The Biden administration has been mired in foreign policy crisis, with a chaotic flight from Afghanistan, a tiring relationship with its allies, and increasingly rising tensions with U.S. adversaries. El American spoke to Jason Killmeyer, a foreign policy expert with more than a dozen years’ experience including as Chief of Staff of Global Defense, Security & Justice at Deloitte Consulting, to discuss how Biden is acting towards the international threats and challenges that the U.S. faces in the near future.
The first question, the administration came to power promising partners, and foes as well, that America is back as he said in the G7. Do you think the president is living up to that promise?
No, and I think that as we approached the year-end commentary on foreign policy, there will be a rightful emphasis on Afghanistan, and the display of incompetence, but also the doubt and discord it sowed with our allies. But I think that there’s a more important overall takeaway as it relates to this administration’s foreign policy so far, which is that they accepted provocation and aggression from Iran, from Russia, and from China, as the cost of moving forward, their multilateralist aims on climate, and the Iranian nuclear threat.
So they made a big bet that it would be worth bearing that aggression to move forward in these two other areas, and it appears that they have failed in both.
Clearly, they failed as it relates to the Glasgow conference, the Chinese President did not even attend, the final resolutions were watered down, the climate conference was objectively a failure. Iranian nuclear negotiations appear to be heading in that direction and even a “less for less” agreement doesn’t come close to mitigating the threat from Iran.
So that they made a big bet, it has not paid off. Demonstrably, this is what foreign policy failure looks like.
If you had to define the “Biden doctrine”, in a few words, how would you do so?
Yeah, I would say it is the failed aspiration of multilateralism. The gamble they made, in leaning into these two international negotiation mechanisms has not yielded a payoff, and the costs that they endured to keep both of those mechanisms viable were not insignificant, I would say it is retrenchment without result.
But really it is failed multilateralist aspirations, they are governing as if It’s 2015 when they were last in office and have not updated their thinking to the degree of modern threat without a major adjustment in foreign policy. This sort of UN and the multilateral first approach is going to lead to instability as Russia and China set the pace and tone of world events.
Jason, who do you think are the main threats or actors that will compete with United States’ interests in the next 5-10 years? Is it China, Russia, or Iran—and if so, in which ways are they being a threat to our national interest?
Our adversaries, China, Russia, and Iran will pose the greatest strategic threat to our national interests in the next five years and are each getting bolder in their actions, and more worryingly, blocs are starting to form.
Russia has in the past 15 years taken a de facto sovereignty over close to two and a half million more people between the territory it captured in Georgia and Ukraine. And China is preparing itself to capture Taiwan. Rarely do dictatorships, once they start capturing territory, stop their thirst for more.
And so short term, what we’re seeing is that those are the aggressive actors, Iran which has attacked the US. presence in the Middle East plotted a kidnapping here in the United States, and funded sort of revolutionary militias around the region goes undeterred. Russia-based actors have shut down a major pipeline, Russia has itself conducted massive cyber-attacks that are approaching a degree of subversion versus just typical espionage, China similarly.
These are specific offensive actions taken against the United States outside the scope of traditional espionage or the stealing of information. The era of active conflict has begun, it just looks different from it used to. So we’re not at war with Russia or China, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re at peace with them either.
One of the president’s promises was to mend relationships with our western allies. However, during his tenure, France broke diplomatic relationships with the United States for a submarine deal. Does the current president have a coherent strategy to restore a Western alliance that is suitable for the 21st century?
No, but it’s less about the short-term missteps. And here’s what I mean. What the France diplomatic blowup is the signal of, is incompetence, that was an avoidable mistake, and an unnecessary embarrassment after the embarrassment of Afghanistan.
What the reality is for European perceptions is they’re happy Trump is gone, just like they were happy Bush was gone, just like they were happy when Reagan was gone, but that perception, which has a real impact on relations between the US and Europe and our NATO allies, often fails to pale in comparison to the realpolitik that the aggression against Europe tends to be more pronounced when Democrats are in office.
The reality is, that Biden’s claims of having restored our standing, rest on the same thing Democrats claims always rest on, which is that European people like it more when Democrats are in power, they get to go over and do their sort of welcome tour, but the ground truth is that the strength of the alliance is not in actually any better shape, and if anything, I would suggest European allies are rattled by what they’re seeing from Washington.
As you said, when Democrats are in power, Europeans are more threatened. Today with thousands of Russian troops surrounding Ukraine, what do you think is Biden’s endgame with Putin? Is he going to appease Putin in order to triangulate China or is he just making it up as he goes on?
I don’t think the appeasement will be because he wants to triangulate, but I do think that there will be appeasement. What the Biden administration wants to do is divest internationally from our strong position around the world and what they’re looking for are reasonably acceptable balances of power for areas where we get less involved.
What they want is a Europe that can kind of maintain itself, without us having to be as involved as we always are. What they’re looking for is a situation in the Middle East that isn’t good, it’s just not catastrophic, but that allows us to get out of the way. They are trying to essentially divest a lot of American responsibility around the world, and again that’s not unreasonable if you can find a sustainable set of conditions where we can accept the outcomes even if they’re imperfect. But what we’re seeing is the calculations they’re making are not working out the right way.
An example of that is they left Afghanistan, they thought “Hey, we know it’s going to be dangerous, we think we can manage the threats from the air, but it’s better than being over there for another 20 years” Something most Americans probably agree with, the problem is they don’t actually have a real plan to counter the terrorist threat, they don’t actually have an effective way to project power, so it’s the same thing that you’re seeing with Russia, it’s the same thing you are seeing with the pivot to Asia, which is more about rhetoric than any actual commitment of men, material, or money.
So the reason they’re going to appease Putin is not that they want to triangulate China or try to move on to those new priorities. It is because even if they were doing that, they simply have no appetite to engage in the conflict that Putin is likely willing to engage.
Ukraine is Putin’s if he wants it, he knows it, the whole world knows it, our statements and our little bit of aid, the few billion we’ve sent over in terms of aid are not going to stop a determined Russian enemy who knows there’s no real deterrent from the United States.
Now we go on with the core issue of China. Firstly, is there a coherent policy towards China? The second question is more about competency. The U.S. showed incompetency in Afghanistan, a country where we’ve been for 20 years. If the U.S. wasn’t able to manage Afghanistan, will they be able to resist and confront the greatest challenge to American foreign policy since the Soviet Union? Is the United States competent to face China?
Yes, the United States is, if the United States chooses to be, and so that’s I think often what’s missing our we have set ourselves up very poorly right now, because of the choices we made in Afghanistan and the incompetence, and lack of will displayed. But we are still dramatically more powerful than China, our military, despite China having near parity and in certain issues in their local theater, is still absolutely more powerful overall than China’s.
So it’s a question of with we’re choosing in displays, like how we left Afghanistan, we are choosing to make conflict more likely. These displays of weakness, these displays of uncertainty are the very thing that makes conflict with China more likely.
And so yes, the United States can still do what it needs to and wants to in the Pacific. I don’t consider China a major deterrent to the committed United States, but that word committed is very important.
If the United States chooses to go along with the Biden consensus on foreign policy then a lot of those things come into doubt.
The US is still spending less on defense as a percentage of GDP in the past several years, right as it did not only throughout the entire Cold War but through all but the lowest year or two of the peace dividend in the 90s. So each of these situations where we’re sort of poorly positioned against our foreign adversaries are a result of domestic choices, majorly in Washington, and not necessarily an accurate reflection of the power balance between a country like the United States and a country like China.
What should be the priorities of the American government in foreign policy? What should any competent American leader focus on in the next 5-10 years?
There is actually a consensus on where the threats come from, there is a consensus amongst both sides of the aisle and generally, within the wide scope of foreign policy. There is a consensus where the threats come from: it’s China, it’s Russia, it’s the Iranian nuclear program.
That consensus is there, but there is an equally important absence, which is the realization that without a major change in posture. Without America becoming a little more activist on the world stage without us making some uncomfortable decisions, and putting ourselves forward a little bit more, we are headed towards catastrophe.
Big chess pieces are going to start to move unless we more aggressively, disentanglement is something that America may choose, but what does that look like?
At the same time, the Democrats are in one tool of the foreign policy toolkit -multilateralism diplomacy- and attempting to get outsized results from that one tool, history tells us that will not work.
The major thing is that unless Washington gets its head out of the sand and starts to respond more aggressively and effectively to these threats, then real, ugly state to state conflict becomes much more likely, and we are seeing the beginnings of what that looks like in a modern sense, with the Gray zone aggression and acts of sabotage and subversion from countries like China and Russia today.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.