With Wednesday's surprise announcement of a new defense pact between the United States, Great Britain, and Australia to counter China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea and throughout the Asia-Pacific region, Joe Biden has once again demonstrated an instinct for bold thinking and action in international affairs.
That instinct is Biden's greatest strength in the making of foreign policy — but it's also intertwined with his greatest weakness in dealing with the wider world.
America's foreign policy establishment is deeply conservative. I don't mean that it affirms the ideological conservatism that dominates the Republican Party, though there is some overlap there. I mean, instead, that members of this establishment, whether they incline toward the left or the right, tend to favor consistency. If we have troops in Afghanistan, we should keep troops in Afghanistan. If NATO is our most important alliance, it should remain our most important alliance. If Iran has been considered a mortal enemy since 1979, we should continue to view the country and its rulers as enemies.
Joe Biden doesn't think and act like a member of the American foreign policy establishment. Neither did Barack Obama, at least when it came to Iran and Cuba. But in other areas, he deferred to rather than fought the conventional Washington wisdom.
In this respect, Biden more closely resembles the thoroughly unconventional Donald Trump. Back during the Bush administration, Biden broke sharply from the national security consensus in proposing to partition Iraq (turning it into a federal state with three semi-autonomous regions) as a way of stemming the tide of violence there and allowing the U.S. to pull back from its role in keeping the unstable nation intact.
That's a level of audacity to rival Trump's highly unorthodox overtures to North Korea early in his presidency and his administration's later role in helping to broker the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. And of course, Trump and Biden agreed on the goal of withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan over the objections of key players in the national security establishment.
Which isn't to say that Biden is just a more knowledgeable and less crude version of Trump. The two presidents are furthest apart on the value of allies. Trump, a thoroughgoing unilateralist, frequently expressed contempt for allies and even appeared to relish attempting to extort protection money (or collect tribute) from countries to which we had extended defense guarantees.
Biden takes a very different approach, describing our alliances as "sacred" and even, as he put it in his remarks on Wednesday announcing the defense agreement with the U.K. and Australia, "our greatest source of strength."
The new trilateral "AUKUS" partnership does indeed demonstrate the advantage of cultivating allies — and shows how useful it can be to think outside the boxes that often constrain strategic and tactical planning among members of the foreign policy establishment. Instead of relying primarily on NATO to check China's ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, as he indicated he might just a few months ago, Biden decided to build on longstanding bilateral ties to London and Canberra to devise a more aggressive approach based on greatly enhancing Australia's naval strength and capacity. The result is potentially a significant shift in the balance of power in the region.
Yet the defense pact has also been badly received by another imporant ally: France. That country had a 50 billion euro deal with Australia to supply its navy with diesel-powered submarines that it now has to scrap. Then there are geopolitical considerations. France feels overlooked and bypassed, its own ambitions in East Asia scuttled.
And if that weren't enough, the French foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, also claims he was frozen out of discussions over the AUKUS agreement and not warned about its announcement ahead of time. The result is a surprisingly acrimonious outburst accusing Australia of a "stab in the back" and the United States of an even more exasperating betrayal. "This brutal, unilateral, unpredictable decision looks very much like what Mr. Trump used to do," Le Drian asserted. "Allies don't do this to each other. … It's rather insufferable."
The AUKUS agreement certainly shouldn't have been held up over French objections. But that doesn't mean that the Biden administration handled the negotiations and the deal's announcement in a tactful way — or that it makes sense for Biden himself to lean so heavily on sappy talk about the wondrousness of alliances in general.
Alliances are very useful tools, but they are nothing more. NATO has been incredibly effective for advancing European and American interests by checking Russian ambitions in Central and Western Europe. But that doesn't mean that our relationship with one NATO ally in particular (France) should prevent us from strengthening our ties to countries elsewhere in the world for the sake of advancing our national interests in those regions. Doing so might temporarily wound one ally, but that is the cost of doing business, not a violation of some "sacred" trust.
Though that doesn't excuse needlessly antagonizing our friends through simple sloppiness, which appears to be what we've done with France, just as we did with numerous allies in our recent hurried and disordered withdrawal from Afghanistan. It's a shame to get the big decisions right while bungling the execution.
Yet that combination is exactly what we've seen over the past couple of months from Joe Biden: A willingness to think and act in fresh ways to meet the challenges of the geopolitical moment combined with rhetorical sentimentality and diplomatic clumsiness that end up being just as galling to key allies as Donald Trump's insults and disrespect ever were.
Biden and his team were supposed to bring competence and professionalism back to American diplomacy. It's time they started acting like it.