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America isn’t back yet: Appointing Ivy League careerists alone won’t restore US global leadership

Sreemoy Talukdar
·12-min read

The hard edge of American exceptionalism when a post-Cold War United States had no global peer in geopolitical influence, military might or power, was notably manifest in a comment made by Madeline Albright, US secretary of state from 1997 to 2001 under president Bill Clinton. In a TV interview on 19 February, 1998, Albright had remarked, "If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us."

Albright's swagger may seem hubristic in hindsight. More so in a world where American unipolarity is under severe challenge from China, but the self-aggrandisement that only the US can save the world from descending into chaos through its leadership because it "is a nation guided by God's Providence (and) an example unto the world" has a long tradition in US history and is a concept hardwired into American foreign policy and policymakers.

Sample what Antony J Blinken, who will take over from Mike Pompeo as the new US secretary of state in the Joe Biden administration, had to say on two recent occasions. In a speech at the Centre for a New American Security in 2015, when he was serving as the deputy secretary of state under Barack Obama, Blinken had said: "Seventy years ago, that (American) leadership produced victory in world war and then built a global order dedicated to the peace, stability, and prosperity of every nation. Today, our leadership remains vital to protect and adapt that international system to reflect the times that we live in, to navigate the turmoil, and to reap the rewards that are there."

Or consider what Blinken told Hudson Institute at an event in July this year: "If we're not doing a lot of that organising in terms of shaping the rules and the norms and the institutions through which countries relate to one another, then one of two things, either someone else is doing it and probably not in a way that advances our own interests and values or maybe just as bad, no one is and then you tend to have chaos and a vacuum that may be filled by bad things before so by good things."

It would seem that American exceptionalism is alive and kicking even among its new-age leaders and bureaucrats, if only the hard edges softened somewhat by new geopolitical realities. However, we have to ask, how relevant is this assumption in a decade that has seen a marvellous decline in American power and influence and a concomitant rise of China?

The rise of the US hegemony post-Second World War, its soft power, military and economic might, ability to build and preside over institutions, shape global norms and maintain the ideological supremacy of its liberal democratic political system is facing a fundamental challenge from a 'strategic competitor'.

As Michele Flournoy, former US under-secretary of defence for policy, who is tipped to take over as defence secretary under Biden, writes in Financial Times, "Beijing has regarded the decade since the 2008 financial crisis as a period of American decline and Chinese 'strategic opportunity'. It has used coercive measures to enforce excessive maritime claims, pursued an expansive global infrastructure development strategy, modernised its armed forces, and executed a multibillion-dollar state-directed campaign to develop (and steal) key emerging technologies."

Therefore, if the task is of restoring American hegemony, reclaiming the seat at the head of the global table and leading the US once again to be the 'rule maker', and not the 'rule taker' €" not to speak of shaping up to take on China that by some measures has already overtaken the US economy €" will all that take is for the US to change its political guard?

Going by the rhetoric from Biden, American foreign policy establishment and liberal media, the answer is in the affirmative. The immediate question facing the US, its allies, partners and even adversaries around the world is, what to make of president-elect's foreign policy team that, up until now, consists of Blinken as the top diplomat, Jake Sullivan as the national security advisor, Alejandro Mayorkas as chief of homeland security, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US ambassador to the United Nations, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence and John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate?

In picking Blinken and Sullivan €" both dyed-in-wool liberal internationalists, Washington insiders with decades of policy experience and near-permanent fixtures in Democratic Party establishments, Biden has signalled a willingness to shift US foreign policy to back 'mainstream normalcy', policy predictability and a return to the Obama-era faith in multilateral institutions and alliances.

As Wall Street Journal writes in an editorial, both Blinken and Sullivan "believe in working on behalf of US interests through multilateral institutions. They favour US leadership as long as it is channelled through the United Nations, NATO and traditional alliances."

And in choosing inner-circle aides with whom the former vice-president enjoys analogous views, who have deep executive experience and are steeped in Washington culture €" unlike the 'disruptors' and 'outsiders' of the Donald Trump Cabinet €" Biden has tipped his hat towards a restoration of Obama-era foreign policy where America's global leadership is all but reinstated by shoring up alliances, defending multilateral institutions, driving towards shared concerns like climate change and through renewed stress in value-based foreign policy.

In fact, Biden and his team believe that restoration of America's moral leadership must precede its reclamation of global leadership. Biden believes his appointees will "restore America globally, its global leadership and its moral leadership." Or, as Blinken said in the Hudson Institute interview, "The benefit of getting things right at home is we can then leverage our economic and moral authority to push the world to take more determined action."

It all sounds very reassuring, and evidently without any focus on power politics. We must be cautious in assessing the terms of a presidency that is yet to even kick off but if personnel is policy, then the tale so far is of glib globalists who believe that moral leadership is a substitute for execution of power.

To return to what Biden team members have said, Blinken believes that "we need to be standing up for our values and put them back at the center of our foreign policy, not walk away from them. We obviously need to be in a place to effectively deter aggression, if China pursues it." Thomas-Greenfield grandiosely declares: "My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world, I want to say to you: America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back."

And soon after announcing the six names, Biden declared: "America is back".

It would seem that all that's needed for the US to turn back the clock is to bring back the old establishment. It also speaks of a confidence in America's inherent capabilities and resilience that is not underwritten by facts. But a more dangerous delusion is the way Biden is already claiming victory, as if the Ivy League credentials of his appointees are enough to measure up to the enormity of the China challenge and retool the global power hierarchy.

When Biden says, "I've long said that America leads not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example," it raises uncomfortable flashback of the Obama-era when an overdose of schmaltz replaced power politics. Restoring American hegemony will take much more than wielding soft power. International relationships are based on self-interest and hegemony is preserved by relentless pursuit of hard power.

As Daniel Immerwahr, who teaches history at Northwestern University, writes in The New Yorker, "Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, put it to Congress, in late 1945, 'We must relentlessly preserve our superiority on land and sea and in the air.'€¦ And relentless that preservation has been. Today, the Pentagon controls around seven hundred and fifty bases in some eighty foreign countries and territories€"a pointillist empire that spans the globe."

It is easy to forget, amid all the talk about putting values back at the centre of American foreign policy, that exercising power involves making hard choices, taking risks and making statements. And here, Biden has a credibility problem at least in Asia where China's emergence as the regional hegemon has involved coercive economic policies, bullying and flagrant breach of territorial sovereignty.

Blinken seems to think that Trump's policies have "weakened, not strengthened our core alliances, particularly in Asia" but the view from Asia is quite different, where the prospect of a Biden administration has raised quiet trepidation, given the memory of US foreign policy under Obama who was reluctant to exercise power.

As Greg Sheridan writes in The Australian, "Asian nations are, like Trump, characteristically much more concerned with results than with process. Trump himself is concerned with what nations do more than with what they say. Australia, partly because of our increased defence effort and our straight­forward political style, has achieved a unique closeness to the Trump administration €" certainly much greater closeness than we ever achieved with Obama."

Taiwan, for instance, has been at the receiving end of China's increasing belligerence but has welcomed Trump administration's increased weapons sales to its military, greater economic cooperation and diplomatic backing, starting with Trump's decision (then a president-elect) in 2016 to accept a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president President Tsai Ing-wen in a groundbreaking decision loaded with symbolism.

In contrast, Biden has declined to receive the congratulatory phone call from president Tsai, preferring instead to let Blinken receive the call from Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's representative in Washington. It should be termed as a downgrading of the relationship because no matter how strongly Biden says he backs Taiwan, these symbolism matter.

It is possible that Biden, in seeking to differentiate foreign policy from the Trump era, doesn't want to irk China before even assuming office or make Taiwan an inflection point, but these very acts trigger memories in Asia of US unreliability.

It is not surprising to note, therefore, that "Trump has attracted a loyal following in Taiwan" and "Biden's ascent has been greeted with some anxiety" because, as Javier C Hernández and Amy Chang Chien observe in The New York Times, "Biden is seen in Taiwan as more risk averse. He is best known for his time as vice-president under Obama, who has been criticised in Taiwan for not doing enough to stand up to Xi."

On China, specially, Biden or his team has not been very forthcoming on policy prescriptions, preferring instead to speak in broad (and sometimes contradictory) terms. Blinken correctly assumes that "China is in a stronger position and we're in a weaker position," but he is wrong to blame on Trump the culmination of a development that notably started when he was serving in US administration. The Obama administration lacked strategic cohesion on Asia, and it left the field open for China to manipulate. To mitigate this challenge, Biden and his team needs to first diagnose the issue correctly.

Analyst Tanner Greer notes in The American Conservative, "Obama administration's declared 'pivot' to Asia was mostly rhetorical. Throughout Obama's two terms, America's diplomatic energy and military power was unmovably absorbed with crises in the Middle East. In contrast, the Trump administration's focus on the ideological, intelligence, and military threat posed by growing Chinese power has put some fence-sitting Asian nations in a tough spot, but has been a relief to regional allies who feared that America lacked the focus or capacity to respond to China's vaunting ambitions."

The liberal values that lie at the core of Biden's foreign policy and defines the analogous idea of his team €" Blinken has been described as a "consensus builder", "a centrist with a strong streak of interventionism" €" are not enough to preserve America's role as the global hegemon. Biden had written in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs: "No army on earth can match the way the electric idea of liberty passes freely from person to person, jumps borders, transcends languages and cultures, and supercharges communities of ordinary citizens into activists and organizers and change agents."

And yet, "rescuing America's foreign policy" will involve a clear-eyed view of the strategic threat posed by China in the Indo-Pacific, and exercise threat of force to maintain equilibrium of power. As Charlie Lyons Jones writes for Australian Strategic Policy Institute, "those very images of a moralistic and restrained US, while welcome domestically and perhaps in Europe, won't help an Indo-Pacific grappling with the challenges posed by an increasingly aggressive People's Republic of China€¦ The Indo-Pacific is a politically diverse, multipolar region whose constituent governments, by and large, want to retain their sovereignty and avoid falling under Beijing's orbit. That requires an interested, engaged America that can act as a backstop against China's military expansionism.

Is Biden and his team ready to take up that role? His appointments doesn't inspire confidence, most specifically of Kerry, the former secretary of state and a proven failure in diplomacy whose tenure coincides with some of America's worst foreign policy mistakes and who, as Biden's cabinet-level climate policy figurehead, runs the risk of being outsmarted by China. As the Wall Street Journal editorial notes, "Chinese leaders will be only too happy to make future promises on climate in return for American acquiescence today to their security priorities of Taiwan, the South China Sea and Huawei. Sending John Kerry to negotiate with Chinese president Xi Jinping on climate is a recipe for returning home dressed in a barrel."

For the United States under Biden to restore America's 'global leadership, there either has to be a move away from virtue-signalling and refocus on power politics, or an acceptance that the time has come for the US to "decline gracefully", as political scientist Patrick Porter suggests. The time for wagging the finger and pursuing strategic patience is over.

Also See: From 'Secretary of Trump' Pompeo to 'Biden's alter ego' Blinken, US foreign policy set for sea change

President-elect Joe Biden to name longtime aide Antony Blinken as secretary of state: Reports

China congratulates US president-elect Joe Biden, says 'we respect choice of American people'

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