Could Biden Maintain Trump’s Legacy of Strong Alliances?
By 2017, the old Cold War alliances had become moribund. The centerpiece North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had seemingly lost its purpose with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to reassert Moscow’s power in Eastern Europe and the Middle East had not reawakened many of NATO’s member states. Placing the Afghan campaign under NATO did not help. Though President Barack Obama had gotten NATO to agree to a defense sending target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024, it took pressure by President Donald Trump to get alliance members to actually start moving towards that paltry figure. Partisan critics accused President Trump of “disrespecting” allies by demanding that they walk the walk and not just talk the talk of cooperative security.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has noted "Since President Trump took office, NATO allies across Europe and Canada have spent an additional $41 billion extra in U.S. dollars on defense.” And this is not just a number in a ledger. On Nov. 25 it was announced that the French Army will engage in a major exercise next April with the United Kingdom and the U.S. to test its readiness for high-intensity conflict. French President Emmanuel Macron knows that “The United States will only respect us as allies if we are earnest, if we are sovereign with respect to our defense.” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced major increases in defense spending, declaring “Reviving our armed forces is one pillar of the government’s ambition to safeguard Britain’s interests and values by strengthening our global influence, and reinforcing our ability to join the United States and our other allies to defend free and open societies.” None of this would have happened without the serious effort President Trump made to re-energize America’s alliance system.
While Obama canceled plans to build missile defense systems in Poland because of Russian objections, President Trump revived the plan. Obama refused to provide arms to Ukraine to combat Russian-backed insurgents, but President Trump sent them. Moscow grabbed Crimea from Ukraine during the Obama administration. In response, President Trump has been sending warships into the Black Sea to signal that we do not consider it to be a Russian lake. In 2018, President Trump reinstated the 2nd Fleet in the North Atlantic-Baltic Sea regions which Obama had disbanded in 2011.
Naval moves of this sort have been most noteworthy in Asia where U.S. alliances and alignments have been expanding rapidly to meet the threat of a rising China. On election day, U.S. Marines and Japan’s new Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade were practicing landing operations against island objectives. Beijing noted “The geography in the area is similar to that on the Diaoyu Islands” which China claims, but which Japan owns as the Senkaku Islands. While the exercise could be seen as practice for retaking the islands should China seize them, they could also be practice for taking the artificial islands China has built in international waters to control the South China Sea. On November 6, the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan (known as “the Quad”) launched the first phase of a joint air and naval exercise off the west coast of India. The second phase started on November 20. President Trump has worked hard to create the U.S.-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership; signing several important trade and security agreements with New Delhi and personally wooing Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Beijing has noticed this strategy to unite the major actors around what the U.S. now calls the Indo-Pacific theater. The media outlet of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) observed, “Given that the cooperation mechanism between the US, Japan, India and Australia is active in the region, Japan and Australia moving closer in defense will lead to greater imagination. An ‘Asian NATO’ has long been a vision pushed by Washington and followed by some US allies.”
Partisan critics of President Trump are the ones who have not noticed or have tried to ignore these gains in their false narrative that America First means isolationism. A recent, much-hyped version of this propaganda is a Foreign Affairs essay by retired Marine Corps general and former Defense Secretary James Mattis, written with Kori Schake along with Jim Ellis and Joe Felter. This cabal wrote “When President Joe Biden and his national security team begin to reevaluate U.S. foreign policy, we hope they will quickly revise the national security strategy to eliminate ‘America first’ from its contents, restoring in its place the commitment to cooperative security that has served the United States so well for decades.” This denunciation of nationalism as the basis for national security policy was music to the ears of the Council of Foreign Relations, the premier organ of liberal globalism that publishes Foreign Affairs.
President Trump’s greatest contribution to U.S. security policy was to recognize that the “globalization” moment had passed, and the world had returned to its normal state of Great Power competition. He put vigor behind “the pivot” from the Middle East to Asia that had been started on paper but had not been pushed by an Obama administration that was cutting defense spending. President Trump sought to pull U.S. forces out of the bottomless pit of Afghanistan where a successful counter strike against the 9/11 terrorists had turned into a quagmire without any strategic purpose. Yet, the Mattis cabal still clings to this error, writing “To dismiss U.S. involvement today in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere as ‘endless’ or ‘forever’ wars… rather than as support to friendly governments struggling to exert control over their own territory misses the point.” No, it makes the point. Sitting for two decades in Afghanistan has played no meaningful role in the war on terrorism, but it has diverted resources from facing growing threats from China and Russia.
America’s best strategy against terrorism is interdiction and deterrence against state-supported groups. Terrorists move around and use many different base areas. So do U.S. forces, with the ability to hit harder and faster than any opponent. As a Marine, Mattis spent decades honing this capability, but seems to have forgotten its role in larger strategy. He also seems to have forgotten the warning in his resignation letter to President Trump. He pointed to China as a major threat, stating “we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.” But in the essay he co-authored there is a rejection of the Asian alignment, arguing “A ‘with us or against us’ approach plays to China’s advantage, because the economic prosperity of U.S. allies and partners hinges on strong trade and investment relationships with Beijing.” The authors have not been paying attention to the right things. The Quad are all trying to decouple from Chinese entanglements because they are traps. China has manipulated trade and investment to empower itself and hobble rivals. The classical liberal theories that befuddled American thinkers for a generation have failed again and must be abandoned with a return to realism.
The Council of Foreign Relations remains enamored with academic theories pulled out of thin air based on how soothing they sound. The study of history is neglected because it yields enduring truths which do not sound so pleasant. Richard Haass, president of the group, penned his own essay “A New Cold War with China Would Be a Mistake” stressing as the Mattis cabal did that the priorities of transnational business should take precedence over the needs of national societies. That these corporate interests now serve the highly nationalistic regime in Beijing gives the liberal argument a disturbing irony.
Anyone who believes a Biden administration will build a stronger alliance system with both the will and the means to protect national interests has not been paying attention to the true record of the last four energetic years, or to that of the eight prior lackluster years.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former Republican staff member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.