK, New Zealand, and India – has grown ever more hawkish, in tandem with America.

The US, Canada, Australia, and (better late than never) the UK have decided to ban Huawei from an enduring role in their 5G networks. Australia, India, and the US are all members of The Quadrilateral Initiative, along with great power Japan, the nascent, emerging strategic locus in Asia for hedging against Chinese expansionism. At the same time, the world’s pre-eminent intelligence-sharing organisation, ‘The Five Eyes,’ composed of the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, has actively focused on monitoring China’s increasing expansionism. 

This is a tightly-bound common alliance in all but name, but one that traditionally Biden and his Wilsonian adherents have undermined, neglected and under-valued. Perhaps the worst thing about Biden continuing with the transatlantic fairy tale is the neglect of the vibrant new alliance just under his nose, one fit for purpose in our new era. Fairy tales can have a way of becoming nightmares. It is past time for the American foreign policy establishment to fundamentally update its thinking for our new era. 

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is Chairman of the global political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and author of 'To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.