“There will be no doubt about the determination of the United States to defend our democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests.”
In his Washington post trial on June 5, US President Joe Biden outlined what could become a doctrine for his foreign policy: the United States will rally the democracies of the world to achieve results for their people and the world – and thus better fight against the authoritarians of the world. world, starting with China and Russia.
If he thinks so, that’s a big deal. Biden not only breaks with the Trump administration’s framework of great power rivalry, but also with Barack Obama’s reservation of putting the United States behind democracy as a core value. Biden appears to want to reshape for today’s challenges a grand American strategy that began with Teddy Roosevelt, found expression in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points of 1918, and was implemented by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman after the Second World War. It is a strategy rooted in confidence that an international rules-based system that promotes freedom will be good for the United States and the world; that American interests will advance with its values; that the prosperity of the United States depends on the prosperity of others; and, therefore, that the support and direction of the United States for such a world – the “free world” as we used to say – is not charity but a wise self-interest.
A pro-democracy strategy represents an old American faith in progress. It represents the feeling that the world is not zero-sum, where powers are pitted against each other over who gets what from a limited pot and the US only wins if the others lose. It represents the self-confidence that the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity of Americans – Yankee ingenuity – gives the United States a natural advantage in an open, rules-based world. It represents a departure from what was once the norm in international relations and has made a comeback under Donald Trump – competing empires and spheres of influence that leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to aspire to – in favor of ‘a broader vision that seeks an undivided. world.
It is a compelling vision. But achieving it will be difficult. As the United States has discovered time and time again, big projects tend to fall apart when they encounter a messy reality. Biden will be no exception. No strategy guarantees protection against insanity in its implementation. Truman’s containment strategy was aimed at defending freedom against Stalinist aggression and terror. In the end, it worked. But for many years it was used to justify a whole series of blunders and hypocrisy, including the Vietnam War.
We can, in fact, already see this conflict between politics and reality. Biden’s editorial promises resistance to Putin’s aggression, including against Ukraine. But the Biden administration has struggled to find a way to tackle Putin’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project between Russia and Germany which, like Putin just threatened, will give him the option of cutting off Ukraine’s gas supply unless he shows greater deference to him. The Biden administration has announced that it is seeking greater predictability and stability in relations with Russia. But in recent weeks, Russian-based hackers have attacked US infrastructure (the critic Colonial Pipeline and the JBS Meat Packaging Plant) and the Russian intelligence services allegedly hacked a USAID account to carry out a a phishing attack; and it’s after the Biden administration imposed sanctions following the Russian secret service’s hack of SolarWinds. Putin seems to place little importance on predictability and stability in relations with the United States.
Biden’s editorial calls on the United States and the European Union to focus on “ensuring that market democracies, and not China or anyone else, write the 21st century rules for commerce and technology ”. This is commendable, and the former member of the National Security Council in me recognizes the temptation to “secure” a certain result. But history warns us that there is not much that policymakers can guarantee. The drive to rally Europe to strengthen the rules and norms that limit the scope of Russian corruption and disinformation, or China’s exploitation of the international trading system, will face long-standing differences between the parties. United States and Europe on trade, technology and taxes. .
Then there are those across the American political spectrum who can shrink from Biden’s expansive vision. The United States, it argues, should withdraw from its global commitments, limit its ambitions and focus on domestic issues. They argue that a divided nation with its own democracy in question doesn’t have to talk about democracy in the rest of the world, which would amount to sheer nostalgia or nostalgia for a lost time.
These are all fair warnings. They’ve all been made before, too. In response to previous US assertions of forward-looking strategy, and in reaction to Vietnam’s failures and setbacks to Iraq, many have urged the United States to pull back and focus on domestic challenges. Such critics are right when they advocate realism about what the United States can achieve, the need to resist impatience and avoid pride, the dangers of overconfidence mixed with l ignorance of local conditions.
Consider the results of earlier versions of the foresight strategy that Biden proposes in his editorial. Despite all the big American strategy failures from FDR and Truman to Ronald Reagan until today, American leadership looks pretty good, especially when not opposed to perfection or extravagant American rhetoric. , but to competition. In the twentieth century, this competition was communism, Nazism, militarism and European empires. In the 21st century, it is Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China.
Biden is right to advocate a grand, values-based vision for the United States. He’s right because America’s prosperity and freedom will not thrive in a world divided between rival empires ruled by tyrants, where rules and standards are set in Beijing and Moscow. He is right because the American retreat now will justify the authoritarians in their view that democracy is in decline and that the future is theirs.
Realism and restraint are essential operational guidelines. But they are not a substitute for a broader strategy. They are not an adequate response to those who still look to the United States for leadership based on democratic values. Don’t mess around, as Obama observed. But try to do the most important things as best you can, as difficult as it always is.
Daniel Fried is the distinguished member of the Weiser family at the Atlantic Council. He was sanctions policy coordinator under the Obama administration, deputy secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia under the Bush administration and senior director at the National Security Council for the Clinton and Bush administrations. He was also Ambassador to Poland during the Clinton administration. Follow him on twitter @AmbDanFried.