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Biden Doctrine should remake foreign policy, not reinstate it

President Biden speaks on coronavirus vaccination efforts in the East Room of the White House
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For President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda to succeed, he must acknowledge that the structure of the international system has changed since the Obama years. The world today is coalescing into something that looks like a bifurcated Cold War 2.0 system shaped by the U.S.-China rivalry. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, China is “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st Century.”

This means Biden cannot simply confront America’s rivals. He needs to embrace competition and cooperation, especially with China, America’s only peer competitor. The U.S. must counter China’s Belt and Road initiative, an aggressive set of infrastructure and investment projects designed to expand China’s geopolitical and economic influence. Biden cannot allow China to rewrite global rules. He needs to play the long game. To confront China, one analysis recommends the U.S. should tap into its vast economic resources and soft power by promoting open trade and commerce, embracing rules for digital spaces, and advancing freedom of the seas.

Biden should build an alliance of democracies to stave off the ideological threat of rising authoritarianism around the world, which enables China to spread its influence. Biden already criticized President Xi Jinping for China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, crackdown in Hong Kong, and Chinese territorial ambitions.

He also warned that the U.S. needs to counter China’s edge in 5G technology with new investments in American technology and infrastructure and acted with the Quad Summit nation-states, which includes India, Japan, and Australia in addition to the U.S., to expand vaccine distribution to counter China’s use of COVID-19 vaccines to build its influence. Biden can take additional steps to curb China’s ability to leverage vaccine distribution for influence by funding the global vaccine regime COVAX to help distribute vaccines to developing nations.

At the same time, Biden needs to work with President Xi on climate change within the Paris Climate Accords since both China and the U.S. are top emitters of greenhouse gases. The U.S. and China can reduce global temperatures and cooperate with one another through the Paris Climate Accords, but only if Biden leverages Climate Envoy John Kerry’s emerging relationship with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua.

While China is the key player, Biden must also contend with a disruptive and restive Russia. Biden needs both China and Russia for space diplomacy to develop a legal system that benefits all three nation-states and maintains America’s edge in the commercialization of outer space. 

The detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who President Vladimir Putin attempted to assassinate in 2020, is an immediate challenge for Biden because the world is watching whether he can really build international support. Biden must also respond to Russia’s 2020 SolarWinds Hack that devastated America’s critical infrastructure. Biden has also promised to reinforce NATO in the face of Russia’s increasingly effective hybrid warfare campaign.

However, Biden must negotiate with Russia to counter nuclear proliferation. While new reductions on nuclear stockpiles would be a major foreign policy win for Biden, it will be difficult for his administration to do the heavy lifting given that Russia used Trump associates to harm Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.

But America has bigger challenges to democracy than Russian election meddling to contend with at home. Biden must contend with the damage to America’s global image. It should make every U.S. diplomat wonder how much credibility the U.S. has in the world given the number of people who believe Trump’s voter fraud claims. In this milieu it’s hard to imagine the U.S. morally condemning attacks on democracy.

Though Biden condemned the coup in Myanmar and referenced democracy and free and fair elections, the violent insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 shows just how difficult it is for the U.S. to speak from a position of moral authority. On this front, Biden’s doctrine must draw upon Richard Haas’s suggestion that foreign policy begins at home by fighting for voting rights for all Americans. Only when the strength and resilience of America’s democracy is affirmed will authoritarian states like China and Russia take seriously any condemnation from the American president.

Biden cannot return to conventional U.S. foreign policy because the world has already changed. Old approaches will not work against pandemics, recessions, and climate change. More important, the American public knows more defense spending, sanctions, and going it alone are useless against transnational threats. Biden must develop a foreign policy for the American middle class and embrace multilateral cooperation with allies and democratic nations to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.

Chris Dolan is professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

Tags Antony Blinken Joe Biden John Kerry Solar Winds U.S.-China relations Vladimir Putin

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