by WILLIAM S. SMITH
In his inaugural address, President Biden backhandedly criticized Donald Trump’s foreign policy by asserting that, “we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” A month later, at the Munich Security Conference, Biden proclaimed that “diplomacy is back.” After decades of endless wars and the militarization of American foreign policy, such fondness for diplomacy is welcome. But is it genuine? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be no.
On his very first day in office, without diplomatic consultation with one of our closest allies and trading partners, Biden canceled the Keystone pipeline, killing thousands of American and Canadian jobs. A short month later, and to the chagrin of Democrats in Congress, Biden bombed Iran-backed militias in Syria, seemingly to “send a message” to Iran — certainly not a diplomatic message.
Not 30 days after the Syria bombing, Biden labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer” who would “pay a price” for election meddling while also reminding viewers that he believes Putin “has no soul.” Biden’s remarks caused the Russians to withdraw their U.S. ambassador. Not one day later, Biden’s “diplomatic” team arrived in Alaska to meet with Chinese leaders. Rather than first seeking common ground, his team opened the meeting with harsh criticisms of Chinese behavior, leading to a fierce Chinese response, an exchange between the two superpowers that Politico labeled as “undiplomatic.”
More recently, his team has been critical of German support for the Nord Stream pipeline that will bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. Some in Congress want Biden to move forward with sanctions on companies participating in pipeline construction. If Biden moves to throttle the pipeline, as some of his allies in Congress desire, the breach in U.S.-German relations would be catastrophic. One senior German official said the result may be a “major portion” of the allied Christian Democrats and Bavarian Christian Social Union turning against the United States.
Within a short few months, Biden has caused significant diplomatic breaches with our Canadian ally, a potentially catastrophic breach with our ally Germany, has chosen military action over diplomacy with Iran and, most ominously, has brought relations with Russia and China, two nations that are an existential threat to the United States, to maybe their lowest points since the Cold War. These are not diplomatic snafus; this is a string of serious diplomatic fiascos.
If one takes the long view, it can be shown that the seeming American inability to engage in genuine diplomacy is not limited to the administration. Virtue signaling and moral condescension toward other nations is now a congenital feature of American elites. Since Woodrow Wilson and his utopian promise to make the world “safe for democracy,” many American elites have conducted themselves with boastful moral preening on the world stage.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said of the United States: “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” A short time later, the younger George Bush asserted, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Does one really think that a nation which displays such excessive pride in its moral superiority can engage in genuine diplomacy with other nations? Mere partisans will take comfort in Biden’s stumbles on the world stage, but a more thoughtful analysis of the situation would point to serious cultural issues that afflict American elites. The arrogant moral preening that has been taking place at America’s elite colleges has produced a generation of American leaders who now bring their puffed up moral superiority to meetings with the leaders of other nations.
Expert diplomats require a keen understanding of the interests of their own nation but they require something more—humility. True diplomacy requires the ability to consider that we may not be right about everything; other nations have interests and also have a point of view. To the contrary, American elites have come to believe themselves as humanitarians without peer on the world stage. Pushy hectoring of other nations is a common feature of American “diplomacy.” With this arrogant attitude, there are more foreign policy failures to come.
William Smith is the director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship with Catholic University. He is the author of Democracy and Imperialism. Article originally published at The Hill.