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After Retreat, a Way Forward

After Retreat, a Way Forward

America is no stranger to gut-wrenching withdrawal. Former Deputy Secretary of State and World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick illuminates a path.

Robert B. Zoellick

Originally published August 27, 2021

Retreats are the most dangerous maneuvers—in war and diplomacy. The Biden Administration botched the exit from Afghanistan. But the important question now is whether the United States can regain the strategic initiative.

In early 1969, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger faced the much more serious and divisive tragedy in Vietnam. Even before his election, Nixon had contemplated an opening to Red China. Military clashes along the Soviet-Chinese frontier in the summer of 1969 created the opportunity for a new U.S. triangular diplomacy.

Nixon and Kissinger could only speculate about the gains from such a bold move. They hoped Beijing would press Hanoi to ease America’s departure from Vietnam; historians still debate the results. Washington also thought that relations with China could create leverage with the Soviet Union, which probably turned out to be correct. Further, Nixon recognized that China was too big and important to ignore. His daring signaled that the United States intended to remain an active force in the Asia-Pacific despite the defeat in Vietnam.

Nixon also feared that calamity in Vietnam would pull Americans inward toward a new isolationism and passivity. The President believed that audacity would electrify the public. “Competence and willpower,” he said, would become assets at home and abroad. Kissinger later explained, “The trick … is to stage a great retreat and emerge the other end still a great power and reasonably cohesive at home.”

President Joe Biden should be considering three moves to regain the strategic initiative. First, the United States should roll out a drive to vaccinate the developing world, and Africa in particular, against Covid-19. Only the United States has the capacity to press action all along the supply chain—including inputs for pharmaceutical firms, vaccine production, purchasing assurances, logistics, financing, and deliveryall the way through local health care systems. President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR plan for HIV/AIDS offers a good model, including its reliance on building African partnerships.

The United States and other developed countries need to identify bottlenecks promptly and adapt flexibly. For example, when Gavi’s COVAX vaccine program faltered, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the African Union customized arrangements with companies to acquire vaccines directly and arrange partial production in South Africa. Many African countries have experience in distributing vaccines for infectious diseases and even have cold storage for livestock vaccines. But the African innovators needed prompt, large financial assurances to back the contracts.

Biden might face domestic objections to costly foreign aid, but the sums are miniscule compared to the trillions of dollars Congress has spent on the pandemic. Moreover, Biden can explain that the world is in a race between vaccinations and variants of Covid. Biden also needs to reassure developing countries about Covid by the time of the G-20 Summit in October—otherwise, their frustrations will precipitate a clash at the Glasgow climate conference in November.

Second, Biden should announce that the United States will rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Everyone in the Indo-Pacific, including China, would recognize this step as a renewed commitment to America’s economic presence in the region. The economic and security benefits are overwhelming; Biden’s problem has been the lack of political support, especially among Democrats in Congress. But his fellow Democrat, President Barack Obama, negotiated the deal and the political case for competition with China has grown stronger. If need be, Biden could start with a digital pact among TPP partners as a step toward the comprehensive deal. Biden’s political handlers will complain that TPP is too hard to pass; Nixon would have argued that exciting, transformational moves involve risks, but also create presidential legacies.

Third, Biden, like Nixon, needs to reset America’s China policy. So far, the administration has been carried along by the rodomontade of the Trump years: a posture of charges, complaints, and chest-pounding without an integrated effort to achieve results. Biden needs to map with allies a clear combination of deterrence, competition economically and technologically, and cooperation on climate, biological security, and the international economy. Rejoining the TPP would assist. Biden and his team also need serious conversations with Beijing on the guardrails and ground rules for working relations while avoiding disastrous conflict. Nixon and Kissinger took such a risk with China fifty years ago, when the differences with Beijing were even greater than today.

Biden, like many former Senators, gained his foreign policy experience by reacting to the story of the moment. He is now withdrawing defensively, adding to a national mood of retrenchment—the reaction about which Nixon warned fifty years ago. Biden’s biggest mistakes with Afghanistan would be to fail to perceive the bigger picture, to fear risks with domestic political constituencies, and to forfeit opportunities to regain the strategic initiative.

Robert B. Zoellick was president of the World Bank, U.S. trade representative, and U.S. deputy secretary of state. He recently published America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy.

Image by Staff Sgt. Kylee Gardner, Public Domain,

AfghanistanU.S. Foreign PolicyAsia