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Contingent diplomacy, Conditional engagement, and Over-the-horizon strikes: a triad underpinning Joe Biden’s defense and foreign policy

The August 31, 2021, Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan already outlined what will be three of the pillars of American Defense and Foreign Policy for years to come, a view further developed in subsequent noteworthy speeches. Colloquially, we can allude to these pillars as Contingent diplomacy, Conditional engagement, and Over-the-horizon strikes. These principles will not be passing priorities, as they partly address political sentiments of a nation in transition as they adapt to a multipolar world and a growingly fractured geopolitical landscape.

A full policy reset

Indeed, the U.S. remains the world’s leading military power. Since the turn of the century, however, an increasingly assertive China and divergent Russia have systematically eroded the country’s strategic leadership in niche (technological and geographical) fields. Some commentators rushed to interpret the outlined new direction as the abandonment of cherished principles such as multilateralism. Some other people saw it comforting to think about the remarks following the withdrawal from Afghanistan as perhaps a passing blip. An alternative interpretation to the latter narrative has been to regard Biden, rather harshly, as Trump without the tweets. However, it is more productive to see the plotted course as a full reset, i.e., a final and perhaps tardy realisation that the world has changed dramatically since the turn of the century, but U.S. policymakers remained entranced by a post-9/11 mindset.

The need to reset foreign policy is asserted in several parts of the Remarks. It seems now that this belated requirement had more significant bearing on the decision to end the Afghanistan war, no matter what, than originally thought. Hence, Biden stated that his fundamental obligation was “to defend and protect America — not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow. … As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided…our nation the last two decades”.

If doubts persisted, the unexpected announcement on September 15, 2021, of the AUKUS security partnership between the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom should have confirmed to everyone that this is a full reset. In the words of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “through AUKUS, we will significantly deepen our cooperation on a range of security and defense priorities, including by strengthening our joint capabilities and interoperability in a number of key areas: cyber, AI, quantum technologies, additional underseas capabilities.” The creation of AUKUS, which humiliated France following Australia’s cancellation of a €56 billion deal to buy 12 French diesel-electric submarines, is a slap in the face for previous security arrangements and partnerships. France is the U.S.’s oldest military partner. During the War for Independence, the French offered critical military support including arms, ammunition, and troops to the nascent American nation. In addition, AUKUS overlaps, and perhaps supersedes, the Five Eyes (FVEY) intelligence partnership comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the U.S., which goes as far back as 1946. Despite the partnership choreography, AUKUS also creates a rift at the heart of NATO. This is America in a full reset mood.

Contingent diplomacy

The most recognisable pillar of Biden’s approach is diplomacy. Given Biden’s conciliatory character this is not surprising, particularly when contrasted with the dystopian approach of the previous administration.

We need to think about diplomacy in the traditional sense, albeit only initially and occasionally just superficially. In this light, in the remarks on Afghanistan Biden spoke of a UNSC resolution sending “a clear message about what the international community [not just the U.S.] expects the Taliban to deliver on moving forward”; about being joined by “over 100 countries that are determined to make sure the Taliban upholds those commitments”; as well as human rights being “the center of our foreign policy”. At the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly he reiterated the need to “redouble our diplomacy and commit to political negotiations, not violence, as the tool of first resort to manage tensions around the world.” It is relevant to point out that this was said roughly at the same time the ‘reformed’ Taliban announced the return to old practices such as executions and keeping women at home for the best part of their lives –with little reaction from the international community. Further refining his approach, he stated that “the United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges. …because we’ll all suffer the consequences of our failure if we do not come together to address the urgent threats like COVID-19 and climate change or enduring threats like nuclear proliferation” [read North Korea and Iran here].

In other words, multilateralism is central to the reviewed diplomatic stance, but the risks and costs need to be shared and allies and partners should not expect for the U.S. to fire the opening salvo or empty its wallet all the time anymore. In fairness, some allies (some of them NATO countries) have benefited enormously by remaining under the U.S. security umbrella. However, they sometimes appear to be ‘free riding’ rather than actively contributing to global security initiatives. This issue no longer evades the eyes of American policymakers and a vocal segment of the U.S. electorate. We should keep in mind here the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, a risk that has not disappeared altogether and impacts the manner the U.S. engages the world now.

Conditional engagement

Biden’s speech before the UN General Assembly is multi-layered. On the one hand, it has a feel as if it was a return to business as usual in the diplomatic front; that is, as it was prior to Trump entering the political scene. On the other hand, it sets general parameters concerning the Contingent engagement of the U.S. when dealing with the world’s ailments –against the backdrop of overly defensive undertones, particularly aimed at China (…turning the focus to ‘the Indo-Pacific’ and opposing “attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones”). The world has changed, and meanings have changed.

The U.S. will contribute with resources to fight humanitarian and environmental causes, e.g., “mobilizing $100 billion to support climate action in developing nations”; however, they will expect something in return. It would be simplistic to argue that there have been purely altruistic engagements in the past. Nevertheless, for about a decade or two after the end of the Cold War the U.S had the capacity to ask for less in return, e.g., in the Balkans and some African countries, because at the time the U.S. did not face serious competition from China and Russia. Likewise, when addressing security issues, the U.S. will expect other countries to contribute actively and equitably and not just become symbolic partners to initiatives and campaigns. AUKUS is a manifestation of this view. Be the problem the climate crisis, nuclear proliferation, or the fight against terrorism, Conditional engagement is a prerogative but also the flipside of contingent diplomacy.

Watered down with diplomacy, the ‘America first’ stance remains and becomes the cornerstone of American foreign policy. When Biden says, “we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America” (in the Afghan Remarks and elsewhere) we should not think that this is simply a figure of speech. Some may say that this has always been the case. Yet, it feels more fundamental and resilient this time.

To Donald Trump ‘America first’ was an ideological quest, though sometimes it was a personal one or simply a catchy slogan loosely used to rally supporters (depending on his mood and the time of the day the tweet was fired). To Joe Biden, there are strategic considerations, but economics plays a critical part in promoting a similar approach. The U.S. spent a fabulous amount of money in its incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq. Those $300 million a day (in Afghanistan alone) represent money that could have been spent elsewhere, public money that comparatively speaking was spent by China consolidating its commercial and military power. Biden wants to make up for the lost opportunities and time.

Commensurably, other initiatives like AUKUS might follow and Biden will be cherry picking the partners that will accompany the U.S. in this new era of foreign relations and Conditional engagement. At the same time, the diplomacy symphony will continue playing in the background (“a new era of relentless diplomacy”), reaching a crescendo if/when the possibility of a confrontation with China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea starts looming in the horizon. Meanwhile, Over-the-horizon strikes is the other sound we will hear playing.

Over-the-horizon strikes

Biden has stated loud and clear the need to end the ‘wars of the past’. In addition to being expensive and unpopular, there are other consequences discussed only behind doors. For instance, with mass migration fast turning into an uncontrollable by-product of nation collapse, it is futile to attempt another one of those wars.

Over the horizon strikes are both cheaper and less consequential at home and abroad. Short bursts but never full military engagement, by land, air, and sea and throughout cyberspace. There will be attacks here and there, periodically, always reminding the world that America is there and watching, particularly when dealing with terrorist targets. In Biden’s words, “our safety and our security lies in a tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy that goes after terror where it is today”. This “means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.” To minimize controversies, the attacks should happen against the backdrop of UNSC mandates and ‘relentless diplomacy’. Contingent diplomacy and Conditional engagement are integral parts of Over-the-horizon strategies and tactics.

The Over-the-horizon field is cyber intensive and not just about drones. Every single attack involves the intricate use of cyber conduits, clouds, and systems along with the space and positioning technology used to direct and coordinate them. Strikes also sometimes unfold above and below conventional rules. Furthermore, cyber capabilities will also be used increasingly to antagonise, disrupt, and retaliate against real and potential adversaries. Just like the U.S. reserves “the right to respond decisively to cyberattacks that threaten our people, our allies, or our interests” we should not expect less from other countries (and criminal and hybrid groups). Inevitably, more than it is the case now cyberspace will turn into a free-for-all playground and segments of it will be militarized. Ironically, ‘over the horizon’ will feel very much at home as to different extents we will be all affected by the consequences of next-generation cyber warfare.

The grand strategy is, however, to lay down the groundwork needed for a possible confrontation with China at some point, preferably not too soon as that takes time to prepare. For instance, with AUKUS the U.S. will be establishing three (forward engagement) comparatively equidistant bases of operations in strategic world spots. As we wrote in our post ‘To invade or not to invade Taiwan now? That is China’s President Xi Jinping’s most pressing question’ time is of essence, and currently is on China’s side. When this post was being written China sent a record number of military jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone and President Xi Jinping reiterated that reunification with Taiwan will be fulfilled. Will the three outlined pillars withstand the stress caused by such an event? That is a question that no one can currently answer, not even Biden himself.

About militaryecology

MilitaryEcology.com focuses on topical global security issues. We approach them against the backdrop of the fast evolving military ‘ecology’ landscape populated by myriad public and private actors often explicitly or implicitly operating in public-private ‘security partnerships. This Private-Public Military Ecology blog is linked to PrivateMilitary.org’s aims, which are oriented towards the dissemination of security knowledge. We also encourage people to engage in constructive debate.


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October 2021
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