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Jake Sullivan can’t save the world

President Biden’s foreign policy chief is being overpowered by forces beyond his control.

By Robert D Kaplan

President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has a cover story in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled “The Sources of American Power”. That, of course, is a play on George Kennan’s famous article in the July 1947 issue of the same journal, entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, written under the pseudonym “X”. Kennan was a deeply learned area specialist on the Soviet Union, who wrote the article while stationed at the US embassy in Moscow. Encouraged by his ambassador, W Averell Harriman, to write exactly what he thought without concern of who he might offend in government, Kennan produced a deeply insightful study of Soviet behaviour that reached back into Russian history, and was in the overall scheme of things lightly edited, giving it additional raw power. While the title of Sullivan’s lengthy essay promises something similar in importance, not only does it fail to deliver, but it is not really an essay.

Instead, Sullivan has produced a laundry list of accomplishments of the Biden administration, which reads with the bloodless phraseology of a committee-driven product. It is not wrong, nor is it naive or unenlightened in any way. In fact, I agree with most of it, since there is little to actually fight over in the text. Sullivan states that the sources of American power are not just geography, demography and natural resources, but more importantly the decisions made by its leaders at key junctures. That is basically true, but also a commonplace. To repeat, whatever those in New York and Washington may think, this is not an essay, which is something that relentlessly explores original concepts.

Therefore, given that there are relatively few original ideas in this roughly 7,000-word product, the reader is reduced to judging it on the basis of his or her view of the Biden administration’s foreign policy thus far, which Sullivan’s piece describes fairly objectively, while also putting the administration’s best foot forward.

And there have been considerable accomplishments which tend to be forgotten, or fly under the radar screen of public opinion, which justifies producing such a laundry list in the first place. (Indeed, Sullivan’s cover story almost reads like a presidential address or a campaign speech.)

As Sullivan tells the reader, the administration has put together a deal to sell Australia US nuclear submarine technology, which is a bold and expensive undertaking that will serve to anchor Australia tighter into the Western alliance in the Pacific, and also into Nato. The administration has negotiated a rapprochement between two historic enemies, Japan and South Korea, for the sake, however denied, of confronting China. It has negotiated a budding alliance that puts India together with Israel and the United Arab Emirates. As a response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the administration has put together a large infrastructure plan for the developing world to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. There is, too, a big initiative with private business to reduce the moral and security risks of AI (artificial intelligence). Sullivan goes on, writing about domestic investment, the challenges of technology, and so forth: all estimable but little of it qualifying as news. He calls the many examples of alliance maintenance, repair and enhancement after the devastation of the Trump administration “a self-reinforcing lattice-work of cooperation”, in one of the few nice phrases in the article.

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[See also: Europe has made itself vulnerable by outsourcing its security]

Clearly, this is all a vast improvement over the Trump administration, which, whatever its useful actions here and there – assassinating the Iranian Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, getting tougher with China on trade – was an organisational shambles, with many incompetents in key bureaucratic positions. The Biden administration has not only restored efficiency to the key upper-middle and high levels of the foreign policy bureaucracy, it has put together the best-functioning team since the elder Bush administration 30 years ago. Sullivan and his colleagues represent the best of the Blob, sort of. There are not the great bureaucratic fistfights between the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, and so on of previous administrations, as Sullivan, Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, William Burns, the CIA director, and Lloyd Austin, the defence secretary, all work well together. And unlike the Obama administration, which seemed to perversely apologise for American power, as an over-reaction to the mistakes of the younger Bush administration, the Biden team has competently projected American power without apology.

Sullivan defends the administration’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, arguing that however badly handled it set the administration up for concentrating on far more important projects like the defence of Ukraine. Could you imagine how diverted the administration would be were American troops still fighting in Afghanistan? Good point.

Sullivan claims that the United States can continue to arm Ukraine and Israel, and defend Taiwan at the same. The administration has been making this point for some time. Again, there is very little new in this article. He does point out that the administration sees no end-point in the strategic rivalry with China, unlike in the case of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which culminated in a victory for the West.

Sullivan ends by saying that the United States is in the third phase of its foreign policy after the Second World War. The first was about strengthening the Western democracies and containing the Soviet Union. The second was about trying to enlarge the rules-based order in the aftermath of the Cold War. And the third, where the Biden administration is now, emphasises strategic competition in “an age of interdependence and transnational challenges”. That bland description passes for one of the article’s big ideas.

The online version of the article ends with an editor’s note, informing the reader that the passage about the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel does not appear in the print edition of Foreign Affairs, which went to press earlier. Nothing could be more poignant regarding the impossible-to-predict madness of the world with which the Biden administration is forced to deal. It is such events – and here I include the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Azerbaijani conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh – vivid, violent, barbaric, cynical, that make a mockery of the so-called rules-based order and the so-called international community that Sullivan accords so much legitimacy throughout his article.

Indeed, the administration’s record may depend much more on how it reacts to the manifestations of an orderless world than on how it conceptualises American foreign policy in the abstract. So far it is not doing too badly at all. And that is because competent bureaucratic facilitation, which the Biden team has in spades, often helps significantly when crises occur. But the world of process is different than the world of ideas. That’s why Sullivan, who is extremely good at his job, has so little original to say.

[See also: The great unravelling]

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