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'We are the world power': Biden offers defense of US primacy

'We are the world power': Biden offers defense of US primacy

In TIME interview, president talks up foreign policy record, offers few details on what second term would hold

Reporting | Washington Politics

In late April, former President Donald Trump gave a wide-ranging interview to TIME magazine, which had a significant focus on foreign policy issues, particularly the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. The resulting transcript revealed that a second-Trump term would be just as murky foreign policy-wise, as the former president used much of his time contradicting himself, criticizing his successor, and offering few details about how he would approach international issues if elected again.

On Tuesday, it was President Joe Biden’s turn to get the same treatment. The outcome was not all that different.

Biden gave a long interview to TIME ‘s Washington bureau chief Massimo Calabresi and editor-in-chief Sam Jacobs, which centered almost exclusively on the president’s foreign policy agenda, looking both back at his first term in office and forward at a possible second.

Biden aggressively defended his record, particularly when it came to his leadership in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Like Trump, Biden was sure to emphasize differences with his opponent, especially in terms of maintaining American global leadership and supporting allies.

“We are the world power,” he said in response to the first question about whether the U.S. could still play the same global role it did during World War II and the Cold War.

Israel and Gaza

The president was coy about how he would react to Israel’s invasion of Rafah, suggesting that revealing his assessment of whether Israel had crossed his “red line” would imperil ongoing discussions with Tel Aviv.

“I'm not going to speak to that now, (...) I'm in the process of talking with the Israelis right now.” he said. “If I tell you, you’ll write it. It’s not time for you to write it.”

Biden did offer some mild criticism of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said that Israel’s war strategy risked repeating American mistakes following 9/11, and could lead to an “endless war;” and that there was “every reason for people to draw” the conclusion that Netanyahu was determined to keep the war going for domestic political purposes. The president also said that his “biggest disagreement” with his Israeli counterpart is that Netanyahu does not share his belief that “there needs to be a two-state solution.”

Biden did not offer any ideas of how he plans to square that circle, given his acknowledgement that the Israeli government is not interested in Palestinian statehood. The “roadmap to an enduring ceasefire” that the White House released last week notably had no mention of a path to Palestinian statehood.

Ultimately, however, Biden laid blame for both the start of the war and the inability to end it at the feet of Hamas. When asked whether Israel had violated international law, the president pivoted to discussing atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7. And when asked whether the hold-up to reaching a ceasefire deal was due to Hamas, Israel or both, Biden was quick to blame the former, though his reasoning was unclear.

“Hamas could end this tomorrow,” he said, emphasizing that Netanyahu was “prepared to do about anything to get the hostages back.” In fact, the Israeli government has said that the war will not end until “the destruction of Hamas military and governing capabilities” was complete, and Israeli officials have disputed Biden’s description of the ceasefire proposal.

Biden was also inconclusive about whether Israel had been violating international law, saying that the evidence of whether the IDF had committed war crimes was “uncertain,” and that, although they had taken actions that were “inappropriate” he did not believe that Israel was using starvation as a weapon of war.

Prominent NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Oxfam have determined that Israeli assurances that they had not violated international law were “not credible” and had committed a series of violations of customary international humanitarian law. Members of Congress called on Biden to suspend arms transfers to Israel because of its blocking of humanitarian aid to Gaza. One State Department official recently resigned because she said the department’s report saying that Israel had not broken the law was “patently false.”

If the U.S. did deem that Israel was violating international laws — as some administration officials have hinted — Washington would be required by law to cut off arms supplies, a step that Biden and his team have been wholly unwilling to take.

Ukraine, NATO, and Russia

Biden was steadfast in arguing that his administration’s approach to the war in Ukraine had been a success, and did not seem interested in facing any criticism about the current state of the war or a strategy to conclude it. He rejected the premise of a question about the dire battlefield situation and whether, at this point, reaching a peace agreement with Russia was the best way out of the war.

“I don't know why you skip over all that’s happened in the meantime [between Russia’s invasion and today],” Biden said. “The Russian military has been decimated. You don’t write about that. It’s been freaking decimated.”

He similarly dismissed questions about escalation and the possibility of a future NATO-Russia war, saying “we're on a slippery slope for war if we don't do something about Ukraine.”

Biden did not offer any specifics on what an end to the war would look like or what Washington’s plan to get there is, saying only his conception of peace is “making sure Russia never, never, never, never occupies Ukraine. That's what peace looks like.”

However, he added that an end to the war "doesn't mean NATO, they are part of NATO. It means we have a relationship with them like we do with other countries."

"I am not prepared to support the NATOization of Ukraine," Biden elaborated. "I spent a month in Ukraine when I was a Senator and Vice President. There was significant corruption."

The president's views on the war seem to be informed by a belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin is motivated by a desire to make Ukraine a part of Russia and to expand Moscow’s influence over the continent

“He says this is part of reestablishing the Soviet Union,” Biden said, referring to a speech Putin gave in 2022. “That's what this is all about. It wasn't just about taking part of—He wanted, he wanted to go back to the, to the days when there was NATO and there was that other outfit that Poland, everybody belonged to. So that’s what it was about.”

Biden also talked up his success in strengthening NATO, emphasizing that two new countries had joined the alliance since his presidency started, and that Europe collectively had spent more money to aid Ukraine than had the U.S. As the TIME fact check showed, while Europe has committed to provide more money to Ukraine in the long-term, the continent has so far spent only $107 billion to Kyiv, compared to $175 billion from the U.S.

China and Taiwan

Biden said he is “not ruling out using military force” in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, but added that “[he’s] made clear to Xi Jinping that we agree with—we signed on to previous presidents going way back—to the policy of, that, it is we are not seeking independence for Taiwan.”

Biden’s apparent endorsement of strategic ambiguity , was a slight divergence from an earlier series of claims that Washington would come to Taiwan’s defense if Beijing ever invaded.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific, the president celebrated Japan’s defense spending increase, the formation of the Quad, and other U.S. military investments in the region.

“We are much stronger in the Pacific than we ever were before. China, by the way, China is very concerned about it,” he said. “[Xi Jinping] wanted to know why I was doing all these things. I said the simple reason I’m doing those things: to make sure that you don’t, that you aren’t able to change the status quo any.”

In his interview, Biden offered a straightforward defense of American primacy and global leadership, and painted it as the primary difference between himself and Trump. While he was light on the details, it ultimately appeared as if there would be little difference between a first and second Biden term when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a prime-time address to the nation about his approaches to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, humanitarian assistance in Gaza and continued support for Ukraine in their war with Russia, from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. October 19, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a prime-time address to the nation about his approaches to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, humanitarian assistance in Gaza and continued support for Ukraine in their war with Russia, from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. October 19, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool
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