This article first appeared in the Nonzero Newsletter and is republished with the authors’ permission.
Here is the headline that sits atop a New York Times story about the speech President Biden gave last week to the UN General Assembly: Biden Pledges to Work Toward ‘Peaceful, Prosperous Future For All’. Unless you had expected Biden to use his inaugural UN address to advocate a violent, impoverished future for all, you probably wouldn’t consider that headline arresting enough to warrant further reading.
And, actually, Biden’s speech aside, if you’ve long adhered to a strict never-read-pieces-about-UN-speeches-given-by-presidents policy, you probably haven’t missed much; they tend to be about working toward a peaceful, prosperous future for all. Still, you should read a piece about Biden’s speech—the very piece you’re reading, in fact! Biden’s speech was—by my lights, at least—an extremely important document. In particular:
1) The speech clarified how Biden sees his foreign policy agenda in the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
2) The speech showed why Biden sees that agenda as a sharp break with the past—and why he thinks it can guide the world through the “inflection point” that he says human history is now at.
3) The speech showed why Biden is wrong about these things. At least, that’s my take. Though I agree with Biden that the current moment is important enough to deserve a fancy name like “inflection point,” I don’t think his foreign policy, in its current form, is up to the challenge of shepherding us through it. And the reason is that, though his foreign policy is indeed, as he believes, a break with the past, it isn’t yet a sharp break with the past. Though withdrawing from Afghanistan showed an impressive willingness to defy the foreign policy establishment—“the Blob,” as those of us with a low opinion of it say—Biden still hasn’t freed himself from its grasp. And until he comes closer to that, his foreign policy won’t meet the moment.
Biden’s speech gave distinctive emphasis to three big goals: (1) fighting Covid (and preventing future pandemics); (2) fighting climate change; and (3) fighting for democracy and human rights (and thus fighting against authoritarianism, autocracy, etc.).
Those are all good things in principle. But one possible complication is that trying to tackle the third could make it harder to tackle the first two. After all, you need cooperation from authoritarian nations in the fight against pandemics and climate change, and if your war on authoritarianism antagonizes them, securing that cooperation could get harder.
This could turn out to be an even bigger problem than it sounds like. There are several threats that are roughly as scary as pandemics and climate change and, like them, are best addressed via international cooperation. The proliferation of biological weapons springs to mind (in part because we’ve just seen how much damage a virus not intentionally engineered to cause massive death and suffering can do). There’s also the threat of an arms race in space, an arms race in human genetic engineering, and of course such old standbys as nuclear Armageddon. Most of these threats went unmentioned by Biden, but they all need to be tackled. And tackling them, like tackling climate change and pandemics, could get harder if Biden mounts a big war on authoritarianism.
Given these possibly dire side effects of fighting authoritarianism, it’s worth asking why it deserves the high priority Biden is giving it—why it belongs up there with fighting pandemics and climate change.
The answer isn’t obvious. After all, authoritarianism is a very different kind of problem from pandemics and climate change.
For starters, pandemics and climate change (and weapons proliferation and the other transnational threats I mentioned) generate clear-cut non-zero-sum dynamics among nations. There is a bad outcome that national governments want to avert (disease and climate-caused dislocation, respectively), and the failure of any one nation to take measures to avert those outcomes is bad for other nations. So cooperative action—everyone agreeing to take appropriate measures—can bring a win-win outcome, making nations better off than they would be in the absence of cooperation.
There are actually big differences in the kinds of non-zero-sum problems pandemics and climate change are, but the main point for present purposes is that in both cases things that happen within a nation have clear spillover effects. If any country lets Covid run rampant, that will have bad effects on various other countries, and so too if any country spews greenhouse gases without limit. So in these realms there is a straightforward sense in which what happens in, say, China isAmerica’s business and what happens in America is China’s business.
In the case of authoritarianism, the spillover effects aren’t so obvious. It’s not clear why China’s remaining an authoritarian country with one-party rule would be, on balance, bad news for the US.
I don’t mean you can’t think up any bad effects China’s system of government may have on America. Some people, for example, believe China aims to spread its system of government around the world, and that the consequent erosion of liberal democracy would harm America.
But it’s far from clear —very far from clear, I’d say—that this is actually the Chinese leadership’s aspiration. Besides, you can also think up good effects China’s system of government may have on America. For example, the pledge that Xi Jinping made in his General Assembly speech—that China will quit building coal-fired plants abroad—is good for America, and it’s a pledge he can actually keep, because he doesn’t have to sell it to a bunch of legislators who spend much of their time imagining what kinds of attack ads they’ll face if they vote for it.
Obviously, I’m not endorsing authoritarian one-party rule in China or in any other foreign country. In fact, I’m rooting against it! But I’m not rooting against it because I think it’s inherently bad for America. I’m rooting against it because I think it’s bad for the people living under it. Whether it’s bad for America depends on various assumptions, and there are serious arguments on both sides of this question.
My point is just that it’s worth distinguishing between things that are inherently bad for America—pandemics, climate change, the proliferation of biological weapons—and things that aren’t; between problems it’s plainly in America’s interest to address and problems that don’t fall into that category. And this distinction is especially important if addressing the second kind of problem could get in the way of addressing the first kind.
So could it? Could Biden’s emphasis on spreading democracy and human rights really impede international cooperation on important issues? For example: Do the Magnitsky sanctions imposed by the US over human rights violations make Russia less cooperative? Do these and other US-imposed sanctions make Vladimir Putin worry that he’ll appear to be capitulating to a hostile power if he responds positively to a US overture on climate change?
It’s hard to say. But it’s interesting that Biden himself seems aware that alienating authoritarian countries could complicate the solving of the non-zero-sum problems he vows to address. He said in his speech that “we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges, even if we have intense disagreements in other areas.”
That’s good to hear. Unfortunately, the question isn’t so much whether the US is ready to work with countries it sanctions and scolds as whether countries the US sanctions and scolds are willing to work with it. And as for avoiding “a world divided into rigid blocs”—well, if that’s really Biden’s preference, maybe he shouldn’t have organized his Summit of Democracies, which will take place this December and then again the following December. I’d say telling countries they can’t join your bloc because of their system of government qualifies as “rigid”.
The Summit of Democracies—and indeed Biden’s whole war on authoritarianism—could wind up exemplifying a dynamic hauntingly familiar to seasoned students of US foreign policy: you perceive a threat as being bigger than it is, and the unnecessarily dramatic measures you take to counter it turn it into a bigger threat than it was. The more the US seems to be organizing the world’s democracies into an anti-authoritarian alliance, the more reason China will have to want lots of authoritarian allies. Which means China will have a clearer interest than it now has in keeping authoritarian countries authoritarian, maybe even in steering liberal democracies toward authoritarianism. The claim that China’s system of government has “spillover effects”—that its authoritarianism is inherently threatening to democracies, including America—could in this way become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Biden didn’t mention the Summit of Democracies in his UN speech—another sign, maybe, that he senses the tension among his big three agenda items. Indeed, one strange thing about his speech is that, though he talked a lot about fostering human rights and democracy, he never said how he’s going to foster them. At times he sounded as if America’s role was just to stand on the sidelines and give moral support to the various actors who are already fighting the good fight:
“The democratic world is everywhere. It lives in the anti-corruption activists, the human rights defenders, the journalists, the peace protestors on the frontlines of this struggle in Belarus, Burma, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and everywhere in between.”
But of course, America isn’t just standing on the sidelines. It has targeted all five of those countries with sanctions, and in the case of Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela, the sanctions are broad and longstanding enough to have caused great human suffering. And last time I checked, none of those three countries had magically turned into a liberal democracy—even though, in the case of Cuba, we’ve been applying this kind of “pro-democracy” economic pressure for more than half a century.
That’s the other thing about promoting democracy and human rights: it usually doesn’t work, and it often makes things worse for the people we’re supposedly concerned about.
So help me puzzle through this: If fighting authoritarianism doesn’t clearly help the United States, and doesn’t generally help (maybe even hurts) the victims of authoritarianism themselves—then, um, why is it a top Biden priority?
I’m not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with the power of the Blob. The foreign policy establishment is dominated by fans of democracy promotion—neocons, liberal interventionists, and even some not-especially-interventionist (in a military sense, at least) liberals and conservatives. Why the foreign policy establishment is dominated by these kinds of people is a question for another day. But it is. If Biden had stood at the General Assembly podium and said the kinds of things I’m saying in this piece, he’d face an avalanche of hostile op-eds written by high-gravitas think tankers and a whole news cycle of finger wagging from virtue-signaling cable news creatures.
The hopeful reading of Biden’s UN speech—with its dearth of concrete action items—is that he’ll pay lip service to these people without taking their advice, especially their advice about going on sanctions binges, supporting coups, backing insurgents, and so on. (By the way, a different kind of “lip service” can actually be a useful tool in promoting human rights. If the US expresses disapproval of egregious abuses, adding its voice to that of NGOs and other nations that are trying to shame leaders into better behavior, that can help—though it’s important to recognize the cases where this will likely backfire by stoking nationalist support for those leaders.) But for those of us who would like to see Biden thus brush off the Blob, his Summit of Democracies isn’t auspicious, and neither is his seeming satisfaction with the great bulk of the far flung sanctions he inherited upon entering office.
When Biden said the world is at an “inflection point,” he seemed to be alluding not just to the need for nations to now organize around shared challenges, but also to the need for them to leave war behind so they can focus on that organizing. And he seemed to see America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as one thing that qualifies him to lead this endeavor. “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war. We've turned the page.”
That’s a bit of a stretch, given the number of troops we have in conflict areas and our continued fondness for drone strikes. Still, getting out of Afghanistan was a major act of Blob defiance, and Biden deserves credit for it. And he’s right that ending that war can be part of a fundamental foreign policy redirection.
But the problem with the Blob isn’t just its historical penchant for military intervention. The problem is also its penchant for intervention of other kinds— including preachy meddling that rarely does any good, often does harm, and sometimes betrays a stunning obliviousness to America’s own shortcomings (and that, worse still, is often perceived that way abroad).
If Biden wants to have any hope of truly escaping the Blob, he’ll have to separate himself from its interventionist tendencies in this sense, not just the military sense. Not incidentally, that kind of separation would also equip him to lead the world through what will indeed, we can hope, turn out to be an inflection point.
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.