Much has been made of Joe Biden’s instantly reversed call for regime change in Moscow. Speaking in Warsaw, the president said of Vladimir Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The words sent his staffers scrambling to cleanup on Aisle Three and prompted European leaders to firmly distance themselves from Washington. It was bad, awful, terrible—a reminder why the campaigner who told the Corn Pop story to a group of befuddled black youngsters may not have been quite ready for a global crisis.
Yet as hair-raising as Biden’s Warsaw declaration was, it could be charitably—okay, extra-charitably—interpreted as a mere gaffe. Indeed, the administration’s line is that Biden was referring to Putin exercising power over Russia’s neighbors, not Russia itself. Or something. Like I said, it’s a stretch, but the White House is trying.
Far worse and more irreparably damaging was the statement Biden tweeted on Saturday that read: “We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. This battle will not be won in days or months, either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”
This was no typical big-mouth Biden whoopsie-daisy. This was a deliberate, apparently considered expression of what might be called the Bush-Biden Doctrine: one that harks back to the worst of the George W. Bush years, when America was in the business of dividing the whole planet into two camps—light and dark, good and evil, free and unfree, Autobots and Decepticons. As foolish as such a Manichaean foreign policy was after 9/11, it is even more so today, because much as Biden is a feebler man than Bush at the height of his powers, so is the America of 2022 feebler than the country that set out to remake Iraq and Afghanistan.
Such posturing forces the United States to either wage war against the dozens and dozens of nations it considers undemocratic or unfree or evil or whatever—or stand exposed as the world’s hypocrite-in-chief. Blessedly, no one seriously thinks all “autocracies” are about to face Washington’s wrath in some epochal war between “liberty and repression.”
Which leaves us with the hypocrite-in-chief option, and that is stupid and embarrassing enough. Consider: Ukraine, the nation that has inspired all this moralistic exertion, regularly ranks as less free and less transparent than nearby Hungary, a nation routinely reproached by global liberaldom for its alleged unfree-ness. If Biden really wants to draw a sharp “battle” line between democracies and autocracies, liberty and repression, then he ought to denigrate Kiev and embrace Budapest (in relative terms).
The democracy-autocracy frame would likewise make hash of U.S. policy in the Middle East and Africa, where democracies are preciously rare. Washington already takes flak for tolerating the brutalities of Saudi Arabia and other “moderate” Arab regimes. Declaring a war of democracies against autocracies would only underscore the false pieties of the U.S.-led “liberal international order.”
These public-diplomacy concerns aside, Biden’s revival of the Bush Doctrine is dangerously out of tune with the deeper processes transforming world order, especially the rise of generally non-ideological middle powers jockeying for influence within larger regional security arrangements. As TAC contributor Arta Moeini and his coauthors note in a brilliant new white paper for the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, middle powers present enormous opportunities for a great power like the United States—opportunities we’re likely to miss if we insist on ideologizing strategy on a grand scale and reducing foreign policy to a simplistic confrontation between good and evil.
What are middle powers? They are states “defined by their (1) enduring regional presence and geographic rootedness, (2) considerable economic and military capacity relative to neighbors, (3) historical and cultural pedigree as civilizational states, and (4) the regionally focused, limited extent of their ambitions.” Unlike great powers, middle powers can’t, and often don’t wish to, project power across great distances. Their locus of concern is their own near-abroad. They are bound to space by geography, language, historical memory, and civilizational identity. This limits their ambitions and forces them to act within and uphold regional security complexes.
Some middle powers—such as Iran and Turkey—are revisionist with respect to the current, U.S.-led liberal order. That is, they believe they deserve greater influence and respect than history affords them. Others middle powers—think Japan and Germany—consider themselves beneficiaries of the liberal order and generally seek to preserve it. Revisionist or not, middle powers interact in quite complex ways relative to the great powers.
Germany is the conservative power par excellence. I don’t mean this in an ideological sense, but a practical one. The German state is a product of the postwar liberal order and is deeply invested in the status quo. At the same time, a variety of factors have pushed Berlin to embrace Russia as an energy supplier and more, a partner. Germans and Russians learned to become surprisingly comfortable with each other—that is, until Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine upended things.
The Turks, meanwhile, clearly lament the status afforded their nation by the post-World War I settlement, and yet, in “revising” world order, they don’t (always) act aggressively. Far from it: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has armed Kiev with Turkey’s famously effective and cheap drones—even as Ankara has also spurred the West’s efforts to totally isolate Moscow.
The point is this: The middle powers present challenges and opportunities that the Bush-Biden Doctrine simply can’t grasp. As Moeini and his colleagues write,
the effort to bring the conflict to an end and save innocent civilian lives seems dependent on the diplomatic initiative of middle powers like Germany, France, and Turkey more than ever before. There can be no end to hostilities until Moscow is somehow reassured that its core is safeguarded. This can be achieved diplomatically tomorrow or established later through much senseless violence. As rooted civilizational states, middle powers are best positioned to understand and mediate these facts.
Forcing Ankara, or New Delhi, to declare itself for or against “liberty” won’t save a single Ukrainian life. But it will alienate America even further from core regional states that could be potential partners to Washington in preserving order. The Bush-Biden Doctrine is another American debacle in the making.