President Joe Biden would like the world to believe that the United States is changing, and in big ways. The American infatuation with war has ended, he told the UN General Assembly last month. Going forward, the United States will no longer treat military power as “an answer to every problem we see around the world,” he said. Central to the president’s message was an acknowledgment that in recent decades, the United States has not classified force as a “tool of last resort.” On the contrary, the promiscuous use of force has become a hallmark of American statecraft, so much so that phrases such as “endless war” and “forever wars” have become staples of everyday political discourse. In this new era, U.S. global leadership remains important, Biden said, but the United States will lead “not just with the example of our power” but “with the power of our example.”
Assume that the president means what he said. Assume further that the Pentagon, the U.S. intelligence agencies, and the military-industrial complex (along with their allies in Congress and the media) concur with the commander in chief. How might his views translate into reality? What difference might they make? In that regard, Biden’s reference to force as a “tool of last resort” answers certain questions but avoids others. It provides broad but not particularly helpful guidance as to when to use force—not too soon, but presumably just in time—and none whatsoever regarding what might justify the use of force. And it dodges altogether the most crucial question: In the present age, what is armed force good for?
If Biden wants to turn this provisional doctrine into something concrete, he needs to build his administration’s policies and spending choices—and not just his speeches—around it. For example, the United States should play by the same rules governing the use of force as it expects other countries to play by. It should reduce its military footprint around the world and reconsider the $1 trillion it plans to spend on its nuclear arsenal over the next several years. These are some of the steps Biden could take if he genuinely wishes to signal that the United States has truly come “back” from the Trump era of “America first.” Yet simply reverting to the status quo that preceded (and helped pave the way for) Donald Trump won’t suffice.
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