AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Upon arriving at the NATO summit in Madrid last week, Joe Biden pledged an increased American military commitment to Europe. His plan includes stationing a brigade of 3,000 American servicemembers in Romania, relocating the headquarters of the 5th Army Corp to Poland, basing two squadrons of F-35 fighter jets in the U.K., and two destroyers in Spain. While impressive on the surface, what Biden outlined was not what Europe wanted or what America needed. Biden, as has been typical for this administration, offered promises when what was required was clear guidance on what American goals were, and what strategy would be pursued to achieve them.
Biden billed the increased U.S. military presence in Europe as a response to the Russian threat. But the increased military presence is not an answer to any Russian threat. If a war were to break out with Russia, the new deployments would be of little use except as tripwires, and the fighters in Britain and ships in Spain would be distant from the theater.
What NATO leaders wanted from Biden in Madrid was clear guidance. They wanted to know whether the U.S. was willing to make the long-term commitment necessary to pursue a policy of total victory in Ukraine, or alternatively, whether the U.S. was willing to honestly admit that it would not, and give European leaders permission to pursue a settlement which would not require U.S. troops. What they got instead was Biden in effect saying “here, take these 3,000 troops and two dozen fighter jets. Happy now? Shut up and stop complaining.” It neither reassured doubters of the existing policy, nor provided a vision of a different one.
At its core, Biden has failed to resolve the contradiction at the heart of American geopolitical strategy, one which has raged since the Obama years: Europe or Asia? Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden have all recognized that China, not Russia, is America’s primary antagonist, with Obama famously mocking Mitt Romney for challenging that prioritization with his quip that the 1980s had called and wanted their foreign policy back. This did not mean Russia was a friend or even a benevolent actor. But if Russia posed a threat to the interests of U.S. allies along its borders, China posed a greater threat to the U.S. overall.
A clear implication followed. If the U.S. only has the resources to prioritize one military threat (China), there were arguments for pursuing diplomatic options with the Russia. This was not, for all the charges levied at Trump, appeasement, any more than Obama’s efforts to reach a “reset” with Russia were proof he was a Russian spy. It was logic. Goals are not merely a list of things which would be nice to have, or which are morally justified, but a product of a rigorous cost-benefit analysis in which their value is contrasted with the cost of achieving them. It would perhaps be an act of moral justice, and a strategic success for the United States, to militarily liberate Crimea from Russia or Hong Kong from China, but neither is worth a full-scale nuclear war. That is not to discredit the objectives, but to recognize that achieving the objective is not worth the likely cost.
While every administration acknowledges the need for this sort of thinking and the conclusion it led to–that the U.S. should seek an order in Europe which, rather than fulfilling all of its ideological goals, would be sustainable with as little American investment as possible–both Obama and now Biden have drifted into committing themselves to gigantic commitments in Europe.
The current Ukraine war is an unjustified act of aggression by Putin’s Russia, and its success would be a geopolitical disaster not just for the U.S., but for Europe at large. Biden is correct to support Ukraine. Yet the administration has been remarkably unable to define a post-war vision, much less one where Russia has a place.
There is a simple logic that the Biden administration is refusing to engage with. Absent the destruction of the Russian state, the U.S. and Europe will have to deal with a Russian power on the Eastern border of Europe. Any settlement which is not something some conceivable Russian government can live with is one which will not only require overwhelming force to impose today, but will require a constant commitment to defend against Russian attempts to overturn it.
If the priority of U.S. policy were Russia and Europe, then it might be acceptable to reach a settlement that required constant U.S. maintenance. But if the U.S. goal is to finally pivot its resources to the Pacific, then the Biden administration may have to compromise rather than trying to crush Russia at all costs—as righteous as that goal may be in theory.
The West should be fighting Russia in order to force Russia to the negotiating table. By proving Russia cannot achieve its goals militarily, it will be possible to force Russia to accept what it can get diplomatically. Foreign policy hawks are generally correct that this cannot be done in any other way than by preventing a Russian military victory. What is needed is a settlement which Russia may not like, but which it is not willing to fight a war to prevent. That settlement will have to be one in which Germany and France agree to back Poland and the Baltic states in sustaining them with the resources they realistically will have available.
Long gone are the 1990s when American policymakers could delude themselves into believing that they could have it all. The world of the 2020s requires a clear vision and tough choices. Biden not only lacks vision and refuses to make choices, but is openly contemptuous of those who urge him to act decisively in the role of president.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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