Los Angeles – Following the chaotic exit of American forces and civilians from Afghanistan, the world is struggling to understand the implications of the humiliating U.S. defeat in the 20-year war.
Pundits fear that the U.S. will eventually abandon its strategic allies and partners throughout the world — especially in East Asia and the Middle East — similarly to the way it did so in Afghanistan. They also accuse the U.S. of abdicating its leadership in upholding human rights and maintaining global stability.
But these views are short-sighted, missing critical aspects of the emerging Biden doctrine. U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy orientation reflects two seemingly contradictory perspectives in international relations.
One is a political realism that emphasizes great power politics in world affairs. According to realist scholars, the U.S. should adopt a “buck-passing” strategy to let regional actors manage local affairs and threats.
From this perspective, it is folly for the U.S. to be engaged in regime change, nation building or futile wars in places that are not directly linked to the country’s fundamental strategic interests. Realists believe that Washington should prioritize its vital interest: countering China’s ambitions of achieving hegemony in the strategically important Indo-Pacific.
As we all know, President Biden has defiantly defended the U.S. pullout, vehemently rejected America’s role in nation-building abroad and forcefully argued that American foreign policy should prioritize addressing challenges from China and Russia. These views are clearly in line with realism.
At the same time, Biden’s foreign policy orientation is also guided by liberal values and principles (here liberalism does not refer to the conservative-liberal political dichotomy in the United States, but rather to the political philosophy that emphasizes individual liberty, democracy, economic openness and the rule of law).
The Biden administration’s previous actions and words, such as imposing sanctions against generals who engineered a 2021 coup in Myanmar and denouncing China’s human rights violations against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, demonstrate that the administration will speak up for democracy and human rights norms even though it eschews military intervention for regime change. (The Biden administration tragically could not complete its evacuation of all Afghan civilians who had worked for the U.S. government or international agencies, but that was largely due to the rapid collapse of the regime and does not necessarily indicate a neglect of human rights principles.)
Biden also pushes for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” or FOIP, a concept first introduced by former Prime Minister Shizo Abe in 2016 and adopted as a U.S. strategy by the Trump administration the following year.
Despite many disagreements with the Trump administration, the Biden team embraces the FOIP to promote the maintenance of the liberal international order established after World War II under U.S. leadership, and which is now possibly threatened by a rising China. That order is based on liberal values such as the rule of law, freedom of navigation and open markets.
Though America’s foreign policy incorporates both realist and liberal views, it is not incoherent. Rather, it logically pursues U.S. interests in terms of power and ideals with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region.
And Biden takes a multilateral approach to pursue these goals through international institutions such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” consisting of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. In this U.S. strategic framework, allies and partners such as Japan play a key role in supporting the U.S. as it works to preserve its primacy and protect the liberal order.
At the same time, the Biden administration faces many obstacles in preserving U.S. primacy and the U.S.-led order in the Indo-Pacific, due in part to the U.S. absence from multilateral trade agreements in the region. In 2017, President Trump famously withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a cornerstone of President Obama’s policy of rebalancing to Asia.
Although Biden supported the TPP when he was vice president, he currently seems to lack the political capital to rejoin the agreement — now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — given the significant opposition to free trade among both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Ironically, China recently showed interest in participating in the CPTPP, a pact originally designed to exclude the country.
Meanwhile, Beijing signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement in 2020 that includes other Asian countries such as Japan — but not the U.S. While Washington was distracted by fighting the Taliban and other Islamist insurgent groups throughout the broader Middle East, China steadily filled the power vacuum left by the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific.
We are now witnessing a new chapter of U.S. foreign policy under the Biden administration that is focused on its geopolitical competition with China. Biden and the U.S. government have moved on from the 20-year nation building project in Afghanistan to instead focus on this larger challenge that they believe will shape the international balance of power and the global ideational order in the future.
The question is: Did the Biden doctrine arrive in time to counter China’s rise or did two decades of U.S. involvement in the Afghan quagmire leave China with too much of a head start to be stopped?
Keiko Hirata is a professor in the Department of Political Science at California State University, Northridge.
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