The Biden Doctrine

Image: Tuur Tisseghem


Both ends of Joe Biden's strategy - economic sanctions and military action by proxy - were delusional.

The proxy war against Russia is the centerpiece of Joe Biden's foreign policy to unite the world's "democracies" against the "autocracies", particularly China and Russia. He repeatedly boasts of uniting America's allies – a majority of which are NATO – like never before. While true unity is spotty at best, until recently the rhetoric seemed to work. No more. At their recent Vilnius summit, NATO disunity boiled over, though not for the reasons most discussed in the press. The real reasons are rooted in developments that threaten to expose not just Joe Biden's strategy, but NATO as well.

At this summit meeting, dissenting lines were widely discussed. Members could not decide on any successor to Jens Stoltenberg, but the leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea attended the summit for the second year. The final communiqué reiterated NATO's concerns regarding “the systemic challenges posed by the People's Republic of China (PRC) to Euro-Atlantic security”. It also reaffirmed "the commitment to boost... a shared awareness and to increase... resilience, preparedness and protection against the coercive tactics of the People's Republic of China, as well as its efforts to divide the Alliance".

President Emmanuel Macron has led (considerable) opposition to the establishment of a permanent NATO presence in the East Asia region, as well as the creation of an office in Tokyo. Although Finnish membership was approved, Turkish President Erdoğan opposed Sweden's membership until Joe Biden offered him, in a meeting aboard the force one, not just F-16 jets, but also an IMF loan.

Most strikingly, while members have once again pledged to increase defense spending and output, and while the alliance has made several commitments to support Ukraine in its war with Russia, not only has the call to introduce Ukraine into NATO failed, but NATO has been reluctant to even present an entry timetable. President Volodymyr Zelensky called this “absurd” and the US government, in return, called him “ungrateful”.

Although this delay ended with expressions of gratitude from Volodymyr Zelensky, a sense of foreboding could not be avoided. Atlanticist commentators still worry about the prospect of a possible disengagement between the US and Europe in case of victory of Donald Trump; or that there are disagreements about what to do about China. However, even these concerns do not suspect how close this breach of expectation is today: lo and behold, Joe Biden is about to lose his military bet on Ukraine. This will end Joe Biden's blueprint for uniting America's allies, the closest thing to a Biden Doctrine ever.

Always an ongoing effort, NATO unity has become more difficult as US power has waned. In recent decades, as is well known, the main glue that holds it together has been the military might of the United States. If it loses that binding force – as has been made clear by the series of military failures that culminated in the humiliating exit from Afghanistan – then the self-sacrifice that Joe Biden demanded from Europeans and, to some extent, received, in the case of Ukraine – will only be worth one penny. The future of US leadership over what remains of its allies and its main instrument, NATO, will change.


The weak ties that unite NATO

Understanding such imminent fundamental change requires a return to the fundamentals of the alliance, which are even now half-hidden under the guise of NATO unity.

The much-vaunted Article 5 famously states that “an armed attack against one… shall be considered an attack against… all”. However, if you feel that this forces all members to rush to the defense of the attacked members with all their might, you need to think about this question again. The article further specifies that each ally "will assist... by taking immediately... such measures as it deems necessary." Put that way, allied solidarity becomes a matter of judgment, meaning only that each member country must consider what it “deems necessary”.

NATO is considered a powerful example of the US commitment to Europe: since the beginning of the Cold War, they have been committed to defending Western Europe against the big bad Soviet Union. In practice, this resulted in “far-fetched and well recognized as such” schemes.

If the reader is shocked by this mention, consider the following: the US “helped” Europe during both world wars in a more or less commercial way; thus, it can enormously increase its economic and financial influence at the expense of the “allies”. Ruinously for them, demanded the refund of its war loans after World War I and, just as ruinously, demanded political alignment after Monday.

Indeed, Europe can thank its stars that the critical help and immense sacrifices of the Soviet and Chinese forces ensured victory in World War II. In other words, the alleged threat of an imminent Soviet attack on Western Europe was little more than a figment of the US's very hysterical imagination. It was necessary because that way it could keep its military-industrial complex strong over the decades.


What the US wants from NATO

Some argue that NATO was created and directed primarily against the “internal enemy”, that is, the left and popular forces. Now, NATO certainly has a not-so-great record on this. However, this leaves out the international dimension.

As much as the US leaders wanted to dominate the capitalist world as a whole, it was history itself – unfortunately – that guaranteed them the opportunity to launch themselves in pursuit of this goal exactly when such domination became impossible: with the rise of Germany, of the USA and Japan itself, the capitalist world had already become multipolar by the beginning of the XNUMXth century. No single power could dominate it. Worse still, the Russian Revolution, soon followed by the Chinese, took vast areas of the world away from the capitalist world entirely.

Undaunted, the US persisted, using NATO in its persistent attempt to dominate Europe. In the apocryphal words of its first Secretary-General, Lord Ismay, the aim was to "keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out" of Europe.

During the Cold War, the United States was reasonably successful, although not without considerable European instability: Europeans demanded gold over dollars during the 1960s, eventually forcing the United States to break the gold-dollar link in 1971. De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO's integrated command in 1966; and Brandt engaged in his Ostpolitik of better relations with the Eastern Bloc. Although many think that inter-imperialist rivalry died after the Second World War, it seems to have lived on from this European behavior.

The Cold War ended neither in unipolarity nor in a peaceful division of global power. US economic decline became visible soon after it "ended", so much so that the US began to seek to offset the economic decline with military aggression. Under these circumstances, Europe has shown itself to be increasingly open to the creation of autonomous security structures which, inevitably, implied the improvement of economic and security relations with Russia.

With its objectives unchanged, even as its capabilities diminished, the US had to thwart these European impulses. It was successful with its military intervention in Yugoslavia, primarily by demonstrating the effectiveness of its superior air power, and this success ensured that henceforth the eastward expansion of the European Union would normally be accompanied by the expansion of NATO. However, this was not a stable arrangement.


Why the US can't

Not coming from a mere “realistic” assertion, the European push towards autonomy resulted from historical differences between the economies of continental Europe and the Anglo-American economies. One of them was oriented productively and not financially and the other financially and commercially – and not productively. Four decades of neoliberalism found Europe's economies productively emaciated and therefore more dependent on predatory and speculative finance than ever before.

These differences had already hampered NATO unity; moreover, the economic decline of the United States has only made this cohesion even more difficult. As it lost economic attractiveness to Europe (while, in addition, China and Russia gained importance), while the US relied on military projection only to fail ever more spectacularly, European impulses towards autonomy resurfaced, with the President Macron calling NATO "brain dead" at the alliance's 2019 summit.

This was the context in which Joe Biden bet on winning the proxy war in Ukraine as a prelude to waging a military conflict with China as well. Knowing that Europe, already reluctant to go to war with Russia, would be even more reluctant (for sound economic reasons) to join any anti-Chinese venture, Joe Biden sought so resolutely and completely to separate Europe from Russia and link it up. it to the USA. With the Ukraine war, Europe would have no choice but to follow the US against Russia now and China later.

However, this venture had an unpromising start and is now falling apart.

Organizing unity even against Russia was difficult, as it involved inflicting a great deal of economic pain on Europe. Even with the Biden administration's historic fortunes in having surprisingly complacent leadership in so many capitals, most notably Berlin, NATO's unity over the Ukraine conflict has been more show than reality, with a minimum of real and a maximum of spectacle in the fulfillment of the commitment.

Sanctions are usually limited to those that do the least harm, leaving so many Western companies still operating in Russia that we wonder what all the fuss is about. Arms supplies have been concentrated on those that are easiest to spare, often obsolete, leaving Ukraine with a “great zoo of NATO equipment”, in which the “animals” are difficult to use or repair efficiently.


Why defeat in Ukraine will unravel NATO and Biden

Both ends of Joe Biden's strategy – economic sanctions and military action by proxy – were, it is now clear, delusional. The first, which was intended to reduce the ruble to rubble and push the Russian economy “back to the stone age”, became a manifest failure in late 2022, if not earlier. In the end, perhaps it will turn Russia into a great and very powerful “North Korea”.

As for the second, despite billions in military assistance, despite depleting western weapons stocks, despite discovering the limits quantitative e qualitative to Western weapons production capabilities, despite astronomically expensive military industrial complexes, despite increasingly deadly weapons including cluster bombs, despite reliance on neo-Nazi battalions, despite the US and Ukraine's willingness to incur gruesome levels of Ukrainian and mercenary casualties, it has been clear for some time that Ukraine is losing and has no prospect of winning.

President Joe Biden recognized this in his recent about-face, namely his backing down from offering Ukraine membership in NATO or even giving it a timeline for that to happen. His now renewed insistence on not only not facilitating Ukraine's accession, but further demanding that Ukraine demonstrate progress on reform requirements, on concluding a peace treaty with Russia before it can join NATO, a point repeated more than once by Jens Stoltenberg in Vilnius.

This is the Biden administration's back door exit from the conflict in Ukraine. And he needs it thanks to the unpopularity of the war in the United States and the fact that he will soon be in the midst of an election campaign about to get into full swing.

In the face of this military defeat, no other difference in NATO will matter. The US has only military power to offer its allies. Therefore, Joe Biden's imminent military failure in Ukraine is likely to prove NATO's effective undoing. If the US cannot secure military victory, its usefulness to Europe can only be limited. And if Joe Biden's strategy failed in this Russian intermediate stage, he will hardly be able to go to the final, the Chinese one.

*Radhika Desai Professor at the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba (Canada).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal counterpunch.

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