Kelley Vlahos is a DC-based writer, a senior advisor at the Quincy Institute.com, editorial director at Responsible Statecraft.com, co-host of The American Conservative‘s #EmpireHasNoClothes podcast, and just an all-around delightful person who I have met exactly once but who I consider a friend. She’d one of the sharpest political analysts I know and she recently answered seven questions about Joe Biden’s foreign policy.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
1/ What are your thoughts on Joe Biden’s overall foreign policy thus far? Does he have a grand strategy — and if so what is it? — or is he just making it up as he goes along?
I do not think “America is back” or “restoring alliances” is a grand strategy. I think it speaks to those who believe Donald Trump’s foreign policy was rotten and bullying and transactional. Maybe it was — particularly the last two — but bringing back foreign policy to the pre-Trump days does make it a grand strategy, just a corrective (and not one I exactly agree with).
Biden’s insistence in bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 is important and laudable but the Trump plan was to bring them home much sooner. Biden’s speech on the subject was heartfelt and strong, however, so he does seem committed to withdrawal and ending this war. I am curious to see whether the military will manage to continue kinetic operations from just over the border.
Biden’s approach to China, on the other hand, is only slightly less bombastic than Trump’s and the military buildup in that regard smacks of swapping out one war for another. I think it is important to get back into the Iran Deal and Biden’s team seems to be doing its best to do that, albeit with strong opposition from Congressional hawks, Israel and Gulf states. Altogether, a mixed bag that doesn’t look much different from the Obama days.
2/ Have you been surprised by anything so far? Any positive surprises? Any negative ones?
I am surprised how hawkish the administration has been on China, they really do seem to be ramping up to a Cold War and enjoining the military, intelligence services, and members of Congress to do it. I would say that’s a negative development. So far there have been few surprises — i think Biden’s resolve on getting out of Afghanistan was a positive development but as I said before, it remains to be seen whether we will still be militarily involved in Afghanistan, but at a distance.
3/ How would you compare his overall foreign policy to Donald Trump’s? And did Trump have a grand strategy — and if so what was it? — or was he just making it up as he went along?
Trump’s foreign policy was transactional and did not add up to a “strategy” though if one were to try to wedge one it it would be a Jacksonian “America First” approach in which he was happy to build up the military with huge budgets as a way to wield a big stick and was equally happy to use it if confronted, but he was unlike his predecessors in which he was not interested in using U.S. military to spread freedom and democracy and to police the globe. That said he was conflicted on the issue of Iran and China, likely because top donors and aides were hawks and pressuring him constantly to take a more militaristic approach. He brought this on himself by bringing hawks and neocons into his inner orbit in the White House. Thus, he ripped the U.S. out of the Iran nuke deal and amped up trade war/cold war with China. He was also fond of strong men like Bolsonaro, MBS, Duterte, Netanyahu, which put him in league with unsavory characters with little interest in whether it helped or hurt U.S. natural security.
Biden, on the other hand, wants to return the U.S. to its perceived place of global leadership and reinforce its partnerships and alliances in Europe and in East Asia, but to what end? Despite rhetoric to the contrary, his administration appears to be willing to indulge in so-called Great Power Competition which may be more overtly polite and palatable than Trump’s freewheeling transactional style, but could actually mire the U.S. in more conflicts — whether it be NATO squaring off against Russia in Ukraine, or on behalf of Taiwan against Beijing in the South China Sea, not to mention Syria, where Biden doesn’t seem to have a strategy at all.
4/ Who are the key influencers on Biden’s Middle East foreign policy?
Honestly, I do not feel qualified to answer this question. The administration has been pretty well-sealed off in terms of showing cards/favoritism, though it has handed some early victories to progressive/non-interventionist groups that have been working hard to influence him on the issue of Afghanistan, Iran (nuke deal) and Yemen. However, it remains to be seen how far he is going to go on these issues, as well as the question of China, Russia, and Iran. Democratic progressives have been lobbying hard in the last week for Biden to take a stronger stand against Israeli violence in Gaza and in Israel, but so far his response has been muted. There are plenty of moderate establishment players and hawks who are actively supporting a harder line on all of these issues. Remember, Biden has leaned more hawkish throughout his career in Washington, and should not be counted on to take the dovish path, though he may be better at prioritizing and see incremental extraction from the Middle East as the realist way, particularly with the obvious military pivot to Asia.
5/ What do you think of Anthony Blinken? Is there anything unconventional about his views, because if there is I’m not seeing it?
Blinken is a smart, capable man who came up through the ranks from the rarified world of Washington and New York elite, his father and uncles being US ambassadors and stepfather a “confidant” of renowned publisher Robert Maxwell (yes, Ghislaine’s father). Harvard educated, Blinken served in the Clinton and Obama years by Joe Biden’s side and cashed in on all of his years in the top echelons of Washington power by founding West Exec consulting with Michele Flournoy, another courtier-turned-businesswoman/influencer, in the imperial city. He is capable of sustaining the consensus course of U.S. foreign policy under Biden. Whether he is capable of actually changing that course, which he has intimated verbally in the last 100 or so days of Biden’s tenure, remains to be seen.
6/ How likely do you think it is that this administration will provoke a war? I say provoke because the United States is powerful enough, at least militarily speaking, that it can only go to war by design, it faces no legitimate military threat. If you think a war is likely, or even a distinct possibility, what country is the most likely target and why?
I think there is a good chance that the U.S. will provoke a war accidentally. I say accidentally because I don’t believe that the military-industrial-congressional-complex actually wants to fight a war, they just want to plan for one for all obvious reasons — it keeps the self-licking ice cream going. The machinery of the defense industry is churning, the Pentagon oiled, greased and humming with its 30,000 personnel plus tens of thousands of contractors, members of congress are thriving with political contributions and enough jobs sprinkled throughout their districts to make a difference. But no one actually wants to go to war. However, the build-up, the threat inflation, the insane rhetoric and chest thumping, the “maximum pressure” via economic sanctions, all serve as a tripwire for actual conflict. There are three potential flashpoints: China, Russia and Iran.
7/ Does Kamala Harris have any influence in foreign policy or is she a cipher? If she has influence, what region or country does she exert it in?
Kamala Harris is a lawyer, a trained prosecutor and a politician. There is nothing wrong with any of those, but she has no more foreign policy experience than you or I do, maybe less, because she has been the last 20 years either running for office or in a domestic law enforcement position with a much more narrow set of priorities and perspectives about our wars and our role in the world. This of course concerns me because I believe she will always defer to the power of the state and would be the first in line to support more Executive Power in domestic law enforcement/counterterrorism over a healthy conservation of civil liberties and individual rights. Dovetail that to a belief that the United States should promote democracy throughout the world, which she has pretty much stated in campaign rhetoric, and you have a recipe for disaster, as seen in our post-9/11 war on terror.