Prioritizing domestic audiences in foreign policy speaks of a strategy doomed to failure.
“Politics stops at the water’s edge.” This statement – on the necessity of presenting a united front with respect to key national interests – was the accepted wisdom in American foreign policy for quite a long time. There have always been dissenters and partisan infighting in America’s approach to foreign affairs, but for the most part domestic political debates have been subordinated to important international considerations when determining foreign policy. Recently, that seems to have shifted a full 180 degrees; now domestic political concerns and debates drive foreign policy, even at the expense of broad-based American interests globally. Domestic movements and debates have been internationalized and global events and geopolitics are now being viewed almost entirely through the lens of internal American issues. Gone is the single-issue organization or lobby, now replaced with groups who universalize their missions under the theory that all politics is intersectional and intrinsically linked. That’s why, for instance, we see groups ostensibly dedicated to raising awareness of police brutality against African-Americans also making strong declarations on entirely unrelated issues like the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As a result of this universalizing approach, the Biden administration has put the concerns of domestic lobbies ahead of real national interests time and time again. Nothing has made that clearer than three events which have unfolded over the past week.
The first of these events is the mass uprising which has been engulfing Cuba, a movement seeking freedom and the end of the repressive communist Cuban government. The protests are the largest mass movement Cuba has seen since the 1959 revolution which brought the brutal dictator Fidel Castro to power. The men and women who have been taking to the streets in Havana and cities large and small across the island have been chanting slogans like “Libertad”, meaning freedom, and are directly attacking the Cuban regime and its enforcers, flipping police cars and demonstrating outside of government offices. But if you listened to the Biden team, especially in the critically important early days of the uprising, you’d have thought the protestors were only seeking better medical care amidst a rise in Covid cases. In fact, the first official US government statement on the Cuba protests was from the a State Department functionary and read: “Peaceful protests are growing in Cuba as the Cuban people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising COVID cases/deaths and medicine shortages.” Besides the fact that this statement assumes that the Cuban people have a legal right to peaceful assembly (they don’t, and anti-regime demonstrators are routinely disappeared or killed by the Cuban government), it is wildly out of touch with the reality on the ground. The Cuban people are not just protesting a rise in Covid cases; they’re protesting an evil regime which routinely denies them basic rights and freedoms and dooms them to live in poverty while the ruling elite steal and hoard wealth (Fidel Castro was estimated to be worth $900 million at the time of his death). The Biden team’s approach would only get worse over the following days: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas came out and directly said that refugees fleeing the regime in Cuba would not be allowed to settle in the United States. This was a galling response, particularly given the lax approach the same administration is taking with respect to economic migrants at the southern border. What sort of immigration policy welcomes economic migrants but denies entry to legitimate refugees fleeing a dictatorial Communist regime located in America’s backyard?
Since the backlash that these responses rightfully engendered, the Biden team has been better rhetorically, but has done nothing concrete to assist the Cuban people or harm the regime that oppresses them. This is entirely due to domestic political concerns. Biden and his administration have been open to pursuing the same policy that his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama inaugurated with respect to Cuba: that of conciliation, support for the regime, and an end to the economic sanctions on the island and its leadership. That policy is supported not only by the Obama alumni that widely populate the current government, but also by a new generation of active socialists in the far-left of the President’s party, including several members of Congress and the influential activist class. Those messengers have been even worse when it comes to the protests – focusing far more on the decades-old US embargo on Cuba than they have on the horrific abuses of the Cuban regime against its own people. This has left the President with a choice between alienating the progressive left that has taken his party by storm by taking action to support the protests, and alienating a key potential voter bloc of Cubans in the swing state of Florida by not taking any action. So far, Biden seems to have drifted closer to the left, saying some good things but not taking any real steps to aid the Cuban people. This “restraint” has left Cubans high and dry and will likely result in the crushing of the anti-regime movement in that country for some time. America has an interest in a free and democratic Cuba, but the interests of Biden’s left flank domestically have taken precedence.
The second event which has shown the Biden team to be far more focused on servicing domestic constituent groups over American international interests is the plot by the Iranian government to kidnap and exfiltrate an Iranian-American dissident journalist, Masih Alinejad. This brazen plot to nab an American citizen from her home in Brooklyn and bring her through Venezuela to Iran to face a sham trial and likely death or imprisonment was thankfully foiled before it came to fruition. The plot was approved by those at the highest levels of the Iranian regime and would have been carried out by Iranian operatives in the United States; this was not just a few rogue actors, but a conspiracy directed from the commanding heights of the theocratic, totalitarian Iranian regime. The response to this plot by the Biden team has been minimal, as most communications from the administration have condemned the plot but referred to it solely as a “law enforcement matter“. The State Department, which you might think would have a lot to say about this issue given that it was a conspiracy emanating from a foreign enemy, has been quite subdued. Besides charging several Iranian operatives with a crime which they will likely never see the inside of a courtroom for – they’re safely ensconced in Iran with regime protection – the Biden administration has done nothing at all to punish the Iranian regime or its proxies. This is not deterrent action, and will likely show the Iranians that they can operate with relative impunity against their critics, even in the United States.
Why would the American government – and the Democrats who currently lead it – respond so mildly to a plot to kidnap an American citizen on American soil, especially when they reacted so strongly to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who lived in the US but was not a citizen, by the Saudi regime? The answer is simple: the Biden team is obsessed with re-entering the fatally flawed Iran Nuclear Deal, or JCPOA, costs be damned. That deal was the linchpin of the Obama strategy of reorienting the Middle East towards Iran and its proxies and away from America’s traditional allies in Israel and the Arab states, and Biden seeks to cement that legacy. He also wishes to undo one of the major accomplishments of the Trump foreign policy regime: maximum pressure on Iran. In fact, even as the indictments were being read out by the Justice Department, the administration was promising Iranian negotiators that all sanctions against that regime would be unilaterally dropped. This is egregious behavior and is meant to give a big win to another domestic constituency: Obama-adjacent foreign policy doves who wish to harm the regimes that we have historically supported in favor of appeasing the Iranians. That constituent group, which made the biggest stink about the Khashoggi murder, is dead silent on the plot to do the same to Alinejad; it is clear that their support for human rights is conditional on which regime is doing the abuse. Secretary of State Blinken has stated that the US “won’t tolerate efforts to intimidate” independent journalists; that is exactly what we are doing by continuing to capitulate to the Iranians in nuclear talks while that regime targets dissidents on our own soil – all for the sake of domestic politics.
The final event which showcases the Biden administration’s privileging of domestic politics in the realm of foreign policy revolves around performatively virtue signaling about American racism. Secretary Blinken recently made a formal invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism to come to the United States and “scrutinize our human rights record.” This is absurd on its face. As the map above shows, the United States is one of the least racist countries on the planet, despite our enormously diverse and heterogeneous population. Not only are we a shining beacon of ethnic and racial diversity, the nations judging us are nothing of the sort. The UN Human Rights Council, which supervises the Special Rapporteur, includes such paragons of human rights as China, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela. Why would we take the opinions of these repressive authoritarian states seriously, especially on human rights and racism? Again, the answer lies with domestic American politics: the Biden administration has consistently used racial issues to signal support for their woke left base, including in foreign policy. American racism, to the BLM left, is the worst thing in the world and makes us uniquely evil in world history; instead of combating this egregiously false notion, the administration is playing it up and debasing our nation before an international audience for no real gain. Our foreign foes – many of whom sit on that joke of a Human Rights Council – will take this opportunity to attack the US and sully our global reputation, all to the cheers of the American left. The current US government obviously thinks that proving their woke bona-fides to their domestic base is more important than projecting the truth about American diversity and relative lack of racism to the rest of the world. That is both short-sighted and incredibly bad foreign policy.
Biden’s team is not merely appeasing domestic political constituents by making these foreign policy moves, they are appeasing America’s enemies abroad. This new appeasement is not to be taken lightly; America’s foes are always looking to exploit our exhibited vulnerabilities however they can. What the Biden administration is doing, in pursuit of domestic politics and a strategy of “leading from behind”, is rolling over and practically begging for our adversaries to take advantage of our weakness. Defending American interests and values on the international stage requires assertiveness, not defensiveness, and should position the United States at the forefront of advocacy for our ideals and the stable world order we seek to support. We cannot fulfill the hegemonic role that is required of us (and yes, this is required if we seek to preserve the global order we live in) without a “forward” strategy meant to keep our rivals on the back foot and America on the front. In the words of Aristotle, “nature abhors a vacuum”; this adage is just as apt when applied to international politics. If we abandon the leading role on the world stage in the hopes of appeasing domestic constituencies, we will open the space for a world led by the authoritarian powers of China, Russia, Iran, and their ilk. Just as with Neville Chamberlain and the supporters of the League of Nations in the interwar period, our display of “restraint” in the face of these rising threats will instead be seen historically as a display of cowardice. One can only hope that our current government realizes this before the world has gone too far down the path to conflict and instability. Ask yourself: where is our Churchill?