Imagine being Joe Biden. The good news is that you have been elected president. You are about to become the most powerful and famous person on earth. You will have the ability to lay waste to anyone and anything, even to destroy the world as we know it. You will be instantly recognizable around the globe. More than any other person, you can dominate the news and set the agenda in other nations.
Just one downside. Everyone will expect you to solve their problems. All over the world. By giving and spending lots of money. By threatening, sanctioning, droning, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations. By mulcting your taxpayers and sending your soldiers off to die. In endless wars in places most of your people can’t locate on a map. Mostly for causes of little if any importance to them and even the U.S. government. Why? You will be expected to routinely sacrifice your people in pursuit of a vaguely defined, mostly egotistical, and largely nonsensical call to "leadership." Even though you often will be addressing issues insoluble by anyone, let alone the US
Congratulations Mr. President-elect.
Biden will face manifold challenges. And, alas, as a typical liberal interventionist on foreign policy, he is likely to try to solve all the problems that head his way. After all, that is the progressive way: remake everyone and everything into the latest utopian vision. It is a strategy for frustration and even disaster.
Instead, the incoming president should simply ignore many of the international demands upon him. Most of the controversies aren’t important to America. And most of those which are can’t be solved by America. He would be wise to abandon Uncle Sam’s determination to play social engineer extraordinaire.
No doubt, the president-elect is already being inundated with demands from members of the Blob, as the foreign policy establishment is known. They all want jobs, of course. Good jobs, important, meaningful work. But more than that, almost all of them want to take charge of the world’s problems. So little time, yet, they fantasize, so many foreigners anxiously waiting, even begging, for Washington to rule over them.
The Blobsters are ready even now to start transforming the world into their image. Micro-managing the world as Americans believe they are destined to do. If necessary, forcing other peoples to behave as Americans know they should. After all, a little bombing can be good for the soul. And who wouldn’t benefit from being occupied by the US?
Think of all the problems around the globe. It obviously is up to the president – assisted by members of the Blob, of course – to solve them. All of them. Immediately. That means more foreign aid. Economic sanctions. Alliances. Wars. Troop deployments. Technical advice. Bombing raids. UN commissions. Armed invasions. International agencies. Military occupations. And lots of Blobsters hired into well-paying, high status jobs. With their help, President Biden’s job will never be done. It is so much fun being a foreign policy geek in the world’s only superpower!
Biden needs to tell them no.
Although he might be tempted to become the foreign policy president on day one, he has far greater domestic priorities. COVID-19 is ravaging the nation: responding to the disease that has transformed national life is the most important issue for the American people. And will be until the pandemic is controlled, if not vanquished.
Beyond that is Washington’s de facto bankruptcy. Special interest lobbies and progressive activists are developing long lists of the big-spending programs they want. However, there is no money: The Treasury is empty.
Even without the pandemic Washington was running trillion-dollar annual deficits. But the red ink for fiscal year 2020 ended up at $3.1 trillion. In 2021 it will be more than $2 trillion, with a lot more spending likely. Overall, COVID-19 could cost Americans $16 trillion. Then there is the explosion of spending as baby boomers retire. As a percentage of GDP the debt already exceeds 100 percent and could be double that by mid-century. The new president will need to spend much of his time saying "no" to an endless line of old dependents and new supplicants.
Of course, Biden will not be able to ignore international issues. Indeed, given the severity of America’s domestic challenges, launching a foreign war might seem like a pleasant diversion.
However, the foreign controversies which so often dominate Washington’s attention rarely require US government action. Most of the time such problems could be left to those most affected. Indeed, one of the great advantages of being a superpower is that while most everything overseas is of interest in the abstract, rarely is it of vital interest. There really isn’t much that fundamentally threatens the most powerful nation on earth. Biden should feel free to say Not my problem!
For instance, dictator-wannabes are manipulating the democratic process in both Guinea and Tanzania. The results are unfair. But there isn’t much Washington can do about it. Nor to halt Ethiopia’s ongoing slide toward civil war. Or promote democracy in Algeria or Belarus. Or stop the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Or reverse rising religious persecution in India. Or resolve the Libyan civil war, in which Washington first intervened a decade ago. Or prevent the brutal treatment of the Rohingya in Burma. Or force Turkey to leave Kurdish Syrian territory. Or fix Lebanon. Or otherwise spread wonderfulness and beneficence around the globe. The president should speak out on behalf of human rights, individual liberty, and peace. But in most cases his commitment should be aspirational rather than operational. These and other international problems really aren’t America’s challenges to confront.
Contrary the conventional wisdom upon which Washington policymaking is based, even the big issues shouldn’t necessarily be of primary American concern. Consider North Korea. Why should Americans worry about a North Korean nuclear attack? The Kim dynasty doesn’t threaten to turn London into lake of fire. Or incinerate Paris. Or level Moscow. Or wipe out Delhi. Or ruin Lagos. Or destroy Nairobi. Or plant a mushroom cloud over Beijing.
Why the US? Because America is there, with troops on the peninsula, other forces stationed elsewhere in the region, and a strategic nuclear arsenal located in America but capable of reaching the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Kim dynasty is malevolent, but that is hardly unusual. If the US was dedicated to eliminating evil around the world, previous presidents would have ordered the bombing of Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, most of the "stans," China, Russia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and … .
Of course, Washington intends to protect the South from attack. In fact, for no good reason Biden affirmed that US forces would remain in South Korea – apparently at least until the Second Coming, and maybe even after the lion lies down with the lamb. Why? The Korean War is almost seven decades in the past. The Republic of Korea has surpassed the DPRK in virtually every measure of power. The former’s GDP is more than 50 times as large. South Korea’s population is twice as big. With America essentially bankrupt, why shouldn’t Seoul relieve the US of its unnecessary defense responsibility and field a military capable of deterring the North?
Even more so the case of Europe and Russia. Proving that he has no geopolitical sense, Biden called Moscow the greatest threat against the US How so, other than possessing a nuclear arsenal equivalent to America’s? Washington vastly outranges Russia economically and militarily. Also far more capable is Europe, which possesses thrice the population and 11 times the economic strength.
Yet Biden promised continuing subservience to European interests, maintaining the wealthy continent as America’s number one defense welfare client. Certainly, it would be better to pursue transatlantic relations without the insults and hostility evidenced by Trump. But why are Americans expected to indirectly subsidize Europe’s generous welfare states? The president-elect would do well to ponder Washington’s fiscal plight before he commits such a perpetual bail-out of prosperous, populous allies.
Biden does seem to understand that Iran needs not be an enemy. He opposed the Trump administration’s policy of impoverishing the Iranian people in order to force the government to surrender its independence, though not even all Democrats agree with him. He should not allow the Saudis and Emiratis to drag America into their conflict with Iran. Indeed, the Saudis are more oppressive, aggressive, and otherwise dangerous than Tehran.
Alas, Biden, no less than Trump, places politics at the forefront of America’s relationship with Israel, with his promise to continue subordinating US interests in order to appear sufficiently "pro-Israel." Washington should stop underwriting Israel’s occupation over millions of Palestinians and allow the Israelis to act on their own and at their expense.
Biden should leave the rest of the Middle East responsible for its own fate. If Egypt’s military dictatorship is going to continue to treat the country as a prison state, it should do so without US money. Syria is a tragedy in which Washington has no reason to intervene, especially not to starve the population in a futile attempt to overthrow a dictatorship that withstood years of civil war. Even more so, American forces should be withdrawn from Iraq, leaving that country to take over the duty of guarding against a renewal of ISIS. And Washington should stop aiding the vile Saudi regime in committing murder and mayhem in Yemen.
China may be the most perplexing challenge of all, and Biden, at least, appears determined to avoid military confrontation. However, those surrounding him appear much more hawkish. What he should keep in mind is that Beijing does not threaten America militarily – it has no ability to project conventional power against the US homeland. Rather, the zone of potential conflict is Asian-Pacific waters. It is as if the People’s Republic of China was patrolling the Caribbean and America’s East Coast and defending Cuba against Washington. Far better that allied and friendly powers practice deterrence against the PRC than that the US be expected to project power halfway around the world to defend nations that could do so much more for themselves.
Congratulations Joe. No one imagines that you will be inclined to abandon your interventionist tendencies. However, circumstances run against a return to the promiscuous meddling of the Obama presidency. Domestic crises must take first priority and there will be little money left over for needless foreign crusades.
Better that you rethink your foreign policy goals to make them fit the new world of political and financial limits. Otherwise future economic crises are likely to force rapid and significant cutbacks which will have unpredictable and arbitrary effects on your international objectives.
You won’t want to use Donald Trump’s "America First" phraseology for obvious reason, but in truth he was right. Your foremost duty is to put the American people first while taking care not to needlessly hurt others. That won’t be your only responsibility, but it will be your most important one. Forget that, and your presidency will join others in history’s great trash can.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.