In recent days, just as President Joe Biden was embarking on his confrontation with Russia over the fate of Ukraine, a series of other crises involving enemies have surfaced that had not been heard of in months.
North Korea tested six missiles this month, the same number the country has been rolling out all of last year. (They contained two hypersonic missiles that are said to be able to maneuver around defense systems on their way to the target.)
This may just be Chairman Kim Jong-un’s way of clamoring for attention, but it’s unsettling our allies within reach (particularly Japan and South Korea), according to the Biden administration been committed To offer Kim’s team a call with no preconditions, even though such calls are unlikely to go anywhere.
Also this week, US forces in Syria revived their old alliance with the Kurds Repelling ISIS militias storming a prison where many of their Islamist brethren were being held – causing wonder to many who came across the headline, IS IS STILL AVAILABLE? Though their caliphate has long been shattered, the organization assembled enough men and firepower to sustain six days of fierce fighting.
Meanwhile, the months-long talks with Iran in Vienna continue, with some progress, some stasis and no clear sign that the Obama-era nuclear deal is being revived– meaning that the mullahs of Tehran could yet develop a nuclear bomb, with fraught, potentially catastrophic consequences for the region and the world.
Not only is there no rest for a 21St Century superpower – there is no time to concentrate. Joe Biden took office with a determination to extricate the US from the Middle East war and curb Chinese expansionism with the help of longtime allies. Yet events – many of which are beyond his control – have thrown him into emergency mode, putting out fires, or sometimes igniting them. Like other current presidents, he finds it difficult, if not impossible, to set a foreign policy agenda because the world is just too chaotic.
Foreign policy used to be a little less complicated. Back in the Cold War, when Washington and Moscow were dividing the world into two spheres of influence, almost every regional and global issue was somehow connected to the U.S.-USSR bipolar standoff — and even when it wasn’t, the two found Superpowers out that was the way to do it. As the Soviet Union broke up and the Cold War ended, so did the international security system that held the world together, albeit at times overwhelmingly so. There are no solid “power blocs” now, but rather shaky alliances of convenience, where two countries agree on one issue but disagree on another. No leader – or pair of opposing leaders – can set the agenda for the day, let alone determine how it will proceed.
Presidents in this century have tried to wriggle out of new confines and chart their own course, but often not without much frustration.
George W. Bush wanted to renew the great powers’ competition with long-time rivals while the US overtook them—then came 9/11 and the rise of sectarian terrorist groups. Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, was scheduled to give a lecture on America’s Top Threats on the afternoon of September 11, 2001; The leaked text of the speech she never gave did not even mention al-Qaeda.
Barack Obama wanted to leave behind the old squabbles of the Middle East and turn to the dynamics of Asia-Pacific—then came the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. You can easily imagine him reciting the only memorable line from The Godfather Part IIIMichael Corleone’s agonized lawsuit as he tried to flee the family business but failed: “You keep dragging me in!”
The big excitement of Biden’s early months was the formation of the quad– the shiny new alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia that would unite Asia under its helm while staving off the rise of China. The Quad has shut down the newsfeeds and briefing books for a while; it has not been of much use in the last crises.
And who could have guessed now that after 20 years of struggling on new missions to justify its existence in the post-Cold War world, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – founded in 1949, just as the Cold War was taking shape – would be shut down brought back to life by returning to its original purpose: to keep the Russian bear in its cage?
An acquaintance who worked for Henry Kissinger early in the Nixon administration recalls telling his new boss that he was looking forward to all the things he would learn on the job. Kissinger replied that he was hired for what he already knew; there would be no time to study.
This is the predicament facing Biden and his team of advisers and diplomats in the multipolar age. So many crises of so different nature, origin and complexity, unfolding in different phases at the same time – something like this has not happened in modern times, maybe at no time. They have to make do with what they already know, but nobody knows much.