When analysing the foreign policy of a country there is a tendency to justify its geopolitics as either a product of material concerns or the result of ideology. The former involves the need for land security, natural resources, or the reliance of supply chains. Whilst the latter was evident in the early days of the Vietnam War when America was galvanised against communism.
To settle such a binary argument requires a lengthy historical debate, but what is clear is that these two reasons do not operate in isolation. Even if the true motives are material, countries frequently envelope such aims within lofty ideological arguments. In 1914 the British Foreign Office was worried about being caught between two dangerous worlds. In one scenario was the possibility of watching Russia and France defeat Germany, and then being punished by these strengthened nations for not having come to their aid. On the other hand, there was the risk of Germany becoming masters of the continent and thus strong enough to attack Britain. These were inherently material concerns. Nevertheless, at the outbreak of war the British public was told of the importance of upholding a historic promise to protect the neutrality of Belgium. A far more noble and ideological cause.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the world’s next conflict has been brought much closer. This will be fought over material interests concerning China and will involve a battle on multiple fronts. A consequence of the global economic slowdown will be that many African countries will default on their debt – caused in part by deliberately cheap Chinese loans. Thus a proxy war will follow in Africa with Europe and China fighting for a foothold on the continent as they come to the aid of these collapsed economies. Meanwhile in the West a fierce conflict is already beginning over the security of technology and knowledge. This is reflected in Britain’s expected u-turn over the use of the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei in the country’s 5G Network. At the same time, Macron has indicated the need for more self-reliant supply chains after a single-reliance on China for PPE exposed vulnerabilities for many European countries.
These are all primarily material concerns. Despite such a plethora of problems however, no country will be able to mount a successful attack on China. This requires an ideological rallying cry that can represent all these individual concerns in a way that motivates voters. Relying on voters individual economic priorities will not be enough. For instance, moving against China in the UK may put at risk Chinese investment and crucially jobs in nuclear power and British Steel. At this stage it is unlikely a global conflict will result from such differences, but a proxy war in Africa or economic battles in the form of trade wars and embargoes are likely. The electorate of the Western world is going to need to be won over to secure success.
As much as America will be crucial in helping Europe and Australia mount a successful counter to China materially, strengthening their economic power, the country will also be instrumental in formulating a successful ideological argument.
In August 2013 Obama allowed his red line on the use of chemical weapons to be broken by President Assad in Syria. America as a consequence vacated the world stage. Since the Cold War America justified its foreign policy in the guise of an ideology that strove to uphold liberalism, democracy, and freedom internationally. This has been replaced by an ideology of isolationism and a belief projected by Donald Trump that America no longer strives to be the moral arbiter it once was.
Trump cannot be the leader of an ideology that both encapsulates the material concerns of countries, whilst rallying their voters to something nobler. Such an ideology could be based around the protection of western freedoms such as educational independence in our universities. After a presidency of cuddling up to the world’s undemocratic strongmen, Trump has adopted a position antithetical to such causes.
The New York Times over the weekend revealed damaging allegations that yet again proves how the President’s respect for authoritarianism is damaging American interests. Reportedly, Trump was informed in March of intelligence findings that showed a Russian military spy unit had been secretly offering bounties to the Taliban and other militia for the killing of US Soldiers. Despite grave concerns amongst the security and defence authorities, no action was taken by the President. Rather Trump has advocated the idea of expanding the G7 in September to include Russia.
These revelations compound the problem for a Western world that needs America to promote an ideology that can unite politicians and voters in the upcoming conflict. For Joe Biden though, this offers a great opportunity.
Biden responded to the New York Times’ findings by describing the allegations as ‘truly shocking’ and accused Trump of failing to protect American troops. Domestically undermining Trump’s support among military and patriotic voters is key to the Democratic candidate’s electoral success. There is however, a reason why American elections attract such unprecedented levels of interest from around the world. This is because the direction of the world since World War Two has been frequently shaped by the priorities of America. The next decade will be no different.
For Biden, last weekend’s revelations provide a unique opportunity to capitalise on the patriotism of American voters at home and the concerns of the international community. He has a chance to lead the world under an ideological banner of freedom and democracy in the face of a threatening Chinese state. Joe Biden says America is built on an idea of equality. It is unlikely he can achieve such equality if he doesn’t find a way to protect America’s material concerns from China. For America and the world, success will need a strong cause built on ideology and rhetoric.