The Biden administration has been attempting to deal with an unruly world and found it no more receptive to his polite talk and gentle ministrations than to President Donald Trump’s vociferous demands and blustering threats. Implementing the president’s active internationalist vision will be harder to implement than planned.
President Joe Biden and his advisers are charter members of the Blob, the wide-ranging establishment including politicians, academics, analysts, journalists, business leaders, think tankers, bureaucrats, and staffers who collectively shape foreign policy. And its mantra is to intervene – now, then, and forever. Pre-President Biden occasionally dissented on the details, opposing the Obama administration buildup in Afghanistan, for instance. Overall, however, he always was well within the Washington mainstream.
Which makes the administration’s views on almost every issue predictable. Every alliance is good but could be improved by increased U.S. commitment. Every war should be solved, even if doing so requires America to join the hostilities directly or indirectly. Every human rights violation should be addressed, at least by Washington delivering a sanctimonious lecture, very likely also by imposing sanctions, and maybe even by initiating a bombing campaign and invasion. In short, Biden’s approach is essentially like the foreign policies of his predecessors, with a few idiosyncratic differences.
Of course, candidate Biden did not present his prospective foreign policy in these terms. Popular antagonism toward the Neoconservative/liberal interventionist consensus – endless wars launched by elites for everyone else to fight – was too great for even Biden’s coterie of Blobster staffers to miss. Hence was born the idea of a "foreign policy for the middle class," most often articulated by Jake Sullivan before he became national security adviser.
Indeed, last year Sullivan joined with a gaggle of the usual (liberal Democratic) suspects to produce one of those much discussed but rarely read reports, "Making US Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class," published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He basically advocated subordinating policy to the economic demands of voters whose support Sullivan desired to win. That most obviously meant abandoning good economics, such as freer trade, to ancient nostrums like protectionism, which presumes that that you "aid" the middle class by raising costs and diminishing choice.
It was a little harder to figure out how more traditional diplomacy fit into this new paradigm. Because it did not. To the extent that there is something called a "national interest," it isn’t likely to have much to do with offering economic benefits to the middle class. Consider America’s wars, whose legitimacy is a matter of faith to the Blob.
The Revolutionary War was economically ruinous to most everyone. The Civil War ravaged the South and cost the North dearly in money and lives. World War I’s only benefits to America were ensuring that commercial East Coast elites were repaid by the allies, which borrowed heavily during the conflict and likely would have defaulted had they been defeated by Germany. World War II was beyond hideous. The Korean War and Vietnam War looked other than horrific only in comparison to World War II. Iraq was not a complete disaster only compared to Vietnam.
Trying to squeeze any of these conflicts into an analysis of a foreign policy for the middle class makes no sense. Most of them ranged between stupid and idiotic. A couple of them were tragically necessary. But even the latter’s specific justifications would have nothing to do with seeking to succor the middle class.
Rather, in last year’s study Sullivan essentially repackaged objectives that are supposed to promote America’s security, such as stability, as goals that promote the middle class’s interests. As he and his colleagues explained: "To chart a different path forward, policymakers need to build and invest in international cooperation structures that provide the best insurance against those shocks and better manage the risks of systemic instability due to growing geopolitical competition, particularly with China." Except that foreign policy mavens always claimed to be seeking to moderate shocks, manage risks, and minimize instability.
When it came to action steps, he and his colleagues argued that the government should plan better, manage better, anticipate better, create better, warn better, safeguard better, etc. None of these represent a new approach. And none are particularly innovative or relevant to the topic at hand. But when you look likely to become one of Washington’s Very Important Persons, those around you will embarrass themselves by acclaiming everything you say to be evidence of genius, even if, like Sullivan, you are simply applying a new label to old nostrums. Indeed, they will so act even if you are a raving idiot spouting nonsense. After all, look at the experience of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo.
Still, wanting one’s foreign policy to serve the middle class – and the working class, and the entrepreneurial class, and everyone else – isn’t necessarily a bad way to evaluate foreign policy. However, rather than trying to turn everything into an economic measure, there is a much simpler approach that would fulfill the same goal. Follow a policy of peace. Ultimately, more is required for a sophisticated, comprehensive foreign policy. However, the best, most solid, ultimately essential, foundation is peace.
Admittedly, Biden, as well as Sullivan and the others, have been in Washington, D.C. too long to know what peace actually is. Most policymakers call today’s world "peacetime" even though the US has been at war for the last two decades. The Blob appears to define peace as meaning that there is no combat on American soil. Washington can be droning, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations, and denizens of the imperial capital will contend that there is no war going on. Certainly no "endless" war, insist the Neocons, who recognize their serious loss of credibility in having repeatedly misled the public about both the cause and duration of conflicts.
War is almost always an elite misadventure. Rarely do average folks with normal families, jobs, and lives demand that the government send them off to kill or be killed. "Please, please, drag me away from my spouse and kids, cause me to lose my job, and put me through hell in order to wage war on a country I’ve never heard of," is rarely heard from military personnel. Instead, a well-organized war lobby typically promotes one selfish agenda or another. There’s economic advantage to gain. There is oil to seize. There are failed states to rebuild. There are domestic interests to satisfy. There are grand crusades to launch. There are foreign governments to enrich. There are special interest agendas to advance. There is influence to exercise and power to use.
As George W. Bush dramatically demonstrated, a few lies can go a long way. Even otherwise sensible people are willing to follow a president who claimed that "vital" national interests are at stake. The process works for democrats and authoritarians alike.
While on trial in Nuremburg, Herman Goering, head of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, had long conversations with American psychologist Gustave Gilbert. Explained Goering:
"Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship…
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
Sadly, it does work the same way. The Bush administration and its allies took every opportunity to spread lies and misinformation to sell the invasion of Iraq, even though al-Qaeda operated in Afghanistan. They called their opponents unpatriotic. They paid Iraqi expatriates who helped lie America into war. They distorted evidence and hid embarrassing facts. They engaged in scurrilous fearmongering. They accused war opponents of favoring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. And when caught in their lies, they simply changed their story.
Enormous horror resulted, for Americans and Iraqis. Yet virtually none of the architects of the war acknowledged their responsibility for the mass death and destruction that they caused. Most never paid any price for having committed grotesque policy malpractice. Rather, they continued to plot new wars for new combatants with new victims, without the slightest shame.
Still, the administration says it wants a foreign policy for the middle class. It should enunciate the basis of US foreign policy: promoting the interests of all the American people – their lives, homes, prosperity, and liberties. Consistent with that duty, Washington also should advance principles and values that Americans hold dear, such as human rights. And the US should always act only within the fundamental moral constraints that properly govern a free society. The end cannot justify the means, such as war.
Although war is sometimes necessary, it always should be a last resort, and one limited to securing truly vital interests. No war for profit. Or to expand trade. Or to encourage an ally. Or to promote nation-building. Or to stage a supposedly humanitarian intervention. Economic sanctions also should be rarely used. They can be as destructive as war but rarely achieve their professed ends. Diplomacy remains the preferred tool of statecraft. Private citizens also should act outside of government. Americans are among the best ambassadors for America and can do much to help other peoples and chasten other governments.
This approach would save lives and money, an obvious advantage for the middle class, and everyone else. For instance, a less interventionist foreign policy would allow Washington to rely on a smaller, less expensive, and less intrusive military. Eschewing most wars also would reduce the harm done to foreign peoples, such as the 400,000 or more Iraqis who died in the aftermath of the US invasion. Reducing foreign meddling would limit Washington’s support for regimes which are ostentatiously contrary to American values, such as Saudi Arabia.
These admittedly are only a start, but would act as a good beginning for any administration. Transforming US foreign policy won’t be easy, however. If the president really wants to put the middle class first, he’s going to have to put the Blob last. And there might be no harder task for a charter member of the establishment to perform.
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.