Four years ago, as Joe Biden prepared to leave the vice-presidency, he told the World Economic Forum that the United States would continue to lead the “liberal international order” and “fulfill our historic responsibility as the indispensable nation.” The years that followed were not kind to Biden’s assurances. President Donald Trump rejected a world-ordering role for the United States, unleashing “America first” nationalism instead. More important, perhaps, Trump exposed the shallow domestic political support for the high-minded abstractions for which foreign policy elites ask soldiers to fight and citizens to pay. By the time of his presidential campaign in 2020, Biden no longer spoke much about the liberal international order or American indispensability. He emphasized healing the country’s domestic wounds and influencing others “not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
But Biden will need to be much bolder if his presidency is to succeed. He is inheriting a long-standing U.S. grand strategy that is systemically broken and that no tonal adjustment or policy nuance can fix. For three decades, successive presidents—Trump included—continually expanded U.S. wars, forward deployments, and defense commitments in the pursuit of armed dominance across the globe. The price of primacy, as I wrote in these pages last year (“The Price of Primacy,” March/April 2020), has been severe. By seeking global dominance rather than just its own defense, the United States has acquired a world of antagonists. These antagonists have in turn further increased the costs and dangers of dominance. As a result, U.S. foreign policy has failed in its most essential purpose: it has made the American people less safe where they live.
The Biden administration enters office intending to restore American primacy, not preside over its destruction. Yet realities will intrude. As Biden addresses urgent priorities in his early days—repairing democracy at home, ending a mass-killing pandemic, averting climate chaos, rescuing U.S. diplomacy—he will find, if he takes a hard look, that the burdens of primacy contradict his own goals at every turn.
Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.