Trying to reverse the irreversible
‘We’re back!’ cries Biden. But, asks Daniel Lazare, will its allies welcome the US as the undisputed global hegemon once again?
Joe Biden’s virtual speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 19 was supposed to send a simple message: after four years of Nato-bashing under Donald Trump, the United States is ready to step into its old role as global hegemon. The big question now is whether the rest of the world is ready to go along with that.
Despite enthusiastic reviews back home, Biden’s 18-minute speech was an uninterrupted string of clichés, whose emptiness and banality could not help but underscore the real nature of US domination. “I speak today as president of the United States at the very start of my administration,” Biden declared, “and I’m sending a clear message to the world: America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward: we are looking forward, together.”
“The transatlantic alliance is a strong foundation - the strong foundation - on which our collective security and our shared prosperity are built,” he went on. Referring to the mutual-defence clause in the original 1949 Nato treaty, he promised that the US
... will keep faith with article 5. It’s a guarantee. An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakable vow. And the only time article 5 has been invoked was after the United States was attacked on 9/11. You, our allies, joined us to fight al Qa’eda ...
Yes, and we know how that turned out: not well. 9/11 led to a massive cover-up of Saudi Arabia’s role in the 2001 attack, while the war on terror degenerated into a nightmarish farce, once it became apparent that the Saudis and other US allies in the Persian Gulf were not fighting al Qa’eda and Islamic State, but financing them - as Biden himself would later admit in a talk at Harvard in 2014.1
Back-to-back invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-03 paved the way for military intervention in Libya, Syria and Yemen from 2011 onwards. Entire nations were destroyed as a consequence and millions were killed or displaced, as vast numbers of what used to be known as DPs - displaced persons - struggled to make their way to the European Union in what would prove to be the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.
While the United States waged war, in other words, Europe wound up with a disproportionate share of the costs. If America really is back, as Biden says, then the crucial question is whether American recklessness is back as well.
The anti-Chinese, Russian and Iranian rhetoric that Biden dished out in huge quantities in his virtual Munich speech strongly suggests that is the case. While claiming to oppose any return to the “rigid blocs of the cold war”, that was precisely what he proposed in calling for a global effort to rein in the PRC:
Competition with China is going to be stiff. That’s what I expect, and that’s what I welcome, because I believe in the global system [that] Europe and the United States, together with our allies in the Indo-Pacific, worked so hard to build over the last 70 years.
An anti-Chinese alliance stretching from India to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan - what could go wrong? Biden’s comments about Russia were even more disturbing:
The Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponises corruption to try to undermine our system of governance. Russian leaders want people to think that our system is more corrupt or as corrupt as theirs. But the world knows that isn’t true ... Putin seeks to weaken the European project and our Nato alliance. He wants to undermine the transatlantic unity and our resolve, because it’s so much easier for the Kremlin to bully and threaten individual states than it is to negotiate with a strong and closely united transatlantic community.
That’s why standing up for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine remains a vital concern for Europe and the United States. That’s why addressing recklessness - Russian recklessness [in] hacking into computer networks in the United States and across Europe and the world - has become critical to protecting our collective security.
Playing with fire
But what do such words mean? In accusing Russia of weaponising corruption, is Biden seriously suggesting that he views corruption as something the US can deploy against others without suffering harm at home? “Hacking into computer networks” clearly refers to the SolarWinds cyber intrusion disclosed in December. But, while US intelligence was quick to blame the hack on Russia, it has yet to offer anything by way of tangible evidence.
As for undermining Nato, if that is what Vladimir Putin is really up to, then the reason is obvious. US secretary of state James Baker, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and other top western leaders all promised in 1990 that the alliance would not expand into eastern Europe.2 Yet not only did Nato’s Drang nach Osten continue regardless, but the US compounded the damage by encouraging a recrudescence of rightwing anti-Russian nationalism, from the Baltic to Poland and the Ukraine.
This is truly playing with fire. Yet Antony Blinken, Biden’s hawkish secretary of state, has gone a step farther by calling on Nato to extend membership to Georgia. This would mean involving the alliance directly in the simmering Russo-Georgian dispute over the breakaway province of South Ossetia - a measure sure to set off alarm bells in Moscow. Does Europe want to involve itself in a pointless military conflict in the Caucasus?
Calling on Europe to stand up for “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” is meanwhile a bid to draw it into yet another distant conflict - this time not only over the Crimea, which Russia seized following the 2014 US-backed coup in the Ukraine, but in particular over Russia’s all-important naval base at Sevastopol in the peninsula’s southern tip. Previously, Russia operated the base under a long-term lease with Kiev - an arrangement that the post-coup government was plainly determined to kill. But, now that the takeover of Sevastopol has failed, Nato has responded with plans to outflank it by building two new naval bases on either side, one on the Black Sea coast to the west, and the other on the Sea of Azov to the east.
Is this where Europe really wants to be as well: ie, in the middle of a growing conflict over Russia’s main warm-water outlet?
Finally, there is Iran. Biden said that the US is “prepared to re-engage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear programme”, while at the same time promising to “address Iran’s destabilising activities across the Middle East”.
Such words are nonsense. The meaning of the “destabilising activities” is clear. It is code for activities the US does not like - as opposed to the “destabilising activities” of Israel, of which it heartily approves. While formally committed to a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord is officially known, everything that Biden has done since taking office indicates the opposite. He has refused to lift economic sanctions that Trump imposed as part of his 2018 “maximum-pressure” regime-change campaign. He has blamed Iran for stepping up its nuclear enrichment programme, without mentioning that it did so only after Trump walked away from the treaty, while European signatories refused to lift a finger to stop him.
Although debate is still reportedly taking place behind the scenes, it looks like Biden will also demand that Iran scale back its non-nuclear missile programme - its prime means of military defence - as a condition for talks to begin. If so, the result will be an offer that Iran can only refuse. Another round of Persian Gulf warfare could well ensue - a prospect that should concentrate the European mind all the more.
“We’re at an inflection point,” Biden repeatedly declared. He is right, although the inflection point is not between democracy and autocracy, as he argued, but over the direction of US foreign policy. Democrats have spent the last five years portraying themselves as the imperial party par excellence. Where Trump denounced Nato as “obsolete” during his 2016 campaign and repeatedly assailed the Europeans for not holding their end up in terms of military spending, the Democrats promised to “stand with our allies and friends”, as Biden would later put it, and render Nato all the stronger. Where Trump called for a rapprochement with Russia - while in practice doing little to carry one out - the Dems vowed to get tough with what they regard as public enemy number one. Biden’s ‘America is back’ rhetoric is thus a pledge to turn the clock back to the pre-2016 era, when America was still “the indispensable nation”, as Madeleine Albright put it, and let countries like Russia, China and Iran know that there’s a new sheriff in town.
But who wants to return to a period marked by crisis and decay, military aggression, anarchy and destruction? While Democrats accused Trump of using a wrecking ball on the western alliance, the fact is that the alliance was already in disarray years before he entered the White House. His election was merely the coup de grâce.
Now that Biden is trying to reverse the irreversible by issuing a new call to arms, the question is whether Europe will go along with it. Perhaps it will think twice before once again following the United States over a cliff.
“The Saudis, the emirates, etc … were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad - except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qa’eda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world” (youtube.com/watch?v=dcKVCtg5dxM).↩︎
Baker famously promised that Nato would advance “not one inch eastward” See S Savranskaya and T Blanton, ‘Nato expansion: what Gorbachev heard’ National Security Archive December 12 2017 (nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early).↩︎