With Biden’s first foreign trip, indicators of US strategy show few surprises but some new tactics

Michael Stricof, OREMA, Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA.

The main outlines of US foreign policy under the Biden administration are solidifying. The end of May and first half of June provided two important indicators that deserve attention. President Biden took his first trip abroad, travelling to the United Kingdom for the G7, Belgium for the NATO summit and Switzerland for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just before this trip, the Department of Defense released its 2022 budget proposal, outlining priorities for the military under Biden’s leadership. These early indications of the Biden administration’s foreign policy come with few surprises, except in degrees of emphasis. An elder statesman and establishment figure, Biden continues to represent American orthodoxy.

US grand strategy has consistently advanced US interests through two complimentary components: limiting the growth and influence of competitors who may restrict American access to key regions, and expanding US influence and market access either directly or through international norms that are perceived as favorable. The first component has often been mistaken for the whole of US strategy, especially in the 20th Century when denying fascism and limiting Soviet communism were labeled as grand strategies in and of themselves. Since the end of the Cold War, the equilibrium between the two has been more evident. During the 1990s, Clinton’s “Engagement and Enlargement” explicitly advanced the spread of market democracies, while the “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran and the interventions in the Balkans served as a reminder that threats to a stable international system (in which the US retains a position of leadership) would be limited.

This grand strategy has not changed under the Biden administration. However, the president’s trip to Europe and the defense budget proposal shed light on the tactics this administration will use, including a consistent form of containment and new techniques for expanding leadership.
The threats to be contained remain consistent with the Obama and Trump administrations: China is the primary new competitor and Russia retains second place as a destabilizing force.[1] The choice to travel to Europe first emphasizes traditional allies who provide America’s fundamental comparative advantage in facing off against China militarily. It also serves to emphasize support for European allies against Russian destabilization (and after Trump’s destabilizing character). Biden’s repeated promise to take a hard line with Putin serves to separate him from his predecessor, often seen as too soft on the Russian autocrat, and to show his willingness to defend Europe. The main reason for building support remains facing China. Biden pushed for a G7 statement condemning the treatment of Uyghurs, in line with his general use of human rights in confronting China.[2] NATO had already defined China as a primary threat and reason for modernization, and the June 14 communiqué from the Brussels summit further emphasized that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.”[3] On May 28, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s statement accompanying the defense budget proposal promised, “The budget provides us the mix of capabilities we need most and stays true to our focus on the pacing challenge from the People’s Republic of China,” without an equivalent mention of Russia.[4] During a May 27 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee both countries were mentioned, but China was clearly the first priority as the competitor with the ability to most rapidly advance its capabilities and therefore the primary justification for US modernization spending.[5]

Public presentation of US foreign policy has traditionally emphasized the negation of threats rather than the expansion of interests. For domestic audiences, this allows for the myth of an innocent, defensive foreign policy. Abroad, this serves to minimize the comparisons of US leadership to past colonial powers. However, with Biden’s trip abroad and the defense budget proposal, the means for expanding American influence (or restoring it after the Trump years) have also been laid out clearly. The United States will provide leadership for international crises, in the short term the coronavirus pandemic, and in the long-term climate change, to rebuild credibility and rally partners.[6]

Austin’s budget statement placed “combating the damaging effects of climate change on our military installations” as the second military priority after facing China, continuing the thirty-year rise of environmental security as a key component of American defense politics, and his congressional testimony was replete with references to both the pandemic and climate change.[7] Biden’s statements also kept these two priorities in the forefront, notably his announcement during the G7 that the US would purchase and donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

This represents a change in tactical priority from past US administrations, who established leadership and expanded influence above all through economic means, either by emphasizing market economics, expanding trade deals or providing development aid. Certainly, these are incorporated in Biden’s overall foreign policy, and freer trade was included in the New Atlantic Charter signed by Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on June 10. However, Biden has appeared hesitant to focus on trade, which has lost favor among both progressives and conservatives at home. His Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, has so far avoided promising new deals in favor of resolving the coronavirus pandemic first. The pandemic has not, however, slowed emphasis on tackling climate crisis, which has been elevated to a priority never seen, except perhaps during the Obama administration around the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement. In addition to less rhetorical emphasis, promotion of a minimum international corporate tax rate, currently being negotiated at 15%, and Biden’s willingness to keep some of Trump’s tariffs in place represent a departure from orthodox free trade policy.

At the conclusion of Biden’s first trip abroad, the main guidelines of US foreign policy are clear. His administration will follow a traditional foreign policy of containing threats, primarily China and secondarily Russia, while attempting to establish US leadership by responding to international health and environmental crises. The question will be whether the US has the tools and political will to implement this strategy, and if the new priorities favored by this administration will truly help the US to reestablish leadership.

[1] The Trump and Obama administrations ultimately had a consistent view of the main threats driving US defense policy, as outlined in this previous post: https://orema.hypotheses.org/436.

[2] See Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard’s post on Biden’s use of human rights policy facing China: https://orema.hypotheses.org/806.

[3] NATO, Brussels Summit Communiqué, 14 June 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm.

[4] Lloyd J. Austin, III, qtd. in Department of Defense, The Department of Defense Releases the President’s Fiscal Year 2022 Defense Budget, 28 May 2021,https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2638711/the-department-of-defense-releases-the-presidents-fiscal-year-2022-defense-budg/.

[5] Lloyd J. Austin, III, Opening statement, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Defense of the House Committee on Appropriations, 27 May 2021, https://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ByEvent.aspx?EventID=112682.

[6] See Jean-Daniel Collomb’s post on US climate policy and international credibility, https://orema.hypotheses.org/841.

[7] For a longer view of the place of “environmental security” in the Department of Defense and American politics, see Michael Stricof, “Representing Climate Change through the Lens of Environmental Security: Thirty Years of the Department of Defense Defining a Threat Multiplier and Military Resilience,”E-Rea 18, no. 2 (2021), https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.11609.

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