instructed the European powers to keep their colonization efforts out of the Western Hemisphere, historians have looked for “doctrines,” the big ideas that guide presidents in their conduct of foreign policy. After last week’s virtual climate conference, political observers can begin to see the Biden doctrine will both clarify and complicate the tasks of U.S. foreign policy.
Simply put, the Biden doctrine holds that geopolitical competition must not be allowed to drive world history. Competition with China is real and must be vigorously pursued, but the essential goal of American foreign policy is to construct a values-based world order that can tackle humanity’s common problems in an organized and even collegial way.
This, Bidenites argue, is hardheaded realism. During the Cold War, self-interest—not starry-eyed idealism—kept American presidents and Soviet leaders from pushing the nuclear button, just as it was self-interest that led both sides to seek to limit their nuclear rivalry through arms control.
In the 21st century, problems like climate change, pandemics, financial regulation and cybersecurity simply cannot be solved by national governments acting alone. That reality, the new administration believes, forces world leaders to work together whether they like it or not. Global problems are so important, and the consequences of failing to address them so immediate, that countries have no choice but to cooperate. That cooperation reduces the scope and changes the nature of geopolitical competition. Just as the threat of nuclear destruction kept the Cold War cold, so threats like climate change and pandemics will limit international rivalries today.
Under these circumstances, Washington’s best response to geopolitical challenges from countries like China and Russia, Bidenites believe, is to change the subject. The U.S. can’t ignore the military and strategic facts of life, but order-building, not coup-counting, should be the goal. Even as America fends off Chinese and Russian efforts to undermine its global strategic position, Washington should constantly push the theme of common efforts to solve common problems.
That’s where last week’s climate summit comes in. As world leaders from
issued solemn though nonbinding pledges to reduce their carbon emissions, the kind of world President Biden hopes to build seemed to swim into view. One summit doesn’t make an order, however, and recent spats with Turkey and India point to some of the difficulties the Biden doctrine will encounter.
Mr. Biden’s declaration that the Ottoman Empire’s massacres of its Armenian subjects during World War I amounted to genocide marks a dramatic break in U.S.-Turkish relations. But the message was unmistakable: The Biden administration cares enough about universal standards on human rights to risk explosive quarrels even with treaty allies.
The message of the India vaccine kerfuffle was less inspiring. As a massive Covid surge rocked India to its foundations, the Biden administration stiff-armed anguished requests for vaccines, raw materials and medical equipment. Hopefully the damage can be quickly repaired—over the weekend Secretary of State
tweeted a message of undying solidarity, and on Sunday the White House said it would make raw vaccine materials available to New Delhi.
Suspicions in India remain that the original snub was political. To some American democracy activists, the Hindu nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party represents the kind of identity politics and populism that many Biden supporters believe is fatal to the prospects of world order. Bureaucratic inertia, rather than a desire to undercut Indian Prime Minister
is the more likely culprit, but the controversy points to a real problem for the Biden doctrine: When liberal internationalists talk about building world order, they assume that any effective one must be liberal. But what if that isn’t true?
Can the liberal West impose a global order founded on liberal principles that dictators and many populist leaders reject? If not, and global order is the only way to address existential problems, does that mean that the U.S. must play down democratic values and human rights to save the human race? Even as Mr. Biden condemned the Ottoman murders of the Armenians in 1915, will he have to accept Chinese assault on the Uighurs to save the planet?
While international interdependence makes some kind of world order inevitable, the degree to which that order is liberal depends on the geopolitical state of the world. A weak America (and a weak Europe and Japan) will have to accept a greater degree of Chinese, Russian and general illiberal influence in the design and operation of international institutions. A stronger and more successful West will have more scope to design the international order in accordance with its values.
This is how the rise of international interdependence paradoxically makes geopolitics both more difficult and more relevant than ever. The next four years will be anything but dull.
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