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[Column] Will Biden follow in Trump's steps by not starting any new wars?

한겨레 입력 2021. 01. 26. 18:36

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Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for former president Barack Obama, labeled those foreign policy and national security elites as "the blob."

Nevertheless, Sullivan acknowledges "recent shifts in the center of gravity of the Washington foreign policy consensus."

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Critics say Trump tried to maintain US hegemony without shouldering its responsibilities
US President Joe Biden and Former President Donald Trump. (graphic by Jeon Bo-ram)

One of the most debatable parts of the legacy of former President Donald Trump is that he didn’t start any new wars. Trump himself played that up in his farewell address on Jan. 19. “I am especially proud to be the first president in decades who has started no new wars,” he said.

It’s true that Trump was the first American president not to go to war since Jimmy Carter, who said during an interview with the Guardian on Sept. 11, 2011, that “we kept our country at peace. We never went to war. We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet.”

But Trump wasn’t seeking to abandon the US’ hegemonic meddling that progressives have long criticized. Trump demanded that American allies increase their defense contributions many times over. The Trump administration also unilaterally withdrew from international deals that it had planned or orchestrated, including the Paris climate agreement and the Iranian nuclear deal.

In short, Trump wanted the US to enjoy power without shouldering the duties that power entails. He wanted the US to keep its hegemony without paying the price. That attitude has also been called “illiberal hegemony.” The word contrasts with hegemony over the liberal international order through which the US seeks to spread its values and institutions.

Since the collapse of the socialist bloc in the early 1990s, the US has been criticized for overindulging in intervention and even armed conflict on the pretext of defending and extending the liberal international order. Critics say that these excessive interventions have caused the US to spread its military too thin around the world, even as it failed to counter China, which it needs to do to maintain hegemony.

Attacks on the hegemony of the liberal international order have frequently been made by scholars of the realist school such as John Mearsheimer, a professor at Chicago University, and Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University. Such realistic scholars criticize the Washington foreign policy and national security elite’s bipartisan support for the liberal international order — support, these scholars assert, that has ensnared the US in conflict.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for former president Barack Obama, labeled those foreign policy and national security elites as “the blob.”

Trump’s half-truth

At any rate, Trump is only telling half of the truth when he brags about not starting any new wars and pushing to bring American troops home from the Middle East. Such actions mirror the grievances of his supporters, who are skeptical about how they benefit from American efforts around the world to disseminate and defend the liberal international order.

Even the foreign policy and national security officials in the Biden administration, who are themselves advocates of the traditional liberal international order, seem to have taken such criticism to heart. Perhaps expecting that he might be part of the next administration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan wrote a long column in Foreign Affairs in early 2019 rebutting Mearsheimer and Walt’s criticism of the liberal international order.

The gist of Sullivan’s article is that Mearsheimer and other realist scholars disregard reality, and more specifically the practical constraints faced by policymakers (such as Sullivan himself) in their pursuit of the national interest. In short, Sullivan was indirectly accusing the realistic school of ivory tower naivety.

Nevertheless, Sullivan acknowledges “recent shifts in the center of gravity of the Washington foreign policy consensus.”

Sullivan went on: “Most in the foreign policy community would oppose another conflict of choice in the Middle East. The debate now is over how to pursue an effective counterterrorism strategy that relies less and less on direct military force.”

Recent trends, Sullivan says, point to “a kind of convergence of the left and the center.

“Some common priorities are coming into focus: an elevated concern for the distributional effects of international economic policy, a concentration on combating corruption and kleptocracy and neofascism, an emphasis on diplomacy over the use of military force, an enduring commitment to democratic allies,” he wrote.

Sullivan’s remarks obviously suggest that the Biden administration is highly averse to military interventions and that it will also refrain from interventions in the framework of the liberal international order, in which the US has long been a meddlesome participant.

Obama’s tragic invasion of Libya

By itself, the domestic wreckage left by Trump is reason enough for the Biden administration to opt against intervening by force in foreign affairs. But Obama himself came to power in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the US’ worst foreign policy decision in history — and then went on to intervene in the Libyan Civil War, which has been a tragedy for the people of Libya that haunts them even today.

I’m curious to see whether Biden turns out to be another president who refrains from starting a new war while he’s in office, and not just in the half-true sense of Trump, who was merely trying to appease the grievances of his supporters. It remains to be seen whether Biden can supersede the Obama administration’s non-policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea and intervene in a way that’s both proactive and constructive.

That will determine whether it’s possible to repair the liberal international order, in which the US still believes.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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