Many presidents since James Monroe have had doctrines bearing their names. Some worked; others did not. Whether President Biden will formally adopt and codify his policies into a “Biden Doctrine” remains to be seen. But at this point, this is how it appears to be taking shape.
Biden’s linking of domestic and foreign policies is very wise. He seems to understand that to be strong internationally the United States must be strong at home. That means repairing the damage done by the prior administration in further polarizing an already hyper-polarized nation; economically in cutting taxes that swelled the deficit and wealth disparities; and internationally by employing an “America first” approach that antagonized and angered both allies and others.
Biden is proposing that relief; soon, he hopes, the infrastructure and massive reconciliation bills will combine to fulfill his promise to restore the middle class and “build back better” so that the U.S. will be fully competitive in the 21st century. Biden has already made inroads in reassuring allies, and his first trip to Europe must be seen as very positive in that regard. But it is only a first step in what will be a long process to restore trust and confidence in America.
Internationally, the president is focusing on China as the pacing threat that extends beyond the military competition. In the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, much of the Trump intent is continued. The National Defense Strategy (NDS) to “compete, deter and [if war comes] defeat” a range of potential adversaries, principally China and Russia, has been more or less maintained but with emphasis on prevention and deterrence of Beijing, which is a small shift in the right direction.
But the central theme and potential source of a Biden Doctrine is the contest between democracies and autocracies, which could be cast as the battle of the century. The president has been both adamant and consistent in presenting this theme, and that is worrisome.
The U.S. has not always had good luck in making this case. The one major, and indeed most important, example was democratizing Nazi Germany and fascist Japan after World War II. But both countries were devastated by the war and desperately so. Unconditional surrender put them under the complete control of the allies. And that was a profoundly successful endeavor.
The U.S. attempted to recreate good versus evil against Godless communism during the Cold War. That the Soviet Union peacefully imploded could be seen as the triumph of democracy, even though it was the failure and irrationality of a tightly controlled Marxist-Leninist system that caused the collapse. President Kennedy’s stirring 1961 inaugural address, in which he promised “to pay and price and bear any burden” to protect freedom and liberty, sounded far better than it turned out. That ideological commitment to democracy caused three presidents to enter into a war that we couldn’t fight or win, ultimately ending in an ignominious defeat symbolized by the last Huey helicopter lifting off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in April 1975.
Service in Vietnam in the mid-1960s convinced me of the folly of this idealistic notion of transferring democracy to places where it would not work and was not wanted. Three-and-a-half decades later, George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, aka doctrine, was to transform the geostrategic landscape of the greater Middle East by imposing democracy first on Iraq. And it is clear how that worked out.
China is not the USSR. As we did not understand Vietnam and the war or later Afghanistan and Iraq, we may be making similar errors in the Pacific. And with Jan. 6, the spate of police-related killings of Americans of color; and even the tragic collapse of a Miami high-rise, America’s image is far from the shining city on a hill envisioned by our Founders. Friends and enemies understand that perhaps better than we do.
While the president is unlikely to reverse course on his competition with autocracies, he might be wise to consider the advice China’s President Xi Jinping provided on their first telephone call after the inauguration: “No conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” After Xi’s July 1 polemic address marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Biden may wish to remind Beijing of that advice.
Now that might make for a Biden Doctrine that could work. Otherwise, the perils of Vietnam and Iraq could be repeated, though in a far different and perhaps very unpleasant context.
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D., is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.”