By ALI ATIA
Is America in decline? It is a perennial question, inevitably addressed when the world’s lonely superpower appears vulnerable and its adversaries seem posed to overtake it. On such occasions throughout history, the United States has proven to be far more resilient than its critics give it credit for.
In 1979, a poll reported that 84% of Americans believed the country was in “deep and serious trouble.” They had good reason to think so. A lengthy period of economic malaise, the Iranian Revolution and ensuing hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – domestically and internationally, these events had a profound impact on the US’ perception of its stature in the world. Yet, only a decade later, the Soviet Union was at the brink of collapse, and the US was enjoying a ‘unipolar moment.’ In ten years, American power had gone from its nadir to its peak.
As President-elect Biden prepares to enter the Oval Office, America is at a junction point. It can choose to continue down the path of neo-isolation and “leading from behind,” which arguably began in the latter years of the Obama administration and has continued during President Trump's tenure. Alternatively, it can once again willingly take up the mantle of leadership, as it has to varying degrees since the end of WW2.
If Biden should choose the latter path – to face America’s adversaries with strength, to secure the institutions of the liberal order, and to make the world safe for democracy – he will have his work cut out for him. Those adversaries have been building their capabilities and wreaking regional, in some cases global, havoc by taking advantage of an increase in their freedom to act.
China poses the most severe threat, both to American interests and the Free World at large. Despite his inconsistency and general incompetence at managing foreign affairs, President Trump provided a useful starting point for countering an increasingly aggressive China. While abrasive and unpracticed, his rhetoric inspired a generally bipartisan consensus on the necessity of taking action to halt its ongoing rise. Biden should take advantage of this rare area where Democrats and Republicans find some agreement to combat China.
Militarily, the United States risks falling behind by 2035, according to a recent report by the RAND Corporation, which predicts that the People’s Liberation Army will have the ability to “contest all domains of conflict— ground, air, sea, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic environment” by then. Such a development would be disastrous for its neighbours' security – particularly Taiwan – and the United States. Without serious investment in America’s armed forces and national security innovation base, China could likely win a hypothetical war, particularly if the United States is forced to fight two major power adversaries in different theatres. Biden should commit to expanding and improving the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Further, he should reaffirm America’s regional commitments and its forward posture in the Pacific.
Agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), whose signatories represent almost a third of the global population, threaten to box America out of the Pacific economically. Rather than pursuing a mindless strategy of undiscriminating mercantilism, Biden should work with America’s allies in Europe and Asia to combat China’s unfair trade practices. There is no denying the accuracy of President Trump’s accusations of predatory Chinese behaviour. Until change occurs – or is impelled – China cannot be allowed to participate in the international economy freely.
Though the Chinese threat is major, it is not alone. Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia continues to threaten its neighbours in Eastern and Central Europe and support brutal autocrats in the Middle East, most notably in Syria, where it is actively aiding the Assad regime as it wages war on its people. Much like China, Russia is actively working to modernise its armed forces, particularly its nuclear arsenal. Rather than seeking a reset in relations, as President Obama did, Biden should recognise the conventional threats posed by Russia in addition to its destabilising influence in American elections and the internal affairs of other democratic states. Countering this will involve a continuation in the nuclear modernisation program and a reassertion of America’s forward posture in Europe. It is crucial to raise pressure on America’s NATO allies to boost their defence spending to reach the 2%/GDP guideline. However, punishing them with rash decisions, such as President Trump’s pullout of 12,000 troops from the bases in Germany, has adverse effects: it weakens the deterrent against Russia and encourages it to continue its strategy of opportunistic fait accompli against its neighbours.
In addition to its great power competitors, America faces a series of regional adversaries who pose just as serious a threat to its interests. In dealing with Iran, Biden should note the relative efficacy of his predecessor’s maximum pressure campaign at weakening the Iranian regime and limiting its ability to sponsor terror throughout the region. Rather than bowing to Iran’s “nuclear extortion,” in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Biden should make clear that the United States will not make concessions to rogue nuclear-aspiring states. Rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action at this point would give Iran confirmation that its strategy was successful and only serve to delay the inevitable. But Biden should also reverse course on some of his soon-to-be predecessor’s decisions in the Middle East – primarily his withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
This hardline approach should be extended to North Korea, where Biden has an opportunity to undo Trump's mistakes, that is; first, his meeting with Kim Jong Un without guaranteeing nuclear concessions and secondly, weakening the US' presence to combat North Korea's aggression by pausing joint-training exercises with South Korea.
Whether Biden is likely to take such steps is entirely another question. Unfortunately, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was quite right in condemning the president-elect as having been “wrong on every major foreign policy issue over the last four decades.” Biden will certainly reassure America’s allies that sanity has returned to the White House and engage in a far more constructive foreign policy. Rhetorically, he is a firm believer in the liberal world order. But substantively, he promises little more than a show of leadership, with little in the way of decisiveness, commitment, or strength to back it. The consequences for continued American abdication will be dire.
Image: Flickr (Tom Lohdan)