Joe Biden was elected president in 2020 for one main reason: he wasn’t Donald Trump. Nobody in the Democratic Party was especially wild about his candidacy. He galvanized no particular base. What campaign he ran was flat and devoid of excitement. The sole idea was that he was an unexciting figure who could glide through the campaign without incident, get into office and ensure that the Republic was not led by Trump.
It worked, of course. But while not being Trump may be a virtue for a campaign, it turns out not to be enough to be a successful president.
This week, after days spent denying that America was technically in recession, Biden had a rare foreign policy success to announce. After a mere quarter of a century of searching, America’s intelligence agencies had finally caught up with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda.
Biden’s announcement of Zawahiri’s demise by drone strike was given with the same solemnity and import with which Barack Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden 11 years ago. But Biden’s announcement did not have the same effect as Obama’s. Perhaps because Zawahiri was number two in al-Qaeda and less of a household name. Perhaps because Zawahiri’s ability to operate had become so limited in recent years. Or perhaps because the announcement did not point to that great an American success.
After all, it was a year ago this summer that America scrambled out of Afghanistan. During those messy, bloody, humiliating days, Biden tried to explain that the mission of the two-decade long operation in the country had been accomplished. Mainly because al-Qaeda was no longer in Afghanistan.
While nobody was very keen on another two decades of trying to turn Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy, Americans remember the embarrassment of that withdrawal. There were some bare basics that were still expected. Such as al Qaeda not being there. Then a year later it turns out that the head of al-Qaeda was visiting his family in a house in Kabul just around the corner from the US Embassy.
The dreams of Afghanistan that existed in the 2000s lie in the dust, certainly. But what dreams or even vision have taken their place? What are the ambitions of American foreign policy in the Biden era? There must be some, surely?
Trump had a policy of a clear and very understandable kind. He wanted to project American strength. He wanted deterrence through strength. And he didn’t mind putting forward the “madman” tactic in foreign affairs. That is the tactic of presenting yourself as so potentially vengeful and unpredictable when provoked that nobody knows what you might do and therefore should do nothing.
It is not a tactic that finds much favor among the many think tanks and foreign affairs professionals in Washington. But it is a tactic with something to be said for it.
The Taliban were clearly scared by what Trump might do if they kept killing American soldiers on his watch. Vladimir Putin was clearly deterred from swallowing up more of Ukraine while Trump was president. And most importantly, the Chinese Communist Party did see that in Trump they had a counterpart who was willing to call them out both for illegal activities in the realm of espionage and in the realm of trade.
So what is the Biden doctrine? To date, absolutely no one knows, including him. His Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, is said to be frustrated at the difficulty of getting any decisions made, and he probably has less visibility than anyone else who has held that office in recent decades. There seems to be no particular idea. True, Biden joined the international coalition against Putin, but he seems to have gone back and forth on what America’s strategic objectives in Ukraine might be.
As a result, it was strangely left to the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to make perhaps the single most noteworthy foreign policy intervention of this presidency so far. During her trip to the Far East this week, there was much speculation about whether or not she should visit Taiwan: a visit that would be seen in Taiwan, Beijing and the rest of the region as an expression of support for the island’s independence.
For a matter of days and then a few crucial hours, the whole American press seemed to be following the flight path of Speaker Pelosi’s plane. Would the Chinese do the unthinkable, (voiced by some of their more bellicose outriders) and actually shoot down a plane carrying the Speaker of the House?
That didn’t happen. But nor did the White House seem to agree with the travel plans of one of the Democratic Party’s most senior leaders. In the weeks ahead of the visit, the White House seemed to deprecate the idea. The CCP and the White House strangely started to echo each other in the suggestion that such a trip might be “provocative”.
Of course, to allow the Chinese communists to dictate the travel plans of an American official ought to be intolerable. But the White House seemed at times to tolerate it, even to agree. It was a position that Beijing exploited with considerable aplomb.
It became reminiscent of the Dalai Lama affair during the coalition years, in 2012, when David Cameron and Nick Clegg met with the Tibetan leader while he was in London. On that occasion it seemed as though the prime minister and his deputy did not know what they were getting into. But the response was swift. Beijing immediately cut off its trade mission to the UK. Spooked, the UK government was forced into a humiliating apology, with officials effectively promising never to meet the Dalai Lama again.
While the CCP is adept at such diplomacy, Cameron and Clegg proved absolute novices at it. But it is one thing if Britain is forced to kowtow to Beijing and quite another level of seriousness if America is. And that was what the Pelosi row this week was about.
Ten years ago, the question was whether Britain was allowed to have a policy towards Tibet. The answer turned out to be “no”. Fast forward to 2022 and the question is whether America is allowed to have a policy towards Taiwan. The answer to that must surely be “yes”. And yet.
For decades the US has had a policy of creative ambiguity towards the issue of Taiwan. In reality that means that the attitude shifts with each administration. There is considerable difference of opinion even within parties in the US. There are those on both sides of the aisle who believe that the US should be bellicose in promising to defend Taiwan, others who believe that Taiwan cannot be the central issue in China-US relations. There is something to be said for all these attitudes.
Yet while a degree of ambiguity may be desirable, the perception of malleability is not. The upshot of this week’s events was that the Biden administration looked malleable on the question of Taiwan and therefore other questions, too. It looked capable of being pressured, intimidated and even bullied by the CCP, which has pushed around smaller fish but hasn’t dared take on America in such a way.
We shall see what the fallout is from this week. But the biggest fear in the US is not that the American side is being driven in the wrong direction, but that it isn’t being driven at all. Biden, not for the first time in his presidency, seems to be insecure and unclear in his own thinking.
It’s a change from Donald Trump, for sure. But not necessarily the change that America or the world needs.
Douglas Murray’s latest book is ‘The War on the West’