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Biden’s inflection point

His U.N. Speech shows why he needs to double down on his defiance of the Blob if he wants to, as he says, lead the world to a higher plane.

Analysis | Washington Politics

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.

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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 is America’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. 

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on COVID-19 Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)
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