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No, We Don’t Need These Forever Wars

Jason Brownlee

China doesn’t have an empire. The United States doesn’t need to saber-rattle. And we really don’t need to fight these forever wars.

US president Joe Biden in Washington, DC, 2021. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Branko Marcetic

If the Left’s expectations were low for Joe Biden on the domestic sphere, they were somewhere around floor level when it came to foreign policy. Biden didn’t promise much, and what he did promise didn’t seem to point to anything particularly ambitious.

But have conditions nonetheless forced a subtle shift in US foreign policy? And what does the future hold, as Biden takes the reins of empire at a perilous time of global crisis and declining US supremacy?

Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic spoke to Jason Brownlee, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, about Biden’s foreign policy so far, the state of American empire, and whether the United States is really headed toward a “New Cold War” with China.


BM

We’re speaking on Biden’s hundredth day in office. What are your thoughts on his foreign policy so far?

JB

Biden has, for some of us, confounded expectations. Certainly at the macro level there is continuity. The United States is trying to maintain primacy in the world.

But two small rhetorical issues where I think Biden has been more direct and more progressive than his predecessors is: one, when it came to the coup in Myanmar in February, he called it a coup; and two, he acknowledged the Armenian genocide, which is a step his predecessors hadn’t taken.

He has also ended the ground war in Afghanistan. That won’t end the US presence in Afghanistan; I expect the United States will continue to be involved in the country as a proxy war, similar to how we’re involved in Iraq and Yemen, where we use air power, special forces, and local surrogates to maintain a presence there. In that sense, I think the forever wars aren’t going to end, and I don’t see Biden wrapping up the US presence in the wider arc of the Persian Gulf region either.

Structurally he hasn’t reoriented the course of American power overseas, and if we dug into details region by region there’d be several cases where his policies would be subject to a lot of criticism. For example, in the Middle East beyond Afghanistan, we see carte blanche to Israel, standard anti-Iranian policies, and constraints to weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that are provisional.

There’s also been no change in US relations with Egypt, no punishment for Sisi’s oppression of Egyptians. And in the Western hemisphere, Biden has not even returned to the rapprochement with Cuba that Obama pursued, and has taken a more hardline stance toward leftist governments while being supportive of right-wing governments.

BM

In his speech announcing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden seemed to double down on the framework of the “War on Terror.” Are we looking at a future where the United States continues to fight that so-called war while also embarking on a massive military buildup to counter China?

JB

Now that the Iraq War’s over, and now that the Afghan ground war is winding down to completion, the “War on Terror” operations are relatively inexpensive in terms of US lives and in terms of expenditure. It’s one of the reasons they continue without much discussion or attention among the US public.

The question for Afghanistan depends on what happens with the Taliban. We could see a straight up military reconquest of Kabul, and then we’d be back to a pre-9/11 status quo, where the northern alliance is in a tiny bit of the country, and the Taliban is again the government in Afghanistan. It’s analogous to Vietnam in the 1970s, where eventually an insurgency will come down and overthrow the government. Does the United States accept that as we eventually did in Vietnam, or does it fight to prevent that?

There is another course, where the Taliban decides to exercise military restraint and comes to some sort of power-sharing agreement. That would be the most hopeful outcome, because the Taliban does have a mass constituency and the war will not end until that constituency is incorporated into national politics.

On China: the country remains the United States’ single biggest trading partner, so it’s hard for me to think of them as being in a Cold War. The competition that Biden sees the United States in is about economic growth. Currently, China’s GDP in purchasing power terms is larger than the United States. By the end of the decade it’ll be larger than the United States in current dollar terms too.

So Biden is hoping to delay that moment when China gets the bragging rights of saying it has the largest economy in the world. And he’s hoping to do that by bolstering domestic US growth and at the same time using the nationalist notion of economic competition to win the domestic debate at home over domestic spending. He’s turning the types of discretionary spending, welfare, and infrastructure projects that Republicans would criticize into a national security issue.

BM

One of the ironies of the Cold War is that while it led to many terrible things, the drive to compete with the Soviet Union also contributed to some positive steps, including civil rights and more public investment. Do you see a similar dynamic happening now?

JB

If it leads to growth and advances in education spending, and raises living standards more broadly, it could gain a kind of political momentum. But I would hope that one would not need to use nationalist rhetoric in an adversarial framework to justify commonsensical welfare spending in a developed state like the United States. In the long term it’s not healthy to have some external Other that you use to justify your domestic policy agenda. If Bernie Sanders was president and was proposing the same thing, I don’t think he would be talking about the need to compete with China. These programs have their own innate benefits.

The backdrop to this conversation is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been useful for clarifying the important role government can play in people’s lives. It’s reminded ordinary Americans that when it comes to their safety and security, threats like ISIS and the like were really inflated the past couple of decades. Public health has a direct impact on their lives, and, in that respect, government can play a positive role.

BM

Is the Cold War analogy that we hear so often applied to US-China relations today correct or appropriate? Is China really in the equivalent position that the USSR was during the actual Cold War?

JB

The short answer is no. China is not a global power, it’s a regional power. The Soviet Union had nuclear capabilities well outside its territory, nuclear-armed submarines and so on. At some point, military spending between the United States and USSR was comparable, though the United States was well ahead. China’s military spending is less than half of the United States’ spending, and it doesn’t have the international network of bases the United States has.

The United States remains an empire — an empire in decline, but still an empire — and China is not. I don’t think the Cold War analogy is useful for two countries that are so economically interdependent, and given the conflict and proxy wars that took place between the US and USSR for decades.

BM

To what extent do you think the lessons of the past few decades of foreign policy been learned or internalized by the national security establishment in the United States?

JB

The costs of the Democrats’ ignoring public opinion on bread-and-butter issues have risen. We have decades of public opinion data going back to the 1970s, showing strong majorities of average Americans prioritize material conditions at home, and not pursuing regime change wars and ground invasions of other countries. The same polls show policymakers in Washington and opinion makers around them in think tanks and so on favor free market approaches and political change overseas through military intervention.

What we’ve seen so far with Biden suggests that for the moment, this disconnect between the priorities of the public and that of the policy-making elite is being bridged. But I’d say right now there’s no evidence leading figures in “the Blob” have substantially changed their worldview.

I think two things explain why we’re on a course of foreign policy restraint, relatively speaking. One is that COVID-19 has concentrated minds and eliminated room for discretionary campaigns and interventions and humanitarian crusaderism, if you can call it that. Of course, that might change if a crisis comes up and if the pandemic subsides.

The second factor is the 2020 elections. They obviously put Biden and Harris into the White House, but they were not good for the Democrats. It suggests that if they don’t take seriously the domestic policy priorities of the electorate, they could get really wiped out in 2022 and 2024. I think there is an electoral calculus at work here in which the interventionist policies the Blob likes and the public opposes are not considered electorally feasible.

If the Democrats don’t compete effectively on domestic policy, they will lose out to Republicans for a long period of time, the way their counterparts in Hungary and India lost out to [Viktor] Orbán and [Narendra] Modi. Biden and his close confidants seem to understand that in a pure, realpolitik kind of way, they need to do what Clinton and Obama didn’t do, and align the Democratic Party with domestic priorities that are commonsensical and will have broad support.

BM

What is the state of US primacy in the world? Is the United States still established as the world’s superpower, or are things more tenuous right now?

JB

When international relations scholars look at primacy in terms of a unipolar and multipolar world, they tend to look to wealth as the basic metric of power. While China within the decade will surpass the United States in GDP, if you add to US GDP the GDP of NATO, the EU, and a few other allies, you would quickly get to over 50 percent of world GDP in the hands of the United States and various allies.

I think as long as that remains the case, US primacy — even if it’s shared primacy with European partners, Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea — would remain dominant. Also, so long as the US dollar remains the global reserve currency, then I see the United States continuing to enjoy an important kind of economic primacy.

BM

What is the prospect of a break from business-as-usual on foreign policy in the foreseeable future?

JB

The first step to ending US wars overseas is to elevate domestic needs and domestic priorities on the public agenda. COVID-19 made that happen in a big way.

We can see a shift away from some of the worst types of intervention that happened under Bush and Obama, but it’s not going to be a shift that is heralded or celebrated, because it’s the absence of interventionism. It’s the glory of not doing.

I’d also say, it’s not going to be coherent. Capital and US business and finance interests at the top of the US hierarchy can be served in a number of ways. They can profit from wars, but also from peace and diplomacy. The 1979 peace deal between Egypt and Israel saw billions of dollars of business opportunities for defense firms, even though it was a peace deal. Dick Cheney, in the private sector in the 1990s, supported lifting sanctions on Iran because his business interests at the time aligned with better relations with the country. We won’t find consistency, even among people who are really ideological.

We’ll see a mix of military and diplomatic options, but I think overall we’ve seen a return to pre-9/11 strategy where the main approach to intervention is to work through local proxies and use airpower, and now drone strikes, minimizing US casualties and the cost that the American public experiences at home. At the same time, it’ll be highly destabilizing for the countries on the receiving end.