John Bolton had an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal this week, in which he observed that in terms of foreign policy the two parties seem to have fallen back into the respective bosoms of familiar territory.
To wit, after four years of President Trump’s unconventional, at times spasmodic, approach to foreign policy, and the Democrats reflexive reactions against anything done by Trump, the two parties found themselves somehow adopting positions that would have been considered heretical before 2016. For instance, after at least 100 years of practiced appeasement towards Russia, the Democratic Party line sounded at times like it could have been written by Douglas MacArthur. Meanwhile, some Republicans spoke as though the party’s foreign policy platform were taken from the lyrics of Imagine, John Lennon’s ode to absurdity.
Now, Bolton writes, Republicans and Democrats seem to be back to acting like Republicans and Democrats.
He has a point. Republicans, happily, appear to have returned to the fold, loudly criticizing Putin’s Russia again, after a few years in the wilderness where all but a handful of them (former Senator Cory Gardner was one) seemed to consider any criticism of Putin to be an uncrossable line. Meanwhile some Democrats, unhappily, seem to be back to their accommodationist, disarmament-obsessed selves.
Like the realignment experienced during the Trump presidency, the current reversion to form is being driven by the actions of the administration, and the reactions of the party opposite. President Biden has made some significant missteps in the foreign policy arena, and at least some Democrats in Congress are playing cheerleader.
Among the more serious mistakes Biden has made is the precipitous abandonment of Afghanistan, which now threatens to become Biden’s Vietnam. The common argument offered for pulling every last one of our troops out of Afghanistan is the simple fact that they have been there going on 20 years now. Yes, that is a long time, but for perspective’s sake consider that we still maintain a military presence in Germany, and WWII has been over for 75 years. The failure to leave at least Bagram AFB intact is a strategic blunder that could, among other things, easily result in the country falling back into the hands of the Taliban and their assorted anti-American guests. They may not be back in a position today, tomorrow, or next year to attack Americans, abroad or at home, as they did on 9/11 and previously; but they play a long game, which is something they are good at and we, evidently, are not.
It is a serious misstep, certainly, but might not be the administration's most serious one. The middle east will remain important for quite some time, but the more pressing concerns center on Russia and China, towards which the President’s policies have been mixed at best.
For instance, we have Biden’s abrupt and complete capitulation on the issue of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany. There is no question, Angela Merkle’s protestations of mercantilist innocence notwithstanding, that the pipeline is a geopolitical weapon wielded by Russia against its direct western neighbors, especially Ukraine. Nord Stream 2’s existence will render the pipelines now crossing Ukrainian territory obsolete, depriving the beleaguered country of transit fees, and substantially reducing any economic costs that Russia would incur in ratcheting up threats and pressure against the Ukraine.
On China, Biden’s messaging may be more coherent than his immediate predecessors, but it is no stronger. If any region of the world cannot bear a return to the weak and directionless foreign policy of the Obama years, it is the South China Sea. Taiwan must feel a certain uneasy kinship with Ukraine.
Meanwhile, there are renewed calls by progressives on the hill to slash the defense budget, hearkening back nostalgically to the “peace-at-any-cost” position carved out obdurately by the left wing of the Democratic Party in every decade since at least the 1960’s.
The United States is facing enormous challenges across the world, but we are easily distracted, especially when we lack a discernable principle guiding our foreign policy. That principle ought to fall more on the John Quincy Adams side of the coin – who famously said that Americans are champions of freedom everywhere, but custodians only of our own – than the Wilsonian one. But in the cyber age, custodianship of our liberty is a little more complicated than the current administration seems prepared to admit, complexities which one hopes Republicans can again grasp.