A missed opportunity in the Pacific
Chaos at home can affect our country’s standing in the world
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Too often, when it comes to our politics, Americans are apt to think of domestic policy and foreign policy as completely separate. We can have difficult and divisive debates, we think, on what to do about abortion or how to handle healthcare, or reining in federal spending, without questioning America’s commitment to stand up to bad guys and stand up for our allies abroad.
And to be sure, we do not see the same partisan divides on foreign policy: Republicans and Democrats both seem to agree these days on the need to play hardball with China and to support Ukraine against Russia. In reality, however, it is impossible to fully separate foreign policy and domestic policy issues since problems in the domestic sphere are sure to create troubles abroad.
The ongoing debt ceiling dispute is a case in point. Amidst all the acrimony and finger-pointing that has dominated coverage of the ongoing fights in Washington, one set of headlines may have gotten less attention than it deserved, and that’s Biden’s decision to cut short a long-planned West Pacific trip so he could return home to focus on debt negotiations. Although he did attend a crucial G-7 summit in Japan that helped firm up coordinated policy against Russia and China, Biden was forced to cancel plans to go on to Australia and Papua New Guinea, key partners in America’s attempt to contain Chinese expansion.
We are sometimes tempted to think of presidential travel as just expensive tourism or PR stunts. After all, aren’t leading diplomats able to hammer out key agreements with or without the president? Can’t the president negotiate with his Australian counterpart over Zoom? But this is shortsighted. Even in a world of ubiquitous digital communication, we still instinctively recognize the significance of personal presence, especially for world leaders whose very presence conveys symbolic power. John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s visit to Berlin in 1987 are widely credited with having helped end the Cold War.
While Biden’s visit to Papua New Guinea may not rise to such world-historical heights, the island nation had declared a national holiday in anticipation of the first-ever U.S. presidential visit to a Pacific Island nation. While there, Biden had planned to sign a new strategic security pact designed to help align western Pacific nations with U.S. rather than Chinese interests. From there, Biden had intended to attend a long-planned “Quad” summit in Australia along with India and Japan to strengthen their military partnership against possible Chinese aggression.
The main purpose of both trips, a Biden spokesman had said, was “to show in demonstrable ways that the United States is a reliable, stable, credible partner in this part of the world.” Instead, we managed to demonstrate exactly the opposite.
While most nations may give lip service to democratic ideals, they are largely guided by concrete material interests like security, stability, and trade. China has aggressively courted nations in southeast Asia and around the Pacific Rim with the promise that they, more than America, can serve these interests. And one of the great advantages of running a dictatorship is that you can keep all your promises—if you want to, at least. Democratic nations, on the other hand, have difficulty matching the diplomatic reliability of dictators, since fickle voters at home often demand sudden course-changes or start asking awkward questions. Or, as we have just seen, domestic discord consumes so much attention that leaders have to renege on foreign commitments.
A brief presidential visit may be a minor promise to break, but it sets a troubling precedent for allies already glancing nervously over their shoulders in China’s direction. If chaos on the home front can keep America from delivering on small commitments, can America really be counted on to keep big commitments? If Congress can’t even come to an agreement on how to pay its bills, why should anyone believe that Congress will be able to agree on how to handle a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?
The fact of the matter is that in national life as in family life, troubles at home don’t stay at home. Global politics, for all the reassuring language of “cooperation” and “engagement” that we like to use these days, remains at bottom a power struggle, and in every power struggle, the competitors are eyeing one another for any sign of weakness.
In domestic partisan politics, a refusal to compromise—especially on debt and spending fights—is often seen as a sign of strength or toughness. From the outside, though, it looks very different: when it comes to foreign relations, nations whose factions are willing to compromise to ensure the smooth functioning of government look like the most reliable partners and the most intimidating foes. If the United States really wants to get “tough on China,” rather than merely talk about it, we will have to start by finding a way to overcome our partisan paralysis on domestic policy.
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