Is America Back? Should It Be?

In a speech last Friday to the Munich Security Conference, Joe Biden declared that “America is back.” The US, he said, “is determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”

He had me until that last phrase. Imagine you’re in a partnership. You’re a bit more junior, your partner is a bit more senior. You work together constantly and, despite the occasional squabble, do better together than you would apart. Then the senior partner starts to behave in erratic, dangerous, and borderline psychotic, ways. He not only ceases work on important joint projects; he actively sabotages them. He threatens you and calls you an enemy.

Then, four years later, he returns. He says he’s back from rehab. He’s a changed man. He’s ready to “earn back” his position of “trusted leadership.”

You’d probably say something like: Glad you’re doing better, glad you want to earn back my trust. But as for your reasserting your “leadership,” thanks but no thanks. I’ve moved on.

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Through their actions, that’s what European governments have been telling the Biden administration for several months now. Last December, incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan publicly pleaded with the European Union not to sign a trade deal with China—yet the EU did so anyway. The German government is resisting US pressure to shut down a pipeline that brings in natural gas from Russia. The French finance minister said last month that when it comes to China, his government supports “working together with the United States” but not “working under the leadership of the United States.”

That’s probably a good thing. Because over the last seventy-five years, American presidents have often defined “leadership” as seeking European support for whatever America was going to do anyway, whether or not it made any sense. In Choosing War, the historian Frederik Logevall chronicles the efforts of America’s European allies to convince Lyndon Johnson that the US was headed for trouble in Vietnam. In 1964, he notes, British, French and German officials conveyed their “doubts about Vietnam’s importance to Western security and deep doubts that a stable Saigon could ever be created.” Rather than heed their warnings, Secretary of State Dean Rusk initiated a “more flags” campaign to get allied governments to support the war.

In 2003, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin warned that while the US might easily overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, “after the war is won, the peace must be built. And let us not delude ourselves: that will be long and difficult.” The House of Representatives responded by renaming the French Fries in its cafeteria “Freedom Fries.” Dick Cheney told the French ambassador in Washington that France was “not really a friend or an ally.” Like Rusk, Cheney defined an “ally” as a government that gave America its blind support, not its best advice.

Biden and company are far too polite to speak the way Cheney did. But, on China in particular, there’s reason to worry that they have a similar notion of leadership. The US lays out the strategy. The Europeans, perhaps after some tinkering around the edges, fall in line.

The Biden administration’s emerging China strategy can be summed up as: Get tough, together. On Friday, Biden said the US and its allies “have to push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system.” During the campaign, he promised to build “a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior.”

There are good reasons for Europe not to fall in line with this approach. For starters, it’s not true that China’s economic practices are uniquely abusive. For a country at its stage of development, they’re pretty typical. As I wrote a couple of years ago for The Atlantic, “China has a lower trade-weighted average tariff than Argentina, Brazil, India, South Korea, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico.” It does a better job of protecting the intellectual property of foreign companies than Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines. Seventy percent of foreign direct investment in China now occurs through wholly foreign-owned companies as opposed to joint ventures—up from 35 percent in the late 1990s. Yes, China has become more politically repressive under Xi Jinping. But it’s far more economically open than it was in the past.

There are unfair Chinese economic practices that the US and its allies should seek to change. But these practices aren’t the primary reason China poses a serious economic challenge to the United States. It poses an economic challenge because it has made larger investments than the US in cutting-edge technologies. (Something the Biden administration, to its credit, hopes to remedy). And it poses an economic challenge because the United States has not built a safety net that protects workers displaced by global competition. Because it hasn’t done so, domestic political support for new trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was supposed to solidify America’s economic foothold in Asia, has collapsed. As a result, China is building a trading system, in Asia and beyond, which places it at the center and nudges the US out.

These aren’t problems that “getting tough, together” can solve—and the Europeans should say so.

The other problem with Biden’s get-tough multilateralism is that it emphasizes competition when the greatest threats that China poses to both Europe and the US—climate change and pandemics—can only be solved through much deeper cooperation. To be fair, Biden in his Munich speech did declare that, “Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all.” But competition is still the major note and cooperation the minor one—which makes no sense in the wake of a pandemic that has killed half a million Americans and another freak climate event, this time in Texas, which brought a state to its knees.

If I were Angela Merkel, I’d tell Biden to invert the sentence: “Cooperation on issues that affect us all must not lock out competition on those secondary matters, which do not.”

The Biden administration is right that America needs its European allies. But, above all, it needs their wisdom. As during Vietnam and Iraq, key European leaders are telling the president that the hawkish consensus that has taken hold in Washington is gravely flawed. Let’s hope that, this time, America’s president listens.

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Time Change:

My discussion last week with former Obama deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes about AIPAC’s role in making Israel policy garnered a lot of, um, attention. Including from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called Ben’s comments “reprehensible and anti-Semitic.” (Which reminds me of one of my life maxims: People who practice bigotry against Muslims shouldn’t be trusted to define what constitutes bigotry against Jews).

The kerfuffle convinced me that it would be interesting to have folks who worked at AIPAC talk about what the organization is actually like, from the inside. So, on our next Zoom call, for paid subscribers, I’ll be joined by several AIPAC veterans, who can talk about how the organization really works.

The conversation will be at a special time: Thursday, February 25, at 2 PM EST. We’ll send out a reminder later in the week. Subscribe and join us. 

Other Stuff:

My Jewish Currents colleague Joshua Leifer has an excellent piece, just out, about why some Palestinian Islamist politicians are helping Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming Israeli elections. (Become a Currents subscriber).

On Fareed Zakaria’s show on CNN on Sunday, I talked with Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass and Economist editor Zanny Minton Beddoes about Biden’s foreign policy.

On March 3, I’m interviewing Bashir Bashir, associate professor of political theory at the Open University of Israel, and Leila Farsakh, Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Massachusetts Boston, about their new book, The Arab and Jewish Questions. You can register here. 

The French government has a creative new strategy for fighting the “cancel culture” that it claims menaces free speech. Tell universities what they can teach.

Apropos of nothing, I really enjoyed this New York Review of Books essay about the myth that everyone in Argentina is white—and the history it obscures.

See you Thursday,

Peter