All foreign policy needs a narrative that justifies it to locals and strangers alike. Why do we do what we do? Which are our values and interests? And our limits? But while this is generally true, it is even more so in the case of the United States.
Indeed, throughout its history the American population has not been satisfied with the idea that its foreign policy should be limited to defending merely national interests. Therefore, when implementing their diplomatic or military policies, most administrations have had to offer a more altruistic vision. At the beginning of American history this motivation was the manifest destiny that would lead the United States to expand territorially, during the Cold War the defense of the free world and after the attacks on the twin towers the fight against terrorism and the promotion (by force if necessary) of liberal democracy. And now?
The Joe Biden administration has already given some signs about its narrative. In a recent speech in Brussels, Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that the United States will seek to strengthen its alliances with other liberal democracies in order to defend their values and interests and, at the same time, stop aggressions from authoritarian and nationalist regimes such as those of China and Russia. And for this, he argued, an international system based on clear and open rules of is required. Nevertheless, American officials have also pointed out that there is an opportunity to collaborate with undemocratic regimes in promoting an agenda that benefits the international community — to stop, for instance, climate change and fight the pandemic.
Is this type of speech useful? For now, it meets some objectives. First, it serves to affirm America's commitment to NATO and, in particular, to France and Germany. These two US partners had to go through the years of a more hostile Donald Trump and relations should now be repaired. It also lends ideological legitimacy to a strategic conflict with China that promises to dominate international relations. In this way, the dispute with the Asian power is not only due to issues that concern economic interests or national security, but also to a universal motive: the defense of democracy against the authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party. Finally, and despite the confrontational rhetoric, it leaves an open door to collaborate with all States.
But despite its advantages, this new narrative also raises questions. Does this rhetoric reflect the new distribution of power in the world? For example, while Europe no longer has the military and economic weight that it had during the Cold War, Asian countries have become central players of the international system. Can America's policy of alliances afford to bypass alliances with nations that, like India, have nationalist governments? Can this discourse be sustained at a time when Washington needs or will need the help of Saudi Arabia, Russia, Hungary or Turkey to protect its interests? Ultimately, forming alliances only with liberal democracies may end up giving up a flexibility American diplomacy, given the challenges it faces, will surely need.
Another problem is the continuity of this discourse over time. The United States won the Cold War in part because its ruling class maintained the same strategy throughout decades. There were, of course, changes in the tactics adopted by the various administrations. But the strategy and the rhetoric, broadly speaking, was always the same. The narrative promoted by Biden does not have the same level of internal consensus.
While there is a clear consensus between Republicans and Democrats on the need to prevent China's rise as a great world power, the rhetoric and values of a conservative Republican do not necessarily coincide with those of a progressive Democrat. With Trump's leadership, the Republican Party went on to defend a nationalist agenda that questions the importance that Democrats usually give to issues such as climate change, economic inequality and the promotion of the gender agenda. Finally, the rejection that Democrats express for conservative and nationalist leaders is not shared by the majority of Republicans.
Is there an alternative to the narrative that Biden proposes? It is not entirely clear. Due to the idealism of American society, the realistic discourse promoted by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger was never entirely successful. On the other hand, although Trump's nationalism has left an important mark on US foreign policy, his vision is not shared by the Democratic leadership, nor by a significant part of the population.
In conclusion, the rhetoric behind America's new "grand strategy" may not yet have been enunciated. As the years after the end of World War II showed, transition periods are extremely complex, and it usually takes time and effort for states to adapt. But what is clear is that a narrative of this type will be necessary both to motivate a population that will have to make sacrifices and to facilitate the formation of alliances with other states.
Written by Francisco de Santibañes
Francisco de Santibañes is vice president at the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center, Washington DC, and a professor at Austral University. De Santibañes is the author of two books: "Argentina and the World: Steps for Successful Integration" (EDICON, 2016) and "When Nations Revolt: the Crisis of Liberalism and the Rise of Popular Conservatism" (Vértice de ideas, 2019), and has published articles in journals such as Armed Forces and Society, Comparative Strategy and Survival. Every Saturday he writes a column in Infobae, a leading Latin American media outlet.