Henry Kissinger called America’s indecision between its values and its interests the “hinge”.
Rightly so. Opinion has swung this way and that.
America’s foreign policy “hinge” has always been a testy issue and four years of Donald Trump haven’t settled the matter. Not with Mr Trump’s America Firstism rejected in last month’s election. Joe Biden got at least six million more votes than Mr Trump, won back five states and accomplished the incalculably difficult task of unseating an incumbent president. That’s hardly a sign America is on board with Mr Trump’s insular agenda.
For, Mr Biden is a multilateralist, a politician who speaks the language of internationalism. His victory indicates the persistent nature of the “hinge”. Americans remain unsure whether or not to go with pushing their values or their interests. They are uneasily conscious both cannot always be done at the same time. They don’t know if they want to do both but are loathe to be less than the indispensable nation.
What’s a president to do?
In their usual way, pundits have been offering Mr Biden unsolicited advice galore. (Journalists’ homilies and academics’ pronouncements often come off as ludicrous but in Mr Biden’s case, much more so. The incoming US president is 78, has been in frontline politics 47 years, chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served eight years as vice-president.)
Even so, the advice has been urgent (and no doubt well-meaning).
Here’s Peter Beinart in the New York Times: “In the post-Trump age, ‘leadership’ is a misguided, and even dangerous, vision for America’s relationship with the rest of the globe.’
Historian Stephen Wertheim, for instance, has been arguing in disparate American media outlets that Biden’s America should relinquish its role forthwith as a military superpower. Incidentally, Mr Beinart agrees that international cooperation doesn’t collapse when America stops calling the shots.
Mr Wertheim’s new book ‘Tomorrow, the World’ examines the birth of US global supremacy and the messy wars that have been the result. Accordingly, Mr Wertheim is all for President Biden doing the right thing – by America and the world – and leaving it to other countries to take on big roles.
Is that really the right thing? There are as many answers as people you ask.
Meanwhile, in the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh takes a similar line to Mr Wertheim. Mr Biden, he writes, should aim for the prudence and realpolitik of Barack Obama.
Mr Biden’s old boss, he writes, “burbled on about the ‘arc of history’ and other teleological fancies (but) his vivid spin on the Hippocratic oath (‘Don’t do stupid shit’) was realpolitik distilled.”
Mr Ganesh discerns in President Obama a clear realisation that from Vietnam to Iraq, the worst US mishaps abroad, “have not come from self-defence or the honouring of narrow treaty commitments, but from a missionary restlessness”. Mr Biden might do worse than follow Mr Obama’s lead, he concludes.
Then again, Mr Beinart, eventually diagnoses Americans as veering towards partnership rather than leadership. “It’s what most Americans want,” he writes.
Do they? Do they, really? It truly is a hinge moment, in more ways than one.