Biden must reject the pull of the American hegemonic mindset
Since the dramatic failure of the Iraq War in the mid-2000s, much ink has been spilled about the path forward for American foreign policy. With total global hegemony shown consistently to be a high-cost and low-reward approach, U.S. policymakers have begun debates as to what kind of global strategy should replace that of the wreckage of the “War on Terror.”
One of the more frequent rhetorical devices used by establishment actors to steer the narrative has been that of a “New Cold War.” But whether policymakers are speaking of a new bipolar competition or of the necessity of dominating all regions of the world for the security of a liberal world order, as potential future Defense Secretary Michelle Flournoy does, it is increasingly clear that the age of American expansionism under the guise of exceptionalism should be retired as obsolete.
Any attempts to resurrect U.S. unipolarity, be it through cold war rhetoric or any other alternative strategy, implies that both Russia and China as well as their minor allies are slotted firmly into the perpetual enemies’ camp. Beijing would be the most likely primary target of any such policy. The problem with such an approach is that 21st century China is nothing like the Soviet Union. While Beijing holds itself up as an alternative model to the United States, it does not seriously engage in exporting its values or ideology across the globe. Rather, it follows a model of autonomous and nationalist divergence from the post-Cold War consensus — something that holds no universal project in common no matter how many countries might decide to do something similar.
In this world of less ideological great power competition, alliances cannot be assumed to be permanent, and neither can enemies. As Nixon bucked the Cold War assumptions by going to China to counter a common and more potent Soviet threat, so might a Biden or a future Harris administration have to swallow their pride and go to Moscow to open up previously closed diplomatic pathways with a country formerly assumed to be beholden to Beijing.
The competition for influence in the developing world is now between multiple countries, and is based on trade, resources, and developmental assistance. To remain competitive in such a multipolar environment the United States would do well to drop claims of universal values and move towards flexibility and upholding the sovereignty of smaller powers who feel threatened by larger rivals. This could be done with much less cost than present hegemonist strategies given the geographic advantages of U.S. naval power and its distance from the major potential conflict zones of rival powers.
If the United States simply retains its economic dynamism and acts as a guarantor of international commerce, it becomes more of a potential partner to be wooed, rather than a potential threat to nations not allied directly with it.
A continuation of the geopolitical strategies considered “normal” in Washington for the past two decades, as may very well happen in a Biden administration, would freeze out diplomatic options that would otherwise be available to the United States as well as guarantee a dangerous escalation of great power tension. While an incoming Biden administration is taking a welcome second look at resurrecting the Iran deal, it should also consider that adopting a framework of perpetual animosity with Beijing or Moscow might make such diplomatic efforts more difficult to achieve. If Tehran can choose both a nuclear deal with the U.S. and be integrated into the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, however, it could very well increase its autonomy and neutrality in any great power rivalry rather than automatically taking the side of Beijing.
A U.S. approach that prioritizes flexibility over dividing the world into camps of ideology will not have to make foreign policy decisions in an absolute “with us or against us” binary, and this flexibility will be a net gain for the United States given its inherent geographic advantages over its rivals. On the other hand, should policymakers in Washington insist on continuing the quest for world hegemony, or even just rebooting the Cold War in a new context, they risk squandering these vital assets in the multipolar world that is to come. To be first among many is better than to be a scorned and declining hegemonic force.