Joe Biden’s ‘three-magnet problem’
It’s obvious that the Biden administration’s foreign policy is an incoherent mess. One must only juxtapose the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the tough-guy posture with Russia over Ukraine, the endless concessions to Iran at the nuclear negotiating table and the administration’s haphazard but unmistakable efforts to “contain” China to get a sense that the president’s foreign policy team has lost the thread when it comes to grand strategy.
What is less obvious is why this should be the case. After all, this was the team that was supposed to restore discipline, focus and steadiness to U.S. foreign relations after the chaos of the Trump years. But a year in and that still hasn’t happened. In fact, in some ways things have gotten worse. The question is why.
One is tempted, of course, simply to invoke Hanlon’s Razor and put the whole chaotic muddle that is the Biden foreign policy today down to sheer incompetence. But that explanation is both too parsimonious and too partisan.
On closer inspection, the wild swings in U.S. foreign policy under President Biden probably have less to do with mere incompetence (though that may be a contributing factor) than with the way objects naturally behave when suspended between three magnets.
What? Magnets? What could magnets possibly have to do with the Biden administration’s inchoate foreign policy?
Well, at least analogically, everything. Think back to your college physics class. An object suspended between three magnets is intrinsically unstable. It’s constantly on the move, never retracing the same path, always moving in a non-linear pattern. Or perhaps recall that class you took on Carl von Clausewitz’s philosophy of war. Clausewitz, too, thought in terms of magnets, arguing that war itself is unpredictable because it is like a magnet suspended between the forces of rational decisionmaking, primordial violence and the play of chance.
And so it is with the Biden administration, where the magnets are three very different geopolitical visions, and the object suspended among them is U.S. foreign policy.
The first of these magnetic visions is that of a world rapidly descending into “Cold War II.” According to this vision, the planet is increasingly divided into two irreconcilably antagonistic camps: democracies and autocracies. The leaders of these two camps, led by the United States and China respectively, are locked in a titanic struggle over which of these two philosophies and political systems will eventually come to dominate the planet.
Reflecting its roots in the first Cold War, this Manichaean vision implies that the role of the United States is to construct a global alliance to “contain” China, to prevent it from dominating any of the key regions of the world or otherwise spreading its malign influence. Squeezed in this way, the logic runs, the Chinese-communist regime will first mellow and then collapse, effectively ending Cold War II much the same way as Washington’s original containment strategy ended the first Cold War — with the U.S. triumphant and the world safe for democracy.
The second magnetic vision – let’s call it “liberal internationalist primacy” – views the world as dominated by a single superpower, the United States, whose vocation is to sustain and defend the liberal international order conceived in World War II but only fully realized with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
According to this vision, forged during the post-Cold War “unipolar moment,” the American-led order is always under pressure from illiberal forces of one sort or another: radical Islamists, revanchist nationalists, aspiring autocrats — even populist democrats, whether at home or abroad. Reflecting the realities of the post-Cold War era, this magnetic vision pulls the United States in the direction of policing the world against any and all threats to liberal democracy or the “rules-based order” that emerged in the 1990s. In turn, this requires an American military that is fit for purpose, able to defend that order wherever, and by whomever, it is challenged.
And the third magnetic vision, a relative newcomer but with roots stretching all the way back to President John Quincy Adams in the early 19th Century, is that of “Restraint.” Rooted neither in the logic of the bipolar Cold War era nor that of the unipolar post-Cold War era, the Restraint vision calls for an American grand strategy focused first on thwarting the emergence of a hostile hegamon in Europe, Northeast Asia or the Middle East. It eschews both ideologically motivated containment and the policing of the global liberal order in favor of a more modest strategic posture of maintaining a stable global balance of power with the smallest possible military footprint.
What might be called the “three-magnet problem” of Biden’s foreign policy is that it swings wildly, even chaotically, between these three incompatible visions. The result? An inchoate foreign policy that is grounded in neither the geopolitical realities of the moment nor a consistent understanding of the American national interest.
What, then, is the solution? Well, if being caught in the unstable field of forces generated by three magnets is the problem, one way forward would be to eliminate two of those magnets. In practical terms, this would involve eliminating two of the three conflicting strategic visions that are pushing the Biden foreign policy hither and yon. But which two? And on what grounds?
When it comes to questions like this, one is always well advised to follow the advice of Arthur Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
In this case, the impossible visions that ought to be eliminated are those that are more reflective of the half-remembered, half-imagined realities of bygone eras rather than those of today. The Cold War has been over now for three decades, and the geopolitical realities of today cannot be forced back into the antiquated Cold War frame.
Similarly, the post-Cold War unipolar moment has also now definitively passed, and it is the height of folly to pretend that the world of 2022 is somehow the same as that of 1999. Both these geopolitical visions made sense once upon a time, but neither any longer reflects geopolitical reality. They are strategic impossibilities, grounded in nostalgia and reflex rather than realpolitik, that can and must be excised from the Biden administration’s geopolitical imagination.
If and when this finally happens, the three-magnet problem will have been solved. The only vision that will be left exerting its magnetic field upon the Biden administration’s foreign policy will be that of Restraint — a strategic vision grounded in a clear-eyed sense of both American national interests and the objective realities of today’s international order. If nothing else, that will produce a foreign policy that is less chaotic than the one we currently have. But it is likely also to result in a foreign policy that is less anachronistic, less susceptible to hubris, less inclined to seek out illiberal monsters to destroy, and thus less war prone than the current one.
And that would be a pretty good solution to the Biden administration’s three-magnet problem.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.
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