The Bush-Biden Doctrine – The American Conservative
President Biden’s revival of the Bush Doctrine stands in dangerous contradiction to the deeper processes transforming the world order
Joe Biden presents the 2018 Medal of Freedom to George W. Bush and Laura Bush on November 11, 2018 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
Much has been said about Joe Biden’s immediately withdrawn call for regime change in Moscow. In a speech in Warsaw, the president said of Vladimir Putin, “For God’s sake, this man can’t stay in power.” The words caused his staff to clean up aisle three and prompted European leaders to firmly distance themselves from Washington. It was bad, awful, awful — a reminder of why the activist who told the story of corn pop to a group of confused black youth might not have been entirely prepared for a global crisis.
But hair-raising as Biden’s Warsaw statement was, it was could charitable – okay, non-charitable – to be interpreted as a mere faux pas. In fact, the administration’s line is that Biden was referring to Putin wielding power over Russia’s neighbors, not Russia itself. Or something. Like I said, it’s a stretch, but the White House is trying.
Far worse and irreparably damaging was the statement Biden tweeted on Saturday read: “We find ourselves again in a great struggle for freedom. A struggle between democracy and autocracy. Between freedom and oppression. This fight, too, will not be won in days or months. We have to arm ourselves for the long fight.”
This wasn’t your typical Biden Whoopsie daisy with a big mouth. This was a considered, apparently considered, expression of what might be called the Bush-Biden Doctrine: one that dates back to George W. Bush’s worst years, when America was dividing the entire planet into two camps – light and dark, well and evil, free and unfree, Autobots and Decepticons. Foolish as such a Manichaean foreign policy was after 9/11, it is even more so today, for just as Biden is a weaker man than Bush at the height of his power, so the America of 2022 is weaker than the country that went under to remake Iraq and Afghanistan.
Such posturing compels the United States to either wage war against the dozens of nations it deems undemocratic or unfree or evil or whatever — or to expose itself as the hypocrite of the world. Fortunately, no one seriously believes that all “autocracies” will face Washington’s wrath in an epochal war between “liberty and oppression.”
Which leaves us with the hypocrite-in-chief option, and that’s stupid and embarrassing enough. Consider: Ukraine, the nation that inspired all of this moral effort, is regularly judged to be less free and less transparent than neighboring Hungary, a nation routinely reproached by global liberals for its supposed bondage. If Biden really wants to pull a sharp “fight.” border between democracies and autocracies, freedom and oppression, then he should denigrate Kyiv and embrace Budapest (relatively speaking).
The democracy-autocracy framework would also undo US policy in the Middle East and Africa, where democracies are exceedingly rare. Washington already takes flak for tolerating the brutalities of Saudi Arabia and other “moderate” Arab regimes. Declaring a war of democracies against autocracies would only underscore the false piety of the US-led “liberal international order.”
Aside from these public-diplomatic concerns, Biden’s resurgence of the Bush Doctrine is dangerously at odds with the deeper processes transforming the world order, particularly the rise of generally non-ideological middle powers vying for influence within larger regional security arrangements. As TAK In a brilliant new white paper for the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, contributor Arta Moeini and his co-authors find that middle powers offer enormous opportunities for a great power like the United States – opportunities we are likely to miss if we insist on strategy ideologizing on a grand scale and reducing foreign policy to a simplistic confrontation between good and evil.
What are Central Powers? They are states “defined by their (1) enduring regional presence and geographic roots, (2) significant economic and military capacity compared to neighbors, (3) historical and cultural lineage as states of civilization, and (4) regionally focused, limited extent of their ambitions.” Unlike great powers, middle powers cannot and do not want to project their power over great distances. Their place of concern is their own near abroad. They are bound to space through geography, language, historical memory and civilizational identity. This limits their ambitions and forces them to act within and maintain regional security complexes.
Some middle powers – like Iran and Turkey – are revisionist about the current US-led liberal order. That is, they believe they deserve more influence and respect than history grants them. Other middle powers – such as Japan and Germany – see themselves as beneficiaries of the liberal order and generally strive to preserve it. Revisionist or not, Central Powers interact in quite complex ways compared to the Great Powers.
Germany is the conservative power par excellence. I don’t mean that in an ideological sense, but in a practical one. The German state is a product of the liberal post-war order and deeply entangled in the status quo. At the same time, various factors have prompted Berlin to welcome Russia as an energy supplier and even more so as a partner. Germans and Russians learned to be surprisingly comfortable—at least until Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine turned things upside down.
Turks, meanwhile, clearly lament the status the post-war settlement has bestowed upon their nation, yet they are not (always) aggressive in “revising” the world order. Far from it: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has armed Kyiv with Turkey’s notoriously effective and cheap drones – even though Ankara has also spurred Western efforts to completely isolate Moscow.
The point is this: the Central Powers present challenges and opportunities that the Bush-Biden doctrine simply cannot capture. As Moeini and his colleagues write,
Efforts to end the conflict and save innocent civilian lives seem more dependent than ever on the diplomatic initiative of middle powers like Germany, France and Turkey. There can be no end to hostilities until Moscow is somehow assured that its core is protected. This can be accomplished diplomatically tomorrow or accomplished later through much senseless violence. As deep-rooted civilization states, central powers are best placed to understand and communicate these facts.
Forcing Ankara or New Delhi to declare for or against “freedom” will not save a single Ukrainian life. But it will further alienate America from core regions that could be Washington’s potential partners in maintaining order. The Bush-Biden doctrine is another American debacle in the making.