In a cliché-ridden foreign-policy speech delivered at the State Department on Thursday, President Joe Biden declared that "America is back" – on the global stage, presumably, as policeman of the world, but certainly not a disinterested policeman. The problem is that it never left.
Despite some uncouth rhetoric and regular New York Times headlines regarding "American isolationism," Donald Trump never withdrew the U.S. government from its meddling role in the world. He baited Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, and ended no war or US assistance to other wars. Far from leaving NATO or punishing its members for not paying more for their military forces, he oversaw its expansion – which had only one purpose: to aggravate Russia. Yes, Trump apparently removed some troops from Germany – does anyone have a good reason why they are still there? – but Biden promised to change that. He also wants to add Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, which of course – wink – would never make Russia nervous.
If that’s what he means by "America is back," let us shout in unison: Thanks, but no thanks!
Not that we should be surprised by Biden’s position, considering that his foreign-policy team consists of Obama administration retreads who act as though there’s a world of difference between intervention and humanitarian intervention.
Biden put Russia and China on notice: "The days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions – interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens – are over."
Hang on. We’ve never been given evidence that Russia, which has a weak economy and limited military, interfered with an election – quite the contrary – or engaged in cyberattacks. By the way, we know the US government does that sort of thing routinely, even with respect to Russia and its allies. Moreover, if Vladimir Putin’s government poisons its citizens – obviously something to be condemned by all decent people – how is that an aggressive action against against the United States or any other country? By that curious standard, US persecution of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, et al. could be construed as aggression against others.
I will give Biden credit for agreeing with Russia to extend the New START Treaty on nuclear weapons. (Putin’s so-called puppet, Trump, pulled out of such treaties.)
And on China:
And we’ll also take on directly the challenges posed by our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China. We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.
Note the words: "Our most serious competitor." One way to reduce tensions among states is to stop seeing them as competing economic entities. America doesn’t compete with China in the global marketplace because America is not a homogeneous entity with a single scale of preferences. An American consumer and a Chinese merchant may have a harmony of interest; likewise an American manufacturer and a Chinese consumer or producer. (Concerns about intellectual property can be taken care of by repealing the relevant laws. Ideas cannot legitimately be owned.) But Biden, like Trump, is locked into the mercantilist worldview in which nations compete against each other. That’s why Biden promises to reinforce the "Buy American" policy, costing taxpayers more for stuff that the U.S. government could buy for less from foreign manufacturers. "Buy American" also distorts the international division of labor, making everyone less prosperous.
Regarding Biden’s other charges against China, one need not approve of the oppressive Chinese government to understand that something is wrong when no government but the US government is allowed to have a sphere of influence ("backyard"), which thereby extends to the whole world. In a world of states, that sort of policy is asking for trouble.
So Biden’s speech wholeheartedly embraced America’s role as the global overseer, self-appointed to keep everyone on good behavior, strangely alternating between invocations of altruism and "naked [national] self-interest." We know where that took us in the past.
Biden promised to end assistance to Saudi Arabia’s "offensive" actions in Yemen. Fine. But how will he define "offensive"? We might have a clue in what Biden said right after this promise:
At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries. We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.
Bear in mind that the Saudi regime is one of the most repressive in the world.
So nothing will really change. If Biden wanted to make a constructive difference to that region, he would end the long-standing multi-front covert/overt war against Iran, including all the sanctions Trump imposed. Biden didn’t otherwise mention Iran in the speech, yet he says he wants to reenter the nuclear deal, which Trump stormed out of. The way to do that is end the sanctions, which harm and even kill innocent people.
While we’re talking about the Middle East, let us note that Biden said nothing about Israel and Palestine, despite all the damage Trump did there on behalf of the Israeli state and against the long-suffering Palestinians. We already know from his Senate confirmation hearing that Secretary of State Tony Blinken has no problem with what Trump did: from moving the embassy to Jerusalem to declaring the settlements in the de facto annexed West Bank just fine and dandy. Massive annual military aid to Israel – without any conditions whatever – of course will continue. That policy of course gives propaganda opportunities to other regimes that the US government can then condemn as destabilizing. But which party is the real destabilizer?
Also among the no-mentions was Afghanistan. How can Biden give his first speech on foreign policy without discussing the country’s longest war? That is really remarkable. The names Iraq and Syria also do not appear in the speech. Amazing.
As long as government exists, the proper foreign policy is nonintervention. Policing the world inevitably invites defensive and deterrent responses, which are then used as pretenses to counter so-called "aggressive" actions. It also makes fortunes for military contractors. The result is perpetual war in which liberty and prosperity must suffer.
Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.