The Sources of Drezner’s Frustration with the Biden Administration’s Grand Strategy

Why this one Jake Sullivan paragraph in his Foreign Affairs essay is driving me nuts.

The November/December 2023 issue of Foreign Affairs has been released and it is filled to the gills with must-read stuff. There are debates about U.S. hegemony and the ailing Chinese economy. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has an essay that Axios’ Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen say everyone inside the Beltway is reading. My colleagues/friends Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman have a follow-up essay to their book on weaponized interdependence. Any time Keren Yahri-Milo writes something everyone should read it.

And then there is Jake Sullivan’s lead essay, “The Sources of American Power.” Often when a policy principal writes something for Foreign Affairs, it is an effort to frame the administration’s extant policies into an overarching conceptual frame. That is certainly the case for any essay with a title designed to evoke George Kennan. Here are Sullivan’s thesis paragraphs: 

The essence of President Biden’s foreign policy is to lay a new foundation of American strength so that the country is best positioned to shape the new era in a way that protects its interests and values and advances the common good. The country’s future will be determined by two things: whether it can sustain its core advantages in geopolitical competition and whether it can rally the world to address transnational challenges from climate change and global health to food security and inclusive economic growth.

At a fundamental level, this requires changing the way the United States thinks about power. This administration came to office believing that international power depends on a strong domestic economy and that the strength of the economy is measured not just by its size or efficiency but also by the degree to which it works for all Americans and is free of dangerous dependencies. We understood that American power also rests on its alliances but that these relationships, many of which date back more than seven decades, had to be updated and energized for the challenges of today. We realized that the United States is stronger when its partners are, too, and so we are committed to delivering a better value proposition globally to help countries solve pressing problems that no one country can solve on its own. And we recognized that Washington could no longer afford an undisciplined approach to the use of military force, even as we have mobilized a massive effort to defend Ukraine and stop Russian aggression. The Biden administration understands the new realities of power. And that is why we will leave America stronger than we found it. 

It is safe to say that the Stimson Center’s Emma Ashford is unhappy with Sullivan’s formulation: 

A good strategy would address this problem head-on, considering the trade-offs or sacrifices that might need to be made in order to achieve sustainability. Instead, this article just reminds us that the Biden administration has largely chosen to ignore potential constraints, building up economic tools, and doing little to put American foreign policy on a strategically sustainable footing.

The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World is a bit more sanguine than Ashford about whether the U.S. can tackle multiple challenges. Like Janet Yellen perhaps, I think the material constraints remain minimal and Sullivan’s articulation of the Biden strategy makes sense. As previously noted in this space, this administration has done some excellent work with its diplomatic and economic initiatives to repair frayed ties and establish new networks and partnerships.

My contention will be put to the test with the war in Gaza, however. Sullivan’s original essay contained the extremely unfortunate, poorly-timed sentence, “although the Middle East remains beset with perennial challenges, the region is quieter than it has been for decades. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, that merely demonstrates everyone has a grand strategy until they are punched in the mouth. The question to ask is whether the current administration is operating with the right assumptions to formulate its broad-based strategy. 

And that leads me to the paragraph in Sullivan’s essay that annoyed the heck out of me: 

Old assumptions and structures must be adapted to meet the challenges the United States will face between now and 2050. In the previous era, there was reluctance to tackle clear market failures that threatened the resilience of the U.S. economy. Since the U.S. military had no peer, and as a response to 9/11, Washington focused on nonstate actors and rogue nations. It did not focus on improving its strategic position and preparing for a new era in which competitors would seek to replicate its military advantages, since that was not the world it faced at the time. Officials also largely assumed that the world would coalesce to tackle common crises, as it did in 2008 with the financial crisis, rather than fragment, as it would do in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Washington too often treated international institutions as set in stone without addressing the ways in which they were exclusive and did not represent the broader international community.

Okay, I don’t hate everything in that paragraph. The comparison between the decent global policy coordination of 2008 with the abject absence of that in 2020 is completely fair. But there are three big assumptions in that paragraph that are not empirically accurate:

  1. Market failures threatened the resiliency of the U.S. economy. I’m honestly unsure what this even means. I suppose this is in reference to the China shock, and I’m not going to deny that the U.S. government handled that poorly. But as I have written at length elsewhere,1 there is little to no evidence that globalization undermined U.S. economic resiliency. 
  2. The U.S., in focusing on non-state actors and threats, failed to improve its strategic position. As the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World noted last month, “many of the tools U.S. policymakers developed in response to 9/11 are the tools that Washington is now deploying against other great powers.” 
  3. The U.S. treated international institutions as though they were cast in stone. Again, I’m unsure what Sullivan is referring to here, but that description does not match what was happening either before or after the 2008 financial crisis. Someone was noticing in 2007 that even the unilateralist Bush administration was, “reallocating the resources of the executive branch to focus on emerging powers” and “Washington has tried to bolster their profiles in forums ranging from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the World Health Organization, on issues as diverse as nuclear proliferation, monetary relations, and the environment.” As for post-crisis actions, the U.S. took the lead in reallocating the distribution of power both in the formal Bretton Woods institutions and in the informal groupings that managed the crisis. 

The Biden administration has performed pretty well on foreign policy all things considering. But the assumptions that are being made about the era that preceded them are based on faulty premises.2

1 And will be doing so in the near future. 

2 To be fair, they are hardly the only ones to be starting with faulty assumptions.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

Leave a Reply