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6 policy don'ts for Joe Biden

6 policy don'ts for Joe Biden
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It is transition time in Washington, and think tanks all over town will be burning the midnight oil to offer their wisdom to the incoming president. With a world in disarray, a raging pandemic, U.S.-China ties in freefall and multiple crises from Azerbaijan to the South China Sea, President-elect Biden’s inbox is already overflowing.

So, instead of new initiatives, counter-intuitive as it may seem, we’d like to inject some early warning about things to avoid — call them the “Six Don’ts.” Avoiding pitfalls, particularly in a volatile, pandemic-ridden world, is as important as taking action at this crucial inflection point.

First, don’t make any budgetary decisions based on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). This trendy idea posits that the link between public debt and inflation is broken so that deficits don’t matter. Spend all you like, the thinking goes, because Treasury can just print money.

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Crises are exceptions to this “don’t” in that the large too-long deferred COVID-19 economic package should go forward to accelerate the recovery. But the idea that a $21 trillion federal debt, soon to exceed 100 percent of the size of the U.S. economy is sustainable and should not be a major factor in budget decisions is dangerously flawed. Whether or not Biden buys MMT, it will shape all policy decisions requiring funding, particularly in a divided government. The risks are huge that MMT, like so many other economic theories, will turn into a chimera at the next fiscal crisis, and the U.S. will require even more urgent measures to dig itself out of its debt trap.    

Second, don’t repeat the Trump administration’s mistake of ignoring the mounting COVID-19-driven developing nation debt, from Argentina to Zambia. Such financial distress could spark yet another global financial crisis. Capital flows to low-income states are projected to drop by $700 billion in 2020 from 2019 levels. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has suspended debt repayments for 79 low-income states until June 2021. But many believe a new tranche of IMF lending will be needed to manage debt and stave off recession. This is an issue that the Biden Treasury will need to closely monitor, if not defuse, when it threatens a broader global recovery. If we have learned anything in the past couple decades, it is that the world is ever more connected, and whether it is a pandemic or an economic crisis, no country is an island divorced from and immune to the contagion. 

Third, when the next Middle East crisis hits, don’t consider “humanitarian intervention.” There remains too much belief that the U.S. can manage difficult situations many miles away without increasing amounts of blood and treasure. The Libya fiasco should have ended all such notions. Such good-intentioned efforts are prone to “mission creep” and end up favoring one or the other set of political actors on the ground, leading to unintended consequences.

A considered definition of what U.S. interests are “vital” (e.g. worth going to war over) and understanding the limits of U.S. power and leverage is the starting point of sensible policy. There is a strategic realignment unfolding in the region, not only Gulf states/Sunni Arabs openly aligning with Israel, but new geostrategic competition between Turkey, GCC, Iran and Russia calling into question core U.S. assumptions about its position in the region. In addition, there are horrific humanitarian tragedies in Syria, Yemen, refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere. Address these disasters multilaterally, not unilaterally, via the UN and U.S. allies and partners and keep expectations low for solving the problem.

Fourth, on North Korea, don’t rise to the bait. If past is prologue, Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnLike his predecessors, Biden faces a formidable task with North Korea North Korea displays ballistic missiles at parade Pelosi's risky blunder: Talking about Trump and nuclear war MORE will greet President Biden, as he did Obama, with a provocation, most likely an SLBM or ICBM test in the first half of 2021. Don’t let it manufacture a pseudo-crisis. Kim is continuing to improve his missile and nuclear capabilities, as he did throughout his engagement over the course of three meetings with Trump. Kim is not suicidal; deterrence still works, though it needs to be strengthened in the face of new and emerging North Korean capabilities. Instead, pursue multilateral censure or a policy of opprobrium including tougher sanctions, as much as UN Security Council traffic will bear, and work with South Korea and Japan to enhance deterrence, as trilaterally as possible.

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Don’t count on a cold war with China ending the same way it did with the Soviet Union, leading to another U.S. unipolar moment. We are likely to be surprised that our allies in Asia and Europe don’t fall in line, the way they supported us after the Second World War. China is more of an economic pull than Moscow ever was, and China’s Communist Party is more popular among the Chinese than we give it credit for. Much better to allow China and its leadership to fail on its own. Multilateral coalition efforts are the only way to gain sufficient leverage and have a chance of changing Chinese behavior. But building a coalition requires avoiding the appearance of being locked into bilateral struggle to pull China down. The Biden administration needs to craft a framework for competitive coexistence. Avoiding a cold war mentality will be difficult, as the growing anti-China hostility is the only thing that unites Republicans and Democrats.        

Lastly, don’t keep pushing China and Russia together. We can’t expect much improvement in U.S.-Russia ties, although extending New START beyond the one-year freeze and follow-on arms control could help put a floor under a further deterioration in relations. However, Ukraine, Belarus, cyber intrusions and other issues stand in the way of a reset. There’s a question whether passing more sanctions won’t increase Russia’s economic and strategic reliance on China, inverting the Kissingerian goal of Washington having better ties with Moscow and Beijing than they have with each other. In a multipolar world, the U.S. stands a better chance of safeguarding its interests if it can pit the different powers against each other, not face a united front.          

Much of the story of failures in U.S. foreign policy is that of rash strategic errors — from the Vietnam War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq to Trump’s recent withdrawal from international institutions like the World Health Organization and then complaining of expanding Chinese influence. So perhaps one legacy of the Obama worldview worth considering is “Don’t do stupid sh--.”

Mathew J. Burrows, PhD, serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He retired in 2013 from a 28-year career at the CIA and the National Intelligence Council.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the under-secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.