Joe Biden may dream of re-embracing the world and returning the United States to a position of global leadership after capturing the White House in November. But fixing America's foreign policy will require much more than simply erasing bad memories of Donald Trump and reverting to the technocratic competence of the Obama administration. In fact, righting our course may demand greater skill and influence than it's reasonable to assume Biden or any other president could possess.
That's because Trump's distinctive ineptitude and incoherence on the world stage is only a symptom of a much bigger and more systemic problem. That problem is American inconstancy.
Grasping the extent of the problem requires that we recount all the gyrations of American foreign policy since the early 1990s.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
In the most important speech of the immediate post-Cold War era, President George H. W. Bush framed his case for expelling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from his invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait in terms of enforcing a "new world order" in which a broad-based coalition of rule-following nations would uphold a series of international norms with the goal of furthering peace and prosperity for all.
Over the next decade, through the two terms of the Clinton administration and the first nine months of the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. managed to cultivate a rough and ready consensus in favor of using the United Nations and other international bodies to encourage cooperation and punish those who flouted global norms. We saw this in our enforcement of United Nations sanctions and no-fly zones in Iraq, in NATO's eventual military intervention in the morass of the Balkans conflict, and in our limited attacks on terrorist cells in Africa and South Asia. It wasn't always pretty, it wasn't always effective, and it didn't always make strategic sense. But it followed from our post-war pre-eminence and desire to rule the world with the lightest possible touch and in tandem with as many likeminded allies as possible.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 changed all of this — though it wasn't immediately apparent. At first, most of the world rallied to our side, and the unanimity continued through the initial Afghanistan campaign. But as soon as the build-up to the invasion of Iraq began, our international relationships began to fray. George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" was much smaller than the one his father had organized for the Persian Gulf War, and it was strongly opposed by plenty of those who stood by our side in that earlier conflict, who now saw America as a wounded hegemon lashing out against its adversaries unilaterally and irrationally. From the moment the bombs started falling on Baghdad in March 2003 on through the next six years of bumbling occupation, insurgency, civil war, and the face-saving "surge," many of our allies looked at us with apprehension, wondering whether America had lost its way to become a force for global disorder.
At least that's what they thought until Barack Obama won the presidency, leading many of our allies to swoon about the immanent return of a multilateralist sensibility to the White House. The Obama administration's record — including a vast expansion of drone warfare, a Libyan re-enactment of the Iraq War in miniature, and support for Saudi Arabia's vicious proxy war against Iran in Yemen — didn't exactly vindicate the comically premature awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the newly inaugurated president in 2009. But compared to the going-our-own-way bellicosity of the Bush administration, Obama offered something of an internationalist reset. He signed a climate change accord, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, and prepared to join a major trade deal with Asia. For our allies and adversaries alike, it looked like the Bush years were a momentary lapse in America's responsible global leadership.
Then came Donald Trump — a man who has made George W. Bush look like a world-champion diplomat and avatar of prudence in international affairs. It's true that Trump hasn't done any single thing remotely as ruinous as initiating the Iraq War, but he has repeatedly insulted allies, actively courted autocratic opponents of the West, and demonstrated over and over again to foreign counterparts a thoroughgoing ignorance of elementary facts. Most significantly of all, Trump has scuttled every major international deal struck by the previous administration.
All of that is bad. Very bad. But too often our discussions of Trump administration malfeasance take insufficient account of the broader context of recent alarming events. Trump is not merely an agent of international disorder. He's the second agent of international disorder to be elected president of the United States in the past two decades. Even worse than handing the White House to someone as unfit as Trump is to have done so immediately after his predecessor spent two terms in office attempting to demonstrate to the world that the mistakes of his predecessor were a temporary hiccup.
By now our allies and adversaries alike have learned the lesson that the United States is thoroughly unreliable. We will work for years to accomplish a series of goals in multiple regions of the world and then in an instant turn 180 degrees in the opposition direction, blowing up all of those efforts without the least hesitation or forethought. If Joe Biden wins the presidency, many will be relieved that Trump is gone, but no one will be fooled into believing for a second time that America has righted itself. Everyone will know that 2024 and yet another potential reversal is just four short years away.
Some Democrats and members of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment will no doubt be tempted to blame this massive self-inflicted wound on "partisanship," as if our dissociative behavior on the world stage is ultimately the fault of failing to listen more carefully and obediently to dispassionate experts. But to talk about our problems in these terms is to misdescribe them in a superficial way. We aren't careening wildly from one president to another because of our partisanship. Our drastic partisan shifts on foreign policy are a function of our underlying cluelessness about what we want to do in the world, a fantastical overestimation of our capabilities, and a resolute inability to think seriously about trade-offs.
Until all of this begins to change, the U.S. will be incapable of exercising anything approaching global leadership — and increasingly likely to stumble into military conflict with a competing major power uncertain about our priorities and capacities. That is the unhappy and dangerous situation Biden will inherit if he wins the presidency in November.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.