On Fallibility: Biden’s Foreign Policy

American diplomat George Kennan once said, “In no field of endeavor is it easier than in the field of foreign affairs to be honestly wrong; in no field is it harder for contemporaries to be certain they can distinguish between wisdom and folly; in no field would it be less practicable to try to insist on infallibility as a mark of fitness for office.” 

Humans are not perfect, and when we recognize this, we get better, and nations get better. When Joe Biden was vice president under President Obama, he experienced this first hand (Syria, Libya, etc.). Leaning into one’s fallibility is necessary for prudent diplomacy–it ensures one does not overstep or act hastily, and supposes that while other nations desire the conditions to thrive, they must find their stride irrespective of imposed U.S. values and interests. Perhaps that’s too wordy, too idealistic, but the fact remains that acknowledging one’s fallibility isn’t exactly quotidian for political leaders, and Biden is one of the chief offenders.

In Biden’s first speech as president regarding foreign policy, he said this: “The leadership of diplomats of every stripe, doing the daily work of engagement, created the very idea of a free and interconnected world. We are a country that does big things. American diplomacy makes it happen. And our administration is ready to take up the mantle and lead once again.” 

This values-laden statement would lead one to believe that the United States will shape the world in its image and take no prisoners. And yet, in Afghanistan, people were left to suffer the indignities of a state that viewed women as lesser than their male counterparts. With regard to Taiwan, Biden has walked back numerous statements that suggest the U.S. will respond in kind to Chinese aggression. The fact remains that Biden cannot draw a red line on Taiwan for strategic reasons and cannot govern Afghanistan from afar. So where do values cede their influence to interests and vice versa?

This debate is not new. Biden was forced, a light “forced,” to disregard his purported American values of a free and democratic world and bend the knee to a brutal autocrat in MBS (Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud). This came amidst a global energy crisis that saw the price of oil skyrocket and Biden’s approval rating spiral. Biden had promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” This tells us a couple of things: One, that foreign policy is dreadfully hard to predict and campaign promises should be taken lightly. Two, volatility in international politics does not excuse the lack of a contingency plan (or, for Biden, a fist bump with MBS). 

Biden, despite being characterized as a “statesman,” looks more rookie than vet. His idea of America as a global hegemon is antiquated, reeking of post-cold-war idealism in a world that has since endured two financial crises, a global pandemic, palpable signs of climate change and war in Europe.

 Isiah Berlin’s book The Hedgehog and The Fox offers guidance for the Biden administration moving forward. Berlin casts some as hedgehogs, focused on one big thing and knowing it quite well, and others as foxes, who know many little things. The hedgehog holds fast to one ideal or guiding principle, whereas the fox surveys the political landscape and shifts so as to serve its needs. The Biden administration must be able to play both roles. In doing so they can ensure that they have the political and economic capital to see daybreak and the goodwill to collaborate on the issues of the day. Too often has the U.S. been dogged by claims that its foreign policy has been contradictory and self-serving. Rather than trying to please everyone, the Biden administration must articulate their interests better, so they can garner the trust, rather than merely the fear, of potential partners.  

I confess that this may be so surficial that I sound like a mere fox, but recent events do vindicate my supposition partially. In Ukraine, the United States has walked the line between American interests and values. Military and financial aid have empowered a country invaded by an imperial power without giving rise to nuclear armageddon. 

This author admits his fallibility readily but is not convinced that a country must pursue its interests above all else or peace and democracy above national security. Rather, I would caution against grand pronouncements and allusions to American excellence, and an attention to what American values actually are. For the days of America as a hegemon are gone, if they ever existed, and will not serve us as we attempt to fight the plagues of our day. Consider that the world does not need the United States, but we will always need the world. We lose our power the minute we assume to have the antidote and we will surely leave the world in a dreadful state if we assume our opinions impregnable. As writer Anton Chekhov said, “Wisdom comes not from age, but from education and learning.”