Rhetoric in international diplomacy is pregnant with different messages to different nations.
Speaking at the United Nations last week, President Joe Biden laid out the vague framework of his administration’s foreign policy.
But it’s anyone’s guess as to what his stated goals really mean. Unfolding events involving other nations — both friend and foe — will put flesh and bone on his vague bromides.
Enunciating his aspirations for the future, Biden laid out a foreign policy rationale that could have been invoked by every president since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago.
He expressed support for the idea of working closely and cooperatively with allies and negotiating constructively with rivals whose ambitions conflict with our interests.
Biden also asserted that “the future belongs to those who give their people the ability to breathe free, not those who seek to suffocate their people with an iron-hand authoritarianism. The authoritarians of the world, they seek to proclaim the end of democracy, but they’re wrong.”
The president’s reference, which was aimed at, among others, China, rests on the idea that the arc of history bends toward justice.
That is a comforting, but naive, concept. History bends in the direction that those bending it prefer. That’s often in the direction of autocracy. Just ask those living in Russia, Cuba and North Korea.
Most important, China has demonstrated repeatedly, most recently in Hong Kong, that it rejects individual liberty as a national goal.
Even as they preside over the death of democracy in Hong Kong, the Chinese are making intermittent threats to seize a free Taiwan as part of their plan to become the world’s No. 1 power, a force that cannot be matched in the Far East and beyond. Biden’s mishandling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will only encourage China to seek to expand its influence.
In fact, China is the reason that the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia recently reached an agreement in which the U.S. will build nuclear submarines for Australia. In doing so, however, the three countries outraged France, which had its agreement to build conventional submarines for Australia canceled.
Where does Biden’s pledge of cooperation with our allies fit in what France regards as such a betrayal that it temporarily recalled its ambassador to the United States? Clearly, it doesn’t fit at all.
That’s why the rhetoric has to be judged in the context of foreign policy reality.
The world is now and always has been a dangerous place. It’s ever more so now given the reach of high-tech weapons and high tech that can be and has been weaponized.
Biden’s goal in speaking to the United Nations was to emphasize this nation’s desire to maintain the peace while reassuring our allies and reminding our adversaries that the U.S. will not remain passive in the face of challenges to our interests.
That’s a tough sell. Actions always speak much louder than words. Biden’s foreign policy, while just getting off the ground, is not off to a good start given the Afghani debacle. Future events will demonstrate whether that will set the tone for this administration or prove to be a regrettable outlier.