After President Biden declared the end of America’s 20-year war, President Obama’s foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes summarized the accomplishments of the War on Terror: “Afghanistan. Iraq. Yemen. Somalia. Libya. Every one of those countries is worse off today in some fashion.”
Many saw our exit from Afghanistan as a bellwether for a larger pivot in U.S. foreign policy. Yet so far that pivot is more about what the U.S. won’t do on the world stage rather than what it will do.
Biden is right to renounce the use of force “to remake other countries,” effectively foreswearing the type of armed counter-insurgency campaigns that have given the once-respected task of nation-building a bad name.
We can only hope that he is not merely switching the form of military incursions from a heavy footprint of troops to a light footprint of drones and Special Forces, as both Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have discussed in attempting to mollify hardline critics. That sort of campaign is a technocratic fantasy, at best a holding operation. Such asymmetric warfare breeds popular resentment among the locals and sows the seeds of renewed, larger military actions.
The president has promised to concentrate his national security focus on Russia and China, erecting barriers to cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation, and committing to the preservation of human rights through multilateral diplomacy and economic pressure. So far, so good. Biden believes this will avoid the next foreign quagmire and give us time to attend to our own yawning, internal crises.
Yet, our recoil from U.S. overreach since Sept. 11, 2001—and indeed since Vietnam—should not blind us to the more complicated and in many ways surprisingly positive record of liberal democratic achievement in world affairs since World War II.
In the decades immediately after the war, the United States was determined to transform the world—and not merely save it from its worst malefactors. The United States led the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods agreement for the institutional rebuilding of war-torn Europe, and the Point Four Program providing technical aid to emergent nations in Africa and Asia. In those years, the world came to know America’s democratic values from a perspective other than the point of a gun.
The most successful American acts overseas were neither top-down adventures nor purely humanitarian mercy missions. They depended on close cooperation and give-and-take between American officials and their foreign counterparts. Adolph Berle, of FDR’s Brain Trust, formed a close relationship with President José Figueres to defend Costa Rican democracy from outside threat. Chester Bowles, the Ambassador to India, helped Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru devise early plans for community development. Many of these initiatives were fueled by the intense competition with Soviet communism—and while anti-communism sometimes dragged the United States into unsavory alliances, that does not refute the worthiness of such efforts.
The US-led quest for a “liberal world order” once meant something more than today’s shrunken synonym for a rule-based system operating through multilateral institutions in pursuit of open markets. American postwar liberals, for example, backed efforts by their counterparts abroad for measures of social welfare and worker rights more ambitious even than those that prevail today in our own country. Similarly, liberal awakenings at home sometimes directly imprinted on the nation’s foreign affairs, as when Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto and imposed harsh economic sanctions that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
What would it take for President Biden to re-energize the forces of democratic development abroad? Any number of initiatives beckon as a way to break the current chain of worldly pessimism. On the global economic front, it is time to advocate for a new Bretton Woods agreement—a system of checks and balances on trade, investment and monetary stability (including a tax on financial transactions) with guardrails for countries and regions facing devastating disinvestment.
Politically, how about more open support for populations that have made their democratic commitments clear in ways that Afghanistan never did? In Belarus, some 35,000 people have been detained or tortured by an iron-firsted dictatorship. Or what about the chain of corrupt autocracies that runs through Central America? Can the liberal West demonstrate a capacity not just to punish its enemies but also to reward its friends? Even outside of state diplomacy, can America protect world rainforests and live up to our promise to spur global vaccine distribution?
In decades past, when they were not deflected by military operations or overrun by profit-seeking business interests, American democrats pursued an expansive vision of social and industrial democracy around the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, Truman’s Marshall Plan, and Kennedy’s Peace Corps—the Cold War notwithstanding—all called upon the better angels of U.S. foreign policy.
Biden and Blinken have at least temporarily sheathed the American sword, but what now? Perhaps their recent rhetorical emphasis on an alliance of democracies and a planned international gathering in December will prove an occasion to reanimate the liberal tradition in world affairs.