Biden continues Trump’s flirtation with complacency

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump
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In the wake of the shameful and humiliating spectacle of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden has announced a new foreign policy doctrine: leading by example.  It’s essentially a noninterventionist foreign policy. Here’s how his national security adviser described it: “A strong America that works together with partners and allies to stand up for our shared values, advance our shared interests and demonstrate … that democracy can deliver for the American people and for people around the world.”

During the debate over Syria in 2013, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser defended America’s world leadership role this way: “The U.S. for decades has played the role of undergirding the global security architecture and enforcing international norms. We do not want to send a message that the United States is getting out of that business in any way.” But many Americans, like former President Donald Trump, do want to send that message.

The U.S. has accepted a world leadership role since the end of World War II, when Britain, exhausted and depleted, gave it up. President Harry Truman announced in 1947 that the U.S. would assume principal leadership of the global struggle to contain communism.

The rule since World War II has been: Whenever there is a threat to world order or to humanitarian values, if the U.S. doesn’t do anything, nothing happens. The burden has always been on us.

Finally, in 1991, nearly 45 years after the Cold War began, the U.S. enjoyed two great victories. One came in the Persian Gulf War when the U.S. drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The other came on Christmas Day, when President George H.W. Bush got to announce what eight presidents before him could only dream of saying: “The Soviet Union is no more.”

That began the “fantasy decade,” 1991 to 2001, when, for the U.S., prosperity reigned and the rest of the world seemed far away. President Bill Clinton pleaded for engagement in the world. “Choosing isolation over engagement would not make the world safer,” Clinton said in 1998. “It would make it more dangerous.” But Americans were wary of risk-taking in places like Somalia. And of what some called “social work” in Bosnia, where the U.S. did not feel threatened. The World Trade Center in New York City was first bombed in 1993. That attack was treated, and successfully prosecuted, as a crime, not as an act of war.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were shocked out of complacency. Once again, Americans became engaged. The “war on terror” began in October 2001 with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

In his Aug. 16 remarks defending the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden declared that while “human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, … the way to do it is not through endless military deployments. It is with our diplomacy, our economic tools and rallying the world to join us.”

We now face a global confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism. Our principal adversary is China, not so much because it is communist but because it is autocratic and intolerant of dissent. The U.S. intends to demonstrate the superiority of democracy not by using military force but by setting an example.

That does not preclude the use of force if our national security is threatened. But force must be specific and targeted: counterterrorism rather than military intervention. President Biden put it this way: “We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence.” It’s an argument against “nation-building,” something we tried and failed to do in Vietnam and Iraq and now Afghanistan.

Didn’t the U.S. succeed in building functioning democracies in Germany and Japan following World War II? Yes, but those countries faced total defeat and unconditional surrender. The U.S. had both the authority and the legitimacy to rebuild their national institutions. Moreover, Germany and Japan had been the aggressors. In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. was seen as the invader.

President Biden, a traditional Democrat, has followed the evolution of the Democratic Party to the left. He is repudiating his former support for military intervention. On Aug. 16, President Biden cited his commitment not to send Americans to fight wars “that should’ve ended long ago,” adding, “Our leaders did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it again in Afghanistan.”

In 1917, another Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, committed the U.S. to “make the world safe for democracy.” But after World War I, Americans voted to withdraw from the world and “return to normalcy,” meaning isolationism. The result was a decade of complacency, the 1920s, when the rest of the world seemed far away, and the U.S. was not bothered by the rise of extremism in Europe and Japan.

When Americans do not feel threatened, they lapse into complacency.

President Trump called his approach to foreign policy “America First,” the same name used by isolationists in the 1930s who opposed U.S. entry into World War II. The Washington Post has labeled President Biden’s foreign policy “America First Lite.”

America First policies horrify U.S. allies and the Washington foreign policy establishment. Nevertheless, they draw a lot of popular support because they capture a strong — and dangerous — public impulse, namely, complacency.

Leading by example enshrines complacency, not leadership.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Aftermath of the September 11 attacks American leadership Barack Obama Bill Clinton Cold War complacency Donald Trump Foreign policy global leadership Harry Truman isolationism isolationist Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden War on Terror world leaders

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