Throughout the years of presidential leadership by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, questions related to foreign interventionism always seemed to boil down to a final default conclusion: Yes! We Must Intervene! Thus did we get the U.S. entanglements, initiated over those 16 years, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine. For Bush, the default position was pushed avidly by the GOP’s neoconservative elements; for Obama, the advocates were Wilsonian dogmatists unmoved by U.S. national interests but inspired by any humanitarian crusade.
Beginning with 9/11, questions about serious national interests or dangerous regional crosscurrents or the cost in blood and treasure never seemed to get serious attention when stacked up against the default conviction that America must lead the world, must demonstrate its indispensability and maintain the liberal world order established after World War II. Arguments of abstraction always won out over perceptions of reality, including the reality that the world was an utterly different planet than it had been in 1945. Abstraction prevailed.
Whatever one may say about Donald Trump, he was no abstractionist. He didn’t obsess over a vaguely defined global order under U.S. auspices or spout concepts of American do-goodism that morphed into calls for American hegemony. He put America, not the world, at the center of U.S. foreign policy and drew a direct line between international relations and the well-being of U.S. citizens.
For a full perspective, it must be acknowledged that Trump, for all his America First rhetoric, didn’t manage to get his country out of any of those inherited entanglements. He didn’t even extricate the nation from its ongoing Afghanistan involvement, though he did reduce the troop level to 2,500 and set a May 1 deadline this year for a full withdrawal. (Biden is struggling now with the question of what to do with that deadline.) And Trump’s bellicosity toward Iran spawned tensions with that nation that should have been avoided. But, for all his ham-handedness on the international scene, Trump never embraced the old default thinking and didn’t lead America into any new foreign adventures.
Now he’s gone, and the question is whether Biden will revert back to the default position of interventionism and hegemonic impulse. The early signs aren’t particularly encouraging, as the old default thinking is thoroughly embedded in the consciousness of the nation’s foreign policy establishment. The hegemonists are salivating at the prospect that Trump has been so discredited since the election that his foreign policy views will crumble along with the rest of his legacy.
“Perhaps after four years of President Donald Trump,” muses Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, “Americans are ready for some straight talk.” Kagan, a leading light of the hegemony enthusiasts, offers his version of straight talk by declaring that Americans must “stop looking for the exits and accept the role that fate and their own power have thrust upon them.” The role, that is, of running the world.
Kagan, of course, is just another commentator, tossing out the same gauzy foolishness he’s been peddling for decades. His frustration with the American people is well-placed, since most of them shudder at his grand global crusade in behalf of American exceptionalism. But his wife, Victoria Nuland, will be getting real power at the State Department as the new under secretary for political affairs.
Nuland is a relentless bureaucratic infighter with an expansive vision of America’s hegemonic destiny and a zeal for foreign policy aggression. Back in 2014, as assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, she helped bring down Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in a bloody coup that predictably heightened U.S.-Russian tensions to dangerous levels, unleashed a Ukrainian civil war, and induced Russia to threaten a military response if Ukraine were to be wrested from the Russian sphere of influence and placed in NATO. That kind of confrontation, as ominous as it would be, seems to be what Nuland wants. It isn’t what the American people want.
The Nuland appointment is Exhibit A in demonstrating that the Biden administration harbors nostalgic sentiments for those old default attitudes of the pre-Trump days. That reflects in turn the hazards of today’s unstable world. The dangers present themselves in the geopolitical forces, pressures, and tensions swirling around four nations: America, China, Russia, and Iran.
Growing tensions between America and China are a given. China wants to restore itself as the regional hegemon of Asia, as it was in its halcyon centuries before its era of humiliation at the hands of Western intruders. But America has been an Asian power for 120 years, and the region’s premier power for 75 of those years. It doesn’t want to leave the region, certainly not under pressure. Perhaps the tensions emanating from these realities can be managed in ways that will make possible a kind of regional coexistence. But perhaps not. If not, war is likely.
Trump brought this reality to the fore with his China diplomacy, both in the realm of the two nations’ economic relationship and in geopolitical terms. Early signs from the Biden administration seem to indicate that the new president doesn’t intend to retreat from the general stance established by Trump.
But Biden also faces mounting tensions with both Iran and Russia. Here’s where default aggressiveness and the tendency toward bellicosity pose serious threats to America’s global posture.
Iran has breached various terms of the so-called Nuclear Deal it signed in 2015 with the P5-plus-1 nations, ramping up its nuclear program, but it did so only after Trump took actions designed to destroy the deal. He pulled the United States out and imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions on Iran and its leaders. Essentially, on behalf of America, he reneged on a duly settled international agreement.
Tehran says it will return to the deal but only after Biden removes the sanctions. Biden says he will discuss sanction removal but only after Tehran ceases its latest nuclear efforts. Biden also suggests he wants to introduce curbs on Iranian ballistic missile development. Trump put America in a bad-faith position on the deal, and Biden must decide whether he wants to redress that in restarting discussions. So far he doesn’t seem inclined to do so. As Robin Wright wrote in The New Yorker, “Whatever the intentions of either Washington or Tehran, diplomacy is not getting off to a good start.” She added, “The danger over time is that it will devolve into a Shakespearean tragedy.”
Meanwhile, relations between the United States and Russia rest on a knife’s edge of tension and growing hostility. The hegemonists insist Russia poses an ominous threat to America and Europe. This is delusional, but they want the West to pressure Russia constantly and hem it in through NATO expansion, the establishment of more and more military bases on the Russian periphery, and the staging of menacing war games in Russia’s backyard.
All that reflects a fundamental geopolitical reality: America and the West pose a far more serious threat to Russia than Russia poses to America and the West. But the default thinkers within the American foreign policy establishment cling to their insistence that we must keep the pressure on and must snatch away as much territory as possible from the bear’s traditional sphere of influence. If pursued with the kind of aggressiveness seen in the words and actions of Robert Kagan and Victoria Nuland, that will lead eventually to open hostilities. Unfortunately, Biden seems to share their sentiments.
Perhaps Robin Wright is correct that the sorry state of U.S.-Iranian relations could lead to a Shakespearean tragedy. But it would pale compared to the tragedy that would ensue if America found itself in military hostilities with an alliance of China, Russia, and Iran. Already America’s hegemonic impulses have brought those countries together as never before, the primary adhesive being their mutual hostility to the American bully. If the default provocateurs regain their influence of old in the new Biden administration, such a scenario could not be ruled out.