Realism, Restraint and Goldilocks

By Austin Hillebrandt

Image Credits: EJ Hersom and Dana M. Clarke/DVIDS

Trump, Biden, and the foreign policy blob need to go back to kindergarten.

All three share one flaw: there is no temperance in their foreign policy. They could learn from the fable of Goldilocks and scholars like Dr. John Hulsman, who stress that competent foreign policy must be “neither too hard nor too soft.” 

It is in America’s interest to reject both Trump’s hot-headed bombasts and Biden’s stone-cold ignorance. The only foreign policy that is ‘just right’ for America is one of restraint. Adherence to any other strategy will cause the US to become submissive to the interests, whims, and aspirations of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Donald Trump was exceptional at identifying foreign policy malpractice. He emphatically questioned why Europe was “allowed to place high tariffs on American produce while American workers paid for their defense.” 

Trump correctly labeled the Paris Climate Accords, which allowed “foreign producers to pollute with impunity” by not having any enforcement mechanisms, as futile. His administration also rightly characterized the Chinese Communist Party as the “greatest threat to democracy and freedom;” Trump himself publicized the fact that China targeted “[American] industries and  [stole American] intellectual property.” 

Yet, despite his uncanny ability to identify problems, his methodology was hard and uncompromising. This stalled negotiations and his harsh rhetoric only inflamed foreign policy problems. 

With the exception of the Abraham Accords, which reinforced a rising coalition against Iran and Turkey, Trump snubbed nations that shared American concerns. In the span of four years, he said “the European Union is a foe,” he expressed support for French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who had vowed to pull France out of NATO two months prior, and he abandoned a NATO summit after facing criticism from other world leaders. 

At best, Trump squandered opportunities to build a coalition against China. At worst, his ego spurred some nations, such as Germany, into neutrality.

Joe Biden has a different problem. Although his rhetoric does not impede diplomatic negotiations, he assumes that America will always be able to safeguard her national interests. He is too soft and gullible. 

Take for example the Afghanistan Debacle. In addition to making the questionable call of withdrawing the military before civilians, Biden failed to act upon the ‘better-late-than-never’ intelligence reports of early August that predicted the imminent fall of the US-backed Afghan government. 

Consequently, when the Afghan Security Forces “put their weapons on the ground… and fled,” thousands found themselves under Taliban rule; hundreds of Americans found themselves stranded in Afghanistan. 

In response, Biden’s administration claimed they would continue to support those under Taliban rule “through diplomacy [and] international influence.” Unfortunately for the stranded, Biden’s tools are useless in Afghanistan. 

First, Biden’s diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban have produced no yields. His administration essentially gave the Taliban “500,000 assault weapons,” a plethora of functioning vehicles and aircraft, a “list of Afghans who aided the US,” and a harshly worded statement condemning their recent actions. 

In return, he received inadequate security in Kabul that led to the death of 13 Marines and a mock funeral, which was intended to ridicule America. Biden placed his faith in the Taliban; they did nothing to help Americans. 

Biden’s tool of international influence has also failed. In addition to Biden’s statement, another nasty letter aimed at the Taliban emerged within the United Nations; this letter even managed to secure 13 votes out of the relevant 15-member voting body. 

Unfortunately, China, which seeks cooperation with the Taliban to secure the “trillions of dollars worth of rare earth metals” in Afghanistan, abstained from that vote. In fact, it was recently reported that “China has promised to keep its embassy in Kabul open and beef up relations.” Considering that China also shares a border with Afghanistan, any multilateral attempts to sanction the Taliban will likely be rendered ineffective by Beijing.  

It’s evident that Biden cannot leverage enough international influence to coerce the Taliban. However, Afghanistan is not the only debacle where Biden’s tool of international influence has failed. Biden has not used international institutions to undermine the Chinese Communist Party. 

Over the past year, it has become clear that Xi Jinping sought to export Covid-19 to the world. China acknowledged that Covid-19 could spread through human-to-human transmission on Jan. 20, 2020. 

Subsequently, the Chinese Communist party reduced the traffic density in Shanghai and Beijing by approximately 70 and 75 percent respectively by early February. Yet, in the midst of this lockdown, the Civil Aviation Administrative of China stated “airlines [are required to] … continue transport to nations that have not imposed travel restrictions.” Xi Jinping did not even agree “to curb international flights from China” until March 27, 2020. 

Further evidence shows that the Chinese Communist Party obstructed the WHO’s investigation on the origins of Covid-19. In a recent Danish TV documentary, Peter Ben Embarek, the head of the WHO’s trip to China, said, “In the beginning [of the trip to the PRC, China] didn’t want anything about the lab [in the report] because it was impossible, and therefore one should not waste time on it.” 

He also mentioned that “the head of the Chinese team finally agreed to include the [lab leak] theory in the report ‘on the condition [The WHO] didn’t recommend any… studies to further that hypothesis.” 

Nevertheless, despite all of the open-source information that demonstrates the Chinese Communist Party’s malice, the most Biden can muster is a statement criticizing China for not adhering “to scientific norms and standards, including sharing information and data.” 

Biden is sitting on what is perhaps the most substantial piece of evidence that shows the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted, but he either cannot or will not gather the international influence to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable. 

As easy as it is to point out flaws of both leaders, criticism must be geared towards a productive result. What ought America to do now? 

The answer: adopt a foreign policy of realism and restraint. Practically, this means three important realities must be incorporated in American foreign policy.

First, there is no going back to Afghanistan. While the United States should continue its attempt to rescue Americans stranded abroad, there is little it can do without creating another crisis. Any immediate military action against the Taliban would likely trigger an execution of those Americans still stranded in Kabul. 

Even if America were to topple the Taliban, the dissipation of the Afghan Security Force means there is no group allied with America that could fill such a vacuum. Any attempt to overthrow the Taliban would restart the disastrous nation-building endeavor in Afghanistan. A foreign policy of realism and restraint recognizes that nation-building in the Middle East does not work. 

Secondly, Washington should be careful to remember that international institutions do not automatically advance our interests. The United States should not abandon all international institutions, but it needs to recognize that these institutions can be co-opted by other nations. For example, China, which was recently appointed to the US Human Rights Council, has used its post to block UN resolutions condemning its behavior. In response, the US needs to be more active in securing multilateral positions that allow it to expose the atrocities of the Chinese Communist Party. 

To achieve this goal, America must oppose those who mimic Trump’s rhetoric and thwart those who share Biden’s ignorance. Realism and restraint also recognize  that other nations will not follow America’s policy if it does not advance their own interests. Consequently, America needs to prioritize multilateralism by finding common ground with other nations instead of trying to dictate the world’s agenda (in Trump fashion). 

Finally, America must learn that more military will not fix every problem. This does not mean that the US should abandon freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Those routes help deter Chinese expansionism and reassure our allies in the Indo-Pacific. However, more ships, more infantry, and more fighter-jets do nothing to defend against China’s asymmetrical campaign of cyber-attacks, data breaches, and intellectual property theft. 

To invest in capabilities that can combat China’s asymmetrical campaigns, America ought to decrease spending on its nuclear modernization program and force Europe to provide more of its own security.

Nuclear deterrence and foreign aid are important aspects of America’s foreign policy, but currently they are not priorities. The United States is entering an era of great power competition; America ought to prioritize coalition building through cultural, diplomatic, and economic means.

America might be down, but it is not out. Previous mistakes have hindered the nation’s ability to compete on a global scale, yet the US remains one of the world’s great powers. However, to win the emerging cold war against the Chinese Communist Party, America must adopt a strategy of realism and restraint, which avoids the extremes of Trump’s tantrums and Biden’s bewilderment. 

No other variation of foreign policy is ‘just right’ for America. A realistically restrained stance will avoid the worst extremes, for the benefit of all.

Austin Hillebrandt majors in Government and Religious Studies at the College of William & Mary. He is a guest contributor to the Realist Review.

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