With any change of power in Washington, it is routine to ask which policies will endure and which will change. Yet the incoming Biden administration proposes neither new policies nor the revival of old ones. It promises, rather, an existential transformation following the traumatic ordeal of President Donald Trump.
What is being brought back, we are told, is the concept of ‘expertise’ itself. Biden’s return to normalcy will be a re-empowerment of America’s bureaucratic class, so rudely ignored and pushed aside during the four-year time of troubles.
Nowhere is this narrative more powerful than in foreign policy. The Trump administration ‘gutted’ the State Department; that is, it paid scant deference to the priestly class that claims a special right to set America’s agenda vis-à-vis the rest of Earth. Now, the Biden administration has reaffirmed the old dogmas and the priesthood is back. Americans can expect many things from them. They can expect professionalism. They can expect erudition. They can expect consistency. And above all, they can expect disaster.
The Trump administration’s foreign affairs were clumsy and chaotic at the best of times. Its priorities swerved back and forth on major issues, with the President sometimes wishing to act like a tough leader and other times aspiring to a more accommodating or isolationist attitude. It was unpredictable and inconsistent, yet that, strangely, was its strength. Sometimes the Trump administration’s haphazard blundering led to withdrawals from never-ending wars or curbs on limitless migration from central America, or to seeking accommodation rather than confrontation with Russia. If the Trump administration seemed to change its strategy too often, then at least half the time it was changing from a bad policy to a good one.
In contrast, the Beltway’s blob of foreign policy experts has consistently, steadily and professionally stuck America into one disastrous mess after another. They are a very well-educated set, perpetually drunk on the same overconfidence that pervades college campuses. To them, there is no limit to America’s resources. No problem exists that cannot be fixed with enough micromanagement and management-speak platitudes. And no tension at all exists between America’s interests and the world’s interests, so there is no downside to empowering and enriching other nations at America’s expense.
The belief that good intentions are 90 percent of successful policymaking was common to both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Under Biden, expect intoxicated self-righteousness to make a comeback. Avril Haines, Biden’s prospective director of national intelligence, has promised to ‘speak truth to power’, as if she were a plucky underdog rather than someone at the apex of the political system.
The incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is a tribune of this self-absorbed zeitgeist. In 2003, as an aide to then-Sen. Biden, he convinced his boss to back the Iraq War, which proved to be a catastrophe. Come 2011, Blinken was a top cheerleader for Obama’s Libya intervention. Muammar Gaddafi had no territorial ambitions. His lightly populated petrostate posed no threat to the United States or any of its allies. He had negotiated with the West to eliminate his WMD programs. Rather than rewarding Gaddafi for playing by western rules, however, Blinken and co. punched as soon as he showed weakness. They thus helped craft a disaster of global proportions. The power vacuum of Gaddafi’s death turned Libya into a war-torn failed state and human trafficking hub that has never been contained. America didn’t benefit.
The real beneficiaries were Blinken and the rest of the DC blob, who see no conflict between moralizing and shrewd foreign policy. The habit didn’t stop there. By 2013, Blinken was one of Obama’s point men making the case for toppling Assad in Syria.
Now, Blinken will get to choose the agenda. The Spectator hopes that with his greater power might come greater caution. But we are not optimistic. Looking at the record of the past 20 years, we fear that, as Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, people of his ilk learn nothing and forget nothing.
President Biden promises to restore the Bush/Obama consensus on more than just foreign intervention. He has committed himself to a near-total reversal of President Trump’s immigration policies, meaning America’s immigration system will once again serve the interests of foreign nationals over the interests of its own. President Trump sought to reverse outsourcing to China and rebuild America’s economic independence. Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has taken DC’s preferred position: that the US must ‘encourage’ China’s rise, under the Pollyannaish assumption that enriching America’s business elites and outsourcing America’s jobs will magically transform a rival superpower into a compliant liberal democracy.
In 1992, the retired Democratic senator Eugene McCarthy remarked that the United States was becoming ‘a colony of the world’. It is colonies, after all, which send their young thousands of miles away to fight wars that do not protect or enrich their homeland. It is colonies that lose basic sovereign control over their borders. And it is colonies whose economic systems are structured to benefit other countries, rather than their own. In the coming Biden administration, this ‘colonial’ America will reassert itself. But don’t fret: our leaders will feel very good about themselves.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.