AMAC Exclusive – by Daniel Roman
Two weeks ago, Joe Biden rose to address the United Nations. The speech was the keynote for a Biden foreign policy that is now clearly one not only of spite, but of deceit—two trends that are resulting in more dangerous consequences every day.
It was all there in the U.N. speech. As with most Biden speeches, the text does not due proper justice to the pauses, misstatements and bypassed words that are now expected any time the President takes the podium. But in this case, while the transcript might make what Biden said clearer, the meaning is no more discernable when read than it was to his audience in the moment. For instance, what does Biden mean by “relentless diplomacy?” What does his vision for the world look like? Who is the United States to “cooperate” with, and how? Given the last two months, both America’s friends and foes can be forgiven for having no idea.
If there is one place where Joe Biden has fallen the most short throughout the early months of his presidency (and the competition for that honor is tough), it is on foreign policy. One of the most persistent accusations that Joe Biden, or at least those who ran his campaign, and the Democratic Party levied at Donald Trump was that he had undermined America’s alliances and thereby made it harder for the U.S. to cooperate internationally. But after a disastrous pullout from Afghanistan, in which the Biden administration found itself in a briefing war afgainst multiple European countries and longtime American allies, including the United Kingdom (upon which administration officials threatened to seek revenge for its criticism), Biden seems to have now jeopardized another American alliance with another longtime friend to the U.S. – France.
The American mainstream media has been quick to respond to the recall of the French Ambassador to the U.S. with assertions that the Franco-American alliance is the oldest in American history, issuing snide remarks which remind everyone that anti-French sentiment is the second oldest popular hatred in America after resistance to the British crown. Those who argue that the French are overreacting to exclusion from the new “Anglo-American-Australian Alliance,” and France’s loss of their contract to supply submarines to Australia are not entirely wrong. The French behavior is dramatic, as may be expected with a presidential election approaching in France next April. But the debate over Biden’s treatment of France and France’s reaction has distracted from the wider question: what, precisely, is Biden trying to accomplish?
Ostensibly the answer is easy enough. Concerned about the rise of China, the United States is forming an alliance with the United Kingdom, historically a close ally, and Australia, whose exposure to Chinese pressure was demonstrated by the threats Canberra faced when it had the temerity to demand an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. But even if the purpose of the alliance makes sense, the actual structure and announcement of the agreement does not seem to fit into any wider geopolitical strategy. The very same week the alliance was announced, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited London, where she informed the British government that she would block any trade agreement with the United States if the U.K. took any unilateral action in Northern Ireland. As the U.K.’s only leverage with the European Union in its current post-Brexit conflicts is unilateral action, in effect Pelosi weighed in on a European affair on the side of Brussels. It is hard to imagine Pelosi did this without Biden’s support, and her remarks, not the new “alliance,” seems far more in line with an anti-British sentiment from the current White House that appears at odds with the submarine deal.
The plot thickened even further when Boris Johnson secured an invitation to visit the White House following Biden’s UN speech, normally a sign of favor. Yet the meeting itself was brief, and included another lecture from Biden on Northern Ireland. It was also followed by the White House publicly reprimanding Boris Johnson for daring to take questions from the British press.
So which is it? Is the United States a close ally of the U.K., dedicated to working with London to counter China, leaving behind an unreliable continental Europe? Or is the U.S. a guarantor of international law, siding with Brussels and other international bodies against a rogue populist government in London which is “destabilizing” American alliances? The French are reacting with anger not to the Australia-U.S.-U.K. alliance as a policy, but to the bizarre whiplash as the Biden administration seems to carry out multiple, mutually contradictory policies at the same time.
Countries will forgive many slights in geopolitics. It is an old saying that nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. But in order to operate within such a system, there has to be a minimal level of trust. Perhaps not trust that other countries will keep their commitments even against their own interests, but at the very least an expectation that if they do have to violate them, they will be forthcoming about what they are doing and what they perceive their interests to be.
Few European states could fairly begrudge the United States from withdrawing from Afghanistan. What outraged even the militantly anti-interventionist Germans and the normally quiet Merkel was the lack of consultation. European states had gone into Afghanistan at the request of the United States. The commitments they had made to Afghans who worked with them were obligations they undertook at the request of the United States. For the Biden administration to act as if that obligation was solely their problem, and by implication that if they did not want those Afghans to be in danger they should not have worked with them was not just heartless, it was duplicitous. In doing so Biden was punishing European states for having done what the United States under Bush, Obama, and Biden had asked.
Donald Trump supported Brexit. He also cared deeply about the peace process in Northern Ireland, and sent his chief of staff to make that clear to both sides. Holding a grudge against the current British government for being close to and attentive to the concerns of the previous administration is the height of hostility and petulance.
At least it would be consistent, however. Biden has combined a foreign policy of spite with a foreign policy of duplicity. How else to explain sending Nancy Pelosi to threaten Boris Johnson with a trade blockade the same day he announced a new alliance?
The French have had enough of this mercurial foreign policy disorder. They have recalled their Ambassador not only because of the surprise alliance announcement or even the submarine contract. They have withdrawn him because they also realized there is no point talking with an American administration that has no idea what it wants.
Biden’s speech at the UN will provide no answers to anyone looking for a coherent policy or answers to the apparent disconnect in his previous actions. Biden said the United States has turned the corner and will fight relentlessly for democracy around the world, but was careful to state that it was not in a “cold war with China.” Despite having called climate change an existential threat, he had no answers for how to deal with China’s rampant pollution. And while he pledged to defend allies, he stressed he felt military force was only a last resort.
At best he said nothing. At worst he said everything, each sentence negating the last and again amounting to nothing. That, for what it is worth, is what the last few weeks of U.S. diplomacy towards the United Kingdom and France added up to. The United States formed a new alliance with the U.K., a “plus one” for friendship. The U.S. threatened a trade blockade over Northern Ireland, a “minus one.” Boris Johnson received a White House meeting, another “plus one.” It was followed by direct insults from Jen Psaki, “minus one.” The net total? Zero. Which is what the French now rightly expect from Joe Biden and his team. A pity they are the only ones willing to call it out publicly. They are forgiven for their sense of drama.
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