The United States is in the midst of the most significant strategic shift in its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Why is it a secret?
The scope of the shift in how the US approaches its national interests worldwide and its role in the world is so great that it touches on virtually every aspect of American policy abroad and at home. Unlike the shift that occurred after 9/11 it is not reactive or narrowly driven by developments in a single region of the world. It is truly strategic, based on recognition of sweeping global changes and anticipation of the consequences of the big trends reshaping the globe.
Key elements of it have been in the making for years, yet despite the great significance of the changes taking place, many people don’t even know this shift is happening. The Biden administration has a compelling new vision about America’s place in the world, but so far it has faced significant hurdles sharing a compelling story about that vision that has been widely heard and understood by the American people.
Many of the elements of this policy transformation have received coverage but that has tended to be driven by breaking news, without the context needed to see the whole into which the parts fit. An example is that within the past six weeks, the U.S. exited not just the longest war in our history but ended the post-9/11 era in US foreign policy. The chapter of the history of U.S. international affairs that featured the Global War on Terror and its related failures, abuses, opportunity costs, human toll, and damage to America’s standing was finally closed, years too late.
Also ended was a period of centrality of the Middle East to U.S. foreign policy priorities, one that started long before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. No longer dependent on foreign oil as we once were, no longer vying with the Soviets for primacy in one of the world’s strategic resource centers, and no longer erroneously casting Islamist terror as the greatest threat facing the U.S., we could give our involvement in the region more appropriate weight. We could shift our focus to greater and more important challenges, from the rise of China to the climate crisis, from next-generation security threats like those associated with cyber-conflict and automated warfare to determining how to restore American strength from within, from restoring and reimagining international institutions to doing the same with our global network of alliances. The headlines of the past six weeks have told the story of individual elements of this shift. But stories of our pullout from Afghanistan focused more on the challenges confronted during the exit itself than on placing it in historical context.
While the president’s strategic reprioritization was clearly illustrated by a first-time summit among the leaders of the Quad, the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, the central strategic partnership we have to counter growing Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the event received scant coverage. Instead, a parallel U.S. effort to shore up its Asia-Pacific capabilities—the launch of the AUKUS partnership between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia—received coverage primarily because a related sale of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines to Australia kicked up a diplomatic kerfuffle with the French who had hoped to sell their subs Down Under. The fact that these events were timed in part to serve as a counterpoint to exiting Afghanistan, a sign of our new priorities, was hardly mentioned anywhere.
Similarly, the president’s efforts to invest trillions in U.S. infrastructure and in vital engines of the U.S. economy were cast in purely domestic terms. They were not contrasted, as they should have been, with the efforts to prioritize spending trillions during the past two decades on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or on creating even greater wealth for America’s wealthiest people and corporations. They were not seen as investments in American capabilities akin to Eisenhower’s investment in the U.S. highway system for national security reasons early in the Cold War. They have not been cast as vital steps to make sure that infrastructure is resilient against next generation cyberattacks or the damaging effects of extreme weather and other consequences of the climate crisis.
And they have seldom been seen as steps to ensure we are more competitive with the rising powers of tomorrow like China—even though the president has made that point repeatedly from his first address to Congress through remarks this week. But of course, building a new U.S. economy for the 21st century is what investing in research and development and education and green tech is all about.
We are not putting the pieces together. Yes, it is noted that Biden has undone Trump policies like pulling out of international institutions from the WHO to the Paris climate accords to the Iran nuclear deal. But the re-engagement has gone further with work to advance new multilateral initiatives on climate, a new effort to combat the current pandemic and prepare for the next such outbreaks, systematic talks with key allies to stem the spread of technologies that put us at risk like the 5G technologies sold by China’s Huawei, as well as to forge and prioritize new alliances.
These developments are covered piecemeal when they are properly understood as parts of something bigger—a plan, a vision for the next era in U.S. global leadership. But we should not be surprised by these developments or their scope. Biden framed them on the campaign trail in speeches and in articles like “Why America Must Lead Again,” and as president beginning with his first speech to a joint session of Congress, much of which was about refocusing on the challenges posed by an emerging China.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken covered those points as well as a shift toward a U.S. foreign policy that eschewed the high-handedness of American exceptionalism and made the U.S. a better ally in the major address he gave this March. The shifts in the Asia-Pacific and with regard to addressing China were anticipated in a 2019 article written by Jake Sullivan, now national security adviser to Biden, and Kurt Campbell, now the Asia czar at the NSC, entitled “Competition without Catastrophe.” Even the connections between foreign policy and domestic priorities were outlined in a study produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entitled “Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class”—the product of a study group in which Sullivan was a participant.
Why is the message not getting through? There are several reasons. One is that the media continues to prioritize conflict and catastrophe, making its money off of clicks and ratings. As a result, the food fight in Washington takes precedence in cases like the current budget battle rather than the strategy underlying the Biden plan or its longer-term consequences. Similarly two weeks of chaos in Afghanistan was apparently a bigger story than the impact of the end of 20 years of futile, ill-considered war.
Part of the responsibility lies, however, with the administration. Some of this is for very good reasons—they are focusing on getting the work done and they have been very busy and hugely understaffed due to GOP obstructionism blocking the confirmations of the majority of all Biden senior national security appointments. Some of this however, has to do with what one former senior communications official in a Democratic administration described as a problem of “too many press secretaries and not enough communications strategists.” In other words, as good as the administration’s mouthpieces like Jen Psaki at the White House and Ned Price at the State Department have been, they are most focused on fighting daily fires and not on getting the bigger strategic messages through. (Again, the press plays a big role in this.)
This is something that should be addressed by the Biden team. A big change is afoot, one that is long overdue and profoundly important. The president and his team deserve credit for it. It explains many of their actions. And by presenting developments as part of a broader plan the administration is also likely to gain the standing and leverage that such competence and leadership bring.
For now, this big story is largely being lost. The American people and the world deserve to hear it.