The emerging Biden doctrine and what it means for the world
There is nothing like crisis and upheaval to focus the mind, and in less than two years of his presidency, Joe Biden has had more than his fair share of both.
He entered the White House in the middle of a pandemic, with his citizens at each other’s throats, and his rallying of humanity to live up to the challenges of climate change faltering as rising tensions with China were singled out as the main challenge to US and global stability. On top of all that came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year.
This is only part of a long list on a saturated agenda that demands not only immediate answers from his administration but also a response that goes beyond mere crisis management and instead calls for the development of a well-organized doctrine that defines America’s place in the world and its mission. This is something that has been missing for a while.
Through no fault of his own, the first months of Biden’s presidency were all about focusing on restoring a modicum of sanity following the chaotic tenure of his predecessor that culminated in the Jan. 6 insurrection. The urgency of that task sometimes overshadowed the importance of developing a long-term strategy.
Furthermore, Biden began his term in office widely viewed as a one-term president who would be more concerned with steadying the ship than implementing reforms. Consequently, a Biden doctrine did not emerge, although within a few months it became clear he had no intention of being a stop-gap president but, rather, was a veteran politician with a wealth of experience on the world stage who was determined to leave his mark.
In his speech last month to the UN General Assembly, something emerged that resembled a doctrine: A holistic approach to the global challenges facing the US and not a piecemeal response to any particular threats that might present themselves.
That he would concentrate on Russian aggression in his UN speech was a given. However, Biden’s response went beyond that ongoing war itself and emphasized the existential necessity for the US, if it is to remain safe and prosper, to remain true to its values, to lead and consolidate its engagement with organizations such as NATO, the EU and the Organization of American States, and with its Middle Eastern allies, and to strengthen its affinity with America’s fellow democracies. A preview of this had already been provided by, for example, the agreement, together with the UK, to supply Australia with nuclear submarines under the UKUSA alliance.
In the early days of his presidency, Biden embarked on a diplomatic campaign to reassure NATO members and European friends that the US was back and keen to resurrect close ties based on shared values, a campaign that remedied the constant, illogical and irrational rancor that had been shown toward them by his predecessor.
Russia’s war on Ukraine provided a platform for Biden to translate his intentions into concrete policies and back them up with more than $25 billion in aid to date. His address to the General Assembly set the stage for him to distinguish the US as defender of the UN charter, at the heart of which is the idea, and ideal, of global collective security.
It aims at enhancing international cooperation with allies and building bridges with rivals where cooperation is possible, and taking steps to deter those who threaten regional and world order.
However, the very fact that a permanent member of the Security Council is currently violating the sanctity of another country’s sovereignty, and in doing so committing horrendous atrocities against the Ukrainian people, has inevitably led to questions about the viability of the UN as a mechanism for preserving peace, and especially the role of its Security Council.
It is no secret that this body — which was created in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War and given the task, at least in principle, of preventing future conflicts or stopping them when they do break out — has failed spectacularly.
This has mainly been due to its five permanent members operating within the paradigm of realpolitik in a context that was supposed to adhere to and advance the liberal-institutionalist perspective. The Security Council has failed to operate in the realm of world affairs in a way that accepts that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Instead its permanent members have been mainly preoccupied with consolidating alliances to serve their own national interests rather than subscribing to the UN charter’s aim of collective security as the modus operandi in order to “maintain international peace and security.”
Because of this, a major building block of the nascent Biden doctrine is reform of the UN, and the Security Council in particular, by expanding the latter to become more representative of the current international arena, rather than the way it was in 1945.
In a rather exceptional moment of self-introspection, America’s president called for the permanent members of the Security Council, including the US, to refrain from the use of their power of veto “except in rare, extraordinary situations, to ensure that the council remains credible and effective.”
These are more noble than novel ideas, but creating additional permanent seats for countries from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, as was suggested by Biden, is a step in the right direction toward a more inclusive international arena that provides a voice and influence to parts of the world that for much too long have been treated as no more than making up the numbers on the chessboard of great power rivalries.
While Russia’s brutality in Ukraine inevitably demands that the world rally around to stop the old-style politics of a country using force to impose its will on a neighbor, the agenda that the Biden administration is promoting, and which was reflected in his General Assembly speech, is one that prioritizes US leadership on climate change, the current global economic and food crises, and the advancement of human development, all of which are issues which affect billions of people around the world.
This emergent Biden doctrine combines hard and soft power. It starts with moves to create a fairer and greener economy at home, working to enhance international cooperation with allies and building bridges with rivals where cooperation is possible, and taking steps to deter those who threaten regional and world order.
The Biden administration’s instincts are to embrace a global agenda in line with the UN’s founding principles, adjusted to take account of 21st-century challenges and combined with a reformist drive.
However, for a new US global agenda to succeed will take much convincing of others, including friends, that America is ready to lead without dictating, to share power, and to demonstrate that it has internalized the idea that its self-interest is consistent with the security and prosperity of others that do not enjoy the same political, military and economic power.
There were enough hints of this in Biden’s speech at the UN; now it is time for his administration to roll up its sleeves and articulate all of it in a clearly stated doctrine.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg