Anything President Trump can do, President Biden can undo better. On his first day in office, Biden issued 17 executive actions, nine them simply reversing a prior Trump order. The Paris Climate Agreement returned like a ghost, revived to save the world from climate disaster with vague good intentions. The border wall was canceled. Critical race theory was re-enshrined as America’s state religion.
In the weeks since the inauguration, dozens of additional orders have appeared. In most cases this administration’s stated principle is ‘what the Orange Man did, but the opposite’. But in trying to construct a foreign policy that maintains America’s status as a global superpower, Biden will find that simply repudiating Trump is not enough.
In his inaugural foreign policy speech, delivered at the State Department on February 4, Biden announced the end of military aid for the Saudi war in Yemen. It was a welcome move, one made even more so by the fact that, since few Americans realize they are funding a war in Yemen, there was scant political value in making it.
Yemen is yet another indictment of America’s 40-year run as self-appointed Middle East peacemaker. While it would never make news back in the United States, the Obama administration launched dozens of drone strikes in Yemen, killing alleged al-Qaeda members as well as many civilians and the occasional US citizen. Throughout this period, Yemen’s Houthi rebels were seen as potential allies against al-Qaeda and later Isis. But in 2015, Obama backed the Saudi invasion of Yemen on the grounds that Shiite Houthis were a proxy for Iran. This led one defense consultant to quip that America had become ‘al-Qaeda’s air force in Yemen’.
As Yemen disintegrated, the US variously propped up both sides with billions of dollars in humanitarian aid. All of this, naturally, unfolded with little debate and even less public awareness. It was a quagmire only a Georgetown PhD could love. If Biden can end that bipartisan mess by dressing up an Obama-era blunder as a Trumpian folly, he is more than welcome.
Yet by distancing America from Saudi Arabia, Biden may end up shifting the balance of Middle Eastern power back towards Iran. This could in turn destabilize the Abraham Accords and undermine Israel. The shift in Yemen policy could be a prelude to an attempt to revive the Iran Deal. Reducing support for Saudi Arabia’s war and removing the Houthis from the terrorist list could be sweeteners, intended to draw Iran back to the table, which would alarm Israel. Or it could end up being a mere gesture to make up for the administration’s unwillingness to risk reviving Obama’s flawed deal. Either way, any perceived volte-face in the region will leave America looking clueless and unreliable. Plus ça change.
Elsewhere in his speech, President Biden declared that ‘America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage’. This claim is built more on the myth of the Trump administration than the reality: it confuses Trump’s disdain for the Foreign Service and Geneva-based NGOs with actual disengagement from global politics. Domestic commenters wailed about Trump ‘abandoning’ America’s allies, but the chief product of multilateral summits remains hot air. It’s true that Trump struggled to get on with women leaders such as Theresa May and Angela Merkel. Yet in countries ruled by fellow charismatic male populists, such as Mexico, India and Brazil, Trump enjoyed strong working relationships.
Much like Obama and Bush before him, the most harmful and risky parts of Trump’s foreign policy occurred when he was enthusiastically present on the world stage. Repeated cases of brinkmanship with Iran took the US to the edge of war multiple times while achieving nothing. A botched effort to topple the Maduro regime in Venezuela nearly spread the virus of failed US military interventions from the Middle East to the Americas. Constant exhortations to project American strength mean that involvements in Syria and Afghanistan are ongoing rather than long over, as Trump promised they would be. If the Biden administration simply sees the Trump era as a period of ‘disengagement’, then it may very well repeat his blunders rather than avoid them.
Similarly, in its desire to reverse the days of Trump, the Biden administration may mistake sentimentality for foreign policy. In his speech, the President bragged about rejoining the World Health Organization. Nothing has been done to fix that body’s ongoing submission to China or its glaring failures in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. It is simply taken as a given that America’s membership in global bodies is good, and that supplying the largest share of their budgets demonstrates ‘leadership’ rather than gullibility.
The same vague ‘good feelings’ loom over President Biden’s declaration that climate change is a ‘national security’ issue akin to nuclear proliferation. US Marines won’t be fast-roping into Islamabad to stop the construction of a new coal plant, so what does the order even mean? At best, it will be symbolic, a pledge of allegiance to ‘the science’ rather than a substantive shift in the global order. At worst, it may encourage the US to unilaterally enfeeble itself in order to show that same ‘leadership’ to bemused onlookers.
If Joe Biden wants a successful four or even eight years of foreign policy, instead of simply reversing Trump he might look to learn from him. President Trump governed almost wholly from his gut. Domestically, that most often led to mercurial vacillation. On foreign policy, it often led to his finest achievements. President Trump’s preference was to ‘make deals’, shun new conflicts, bring home American troops where he could, and assume that most countries were looking out for their own interests, so America should do the same. If President Biden can combine that same gut impulse with superior organization and the buy-in of Washington, he may be able to contain China and preserve America’s superpower status well into the future. If he can’t, Biden may be known as the president under whom America stopped being a superpower at all.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2021 US edition.