Biden’s Foreign Policy Trilemma

By Egor Spirin

President Joseph Biden throwing his hands up in vexation
Image: Flickr/Matt Johnson

After more than a year in office, the foreign policy of the Biden administration lacks a coherent strategic vision to implement their declared goals. The eclectic approach to foreign policy can partly be explained by a strong influence from special interest groups or the folly of political short-termism, but the problem is more complicated.

Biden’s Foreign Policy Trilemma

Drawing on an analogy from Dani Rodrik’s classical work on the trilemma of globalization, President Joe Biden’s foreign policy has a trilemma of objectives. Even though this administration lacks a full and comprehensive National Security Strategy (NSS) (only the Interim Guidance is available), nevertheless, the key priorities are discernable. Three broad categories should be considered, namely:

  1. Foreign policy for the middle class (which is in part derived from his general appeal electoral campaign).
  2. Autocracy vs. Democracy dichotomy.
  3. Emphasis on human rights.

The problem is that the international environment in which states must operate in, by virtue of its anarchic nature, is much more complex than simplistic, idealistic approaches allow for, which helps to explain why these objectives are often mutually exclusive.

The Complications of Perception and Misperception

Before demonstrating the difficulty of trilemma objectives, it is necessary to answer why declarative policy through rhetorical positioning matters and what implication it might have for American foreign policy and its counteragents. In many ways, the declarative nuclear policy explains the significance of a declarative foreign policy. According to a report produced by the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: 

Declaratory policy and public statements about the potential use of nuclear weapons serve many important roles. They provide an assessment of the security environment, and inform the public debate. These statements also enhance deterrence messages and signals towards adversaries, and reassure allies and partners. On the global level, U.S. declaratory policy has the potential to shape international trends and norms, influence nuclear proliferation, and it may also affect the policy decisions of other nuclear possessors.

In the context of foreign policy, the key problem with a declaratory policy is the issue of perception and misperception because the latter may fuel the spiral of escalation. As Robert Jervis notes, the problem of interpretation misleads statesmen in two reinforcing ways: 

First, their understanding of the impact of their own state’s policy is often inadequate— i.e., differs from the views of disinterested observers— and, second, they fail to realize that other states’ perceptions are also skewed. Although actors are aware of the difficulty of making their threats and warnings credible, they rarely believe that others will misinterpret behavior that is meant to be more compatible with the other’s interests.

Extrapolating the problem of perception to contemporary American foreign policy, what we are seeing now regarding the Biden trilemma is a situation summed up by Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Strategy Center, in his article for The Hill, where he wrote that, 

The White House often rhetorically traps itself in its ideology and then goes through intellectual contortions to rationalize policies that often go in other directions. Other nations often see both hypocrisy and the U.S. exercising its power more than its values.

Mutually Exclusive Foreign Policy Objectives

In practice, the mutually exclusive priorities outlined in the trilemma and the related perception problem manifests themselves in various combinations. For instance, the combination of democracy promotion and human rights may displace middle-class priorities. These policies reinforce Great Power rivalry and, according to Daniel Drezner, the quest for global primacy which doesn’t pay off as expected. As Benjamin Denison notes in his report for Defense Priorities, 

U.S. policymakers may claim democracy promotion and regime change are different policies. But years of excessive pursuit of both to prop up U.S. hegemony mean Russia, China, and other non-democracies perceive them as part of a unified U.S. threat to their regimes.

Rising geopolitical tensions and their externalities directly impact the middle-class, which suffers the burden of the “establishment’s internationalism.” According to data cited by the Council on Foreign Relations(CFR), “The democracy budget is about $2.8 billion per year.” A  foreign policy for the middle class requires domestic investment rather than idealistic foreign endeavors. This contradiction demonstrates the difficulty of pairing a rhetorically declared set of goals.

Biden’s Illustrative Middle East Trip

Biden’s recent Middle East trip illustrates his foreign policy trilemma by showing how a middle-class-based foreign policy can be contrary to the promotion of democracy and human rights. Biden’s recent trip pursued at least one middle-class foreign policy priority, i.e., an increase in oil production by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The problem is that it bluntly contradicts the idea of putting a premium on human rights. As Biden promised in a presidential debate back in 2019, he would make Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a “pariah.” 

However, to deliver on reducing energy prices, Biden can’t ignore ignore the Crown Prince. As Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy advisor Matt Duss explains, “We need them for certain things, and the domestic political costs of actually pressing them on human rights are higher than we feel like paying, so let’s just do business as usual.” But he also notes, “If it keeps going like this, it’s possible that the Biden administration could end up doing more damage to the cause of human rights than even the Trump administration, which was at least honest about the transactional nature of its foreign policy.” This situation exemplifies the contradictions in the current administration’s foreign policy goal-setting.

The trilemma of American foreign policy makes it more challenging to pursue a clear strategic course and exacerbates the perception problem. The choice of a particular combination is an American matter, but it is worth noting that a foreign policy that is more specific and unambiguous in its objectives would facilitate both interactions with the counterparties by reducing the risk of misunderstanding and the achievement of concrete results by the United States itself.

Egor Spirin is a guest contributor to the Realist Review. He is pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.






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