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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

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A New Foreign Policy

After four years of Trump, the US is not as indispensable as we once thought. Can Biden reimagine a foreign policy that takes this lesson—and the world’s modern threats—into account?

The world has fundamentally changed since the last time President Biden was in office. With the double-focus on the pandemic and pulling a divided nation together, he is in the thick of things domestically. His agenda on these matters has been clear. Not so clear are his plans for foreign policy. While it’s unlikely Biden will favor Trump’s “go it alone” approach—he has already rejoined the Paris Accords, for instance—he hasn’t indicated much else, aside from what can be gleaned from his defense appointees.

The Progress Network Members Andrew J. Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, joined our founder, Zachary Karabell, for a discussion last month on what we might think of as a new foreign policy, one that has adapted to the shifts that occurred during the Trump years, favors diplomacy over militarism, and understands the new threats we face as a globe. Whether that foreign policy is taken up remains to be seen.

The following is an extract from that conversation, which you can watch in full here. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

Zachary Karabell (ZK): One of the clear articulations of Trump’s foreign policy was a muscular isolationism that was a break from the kind of liberal internationalism that characterizes Biden. What do we make of that?

Anne-Marie Slaughter (AMS): In many ways Trump went back to 1815. He didn’t want any part of global infrastructure or problem solving. He wanted a pure interest-based transactional international order where there were “no permanent alliances, only permanent interests.” In that sense, it was a dramatic break. It’s interesting that both he and Biden, and really most of the Democratic candidates, took the position that we were overextended in terms of the use of troops abroad, and that we should not be trying to resolve our foreign policy issues militarily. Remember that Biden was against the surge in Afghanistan. He was far from the part of the Democratic Party that thought about remaking countries or the indispensable power we have to send in our troops.

I have a chastened view of what is possible to achieve with military force. I still would be a strong supporter of humanitarian intervention, but probably not military humanitarian intervention. The United States is no longer the indispensable power. I think the US and the EU together can be the indispensable power, but that’s not a military power. That’s a regulatory power, a diplomatic or political power. The real question is, can we rethink after decades of assuming we are the world’s leader and approaching other countries that way? After reflexively focusing on other great powers as the real substance of foreign affairs?

When you study international affairs, it’s about a competition among powers. You can have a more moderated competition moderated by the rules of an order, or you can have an unregulated competition as Trump envisaged it. But what I’m arguing is that that is not the right place to start. There’s another way of thinking about the world, and it’s really not about rival nations. It’s about fighting those issues or confronting those problems that affect all of us deeply in our day-to-day lives. I actually think you have to do both. I’m not suggesting you can just pretend that Russia or China or Iran or North Korea don’t exist, but in terms of where you prioritize rather than react, I think we need a real sea change in the way we think about global politics. Even though I think Biden does believe passionately in the importance of climate and health, I’m not sure that’s how his foreign policy team is conditioned.

ZK: Even if it’s true that the post-Cold War world is likely over, there’s still the reality of the Pentagon’s budget. What do you do with it?

Andrew Bacevich (AB): The assumptions of the post-Cold War era, about the efficacy of American military power, were in my judgment based on a false reading of the conclusion of the Cold War, reinforced by a false reading of the significance of the Gulf War of 1991. Political and military elites came to the conclusion that American military power was no longer an instrument that should be held in reserve. And so the post-Cold war era sees this extraordinary series of events of military adventurism where we would “sally forth.” Sometimes it was a “small” thing, like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo. Sometimes it’s a big thing like Iraq, where we thought that military power was going to fix things.

It’s extraordinarily important for not only people within the leadership of the Biden administration, but also for the rest of us who pay attention to US foreign policy, to acknowledge the extent of the failure that we have experienced with regard to our reckless misuse of military power. If you say that “boy, we really, really, really screwed that up, to the tune of something like a $6 trillion expended in Iraq and Afghanistan,” it’s “please give me that $6 trillion to use for infrastructure,” right? So $6 trillion wasted—and then begin to approach what seems to be the agenda of problems we are facing. Point number one is we need to diminish our expectations about what military power can do, and therefore cut the budget, reduce our responsibilities to defend places like Europe that are perfectly capable of defending themselves, and rethink programs related to weapons exports. Why are we the arms merchants to the world in many respects, selling or giving weapons to despicable regimes?

There is a profound need to rethink the very premises of US national security policy in order to make it possible for us to shift our attention to problems that are far more pressing, like climate change. I think that is an existential threat. I think that is an extension of a threat that we share in common with—and many other people say this—The People’s Republic of China, for example. So, the inclination that seems to be the case in Washington to rush into a new Cold War with China strikes me as beyond wrong-headed. That’s the kind of rethinking that needs to be done. It’s not clear to me that the Biden administration is inclined to engage in that reflection. I hope they are. 

AMS: I definitely agree with the need for a fundamental rethinking about what the threats are and how we’re going to address them. And with reassessing what we spend on arms and the Defense Department budget. Obviously a lot of that has to do with domestic political interests in terms of who benefits from DOD jobs, who benefits from arms manufacturing jobs—often this is Congress even more than the executives, and sometimes even more than the Pentagon. There are plenty of folks who think we’re spending money on exactly the wrong things, that we should be looking to the next generation of warfare, which is far more virtual and also consists of smaller forces, more adept forces. What is holding that back is sheer political interests.

I think Andrew and I would probably disagree on some of the lessons from the post-Cold War period. If I look at Kosovo or the Balkans, when we were acting with allies, and when there was a very discreet ability to use military force, I thought and still do think we were in the right. Iraq was never intended to be that—Iraq was a combination of things that came together that was not only a terrible, terrible, mistake, but also deeply corrupt, in retrospect, in terms of how we got into it. Afghanistan, I think, is much more complicated in terms of having to respond, but not having to stay and trying to remake the country again. It’s not as simple as to simply say, “well, we’re just not going to do that again,” but I am in agreement that it’s time for a fundamental rethink of where the real threats are.

What does it take to address them? With respect to China, that means plenty of cooperation, in addition to pushing back where it’s needed in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, or on Taiwan or other areas. But fundamentally, I’ll come back to where I do think Andrew and I agree. We are not in the Cold War. We’re not in the post-Cold War. We as a nation are maybe the wealthiest nation militarily, the most powerful nation, but we’re not strong enough to do what we need to get done in the world without our allies. And I would say again, I would look to a fundamental alliance with Europe, and then cooperation with countries as needed, to solve global problems.

ZK: Can we count the Trump administration’s non-interventionist approach, which included a detachment from some of the issues you are both outlining here, as something that went well in the last four years?

AB: I would be loath to give him any significant credit here. He ran promising to end endless wars. He didn’t, right? He didn’t come through. Why didn’t he? Because he was utterly incompetent. One of the striking things about President Trump is that he’s remarkable for tweeting decisions and then not following through on implementing them. There was a lot of rhetoric like “we’re out of Syria.” “We’re out of Afghanistan.” “We’re out of Somalia.” No, we’re not. I would be highly critical of those interventions that have dragged on and on and on and on and on, but he sure as hell didn’t end them. 

So to me, the judgment about Trump with regard to war is not that he represented any significant departure from the propensity for war of his several predecessors. Rather the distinguishing characteristic of the Trump administration is utter complete and total incompetence, and sadly for President Biden, he has inherited the consequences of that. It’s a real mess, and it doesn’t reflect any kind of enlightened attitude with regard to America’s role in the world on Trump’s part, at least in my view.

AMS: I would also say that I think when we look back—depending what happens in the next four years, but certainly as of right now—one of the biggest impacts of Trump was the world did move on. The world has moved on in a bunch of ways. Trump kept imposing sanctions, and a lot of nations started deciding, “maybe we don’t want to go through the US’ banking system and the heads of the various US instruments.” He pulls out of the Paris Agreement, and Sir Nicholas Stern, who wrote the Stern Report on climate change, said, “you know, when the US comes back to the world, they’re going to discover the world has moved on. We haven’t been waiting for them.” And now really, if you look at the world, it’s China, India, the EU, and the US.

I think there was a lot of that in many areas where we thought we were the indispensable nation. The EU, it turns out, is quite capable of negotiating a trade agreement with China, and the East Asian countries are quite capable of concluding the trade agreement even after we pull out of it. And so in many ways, while Trump was creating the chaos and sturm und drang that he created, lots of countries were saying, “the US is certainly not reliable for these four years. And frankly, we’re starting to worry about this up and down.” It’s not that the US doesn’t matter, but nations are quite capable of doing lots of things without us that we didn’t expect.

It’s not that the US doesn’t matter, but nations are quite capable of doing lots of things without us that we didn’t expect.

ZK: A question from our audience—should there be more isolationism or should there be more multilateralism [alliances of multiple countries]? 

AB: This is one of these questions that makes my hair on fire, because isolationism is a total myth. In 1776 we declared independence. In 1945 we had emerged as the richest and most powerful country on planet Earth. We didn’t get from point A to point B by isolationism. We got from point A to point B by very shrewd, opportunistic expansionism, seizing moments to get bigger, richer, and more powerful. But people persist in believing that there is some kind of isolation as tradition in our foreign policy. Now, there was a moment from roughly 1938 to December 7th, 1941, when many Americans opposed US entry into the war in Europe against Nazi Germany. 

Why did they oppose entry into that war—because they were isolationists? You can make that argument. Because they were anti-Semites? Yes, some were, you can make that argument. But my argument has long been that they opposed entry into that European war because they remembered the European war of 20 years before. When we had gone to war in Europe—an unprecedented break in American tradition—to make the world safe for democracy and to make sure no other wars would occur. We lost 116,000 Americans in a year and a half, and we didn’t get squat. And so the non-interventionists of 1938, 1939, 1940, they didn’t want to do that again. Now they were wrong in their judgment in comparing the threat of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. But quite frankly, I think their errors are understandable.

Isolationism is a myth. The word should be banished from any discussion of American foreign policy now and forever.

AMS: It’s almost never that we’ve really been isolationists. To me the much more frequent divide, which we’ve just been through, is unilateralism versus multilateralism. Trump was not an isolationist. He may have wanted to bring troops home, but he certainly wanted to be abroad in the world, throwing his power around. He just didn’t want to do it with anybody else. He certainly didn’t want to do it subject to any constraints—and when you act with others, you have to have a set of rules that guide your collective behavior. So I do think there’s a strong unilateralist tradition. 

I am a multilateralist. I think if we are far better off when we have partners. I think it’s one of our great strengths vis-a-vis Russia or China or Iran or North Korea or anybody else you can think of. We do have many countries with whom we have strong alliances or partnerships. I think we are at our best when we lead through institutions, not against them. That also means really sharing power in ways that we have not always been willing to do, but I think what we have to do now. 

Even as a multilateralist though, again, I think we need to be using those partnerships and alliances to figure out how we collectively tackle the problems that are affecting our daily lives. Russia is a threat in many ways in terms of what it’s doing—sowing chaos and affecting the information environment. China, yes, potentially. But actually none of those things affect our daily lives—the daily lives of Americans, Europeans, and others—as much as climate change and global health security, as well as all sorts of cyber threats and global criminal threats. So my argument is, yes, let’s be multilateralist, but let’s not be militarily multilateralist. Let’s focus on diplomacy, but even more importantly, what are our diplomatic priorities? Again, I don’t think that it’s a great power competition. Of course it’s important, but it’s less important than global problem solving.

ZK: To put a fine point on that, American multipolarity has often had a unipolar reserve. It was Madeline Albright who said “together if we can, alone if we must.” In other words, it would be great if we can do things in a multipolar way, but at the end of the day we’ll do things in a unipolar way if we can’t do them in a multipolar way. So the question is, do you think that will change, and will it be a change forced by the reality of a multipolar world? Or are we just going to keep going until some massive crisis forces it?

AB: Here you get into the realm of bureaucratic institutional politics, of whether or not the military industrial complex is going to dictate basic policy or whether an enlightened understanding of the national interest is going to dictate policy. There’s no simple answer to that. 

I would feel more confident about what the next four years held if, quite frankly, Biden and the people around him were not—based on their professional careers—manifestly creatures of the status quo. They’ve been in office for what, 10 days? They’ve got a long way to go and God knows I wish them well. But we need to see evidence of their willingness to depart from the status quo. I mentioned some possible indicators—I think probably the most dramatic one would relate to the size of the Pentagon budget. Are we going to continue to throw something on the order of, when all the accounts are added, a quarter of a trillion dollars a year at the Pentagon, or are we going to take a more prudent approach to national security? Let’s see.

Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the founder of the Progress Network. His next book, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power, will be published by Penguin Press in May 2021.