Can Biden imbue foreign policy realism with moral values?

Afghan Ministry of Defense Press Office/AP
A U.S. flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony in Helmand province. President Joe Biden has said all U.S. troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.

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As President Joe Biden takes on a pair of foreign policy challenges that have bedeviled the United States for two decades – Afghanistan and North Korea – he is adopting a policy with a long history: realpolitik.

Not the 19th-century German version, which came to imply hard-nosed pursuit of national interests regardless of moral concerns. But a new iteration, being realistic about the limits to Washington’s unilateral power in today’s world.

Why We Wrote This

The Biden administration is updating the old foreign policy doctrine ofrealpolitik by acknowledging the reality of limits on U.S. power today. But it is trying to give the new version a decidedly moral twist.

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and efforts to denuclearize North Korea, have not had their intended effects. So Mr. Biden is trying more modest, measured, and longer-term moves involving U.S. allies.

But his main international preoccupation is a reinvigoration of democratic governance in the face of increasingly assertive autocratic regimes such as China. He is gathering support for such an initiative among U.S. friends around the world.

The intended message of this new brand of realpolitik is that America is trying to defend democracy, not that it is abandoning its values. But the question remains: Where does that policy leave such values in places like Afghanistan?

Realpolitik, version 2021.

That may best describe the new direction President Joe Biden is taking on a pair of Asian policy challenges that have bedeviled U.S. administrations for the past two decades: Afghanistan and North Korea.

In Afghanistan, Washington is winding down its 20-year military involvement with the intention of pulling out all its troops over the next four months. The new tack on North Korea will focus on seeking a gradual rollback of its nuclear weapons program as part of an eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Why We Wrote This

The Biden administration is updating the old foreign policy doctrine ofrealpolitik by acknowledging the reality of limits on U.S. power today. But it is trying to give the new version a decidedly moral twist.

What they have in common – where the new realpolitik comes into play – is a recognition of the limits to unilateral U.S. power in today’s world, while using Washington’s still superpower-sized resources to build more effective alliances with other democracies.

Old-style realpolitik conveyed something slightly different. The term, literally the “politics of realism,” has its origins in 19th-century Germany and came to imply the hard-nosed pursuit of national interests, regardless of moral concerns such as human rights and political freedoms.

But President Biden – in stark contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump – has explicitly prioritized such issues in his foreign policy. He has defined the competition between democracies and autocracies as the key struggle of the modern world. Arguing that we’re now at a make-or-break point, he has committed the United States to working with allies to ensure that democratic values and institutions prevail.

Yet the “politics of realism” in Afghanistan – concluding there is no more that American troops can do there, and withdrawing them – does carry serious human rights risks.

The Islamist Taliban have already regained control of about half of the country. They seem, at a minimum, poised to regain a share of national power once U.S. and NATO troops go, potentially threatening freedom of expression, independent political and social organization, and, most dramatically, the rights of women – all of which have taken firmer root since American and allied forces ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.

In North Korea, the human rights picture is even bleaker. That’s not going to change as long as dictator Kim Jong Un remains in place. Amid a deepening economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, Mr. Kim clearly views his nuclear arsenal as a key safeguard for political survival.

So why is Washington stepping out of Afghanistan, and stepping back from any immediate push for North Korean nuclear disarmament?

The realpolitik v2021 calculation that Mr. Biden seems to have made is that existing U.S. policies are no longer fit for the purpose, and are not going to deliver either a stable, democratic government in Afghanistan or a non-nuclear North Korea.

So the emphasis is shifting toward a combination of more modest, measured, and longer-term moves.

The administration is still trying to enlist a range of interested external parties in a diplomatic attempt at a power-sharing agreement for Afghanistan. But there’s no sign yet of success.

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters/File
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. The Biden administration has chosen to keep diplomatic channels open with North Korea, so as to pursue its policy of gradual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Nor on North Korea. There, Mr. Biden is in effect splitting the difference between his two predecessors. Barack Obama resisted substantive diplomatic engagement, demanding that Pyongyang first demonstrate a serious commitment to abandoning its bid for nuclear weapons. Mr. Trump opted for high-stakes summitry with Mr. Kim, aiming to trade an end to all American economic sanctions for an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Kim said no to both U.S. leaders.

The Biden administration intends to keep all diplomatic channels to Pyongyang open. But no early breakthrough is either promised or expected. The hope is to chart a more gradual path toward the Trump administration’s goal of full denuclearization.

Mr. Biden’s major policy thrust, meanwhile, is on the longer-term priority he sees as an essential foundation for a whole range of U.S. interests, from economics and security to human rights: leading a resurgence and reinvigoration of democratic governance in the face of increasingly assertive autocratic regimes on the world stage.

The symbolic centerpiece will be a Summit for Democracy he’s planning for later this year. But the day-to-day spadework is already underway.

The president, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other foreign policy officials have repeatedly raised political and human rights concerns in their dealings with China, Russia, and other autocratic or populist governments.

They’ve also been working to create an explicitly pro-democracy Asian counterweight to China, by strengthening coordination with Japan, South Korea, and India.

Each of those countries was represented in London this week as Mr. Blinken joined a foreign ministers’ conference to prepare for this summer’s summit of Group of Seven economic powers in the United Kingdom. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab echoed Mr. Biden’s own calls for a “cluster of countries” to defend democratic values. Britain has also expressed interest in joining the U.S. in closer political and security coordination with China’s democratic neighbors.

The intended message of this new brand of realpolitik is that America is addressing the longer-term challenge of ensuring a strong, international defense of democracy, not that it is abandoning its political values.

Still, amid what the administration’s own national security review termed “multiple, intersecting crises” around the world, the question remains: Where does realpolitik v2021 leave those values in specific crisis areas like Afghanistan?

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