Throughout his campaign, then former Vice President Joe Biden vowed to “Build Back Better.” Among the foreign policy community, Biden’s promise embodied the hope of a return to a pre-Trump world and a mending of relationships. But the foreign policy foundation on which America’s house rests has shifted in fundamental ways—some caused by Donald Trump, some the result of presidents before him. Without taking these changes into account, rebuilding the house on that pre-Trump foundation will not result in a structure that will truly stand the test of time.
If we are to fulfill the promise to build back a more united, stronger America, then it’s important to recognize the areas where the assumptions that previously guided our foreign policy have changed. Many were already shifting both before and during the Obama Administration but became broken under Trump. Reevaluating these assumptions will mean that policymakers cannot just rely on getting back to “normal,” but will require a change in the ways that government is structured, the ways in which it makes decisions, and how it communicates with the American people, as well as its allies around the world. I see at least four areas in which such fundamental rethinking is needed.
First, we have firmly entered the post-post-9-11 era. Twenty years after the 9-11 attacks, America is no longer gripped by fears of terrorism the way it was when Obama and Biden first took office. Eight years ago, Biden made the succinct case for their re-election by stating that “Osama Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive.” That did not change the fact that the U.S. government had already reoriented to elevate terrorism over other threats both in resourcing and in organizational structure. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Counter-Terrorism Center were all created in reaction to what was felt to be an urgent and existential threat. The emphasis on terrorism and national security in our law enforcement agencies and the adoption of broad surveillance and detention authorities changed our legal structure because the public sentiment was that we had to do everything possible to prevent, not just punish, terrorist activity. Trump may have embraced some of the darkest parts of early U.S. counterterrorism strategy, its torture and cruelty, but also the broader structural changes to the government that still need to be revisited.
In such an environment, the emphasis on foreign terrorism, both organizationally and financially, diverts resources from other threats and challenges that face us today. In the United States, mass shooters and right-wing extremists are responsible for more deadly attacks than Islamist extremists. While this was true even at the end of the Obama Administration, people’s political expectations have now caught up with that reality. Ending the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and declaring the 2001 AUMF over are all good places to start. Viewing U.S. relationships with other countries, like Saudi Arabia, across the totality of America’s interests, rather than ignoring certain aspects because they assist with our counter-terrorism efforts is another. But there were other broader structural changes in the U.S. government, emphasizing terrorism, that seem out of place today.
Second, trust in America’s word has never been lower. It would be easy to blame this on Trump and his constant lying about matters large and small—from who was behind the 2016 election interference to his ham-handed attempt to blackmail Ukraine to his personal financial interests and foreign entanglements. But public trust in institutions started declining after Watergate and Vietnam and was further undermined by the false case made by the Bush Administration for the Iraq War.
For President-elect Biden and his team, this means that the deference and trust the public once gave to the pronouncements of our intelligence and national security agencies is badly shaken. If a President needs to make the case for national security action based on intelligence, he or she will have to work much harder to ensure that the sources are solid, the judgments are sound, the analytic process has integrity, and that the whole process is more consistently transparent to the American people. It is not enough simply to repair relations between the intelligence agencies and the White House. In this era of misinformation and disinformation embraced by domestic political opponents and foreign adversaries alike, the U.S. government has an urgent obligation to rebuild credibility and be able to win back trust.
Third, in addition to a lack of trust in America’s word, the ground has also shifted on whether America keeps its promises long-term. The post-election rush of world leaders congratulating Biden may feel like we’ve already started repairing America’s relationships. Unfortunately, given the extent to which relations were strained under Bush and then broken under Trump, other nations may wonder whether agreements they make with the United States are likely to endure. The United States has played hokey-pokey with its international commitments like the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, and the Iran Nuclear Agreement, one administration in and another out, only to return again. If, domestically, the President cannot begin to build a bipartisan consensus for international engagement then this continuing back and forth will further undermine America’s standing on the global stage.
The question of whether the United States will keep its treaty agreements is most critical in nuclear non-proliferation, another area where the ground has fundamentally shifted. Once, non-proliferation treaties to halt the growth of nuclear weapons were praised as a bipartisan goal of U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Reagan, and were ratified by large and bipartisan margins. Today, President-elect Biden will only have two Republican senators who voted in favor of ratifying the previous New START Treaty in 2010, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. In addition, 11 of the Republicans and 15 of the Democrats who supported the treaty have been replaced by Republican senators who are unlikely to support ratification of an arms control treaty going forward.
The lack of domestic support is even more troubling given that the non-proliferation treaty regime is badly battered. The foundational treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), recognizes five nuclear weapons states: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France. But since the treaty was signed, four additional countries have obtained nuclear weapons unrecognized by the treaty, including India, the second largest country in the world, as well as Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. While most signature arms control agreements are between the United States and Russia, there would be value in developing a consensus among all nuclear powers about how to prevent proliferation to other countries. The Biden team will have to bring creative thinking to bear in order to set a new foundation for a lasting non-proliferation regime, and to win political support for it.
But the fourth and biggest change that the Biden team will have to deal with is the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic will have on foreign policy and national security generally. This is the most severe pandemic of the modern age, killing millions, affecting even more, changing patterns of life, stalling economies, and throttling travel. The long-term effects of the pandemic on the way we view our relations to government and each other are still to be determined, but one thing is clear: It changes our perception of what matters in national security.
Historically, our national security establishment has been concerned with the threats caused by the malice of humans, their wars, and weapons. Our modern military is founded on a structure created after World War II when these threats were indeed the most salient. But this pandemic is beyond human cause or direction and is on track to be more deadly to our nation than World War II, which killed more than 400,000 Americans. Our military cannot be sent in against a virus; indeed, organized armed conflict only creates risk of further infection. In the reckoning of what is necessary to protect Americans, it’s fair to ask if our investment in defending Americans against the threats of other humans is misaligned to what we need to protect Americans facing dangers caused by things beyond our control—not just pandemic, but wildfires, storms, droughts, floods, and other disasters, many of them broadly associated with climate change. It alters the priority that Americans are willing to place on a social safety net as a hedge against disaster relative to what the public is willing to spend to check the militaries of other nations. And it changes what we are willing to risk abroad when there is so much to address at home—responding to disasters, our food security, the risk of further pandemic, and the sustainability of our way of life.
To continue to assume that the American people will maintain their support for high levels of military spending so that the United States stands ready to deploy into conflict around the world is to continue a mindset that the predominant threats are foreign and best addressed with guns. But for average Americans, the things most likely to disrupt their lives, and that have indeed already disrupted their lives, are caused by nature. Elevating the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a higher priority within our security establishment, and ensuring the National Guard is better prepared to respond to disasters than foreign terrorism would be helpful first steps. Redefining and then realigning our security apparatus broadly to deal with those dangers is task for the years ahead.
President Biden and his team received a broad mandate from the American people to stop the chaos and division both at home and abroad. But much has changed since he last wrestled with these problems. I hope that when we do in fact build back better, we are surveying a landscape to build a house that will last for generations to come.