The incoming Biden administration has declared its intent to reverse many Trump-era policies, such as Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his ban on travel by foreign nationals from several Middle East countries to the United States. Nevertheless, few expect the new U.S. president to change the Trump administration’s assessment that long-term strategic competition with China and Russia is America’s “central challenge.” How the Biden administration pursues this competition will contribute substantially to defining the emerging international system.
While the Trump administration formalized “great power competition” as an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy, the shift away from combating international terrorism and toward great power competition had been underway for quite some time. The process began with Barack Obama’s 2008 election in part due to public rejection of his predecessor George W. Bush’s continuing efforts to occupy and transform Iraq and Afghanistan. Then-President Obama sought to scale back the U.S. role in both countries and succeeded in withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq; his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for a “pivot” to Asia
provided a useful justification for this. Nevertheless, many Republicans who supported this change in focus complained that Obama did not the pivot, soon called a “rebalancing,” did not include meaningful changes in the deployment of U.S. troops, aircraft or ships.
Mr. Obama—who wanted to concentrate on domestic policy—seems to have considered the policy an excuse to get out of the Middle East and little more.
The Arab Spring significantly complicated the Obama administration’s efforts to disengage from the Middle East, however. On one hand, the administration struggled to manage cascading crises that were as unexpected in Washington as anywhere else, notwithstanding fears in some foreign capitals that the United States government had deliberately orchestrated popular uprisings across the region. On the other hand, U.S. officials faced punishing domestic criticism over the withdrawal from Iraq, which some saw as enabling the rise of the Islamic State in that country and in Syria. Ultimately, U.S. policy responses would fail in both Syria and Libya, in no small part because President Obama appeared torn between a personal desire to avoid entanglement and political pressure to take decisive action.
The transition from a foreign policy focused on combating terrorism and stabilizing the Middle East to one oriented toward competition with China and Russia was not only a result of lessons learned from unsuccessful policies and U.S. domestic politics. It was also to a large degree a consequence of Chinese and Russian policy decisions. In China’s case, Beijing became increasingly assertive in East Asia following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, something that many have attributed to Chinese leaders’ sense that the crisis was an indicator of American decline. China’s regular confrontations with U.S. allies and others in the South China Sea, rapidly expanding military expenditures, territorial claims, and heavy-handed diplomacy in dealing with other governments in the region persuaded much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment that Beijing was determined to eject the United States from East Asia. China also personally snubbed Obama at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit and, some believe, deliberately obstructed agreement while trying to shift blame to Washington
Meanwhile, the U.S.-Russia “reset” slowed and stalled amid tension surrounding former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s status in Russia, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would return to the presidency, and Russian concerns that the United States had fomented protests in the country after State Duma elections. By 2014, the U.S.-Russia relationship would essentially collapse following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. For the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Russia’s intervention to prevent the ouster of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad only confirmed Moscow’s reemergence as a military power hostile to U.S. interests.