Much that President Biden said Tuesday in his speech marking the end of our military involvement in Afghanistan wasn’t memorable. But a few paragraphs were noteworthy:
As we turn the page on the foreign policy that’s guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. To me, there are two that are paramount. First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals, not ones we’ll never reach. And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.
This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan—getting the terrorists to stop the attacks—morph into a counterinsurgency, nation-building—trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan. . . .
And I’ve been clear that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy. But the way to do that is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support. . . .
We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you’ve never known an America at peace. So when I hear that we could have, should have, continued this so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan, at low risk to our service members, at low cost, I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on, who are willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation. . . . There’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war.
Many of the individual sentences and sentiments in this passage are close to boilerplate and familiar enough. But step back and you’ll be struck by this: It’s not every day an American president in effect repudiates the preceding two decades of American foreign policy. That’s what Joe Biden has done.
And the fact that Biden was a senior member of the United States Senate for the first eight of those years—and supported much of our foreign policy then—and was then vice president of the United States for the next eight years makes his denunciation of the preceding two decades all the more remarkable.
Indeed, one could fairly say that of all his predecessors, the one Biden sounds most like is his immediate predecessor, the man he ran against and defeated, Donald Trump. So much so that, except for the nod to human rights, and the lack of cartoonish bellicosity in threatening those who would do us harm, one might be tempted to speak of a Trump-Biden Doctrine.
But let’s not, at least for now. It will be easier to take the Biden Doctrine seriously without complicating the matter with Donald Trump.
It’s also fair to note this all may be overblown rhetoric on the part of Biden, used to justify a particular decision, and that the rhetoric won’t be a reliable guide to future actions. But rhetoric matters. So it’s probably worth taking this Biden Doctrine seriously, at least until we know we shouldn’t.
What does the Biden Doctrine seem to consist of?
A focus on the “fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.”
Such a vague statement is obviously susceptible to many kinds of interpretation. Context matters. But the context here is a total absence of qualifiers about the importance of maintaining a liberal world order, of standing by allies, of checking dictators, of promoting liberal democracy and defending freedom around the world.
(I’m also struck by the absence, in a speech announcing the end of our war in Afghanistan, of anything in the way of making a case for openness and generosity in taking Afghan refugees into the United States. Could it be that a refusal to take on the burdens of standing for liberty abroad coincides with a shrinking away from the burden of defending liberal policies at home? Let’s hope not.)
In any case, Biden’s formulation, in the context of defending a withdrawal from Afghanistan and repudiating our past efforts there, suggests not just to a pivot away from George W. Bush’s foreign policy but from Bill Clinton’s, and even to some degree of from policies the United States has followed from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
I happen to think that pivoting to a narrow, “fundamental national security interest” focus for American foreign policy would be unwise. But wise or unwise, it’s surely notable.
Biden also commits to “missions with clear, achievable goals” and to “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” And while he claims “that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy,” he hastens to add that “the way to do that is not through endless military deployments.”
Leave aside the gratuitous “endless,” since most military deployments don’t come with an easily determined and near-in-time end date. These statements, also notably without qualifiers or defenses of past American interventions, would seem to suggest no regrets on Biden’s part that we were slow to intervene in the Balkans or that we failed to intervene in Rwanda; no sense that we could have done more to stop the slaughter in places ranging from Sudan to Syria; and obviously no broader assumption of a “responsibility to protect.” And, going forward, Biden does, it seems to me, raise questions about our willingness to do more than talk to check Putin or Xi—or, for that matter, to act against the next Saddam or the next Milosevic.
And then there is Biden’s remark that “We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you’ve never known an America at peace.”
But if you were 20 years old at any point in the last century, you would have lived through Americans fighting wars. Some of those interventions may have been ill-advised. But some were not. And it’s pretty extraordinary to see a president seem to embrace the belief—some of us would call it a fantasy—that we can simply turn our back on military action and assume a world without war.
Finally, Biden concludes his anti-war discussion by reminding us that “there’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war.” But this isn’t true. Hard-hearted though it may sound to say this, some wars are much more “low-grade or low-risk or low-cost” than others. Part of statesmanship is to make wars as low-grade or low-risk or low-cost as possible.
Are these remarks the germ of a real Biden Doctrine? Could they become one, especially given the Trump foreign policy that preceded him, even if he doesn’t fully intend it to be so?
We don’t know. But if they spur a real national discussion and debate on foreign policy, that would be a healthy thing. And this debate can’t simply be resolved by references to the successes of the past seventy years or the alleged failures of the past twenty years. We need to have a serious debate about the world we now face, in 2021, and the policies that we can and should pursue. Even those of us who think Biden’s remarks ill-advised should be grateful that he sought to put the Afghanistan withdrawal in a broader context and thus invited such a debate.
In this respect, twenty years after September 11, 2001, thirty years after the end of the Cold War, seventy-six years after the end of World War II, we could be present at a new creation.