A recent column in Politico, “Why the World is Voting Against American Democracy,” noted the way foreign policy and foreign countries may influence America’s presidential campaign. It quoted an unnamed European ambassador: “The U.S. is ‘a fat buffalo trying to take a nap as hungry wolves approach,’ the envoy mused. ‘I can hear those Champagne bottle corks popping in Moscow — like it’s Christmas every fucking day.'”
As the ambassador feared, Biden’s liberal world order is on the ballot in America, and the incumbent President and his dated policies may be too old to win big games/wars. Many countries are rooting against the Pax Americana, which means Iran, China, and Russia will be the big covert players in the 2024 presidential race.
The first vulnerability of Biden will be the potent political charge that “he lost Ukraine.” Republicans now hold hostage votes to aid Ukraine as a way to promote southern border policies and to shift the blame for reneging on Ukraine to Biden’s stubbornness or obtuseness about migration. That strategy is bound to carry through to the election, coupled with the charge of initiating wars America can’t win. Russia will be pleased.
A second vulnerability is a Carter-like hostage situation in Gaza. This is another pressure-point that is bound to have longevity. Iran is an old hand at using the hostage issue as a way of retiring a hostile U.S. president, as happened with Jimmy Carter in 1980. Whether Iran would welcome the return of a hostile Donald Trump is questionable, but weakening the American order is high on Tehran’s list. Iran will be pleased and able through proxies to keep the hostage issue in headlines.
The third vulnerability and opportunity is saber-rattling by China over Taiwan. With America already stretched thin by two other proxy wars, China has maximum leverage to surround Taiwan with military bases and the Chinese Navy. Biden may be tempted to roll back some of the tariff and other trade constraints to quiet the rattling sabers, in turn raising the “soft on China” issue for Republicans. China will be pleased at this weakening of America’s hand and certainly perceive the advantages of a Trump restoration.
A fourth vulnerability will be the anti-war/young-voter constituency, stirred up by the war in Gaza. Just as the Vietnam War destroyed the chances for a coalition of New Democrats and Cold War Liberals, so this split of the left over foreign policy will weaken Biden’s electoral chances. Ukraine, Gaza, Taiwan, the revival of the anti-war Left — it’s not a pretty quad-fecta, nor one that will avoid continuous headlines.
These factors put on the table the issue of the old age of Biden and the Cold War Liberalism that he has long espoused. One might argue, for instance, that Biden should have been more careful about commitments to a very vulnerable Ukraine, not rushing into another protracted war like Vietnam. And one might further argue, along these revisionist lines, that Biden’s Irish penchant for loyalty to allies like Israel needed instead a stronger component of American peace-making neutrality and conciliation among Arab countries and Israel.
The fading of Cold War Liberalism is the subject of a new book by Yale historian Samuel Moyn, Liberalism Against Itself. Moyn argues that Cold War liberalism was so obsessed by totalitarian fears (German and Russia) that it scuttled the Enlightenment beliefs in broad, state-led reform. Instead of being true to these traditional liberal ideas, the cold war liberals narrowed a robust liberalism into emancipatory and identitarian liberalism that avoided broader social needs. “Yet this last-ditch defense appeared at a time when liberals around the world were building the most ambitious and interventionist and largest — as well as the most egalitarian and redistributive — liberal states that had ever existed,” Moyn argues.
In short, Biden will be put off balance by his age but also by the advanced age of the liberal consensus on American-led foreign policy. In turn, those policies have become the frozen pond of a dated liberal consensus and Biden’s too-close advisers. That vulnerable consensus was formed in the urgency of the Cold War, when collective policies all seemed like the road to serfdom.
Can Biden shift in time to save his presidency, for instance by a reset on its Israel policy? A little less of the superpower mode and more of the pluralist policy for a multi-power world? Or will voters instead vote to toss out all those alliances in a Trumpian, isolationist, no-new-wars rampage?