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Biden’s Pro-America Foreign Policy
Biden’s liberal nationalist approach fills a gap created by rivals on left and right who fell short in offering effective plans to help America compete in the world
Yesterday, we outlined the contours of President Biden’s emerging national industrial policy and examined the ways it connects to his foreign policy. It’s an approach that’s strongly grounded in core liberal nationalist principles – that include making major public investments at home to strengthen America’s ability to compete in the world. America had done this in previous geopolitical eras: think of the investments made in America’s infrastructure to help build its commercial power and the pivotal role America’s space program played in helping boost the country’s scientific and industrial base in the 1950s and 1960s, or the social safety net investments of the 1960s, and early 1970s.
These principles are distinct from those that undergird the alternatives offered by the various camps on both the left and the right, from Trump-style America First crowd and traditional conservatives to the left-wing “blame America first” school of foreign policy and the vaporous polemics of the so-called restraint camp. These approaches have little if anything concrete or practical to say about national development and global economic competition, though some have co-opted the language of industrial policy and public investment in strategic sectors and industry for their own purposes. Endless infrastructure weeks under Trump and far-fetched Green New Deals from the left offered rhetoric to shape the debate but did not amount to realistic plans to get electric vehicle charging stations built, ports and roads refurbished, or quantum computing breakthroughs made in the real world.
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Each in their own ways, these approaches largely don’t connect their domestic policy moves with what they propose the United States do in the world. (It’s an important element of what the Biden team has done over the past year – and something it should speak more clearly about!)
A brief examination of these alternatives shows why they amount to little more than political vaporware: programs announced and much touted by their proponents but never seriously considered – much less actually enacted or implemented.
Trump and America First national conservatives
Remember that announcement in 2017 that the Trump administration was getting Saudi Arabia to invest in America’s infrastructure? Probably not, because it was never implemented - just like Trump’s many other empty promises.
On the campaign trail and in the White House, President Trump often talked a big game about infrastructure investment but never managed to get anything done. When running for president in 2016, Trump vowed to invest some $800 billion to $1 trillion in the nation’s infrastructure. Once in office, however, Trump put forward a plan that included just $200 billion in direct federal funding and relied primarily on funding from state and local governments as well as private sources to get to a total of $1.5 trillion worth of infrastructure investment over ten years. This proposal went nowhere, but Trump did deliver on the traditional conservative economic priorities of tax cuts and deregulation.
The other, more coherent major prong of Trump’s industrial policy involved the extravagant use of tariffs as coercive measures against other countries, including long-standing American allies, on the underlying theory that trade policy – not public investment, cooperation with friends abroad, or indeed anything else – caused virtually all of America’s post-Cold War industrial and economic problems. This approach did see one success, a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement that went into effect in July 2020. (Trump would go on to slap tariffs back on Canadian aluminum just a month later.) But Trump’s trade war with China yielded little more than a weak initial agreement that Beijing has failed to honor.
Worse, Trump treated American partners and allies like South Korea as vassals to be extorted for protection money – at least when he wasn’t calling the European Union one of America’s biggest foes. Rather than work with the EU to address outstanding trade issues as the Biden administration would do, Trump imposed substantial tariffs on European steel and aluminum on the grounds that these duties would somehow restore American dominance of these industries. It’s of a piece with Trump’s frequently stated admiration for the “iron fist” political models of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.
Traditional conservatives by and large do not support large public investments, at least those not directly related to national defense. They cast a skeptical eye toward industrial policy in general, seeing it as supplanting the free hand of the market. During the Reagan and Thatcher eras, for instance, conservatives supported efforts to privatize many public functions as well as deregulate a number of industries, in effect selling off the commanding heights of the economy and diminishing the role of public investment in the economy – again, outside spending that went toward defense-related industries.
To put it another way, traditional conservatives believe that the best industrial policy for America is no industrial policy – or at least not a visible industrial policy. Get out of the way and let the free hand of the market do its work, they say. The main shortcoming in this approach is that it ignores the enormous past successes of public investments in building infrastructure and supporting research and development, investments that directly and indirectly led to private sector-led technological advances that fueled economic growth, as well as moves to strengthen a safety net for workers.
As a result, America’s industrial policy since the 1980s has relied primarily on contracts, tax breaks, and incentives that obscure the role of public investment in the success of companies like SpaceX and Tesla. Still, traditional conservatives can be convinced to support public investment and industrial policies if and when they believe national security and foreign policy imperatives are at stake. Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), for instance, recently praised the CHIPS Act as “a bold investment in America’s national security.”
On the international front, traditional conservatives see free trade deals as the primary instrument of American economic statecraft. President George H.W. Bush negotiated and signed the NAFTA deal in 1992, while his son inked thirteen bilateral free trade agreements and a multilateral deal that included five Central American nations and the Dominican Republic.
A number of progressives like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) say the right things about public investment and industrial policy. In practice, however, many progressives hold fast to ideological priorities that override whatever sympathies they may otherwise have for large-scale public investment and industrial policy. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Pamila Jayapal (D-WA), for instance, both criticized the CHIPS Act as a giveaway to the tech industry before eventually voting for it. Progressives like Warren and Jayapal have always been more animated by anti-trust concerns than national development, and as a result they take a more skeptical view toward public investment and industrial policy out of the haunting fear that somewhere, somehow a big corporation may benefit from it.
Indeed, certain progressive priorities stand in opposition to notions of national development and public investment. The financial crash of 2008 rejuvenated progressive anxieties about corporate power and “bigness,” for instance, while the environmental-cum-climate movement focuses more on preventing action to solve problems than facilitating it. That may be slowly changing: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) made environmental permitting reform a condition for passing the Inflation Reduction Act, and even Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) appears to be warming to the idea. It’s too early to tell if these needed reforms will actually take place, and progressives now appear to be mobilizing to try and block them in Congress.
As on other foreign policy questions, moreover, progressives ironically remain stuck in the past and fighting the last political war. They’re as clear about their opposition to trade agreements of the past like NAFTA or the Obama administration’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as they are about their opposition to the 2003 Iraq war. But opposition to earlier trade agreements and futile wars nearly two decades ago does little to provide solutions to today’s challenges, nor does it open many doors to new opportunities.
Similar to Trump, they see trade policy as perhaps the single most important determinant of American competitiveness and prosperity – but have no real answers beyond requiring trade deals to bear even more responsibility for the state of America’s economy. Ask many progressives for a clear vision for international economic engagement and how to best cooperate with partners around the world, and the responses are often as empty as progressive rhetoric on hard security issues like Taiwan, Ukraine, and Yemen that ignore realities about China, Russia, and the Middle East.
That leaves the Biden administration offering the only practical and plausible path forward on both industrial policy and international economic engagement: one that recognizes we’re no longer in the world of the 1990s or 2000s, puts real public investment over and above vaporware proposals and policy fantasies, and looks for opportunities to work together economically with like-minded allies and partners overseas. It’s a formula that’s as realistic as it is ambitious, one that recognizes domestic and foreign policies go hand in hand – a notion that the Biden team would do well to emphasize much more strongly moving forward.
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