Since 1776, the United States has undertaken 469 international military interventions acknowledged by Congress. All hawkish presidents will declare familiar rhetoric to Congress that action is “consistent with the War Powers Resolution,” imperative for the “global war on terrorism” or “facilitates and coordinates” American interests to speed-run war. Counting foreign intervention without Congress’ acknowledgment, the United States has surpassed 500 interventions. 60% of these interventions were undertaken between 1950 and 2017 — one third of these occurred after 1999 — far past the end of the Cold War. The United States merely shifted from the ‘domino theory’ to the ‘War on Terrorism’ to continue justifying U.S. intervention.
My life has been dominated by presidents who irrationally use our military-industrial complex as a launchpad for quagmire wars while failing to win them. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan commenced in 2001 and didn’t end until 2021 — my first year of college, a forever war of failed nation-building and inept counter-insurgency. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq under the Bush administration with no clear military objectives, only citing the falsity of weapons of mass destruction — creating a power vacuum and destabilizing Iraq.
In 2011, all I watched on my family’s TV was the Libyan war — an intervention started by former U.S. President Barack Obama. He didn’t learn from the Iraq War that chaos is far worse than dictatorship. Obama’s destruction of Gaddafi’s regime created a new failed state and ruined Libya for a generation — all symptoms of the United States’ obsession with promiscuous war-making — and none serving America’s long-term or domestic interests. What I am certain of, is in Washington, military action is assumed to be preferable to inaction, regardless of the consequences.
Since the early 2000s, every preceding administration has been affected by the legacies of military interventions and each has attempted to distinguish their foreign policy from other presidents. Today, we are living in U.S. President Joe Biden administration’s foreign policy era.
At the start of his term, when Biden released his interim national security strategic guidance document, the President claimed “America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back.” Yet, has Biden owned up to his grand pronouncements?
At a glance, the Biden administration has ushered in a renewed seriousness towards statesmanship and multilateral restoration. He has departed from former President Donald Trump’s adhocracy towards foreign policy-making and from Trump’s America First isolationism. At the beginning of his presidency, he even rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and declared re-engagement with the World Health Organization.
In practice, however, Biden’s foreign policy record and priorities are an altered duplicate of Donald Trump’s foreign policy — “MAGA lite: making America great again with the assistance of foreign partners rather than over their objections.” Biden’s ‘foreign policy for the middle class,’ which puts working families at the center of U.S. national security, resembles Trump putting U.S. interests over global interests. Trump would argue that unless you can link U.S. foreign policy to our domestic agenda, we shouldn’t be doing it, and Biden would agree, though to a lesser extent.
MAGA lite is also observed in the Biden Administration’s approach to Afghanistan. In May of 2021, Biden started to fully withdraw troops, following Trump’s orders to halve the deployment to 2,250 by the end of 2020. Afghanistan was a NATO operation. America’s NATO allies have invested billions in military and reconstruction efforts and have lost over 1,100 soldiers. The United States’ European allies also had a greater stake in the operation than the United States did, needing to prevent a state of 40 million people from collapsing into a failed state that would trigger another influx of mass migration in Europe or become a new incubator for terrorism. Once Biden recommitted to Trump’s Doha Agreement, the decision was automatically made for 7,000 non-American NATO forces in Afghanistan. Additionally, the Biden administration rejected NATO allies’ pleas to extend the Aug. 31 deadline for troop departure, leaving them scrambling to airlift thousands of their citizens out of the country.
Biden’s actions are Trump-adjacent. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May even publicly criticized Biden for “following Trump’s lead in unilateral negotiation with the Taliban.” When Biden operates unilaterally, countries take notice. In response to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taiwan’s President Tsai-Ing-wen stated, “Taiwan’s only option is to grow stronger and become more united, strengthening our determination to protect ourselves.” Foreign-policy flip-flopping casts doubt on U.S. credibility — especially when Biden claimed he withdrew from Afghanistan partly to devote more resources to East Asia and defend Taiwan. However, if he doesn’t begin to consult with U.S. allies on key issues that affect them, it leaves the United States in an untrusted position as an international security guarantor.
Biden’s foreign policy is converging with Trump’s policies — some positive and some not — even if the administration tries to frame its approach as liberal internationalism. On the contrary, Biden continues to borrow from his predecessor’s foreign policy. However, this trend shouldn’t be a surprise. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has conducted what is known as“a la carte multilateralism,” a commitment to multilateralism when the U.S. can but unilateralism when the U.S. must — with each administration choosing “when we must” given the current global circumstances, opportunity costs, and their foreign policy-making ideology. Biden’s alignment with a la carte multilateralism positions the United States halfway along a policy spectrum with aggressive American exceptionalism at one end and liberal internationalism at the other.
For instance, Biden has continued aid and defensive weapons sales to the Saudi military in the Yemen War, despite his earlier pledge to end that aid because Saudi airstrikes killed civilians. He has continued Trump-era tariffs on China despite the Chamber of Commerce calling for tariff relief. However, he has kept the Trump era’s genocide designation for China’s human rights abuses of the Uyghurs.
Biden has sought to re-broker a nuclear agreement with Tehran, an Obama-era agreement that Trump dismantled. However, he has kept a Trump-era action, designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp as a terrorist organization, despite it leading to an impasse on the nuclear agreement — consistently oscillating between Obama and Trump.
Above all, Biden has promised to phase out America’s forever wars and elevate diplomacy as the tool of first resort. He simultaneously pledged to “never hesitate to use force when required to defend our vital national interests’”— with this statement directed at China and Russia.
However, Biden has sustained the first part of his statement and quasi-diplomatic focus on China. Biden’s “invest, align and compete” strategy towards China — which calls for the United States to be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be — is Biden’s own a la carte multilateralism.
Biden aimed to counter China economically by investing billions in U.S. tech industries. He sought to “align” with U.S. allies who oppose China’s vision of making the world safer for authoritarianism — through an updated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, collaboration through the Quad, and the AUKUS military cooperation scheme. Lastly, by “competing,” the U.S. aims to outcompete China by increasing our competitive advantage in global innovation, protecting our IP, and offering developing states alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
With this strategy, Biden does not intend to sever China’s economy from the United States or facilitate American isolationism. Rather, the strategy is to counter China’s asymmetric economic decoupling and its hope that the world will be more dependent on China. It is to counter the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and China’s hegemonic rise in an era of multipolarity — within reasonable, non-belligerent guardrails. Competition is not meant to lead to a second Cold War.
Biden has remained steadfast in his commitment to defend Taiwan. But, he risks his credibility with China and microdoses conflict when he suggests that Taiwan can declare independence if it chooses — a lite renegade of America’s support for the One China Policy. China’s actions towards Taiwan are not timeline-based; instead, they are conditions-based, and Biden has been disrupting these conditions. Biden has embraced “strategic clarity” in pledging to defend Taiwan. However, when he flip-flops on historical commitments that could provoke Taiwan to declare de jure independence unilaterally, those conditions could cause China to increase its pressure campaign against Taiwan and force the U.S. into a proxy war.
There are a myriad of pertinent foreign policy issues that remain unresolved, and the 2024 presidential election is still a year away. Whether the United States elects a second Biden or Trump Administration or someone new like Ron DeSantis, U.S. foreign policy will gain a new a la carte multilateralism. Regardless of the candidate, U.S. foreign policy should look different going forward.
Foremost, to prevent continued interventions and uncertainty, the United States needs to understand America’s version of democratic peace theory is dead. Democratic peace theory argues that democratic countries go to war less with each other. The United States takes it a step forward by coercing the theory and intervening in countries to make them democratic. After the United States invaded Vietnam and Iraq, their domestic stability was catastrophic. The United States needs to heed former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s advice to all countries — “We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine is the ultimate geopolitical litmus test. So far, Biden has heeded Eisenhower’s advice while maintaining resolute restraint. He has kept American boots off the ground in Ukraine while providing military equipment and maintaining a trans-Atlantic coalition to support Kyiv. U.S. foreign policy’s default should be “resolute restraint” — being firm on defending allies and core interests without succumbing to escalatory pressures and war. In Biden’s National Security Strategy (NSS), he argued, “military force should only be used when the objectives and mission are clear and achievable.” Rather than being contingent on individual administrations, U.S. foreign policy needs a fixed strategy of resolute restraint. In the future, if the United States is pushed to defend allies but there is a probability of slipping into a quagmire war, it should employ integrated deterrence, not military intervention.
Biden repeated the word “values” 29 times in his NSS report and vowed to shape the future of the international order with American values. U.S. values should exclude long-term commitments with a predictable long tail or nation-building. The United States should opt for policies closer to Truman’s Marshall Plan or JFK’s approach to the Cuban missile crisis than the Vietnam, Iraq or Libya wars. While these conflicts were all launched with the vision of a liberal international order, the latter three failed to accomplish any U.S. objectives, indicative of a needed change in the United States’ strategy model. The Biden administration has outlined an adequate methodology for current and future foreign policy, despite some blunders where he’s sacrificed values over interests.
Going forward, U.S. foreign policy needs to maintain multilateralism and credibility, especially by consulting U.S. allies that have a stake in an endeavor. Foreign policy needs to maintain strategic clarity and not flip-flop on prior commitments, especially when the cost of not doing so could be deadly. Most importantly, the United States needs resolute restraint in all geopolitical areas. U.S. foreign policy must institutionalize that force should only be used when it is clear, achievable and compatible with holistic and long-term U.S. interests. The United States should rely more on rational-actor policies, such as deterrence and legitimate cost-benefit analysis for all parties involved, not heuristics.
The United States is now confronted with an unprecedented war and hegemonic rise of China that threatens almost every aspect of international relations. But ultimately, the main goal should be not to add to the list of U.S. military interventions in sovereign states in the future. What I am certain of, is military action should not be assumed to be preferable to inaction.