In order to understand American foreign policy and to opine on foreign policy matters, one must first define the term “policy” as best as possible. Policy is essentially the distillation of the overall political and social experience of a nation, as defined by the legendary Hannah Arendt, who remains as an unchallenged authority on political philosophy even after her passing in the 1970’s by virtue of the extraordinary body of literature she has left us with. But as the American historian Michael Lind has argued, America’s political and social experience since its founding will go through a total of five stages, and so far, the United States has already experienced four of these stages.
For one, there was the “Green Environmentalism” of the Early Republic period defined by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Second, there was the period of isolation where the United States was largely reluctant to get involved in foreign affairs. Third, there was the globalist stage, which began with America’s involvement in World War II and ended with the presidency of Barack Obama. Fourth is the populist stage, whereby radical prescriptions were made for foreign policy matters during the presidency of Donald Trump. Now, we are transitioning into a period of social democracy, and the bridgehead for this transition will be the administration of Joe Biden.
One should ask: given our past political and social experiences during the previous four stages of American history, what will foreign policy look like during the social-democratic stage? Despite the fact that no one can fully tell the future, there are certain points that could be made about American foreign policy as we enter the fifth and perhaps the final stage of American history.
For one, American foreign policy will shape up differently than what was expected or foreseen by any of the previous presidents in the 21st century, namely, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Foreign policy during a period of social democracy will require a degree of scaling back from global commitments in order to deal with domestic matters that remain outstanding. This is not a radical idea. Rather, this is merely an acknowledgment of human nature, whereby aspirations exceeded capabilities during the globalist phase of American history. There will perhaps no longer be an “Asia Pivot” to the degree that Barack Obama pursued, nor will the United States succumb to quagmires in the Middle East and Afghanistan as did George W. Bush. Also, the United States will perhaps expect a certain degree of burden-sharing from its European partners in dealing with transnational issues but will not withdraw from European partnerships, which is what Donald Trump wanted.
These are perhaps the basic elements of a broad foreign policy program during a period of social democracy. But if we are to tweak some of what the previous presidents of the 21st century did, what would we be tweaking? Let us perhaps traverse from West to East, which would entail tweaking Donald Trump’s approach to Europe first and foremost. For one, our definition of what constitutes “Europe” should be broadened. While the United States should demand more contributions from Europe in the management of transnational issues, we should also set the groundwork for the future integration of Russia and Turkey into the European Union. Although the integration of Russia and Turkey into the European Union will take some time, we should view the integration of Russia and Turkey into the European Union as a possibility rather than an impossibility.
As far as how one could tweak Obama foreign policy, Biden’s decision to re-enter the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal is a good start. But these two agreements need to be augmented lest we stagnate. Obama perhaps overlooked the regional politics associated with the Iran nuclear deal when he essentially sidestepped Israel and Saudi Arabia during his administration’s diplomatic engagements with Iran. As America’s long-standing partners, Israeli and Saudi interests should also be taken into account when making a deal with Iran, which is a theocracy that espouses ideas that are out of touch with reality. Thus, a peace deal between Israel and Iran, brokered by the United States, would set the groundwork for Middle Eastern regionalization which completely eradicates ISIS from the Middle East and in turn it would be a worthwhile endeavor. In terms of the Paris Climate Agreement, we should demand more from the world’s major polluters, namely, China and India.
Bush-era foreign policy has largely been tweaked by both Obama and Trump. No one has the appetite for getting bogged down in the Middle East and Afghanistan anymore. Moreover, the blunder in Iraq tilted the global balance of power in favor of China, Russia, and Iran against the United States, Europe, and Israel. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, Afghans need to muster up the courage to adopt a hardline approach towards the Taliban and ISIS in the event that peace talks with the Taliban fail. Moreover, a hardline approach against the Taliban and ISIS is necessary if Afghans want to keep their country and their cultural heritage.
All that is left to address is our approach to China. One could argue that building a “containment” strategy against China would be futile, given that no one in Asia could muster up the courage to declare a full-fledged military alliance led by the United States against China. Nor would preemptive military action work against China, given its second-strike capabilities. Nor would a rollback option work against China because China does not have satellite governments around the world, nor does China have major military installations around the globe. So, what do we do about China?
The best option the international community can employ against China is an economic strategy that would at least stem China’s exponential economic growth. At the current rate, China will exceed America’s economic standing, given that China’s annual growth is at 6.6 percent annually, whereas the United States is dwelling at around 2.9 percent annually, according to the World Bank. For one, Americans should consider reviving their manufacturing sector rather than opting for exorbitant profits by taking manufacturing overseas. In a nutshell, hit the Chinese where it hurts most, which is their pocketbooks.
Finally, a drawdown of the American military presence in Europe, Persian Gulf, and East Asia does not equate to fully withdrawing from the world. Nor is there a need to completely overhaul the essential military-political framework set in place by the United States during the Cold War. All that is needed is a few tweaks.