What’s next? Challenges ahead for President Biden

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  • Fall 2020
What's next? Challenges ahead for President Biden

In this issue of précis, we look towards the future of America during a presidential transition that culminated in a constitutional crisis. President Biden will be flooded with advice as he leads our nation during what many argue is among the darkest chapters in our democracy’s history. Here we offer fresh ideas on a range of foreign policy issues, emotions in politics, and our nation’s persistent racism. The advice is offered by scholars affiliated with the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS), and draws on their deep knowledge and experience.

FALL 20/WINTER 21 : précis Faculty Feature
President-elect Biden taking the oath of president
January 21, 2021

The following essays are featured:

Take emotions out of politics (Roger Petersen)
Address racism in our society and institutions (Melissa Nobles)
Adopt a grand strategy of restraint (Barry Posen)
Adjust the Asia strategy (Eric Heginbotham, Richard Samuels)
Six propositions for China (Taylor Fravel)
For better rivalry with the Russians, rebalance US economic priorities (Elizabeth Wood)
Engage in inventive diplomacy with Iran (John Tirman)
Make shifts in nuclear policy (Vipin Narang)


Take emotions out of politics

Roger Petersen, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science

Few would contest the belief that Americans are currently living through one of the most emotion-imbued political times in memory.

Theoretically, politics in a two party system should be relatively straightforward. Both sides put forth a policy platform to address salient problems. After elections, the winning side implements its policies while the opposing side criticizes and develops its alterative program. At the next election, voters decide whether to maintain the current party in power and its policies or take a chance with the competitor. 

But we all know it is not this straightforward. Political competition, especially when it involves strong elements of ethnic, racial, or ideological identity is likely to go beyond simple calculations and the median voter theorem. Because this is a competition among human beings, it is likely to involve emotions. 

Emotions can be used as strategic resources. For an example, let’s consider the emotion of anger. Anger forms from the belief that an individual or group has committed an offensive action against one’s self or group. Anger also involves appraisals of certainty—actor X did bad action Y against “us.” The anger imbued individual desires punishment and vengeance against a specific actor. Under the influence of anger, individuals become “intuitive prosecutors” specifying perpetrators and seeking vengeance. Anger distorts information in predictable ways. The angry person lowers the threshold for attributing harmful intent; the angry individual blames humans, not the situation. Anger tends to produce stereotyping. Anger shapes the way individuals form beliefs. Under the influence of anger, individuals lower risk estimates and are more willing to engage in risky behavior.  

A political actor wishing to use anger as a resource will identify a clear perpetrator, a clear sense of the offense, a clear identification of the victim group (“us”), and will promote confidence that an effective and certain form of punishment can be carried out. But if the opposing side has the ability to strike back, anger is also the emotion underlying spiral models of conflict, potentially leading to emotions of contempt or even hatred. 

In current US politics, anger is one of several emotions that actors could possibly “up-regulate” to mobilize a political base. One of the basic arts of politics, going back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, is in framing individuals’ appraisals in a way to set off useful emotions. On the other hand, actors may wish to “down-regulate” emotions to diminish perceived negative effects. Political leaders could also try to “up-regulate” positive emotions. For example, recall Obama’s famous “Hope” poster and rhetoric.  

So we come to President Biden’s choices. There are at least three options concerning the strategic use of emotion: downregulate negative emotions, upregulate positive emotions, or try to take emotions out of politics as much as possible. Although many emotions are at play, I’ll focus on anger and hope here. 

 “Up-regulating” anger would help mobilize the Democratic base. It would also likely set off a spiral model. The Republicans just gained seats in the House; against odds they retained fifty seats in the Senate; seventy-four million people voted for Trump over the Democratic alternative. While impeachment is necessary, and action against certain Republican leaders desirable, any broader mobilization against Republicans or conservatives will produce a backlash by a capable opponent. 

 “Down-regulating” anger is also problematic. Telling people not to be angry when the cognitive antecedents of the emotion are already firmly in place is also likely to generate a backlash. While recognizing anger, leaders can often avoid acting on the action tendencies of anger. That is, they can quietly avoid widespread punishments. As emotion researchers have established, anger decays over time. Political actors can concentrate on the most pressing problems and avoid punishment while anger dissipates. 

 “Up-regulating” positive emotions is also problematic in a highly divided polity. Politics involves winners and losers and many zero sum games. It is impossible to provide positive outcomes for everyone. Life itself does not produce positive outcomes for everyone. While Obama was trying to up-regulate hope, white working class Americans were dying by unprecedented numbers of “deaths of despair” leading to a remarkable decline of life expectancy among a significant segment of the population. Political actors may be able to up-regulate positive emotions like hope and pride when the nation faces a clear common opponent such as a natural disaster or war. Religion offers ways to up-regulate emotions for all. Politics is not religion. In the current situation, US politics cannot avoid zero-sum contests. There will be perfunctory “up-grades” of positive emotions—see the theme of Biden’s inauguration “America United.” But given the realities of current US politics, that theme is more farce than fact. 

My suggestion is that President Biden try to take emotions out of politics as much as possible. The United States does face clear problems in Covid-19 and jobs. People are getting sick and dying and people have lost their jobs. The Biden administration should concentrate on touting specific policies that will have success on these two issues. The possibility for success is actually quite good. The goal is to take us back to the straightforward idea of a two party system as much as possible. Policy success and electoral victory will force the other side to engage and develop its own policies. We might be able to leave the realm of the politics of performance art. Democratic successes will force the Republicans to actually come up with alternative policies that provide voters with a choice. 


Address racism in our society and institutions

Melissa Nobles, Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science

If there is anything these four years have shown us, it is that the health and future of American democracy rests on finally contending with the persistence of racism in American society and institutions. I think it important that as the Biden administration takes on the big issue—eg, extreme disparities in wealth and income; access to quality public education, and affordability of higher education quality housing and healthcare; and climate change—that special attention be paid to their racial and ethnic dimensions. President Biden has given strong indications—through his cabinet appointments and their expertise—that he intends to do so, which is certainly encouraging.  

However, I expect the intention will be unable to significantly confront either the enormity or depth of the issues.  And we will not have the political will to develop policies that could.  Let’s take the racial income gap, for example.  As has been well documented, nearly 40 years of wage stagnation has constrained accumulation and stifled upward mobility for millions of working-class and middle-class Americans.  But for black Americans, this period of wage stagnation mostly compounds historical disadvantage, born of decades of discrimination in employment and education.  Although we cannot alter our past, we can build a better future, with that history in view, and I am hopeful this recognition will guide Biden policymaking across a range of domains.  

President Biden’s team must also focus specifically on criminal justice reform and voting rights. Of all of the major issues of the Civil Rights movement (ie, disenfranchisement, educational and residential segregation, and employment discrimination) abridgement of rights and abuses by law enforcement received relatively short shrift.  The Black Lives Matter Movement has changed that, thankfully. Combating black voter suppression continues to be a serious problem.  President Biden should immediately and persistently work for the passage of two crucially important bills currently wallowing in the Senate. The first is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. This bill has several important provisions, including revising federal law on criminal police misconduct and qualified immunity reform; establishing a national registry of misconduct by law enforcement officers; requiring states to report the use of force to the Justice department; and granting subpoena power to the Department of Justice’s civil rights division to implement “pattern and practice” investigations of police department misconduct.  The second is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, which seeks to restore voter protections in states with storied histories of barriers to black voters. 


Adopt a grand strategy of “restraint”

Barry Posen, Ford International Professor of Political Science                                                

Despite the appeal of President Biden’s exhortation that “America is back,” the implication that things can be as they were is unpersuasive. The Biden administration will face a range of serious domestic political, economic, and geopolitical constraints that will likely limit its freedom of action. To address these constraints, the administration should adopt a grand strategy of “restraint,” which focuses on only the most serious threats to US security, and only the most cost effective remedies for those threats. In particular, the administration must not return to policies of armed nation building pursued by both Democratic and Republican administrations since the end of the Cold War. It should end existing efforts of this kind, particularly the effort in Afghanistan. The administration also should work energetically to increase the contributions to their own security of the US’s wealthy allies in Europe and Asia. In particular, the transatlantic relationship must be thoroughly overhauled to place the bulk of responsibility for European military defense on the shoulders of Europeans who are well able to bear it. Finally, the US should beware of treating the China challenge as a new Cold War, in which all aspects of the relationship are drawn into a comprehensive model of conflict. Rather, the US should carefully pick and choose those issues upon which it must stand firm, those issues where it can compromise, and those issues where it must compromise.


Adjust the Asia strategy

Eric Heginbotham, Principal Research Scientist, and Richard Samuels, Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies. This piece was adapted from their forthcoming essay in Washington Quarterly (Spring 2021).

Despite rising threats and challenges in Northeast Asia, the US commitment to its allies there has become less certain. President Trump’s inconsistent signaling led Japanese and South Koreans to consider alternatives to the status quo. Confronted with uncertainty, Japan and Korea have increased defense budgets, a welcome development. But they also have taken measures that may complicate alliance dynamics and undermine crisis stability. Edging away from the “roles and missions” based specialization of military labor that enhances alliance efficiencies, they now focus instead on offensive systems. 

Most striking has been the widening discussion of nuclear weapons in both Japan and Korea. While this option could strengthen their own self-defense, indigenous nuclear programs could be destabilizing and would not necessarily enhance balancing. Indeed, given the overall balance of power, it is more likely to lead to “turtling,” producing well-armed neutrals that accommodate Chinese power. 

The Biden administration has pledged to improve alliance relations, but US domestic politics, particularly surrounding overseas commitments and the defense budget, could undermine allies’ trust in new ways. With this in mind, we offer four prescriptions. First, since maintaining a regional balance of power is in the US interest, America’s alliances should be reaffirmed and sustained. The much-maligned “hub and spokes” model in East Asia should be adjusted in order to do so. 

Second, the United States should change its approach to burden sharing. Demands for inflated transfer payments engender resentment and invite instability. But proportional increases to defense spending will yield larger gains to overall alliance resources than would any plausible increase in host nation support. 

Third, the United States and its allies should reinvigorate discussions of conventional roles and missions and their divisions of labor based on the different relative advantages of each partner. Given the different peacetime location of forces and time to theater, it stands to reason that their force structures should not mirror those of the United States. 

Finally, the Biden administration should address allies’ nuclear insecurities. Since growing doubts about extended deterrence are unlikely to subside—and since US interests are better served without proliferation—Washington should consider how to prevent its allies from viewing nuclear breakout as their best choice. The Biden administration might establish nuclear planning groups with Seoul and Tokyo and prepare for the wartime sharing of nuclear weapons (under US control and within Non-Proliferation Treaty limits). 

America’s Asia strategy has served the United States well but has always required adaptation. Now, when allies are coping with new uncertainties about America’s commitment and the rise of China by hedging in understandable ways—and when they still recognize that their US alliances are their best security option—it is time again for adjustment. This may entail measures that were once anathema, but a policy that adapts to new regional equities will go farther toward achieving US national interests than the abandonment of threatened allies.


Six propositions for China 

Taylor Fravel, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT Security Studies Program

First, determine the hierarchy of US national interests. The legacy of the Trump administration’s approach to China was a broadly confrontational approach in which confrontation had become an end in itself and not a means to end. Thus, the Biden administration should identify a clear hierarchy of US national interests, distinguishing those that are vital to the security and prosperity of the United States from those that are important to varying degrees. This will enable policymakers to determine where to cooperate, where to compete, and where to confront China, if necessary.

Second, rebuild at home. Many of the long-term challenges posed by China are economic in nature. China’s continued economic dynamism fuels its growing influence around the world, military modernization, and other tools of influence. Thus, to remain competitive, the single most important task will be to rebuild the foundations of American power at home, from education to infrastructure, while ensuring that America remains open to the best and brightest from around the world.

Third, invest in diplomacy. Presence matters. China now has more diplomats posted around the world than any other country, including the United States. Yet, the State Department has been weakened during the past four years. Thus, the Biden administration should seek to increase the department’s budget and to double the size of the Foreign Service, thereby reinvigorating this essential tool of statecraft. 

Fourth, work together with like-minded states. China poses a variety of challenges, in multiple domains, to many states around the world. China’s economic heft is now so great that many states face the same concerns regarding China. China also often pursues divide-and-conquer strategies. Yet by working together, on whatever the issue, groups of states, acting in concert, can present China with a united front, thereby much more effectively shaping China’s behavior. 

Fifth, pursue a military strategy of active denial. The retention of primacy, the ability to dominate militarily all states in East Asia, is now untenable. The tyranny of distance, and China’s two-decades plus of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army, are transforming the balance of power in the region. Rather than seek to restore primacy, the United States should adopt a military strategy of active denial that seeks to deny China quick victories and raises the cost of military action.

Sixth, maintain the status-quo across the Taiwan Strait. No issue is more central to US-China relations than Taiwan. Taiwan is the one issue over which a major war between China and the United States could erupt. Taiwan is also a vibrant democracy and an important trading partner, especially in critical areas of high technology. Thus, the Biden administration should seek to maintain the status quo across the Strait, which has maintained stability while creating conditions for Taiwan and China to prosper.


For better rivalry with the Russians, rebalance US economic priorities

Elizabeth A Wood, Professor of History

In light of the Solar Winds attack that targeted major branches of the US government and military, Senator Angus King, co-chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, has estimated that the Kremlin can hire 8,000 hackers for the price of one jet fighter. That raises the question: is the US spending its money where it should?

Today Russia and the US are at loggerheads over issues ranging from cyberhacking to the Kremlin’s poisoning of its enemies, control of the Arctic, and competition for foreign energy markets. While there is one military hardware issue–the burgeoning and dangerous arms race in tactical nuclear weapons, none of the rest of these hot button issues involve actual military weapons. Yet in fiscal year 2020, the Department of Defense has had a budget authority of approximately $724.5 billion (half of which is allocated to outside contractors). The US military also maintains almost 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad. A recent Scientific American report has argued that the Pentagon’s excessive spending encourages the production of poor quality and overpriced weapons, exacerbates climate and environmental issues, and siphons money away from other domestic issues that urgently need attention.  

In the hacking war in particular, we are losing to the Russians because we aren’t investing enough in human capital. When the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin’s flight in 1961, John F Kennedy responded by creating the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which launched extensive training programs in STEM for girls and women. Schools began giving more homework in order to compete with the Soviets. Rivalry with Russia today should lead us to rebalance our economic priorities so that we can have a more robust, flexible economy that can more easily pivot to deal with external threats and opportunities. Moving money out of the military budget into the domestic economy can directly increase job production in key spheres of green infrastructure, health, and education.

At the same time we have to end the posturing that stimulates the nuclear arms race, fully rejecting Donald Trump’s 2016 bluff: "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”  

President Biden should also end the practice of running American foreign policy through secret proxy connections meeting in offshore waters (as Jared Kushner tried to do in the transition period before Trump came into office). This is also an excellent moment to consider the exact mix of US nuclear and non-nuclear forces, with particular attention to reducing nuclear weapons, while, of course, extending the New Start Treaty.

President Vladimir Putin has reached out to President Biden, arguing that the two countries “bear special responsibility for global security and stability.”  This should not be ignored. The two leaders should work to repair their poor relations from the Obama era, cooperating on issues of Covid19, climate change, the Arctic, military dialogue, extending educational contacts, as well as reopening US Embassies inside Russia. 

Of course, the US must show that cyberhacking, invading neighboring countries, offering bounties on US troops, poisoning regime enemies, and trying to influence foreign elections are all unacceptable. Economic and political sanctions continue to be the best weapon we have. But their purposes must be carefully delineated and made more targeted by building in rewards for good behavior in particular contexts such as the Donbas. And they must have expiration dates so that Congress is forced to consider carefully whether they should be extended. US political vocabulary should eliminate all rhetoric based on “regime change.”  And Congress must take back from the executive branch the authority and the will to declare – and not declare – foreign wars.    

US military superiority, including the fact that we spend ten times what the Russians do, has been one factor pushing Russia to more devious cyber hacking and back channel attempts at influence. US-Russian competition is obviously here to stay, but the US budgetary decisions should focus on increasing domestic knowledge and labor sectors, not military ones. 


Engage in inventive diplomacy with Iran

John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist

President Joe Biden has vowed to return the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action—the nuclear deal signed in 2015 and from which President Trump withdrew in 2018. The JCPOA prohibits Iran from producing and weaponizing highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei indicated late last year that Iran would accept a re-entry of the United States into the JCPOA, expecting the lifting of sanctions in return, as the deal originally promised. Iran has violated some terms of the agreement following the US withdrawal, and would need to return to full compliance for the sanctions to go.

All well and good. Trump’s attempt to undermine the deal (widely believed to derive from his obsession with Obama’s achievements) was reckless. The CIA has determined that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, yet the deal provided reassurances and could blunt an arms race in the region. Israel has a large nuclear arsenal and states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey have hinted that they would develop nuclear weapons if Iran proceeded toward a bomb. 

The attack on the nuclear peace includes several covert operations, including the assassination of nuclear scientists in Iran, a malware attack called Stuxnet, and explosions at nuclear facilities. Israel and the United States are widely believed to be cooperating on these attacks. At the same time, several former officials in Israel have endorsed the JCPOA as a boon to Israeli security.

Other bumps in the road to a reinvigorated nuclear pact include some hopes for a set of broadened talks that would address Iran’s (legal) ballistic missile program, its destructive role in Syria and Yemen, and human rights issues in Iran. This is a fool’s errand: Iran would resist, and America’s own role in destabilizing Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and Egypt undermine its credibility. 

After the JCPOA is functioning as intended, however, a regional dialogue would be an important step to transform the benefits of the agreement into something more durable and expansive. As I have suggested with respect to Iraq, the difficult history of American involvement in the region and the many festering conflicts call for inventive diplomatic engagement. A multilateral forum for addressing these problems, free from big power preconditions or favoritism, might bear fruit. Many if not most of the region’s most deadly conflicts are interconnected. The results have been catastrophic for human security. A bold if discreet diplomatic endeavor by President Biden, patiently pursued, could be a major foreign-policy triumph. 


Make shifts in nuclear policy

Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science

The Biden administration is unlikely to drastically change or alter American nuclear posture or strategy, which has enjoyed largely bipartisan support for decades. The Biden administration is likely to recommit to the modernization of each leg of the triad, as both the Obama and Trump administrations did. This means replacing American nuclear submarines, nuclear bombers, and ICBMs with a new generation of capabilities and refurbishing American nuclear weapons to ensure they are safe and effective. The thirty-year cost of the modernization program is non-trivial, at approximately $1.7 trillion, but small as an overall percentage of American defense spending over that period. The Biden administration may have some flexibility within each of those categories to save some costs—such as extending the life of the current Minutemen ICBMs, rather than committing to a new generation of missiles, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) right now. But most of the tweaks will likely be at the margins.

There are two areas where we may see some debate early in a Biden administration. The first may be on the capability side, litigating whether the United States will retain the low yield submarine launched ballistic missile warhead, the W76-2, which the Trump administration fielded this past year. It places a single low yield warhead in the tube of a nuclear submarine, alongside dozens of thermonuclear warheads in the other tubes. Critics, including myself, argued that this created a so-called “discrimination problem” where the adversary would not know which of the warheads was launched—the low yield warhead would be indistinguishable from a massive thermonuclear warhead (they are not color coded!), and an adversary such as Russia may not wait to find out which it is before responding. This “discrimination problem” is in fact a deterrence problem, because the adversary’s inability to distinguish the low yield from the high yield variant renders the capability essentially unusable, undermining any deterrent aim the warhead may have. The Biden administration may remove the W76-2 from service and would be wise to do so. That said, because capability is already fielded, removing it may prove to be difficult.

The second issue related to nuclear policy that may arise early in a Biden administration is in declaratory policy. When he was vice president, Biden pushed the Obama administration to consider something akin to a No First Use policy for the United States—that the US would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict, even if the adversary used massive conventional, chemical, biological, or cyber weapons. This would be a significant shift in American declaratory policy, which has always retained the option to use nuclear weapons first in a variety of (usually extreme) circumstances. This language is known as a “sole purpose” declaration, meaning that the sole purpose of America’s nuclear weapons are to deter, and if necessary retaliate against, nuclear use against the United States or its allies. Although “sole purpose” is not the same as a No First Use pledge in most formulations—it is a guiding philosophy rather than a commitment on an employment constraint, leaving open a sliver of possibility that in the most extreme circumstances the United States may still use nuclear weapons first, whatever the purpose of those weapons may be—allies especially would view the two as essentially equivalent and balk at any effort to declare a “sole purpose” formulation. But the Biden administration may attempt to go further than the Obama administration in declaratory policy. It may state that not only is the fundamental role of American nuclear weapons to deter nuclear use against the US or its allies, but it is US nuclear weapons’ sole purpose. Such an effort is likely to meet with resistance from the Pentagon and from allies but is worth watching closely as a major shift in US’s declaratory policy.