Managing a decline, even if it is relative, is always painful for a patriot. And Biden is undoubtedly a patriot.
Let’s do an exercise in creative thinking. Let’s imagine together how President Joe Biden begins his mornings. For example, after a bit of exercise – it is important to always appear nimble on TV – and a continental breakfast, the president arrives in the Oval Office, where the first person to enter is usually National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with three folders under his arm. Let’s try to guess how they are labeled and what could be in these hypothetical folders that summarize global problems and provide a rough outline of how the Biden administration will respond. Folders, yes, because for the likes of the president, a pen and paper, compared to the precision of a computer, is perhaps more effective in setting the right tone to respond to what is happening around the world. Below their titles, each folder has the same slogan, one which President Biden tries to instill in his administration: We will only undertake what can be achieved. We will not chase the unattainable.
The first folder is called: Ongoing important matters. It has only three sections: China, Russia and pandemic/climate change. Next to the latest data on China, the president has added some handwritten notes — or rather, questions — to motivate his team. They are as follows: Aren’t we harming ourselves with so many sanctions and duties? Is it really feasible to disconnect our economy from China’s? What can China do with its huge reserves in dollars? Let’s do everything possible to restore trans-Pacific trade relations; we won’t go overboard hinting at defense guarantees for Taiwan. Wasn’t the previous ambiguity better? How far should we go in defending human rights in Xinjiang/Hong Kong and the International Maritime Law in the South China Sea? In the section with data about Russia, there are fewer questions, but they are important, especially after Biden slipped up and called Putin a “killer.” Are we embarking on a new nuclear arms race or do we want to reach strategic arms limitation agreements with Russia? Regarding Ukraine, aren’t we going beyond our national interests? The Russians have not stopped attacking us and are interfering with technology. What do we have to do to make them stop, to make them respect us? Finally, in the section with all the updates relating to the pandemic/climate change, the president has written that he doesn’t want China and Russia to be world leaders with vaccines or with carbonization. He asks what else can the U.S. can do to make the rest of the world see the U.S. as a peaceful leader of humanity? Where is the balance between the necessary reactions to China and Russia and the image of the peaceful hegemony that is to be held responsible for world health?
Sullivan’s second folder is about serious, urgent issues. In the section labeled “Nuclear non-proliferation,” Iran is first on the list, threatening to arm itself with nuclear weapons, and so destabilize all of the Middle East and provoke a response from, at the very least, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The president asks whether the U.S. is getting involved in Israel’s domestic situation and allowing them to ruin resumption of the nuclear pact with Iran? And if the U.S. leaves the Middle East, could Israel one day replace the U.S. as a guarantor for Sunni monarchies? Will this be possible with Benjamin Netanyahu in charge? North Korea is also featured in this nonproliferation section. Next to it, the president has written, “Careful with Japan and South Korea in case it looks like we are just trying to protect ourselves by leaving these two uncovered.” The last section in this second folder is about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden has written, “if the Taliban attack us and we have casualties before Sept. 11, how will we react?
The last of these imaginary folders is labeled “matters that could get worse,” and contains items that could be moved into the second document. Therefore, they are simply numbered, without being ranked in order of severity. The following notes by the president are included: How far will we let the Islamic State and al Qaida spread in Africa? Is there a danger that the Good Friday Agreement could be breached in my beloved Ireland? As for Brexit, won’t it also end up weakening NATO? What do we do with Venezuela? We’ll try to attract India, but aren’t they too suspicious? Can we use vaccines to get closer? What does Turkey really want, to cooperate or simply hide as it gets closer to us? But be careful, because other crises could appear suddenly and uncontrollably — like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that began last week — which need to be added to the third folder, or perhaps straight into the second.
I have used this idea of folders to try to demonstrate to you, dear reader, the burden that I imagine the U.S. president must carry when it comes to taking foreign action. It is not here, but with American public opinion, that Biden really takes a risk. He has to unite a divided country, not only when it comes to what to focus on in the future, but also how to examine America’s national origins, and, in particular, what role slavery played in its past. The president needs to fix the problems in his own country before he tries to shape the rest of the world, knowing that the unipolar moment of the U.S. has passed, although it probably remains the most powerful nation in the world. But managing the decline, although it is relative, — is always painful for a patriot. And Biden is undoubtedly a patriot.