Is Team Biden Winning?
My close friends know my passionate, somewhat irrational devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Every Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday, or, during Covid times, even Tuesday) in the fall, without fail and often with my equally passionate younger brother Michael, I watch the Eagles on television. If I am traveling, even abroad, I will go to great lengths — bribery, seedy bars, unstable internet connections routed through servers in unsavory countries — to root for my team.
Looking over decades of fandom, I can’t say it has been a joyful experience. Every summer, I pore over the team roster, look at the schedule, read scouting reports, and convince myself — this is our year! There are moments of exhilarating excitement, with miraculous comebacks or defeats of hated rivals, like the Dallas Cowboys. And in 2017, in quite unexpected fashion, the Eagles ran off a string of unexpected victories, culminating in an amazing upset in the Super Bowl that featured perhaps the gutsiest fourth-down call in Super Bowl history. Other than this isolated triumph and the occasional success, Eagles fandom mostly involves searing disappointment at witnessing repeated underperformance, resulting in my brother and me screaming at the television every week. Even that victory four years ago has faded — both the franchise quarterback and Super-Bowl–winning coach have departed. The Eagles are years away from any possibility of competing for another championship, their decline accelerated by hubris and ineptitude.
Sports loyalty generates interesting reactions. All fans believe they are experts, second-guessing the general managers, coaches, and players, and believing they could do better, if given the chance. If only the team had run instead of passed, or picked a different player in the draft, then they might have succeeded. These reactions, however, are not entirely rational. Sporting loyalties are shaped by the limbic part of our brain, which regulates passions: from whom we fall in love with to rooting for a team made up of strangers playing a game I have never played located in a city I haven’t lived in for decades.
For reasons fair or not, another disappointing Eagles season has me thinking about reactions to the desultory foreign policy of the first year of the Biden presidency. The administration’s preseason looked promising. The new coach was certainly old school, and the players perhaps younger and less experienced than ideal, but like many, I thought it would be hard to do worse than the previous team. One year on, however, it is difficult not to be disappointed with the results. The foreign policy equivalent of playoff glory, to say nothing of a Super Bowl victory, seems well out of reach.
Beginning with a curious decision to hold an unpleasant meeting with America’s most important strategic rival at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage and continuing with the embarrassing self-own on the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (or AUKUS) pact — a promising strategic play that could not have been presented to the world in a more hapless, self-defeating manner — the Biden team has done far worse than expected. The military withdrawal from Afghanistan — which, grand strategically, was the correct move, but was carried out in a disastrous fashion — has come to reflect an administration that overpromised competence and consultation but has often delivered too little of either. Both China and Russia are more aggressive, Iran appears closer to possessing nuclear weapons, global coordination to contain COVID-19 is still poor, and America’s allies seem only slightly less suspicious of the current administration than they were of President Donald Trump and his advisers. More alarmingly, there appears to be no overarching conceptual model to make sense of and act in the world, no sense of priorities and necessary tradeoffs. Are democracy and human rights the organizing principle of America’s foreign policy, or is it the return of great-power politics? Does the country have a trade policy? What is America’s Europe policy? What should the United States focus on: transnational challenges, such as climate change and COVID-19, or geopolitical threats? And which geopolitical threats should take precedence — an aggressive Russia, an opportunistic Iran, a rising China, or a new, unforeseen adversary? In a world of limited means and unlimited challenges, good grand strategy requires both a theory of how the world works and ruthless prioritization. Attempting to do everything only guarantees you will do nothing well. Slogans, such as “a foreign policy for the middle class,” offer little guidance about how the administration will make difficult, consequential choices about an uncertain future.
That said, the historian in me worries this assessment is unfair to the Biden administration. Erratic foreign policy during the first year is the norm, not the exception, in American history. John F. Kennedy — who handled the terrifying October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis with great skill — suffered two humiliating crises in his first six months in office: the ill-fated Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba and the terrible Vienna summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Richard Nixon’s successes of 1972 — ending America’s military role in Vietnam, a historic visit to the People’s Republic of China, and signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile and Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Treaties with the Soviet Union — appeared far away and unlikely in 1969, when the first year of the administration was plagued by bureaucratic in-fighting, resistance from the U.S. Congress, and deep skepticism from friend and foe alike. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who eventually got around to winning World War II and laying the foundations for the postwar liberal order, had a terrible first year in foreign policy, scuttling the London Economic Conference and turning the United States away from international affairs just when the world desperately needed American leadership. This is not surprising. The United States labors under a variety of structural challenges: The president understandably prioritizes domestic policy early, foreign policies that are popular on the campaign trail often seem less appealing or appropriate once in office, top national security officials are selected and cycled out via partisan election cycles, appointments are held up by a drawn-out clearance and approval process, etc. These obstacles virtually guarantee a difficult start. Over time, a president not only learns but might also bring on more effective advisers. Ronald Reagan’s fortunes improved (at least for a time) once he replaced Al Haig with George Schultz as secretary of state.
Similar to sports reactions, real-time responses to politics and foreign policy can be misleading: We don’t possess all the information insiders do, have a tendency to discount hurdles and constraints policymakers face when making choices, wildly overestimate how well we would do if we had to make decisions, often forget that the other team/side/party/country has a vote or a role to play, discount bureaucratic and congressional hurdles, reveal a bias toward assessing short-term results instead of thinking about outcomes over a longer time horizon, and — as we do with our beloved sports teams — often think or assess more with our hearts (or limbic brains) than our heads. The evidence that a scholar treasures in order to evaluate grand strategy is, in the moment, incomplete, uneven, and, at times, misleading. The distance and perspective every historian seeks is very hard to obtain when assessing contemporary events.
That said, we have an obligation to try to make fair and thoughtful judgments. We don’t have the luxury of waiting 50 or even five years to see if Biden and his team turn out to be far wiser and more effective than they seem at first cut. How should we evaluate the foreign policy of this — or any — administration, even as it is unfolding? I reflected upon the challenge of this task as I read the excellent articles in this issue, “The Engines of Statecraft.”
We might think about evaluating statecraft along a spectrum. On the one end is a president and his or her administration’s conceptual lens for understanding the world. Under this category, we would identify and interrogate an administration’s assumptions about world politics and its notions of political causality and agency, its theories for who and what matter, and how policy can affect change. Does an administration believe the world to be zero-sum and anarchic, shaped by inevitable tragedy and conflict, or are there important opportunities for cooperation and collective gain? Is the greatest threat to America’s security great-power war, crises of the commons, or some inextricable mix of the two? Should the United States exercise restraint or hegemony when confronting pressing global challenges?
We often think of these “big picture” assessments as the purview of the academy, the kind of thing international relations professors love to obsess over and some policymakers dismiss as the realm of eggheads. For government policy to be effective, however, decisions and actions must emerge from a consistent, well-thought-out, and widely shared worldview. Such a perspective is offered by Aaron Friedberg, a renowned scholar with high-level policy experience (article forthcoming). His Strategist piece expertly combines a history of international economics with an analysis of future scenarios to better understand how globalization and the contentious U.S.-Chinese relationship may play out. Whether one agrees with his assessment or not, Friedberg admirably lays out his core assumptions about the world and how they shape choices, an exercise all presidential administrations should undertake. Richard Maass also explicitly explores assumptions about how the world works. His penetrating article, “Salami Tactics: Faits Accomplis and International Expansion in the Shadow of Major War,” identifies, defines, and theorizes about a crucial and underappreciated phenomenon in international conflict. Many of our theories of conflict, and the policies that emerge from them, are shaped by the history of and assumptions about the kind of great-power wars that dominated the first half of the 20th century. If what Maass (and Dan Altman elsewhere) suggests is correct, policymakers will need to update their conceptual lenses to understand what drives salami tactics and how to craft the most effective policies in response.
If one element of effective grand strategy is a coherent, smart, convincing “macro” world view, the other end of the spectrum might be understood to be more “micro,” or what Philip Zelikow, in his excellent 2019 TNSR article, labelled “policy competence.” How does an administration develop and implement its statecraft? As Zelikow argues, effective policy relies on the “way people size up problems, design actions, and implement policy.” This ranges from undertaking the day-to-day tasks of carrying out the diplomacy and statecraft of a superpower to making decisions about weapons procurement and force deployments. James Timbie and James Ellis’ article, “A Large Number of Small Things,” lays out what they see as a more effective military strategy to defend Taiwan that makes better use of its technological and geographical advantages. Following the Zelikow template, the authors identify the problem and design an appropriate action plan, though obviously only the governments of Taiwan and the United States could implement their recommended policy.
Danielle Gilbert and Gaëlle Rivard Piché’s article combines the conceptual lens, or how we understand the world, with policy competence, or how to navigate tricky diplomacy and negotiations with an adversary in the shadow of a great-power ally. Given the stakes, limitations, and vulnerabilities, a medium-sized state like Canada needs to think even more deeply about how the world works and how it can most effectively operate in it. Conceptual worldviews and policy competencies feed back into and shape each other. As they point out, “In Canada, the debate over the unlawful detention of the two Michaels progressively gave way to a much larger — and crucial — debate about the future of the country’s relationship with China.”
The case of hostage diplomacy also suggests a third metric by which to assess the effectiveness of policy: what Jim Steinberg, also in TNSR, has labelled “ripeness.” Good statecraft involves being “able to spot an opportunity when it is emerging.” Equally important, diplomats must understand when an issue “is not ripe for negotiation.” As Diana Bolsinger superbly lays out in her article, “Not at Any Price: LBJ, Pakistan, and Bargaining in an Asymmetric Intelligence Relationship,” Pakistan and the United States struggled in all three dimensions of statecraft. Their larger conceptions of the world diverged, and neither demonstrated the policy competencies to bridge the gap, nor did they possess or recognize the incentive to overcome both to build a more stable, lasting partnership (arguably, this could describe much of the history of the complicated relationship between the United States and Pakistan).
Is a combination of a convincing conceptual lens and policy competency enough to guarantee an effective grand strategy? Not necessarily. Few administrations had a more coherent, consistent, and strongly held worldview than the George W. Bush administration, yet its foreign policy record could most generously be described as unsuccessful. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a very impressive policy process centered on the National Security Council. By the end of his second term, however, there was a sense that whatever its policy competency, the administration was missing important changes in world politics. Ripeness nicely captures both the macro and micro elements of statecraft, but in truth, it is often very hard to know, ex ante, if the time is right for bold diplomatic initiatives. Henry Kissinger brilliantly captured the tension between uncertainty about the future and the freedom of action policymakers possess:
The most difficult, indeed tragic, aspect of foreign policy is how to deal with the problem of conjecture. When the scope for action is greatest, knowledge on which to base such action is small or ambiguous. When knowledge becomes available, the ability to affect events is usually at a minimum. In 1936, no one could know whether Hitler was a misunderstood nationalist or a maniac. By the time certainty was achieved, it had to be paid for with millions of lives.
We should continue to assess, evaluate, and, yes, even criticize American foreign policy as it is being made. While doing so, however, we should be mindful both of how difficult statecraft is and how hard it is to assess success or failure in real time. Unlike a football game or even a season, the outcomes we care about won’t be known for years or even decades. Nor do the best processes always guarantee the best outcomes. International politics, unlike most sports, is not a closed system. Robert Jervis — an intellectual giant and dear friend (both personally and to this journal) who left us too soon — reminds us that international politics produces “unintended consequences, non-linearities, feedbacks (positive, negative, and ones that cannot be readily placed in either of these categories), and indirect effects …. [B]oth nature and politics frequently present us with chains of events in which the relevant interactions are not immediately obvious.”
Finally, to the extent that we are able, our evaluation should emerge from the rational, not limbic, parts of our brain. How do I think the Biden administration is doing according to these metrics? I certainly have views. But as I write this, the Eagles season has begun to show slight hope, the new quarterback and coach have demonstrated progress, and my brother and I must get ready to watch the game. Perhaps the season is not lost after all.
Francis J. Gavin, in addition to being a long-suffering Philadelphia Eagles fan, is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the School of Advanced International Studies in Johns Hopkins University. He serves as chair of the editorial board of the Texas National Security Review.
Correction: A previous version of this draft misidentified the location of the U.S.-Chinese diplomatic meeting in Anchorage, Alaska in early 2021. U.S. and Chinese officials met at Hotel Captain Cook, not Hotel Captain Hook.