“As With LBJ, The World Might Get In The Way”

Following in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessors, could Biden’s hawkish foreign policies doom his agenda at home?
“As With LBJ, The World Might Get In The Way”

Andrew Bacevich is the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank promoting ideas “that move U.S. foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace.” The think tank, which is funded by conservative and liberal donors including the Charles Koch Foundation and Open Society Foundations, publishes research and policy proposals aimed towards ending U.S. military involvement in overseas conflicts and developing diplomatic strategies instead.

In May, Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of history and international relations, published an article in The Nation entitled: “Foreign Wars Will Jeopardize Biden’s Rescue Plans.” In the piece, Bacevich argued that the Biden administration needed to reformulate its foreign policy in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

What follows is a lightly edited interview with Bacevich on the themes of that piece.

In your recent piece for The Nation, you argue that President Lyndon B. Johnson doomed his Great Society by choosing to escalate U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. Can you explain how that choice was incompatible with his Great Society, and what President Joe Biden should learn from that?

President Johnson hesitated greatly about Americanizing the war in Vietnam. He hesitated in large part because he understood that he was putting his Great Society domestic reforms at risk, and his fears were justified.

Two things happened as a result of the expansion of the American role in Vietnam.

The first thing that happened is that the war shattered the consensus within the Democratic Party, which had positioned Johnson as a powerful president with wide latitude to enact legislation that he wanted to see enacted. The Democratic Party split — part of it was supportive of the war, part of it was anti-war.

The second thing that happened that undermined his prospects for the Great Society is that the war destabilized the American economy. Since World War II, the American economy had been chugging along, year after year, with consistent growth and relatively low inflation. And once we went big time into the Vietnam War, that fell apart.

If Biden, then, wants to go the way of FDR and not LBJ on domestic policy, how does his administration need to change its approach to foreign policy? Why is it improper — and impossible — to assess his domestic policy record without looking at foreign policy?

There is no way of putting domestic policy and foreign policy in separate boxes.

So what should Johnson have done? Well, Johnson should have recognized — and remember what a seasoned politician he was, much like Joe Biden, both of them had been around Washington for a long, long time before they were elevated to the White House — that in order to facilitate the passage of Great Society legislation, he needed to avoid major overseas conflicts. Indeed, he probably should have reduced U.S. military obligations abroad. Why? Because he should have noted, and Biden should realize, that however great our nation’s resources may be, they are in fact finite.

The Biden Administration’s domestic reform programs are ambitious. That’s why they bring about these comparisons with the Great Society. But thus far, I don’t see in the Biden administration, or among his principal national security advisors, a willingness to really rethink the question of what role the United States should be playing in the world. At least in terms of the rhetoric that I hear, it’s that we will continue to be the world’s, you know, big enchilada.

And I think as long as he has Biden and those around him cling to that, they will find themselves less able to follow through on their domestic reform program because, as with LBJ, the world might get in the way.

Policy differences aside, Biden is a much less formidable figure, at least so far, than either FDR or LBJ. How should we be thinking about foreign policy under this administration not just in terms of Biden, but also in terms of whom he has appointed to top national security points, and in terms of members of his own party in the House and in the Senate?

Biden is the first president we’ve had since George Herbert Walker Bush who came to office with a very substantial experience with regard to foreign policy. Biden has always been interested in foreign policy, and he was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And of course, he served as vice president under Obama for two terms. And Obama used him frequently as basically an envoy.

So we don’t have a novice when it comes to foreign policy in charge, but I think what we have is a very conventional figure. Biden is a product of the Cold War — that is when he cut his teeth on policy. And I think what is not clear is the extent to which Biden grasps the fact, not simply that the Cold War is now in our past, but that the assumptions regarding America’s role in the world that developed during the Cold War, those assumptions are simply no longer valid.

So phrases that we hear frequently uttered, like “American global leadership,” which really testify to a belief in American primacy, I don’t think those concepts actually retain any validity today. Not in a world where the geopolitical balance is rapidly changing, for example, when we think about the rise of China, but also in a world in which geopolitics itself is becoming not irrelevant, but less relevant, given the fact that humankind is increasingly facing common threats, such as climate change, to which there are no geopolitical responses — it requires a shared response.

So I’m not persuaded that Biden understands that we’re now in a different time. And quite frankly, the people that he has chosen to be his principal subordinates — the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense are two very good examples — are somewhat younger than he is. But they, too, are very conventional figures, who don’t seem to appreciate the extent to which the world has changed.

You mention climate change as a key threat. It seems as though the Department of Defense is one of the federal agencies that has been most aware of climate change as a national security threat. How is the Biden Administration handling climate change as a national security threat, and how do you assess their approach?

I think that your question overstates the level of recognition within the Defense Department about the proximate threat posed by climate change. There is an awareness. But I think it’s actually an awareness that exists on the margins.

I don’t know of anybody in the Department of Defense who has said that we need to quit building aircraft carriers, because we want to shift national security resources to programs that would directly combat climate change. So it’s important not to exaggerate the extent to which the Defense Department is tuned into this problem.

But the question gets at a larger and more relevant concern, and that is the existing conception of national security. And that’s a conception of national security that finds us spending about a trillion dollars a year on our national security apparatus. It finds us maintaining something on the order of 800 bases around the world and in something like 140 countries. Most importantly, that finds us designing U.S. forces for power projection.

My point here is that there is an urgent need to rethink what the phrase national security implies. And I think the way you begin doing that is by coming to a greater appreciation of the hierarchy of threats that endanger the American people. I think that what’s going on right now is a reshuffling of the hierarchy of threats that is going to put the People’s Republic of China in the very top tier. I think that’s a huge mistake.

Instead, what if we begin with this question: “What threatens the safety and well-being of the American people where they live?” If we try to answer that question, I think that’s when we begin to get a better understanding of national security concerns.

I would say that what threatens the safety and well-being of the American people begins with things like climate change, or so-called natural disasters that are exacerbated by climate, and pandemics. Those are concerns that under the current system are peripheral to national security.

Central to national security today, and over the past 70-80 years, have been threats defined in terms of geopolitical competition. In the 1940s, there was the problem of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. In the late 1940s, through the 1980s, it was the problem of the Soviet Union. Now increasingly, it’s the problem with the People’s Republic of China.

My argument is not that we were wrong to perceive that those threats were threats. What I am saying is that today is a different day. And the threats that deserve priority attention are not the geopolitical ones. And I think that there is awareness of that in the more progressive parts of the Democratic Party. But I think within the so-called foreign policy establishment, there’s resistance to that kind of change in thinking.

Photo credit: AP Photo/John Rous


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