Writer Peter Hitchens has it exactly right when he notes, “Conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. By the time it has become conventional, it has ceased to be wisdom and become cant.” It is safe to assume that the overall foreign policy of President-elect Joe Biden — a Washington establishment man if ever there was one — will be full of conventional wisdom, designed to satisfy the foreign policy elite herd.
As a realist, it always surprises me how badly Wilsonianism performs in practice. When it comes to tactics to further their strategic goals, the school of thought almost always reverts to brain-dead form. Wilsonians, above all, believe in the safety of crowds, in avoiding confrontation, above all else. The goal isn’t so much getting the specific strategy right as it is seeing to it that everyone is on the same page around some lowest common denominator solution, however inadequate it may prove to be. Wilsonians are not so much about solving foreign policy problems as they are about managing them.
One of the many flaws with such an approach is that, in history as in medicine, problems do not stay the same over time; they tend to metastasize into something larger and far more dangerous. At present, the two seemingly endless problems of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs have been discussed at ponderous length for the generation I have been working in the foreign policy field, without ever being mastered. Now, after decades of ineffectual inaction, they have been transformed into something far more dangerous.
In the case of North Korea, it has been reported that Biden supports multilateral talks — with the U.S., China, South Korea and North Korea supposedly negotiating an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear program — following in the footsteps of the Six-Party Talks, the favored policy approach of George W. Bush’s administration. There are two obvious conceptual problems in reviving this approach. First, it didn’t work the first time; why in the world does anyone think there is evidence it would do so now?
Second, such an unwieldy grouping assumes that the three other powers share the same interests regarding North Korea. Recent history shows this is far from the case. China — in allowing clandestine purchases of coal from sanctions-strapped Pyongyang while turning a blind eye to money-laundering for the North Korean elite — has made it clear by its actions that it would prefer a stable, nuclear-armed Pyongyang to a denuclearized next-door neighbor, then in danger of collapse on its borders.
Likewise, the naïve Wilsonian administration of Seoul’s Moon Jae-in has been spending its time recently fixing Pyongyang’s railways, hoping against all reason that by being nice to the North they can fundamentally alter its basic behavior. The idea that either of these two countries intrinsically shares America’s goal of halting, let alone ending, North Korea’s nuclear program is merely a fevered Wilsonian pipe dream.
In the same vein, the president-elect, seemingly intent on trying to erase the past four years as if they never happened, has set about salvaging the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But however much utopian Wilsonians may wish it, the past four years cannot simply be conjured away.
Time is the key problem lying behind the two basic objections to resurrecting the JCPOA. The first ignores President Trump’s real strategic successes in the Middle East region as a whole, wherein he codified the emerging Sunni-Israeli anti-Iran alliance, leading to peace treaties between Jerusalem and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Sudan, and a tacit alliance with the other great Sunni regional power, Saudi Arabia. If the JCPOA is brought back to life without reassuring these American allies that Sunni-Israeli ties remain vital, all the successes of the past four years will be mindlessly squandered.
This matters to a U.S. determined to do less in the region (while correctly pivoting to Asia). Rather than leaving chaos in its strategic wake, America under the Trump administration has been trying to leave an organic balance of power in the Middle East to preserve stability as it moves on to more pressing concerns, countering Iran’s real efforts (even the Biden team acknowledges them) at regional expansionism. Tossing overboard the key strategic piece in this puzzle, the emerging Sunni-Israeli alliance, amounts to an act of grievous self-harm.
Lastly, time has moved on for the Iranians as well. With hardliners set to win the upcoming presidential elections in June 2021 — and with ultimate power concentrated around perpetual hardliner Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in any case — Tehran has begun enriching uranium beyond the JCPOA terms once again, betraying their true expansionist colors.
Iran’s embattled foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has made it clear that for Iran to return to the JCPOA, it expects further American concessions, while the incoming Biden administration wants to expand the JCPOA to include other contentious issues, such as discussing Iran’s regional expansionism and its missile program. The Biden administration is about to find out that doing the same thing while ignoring changes brought about by the passage of time is a sure recipe for failure.
Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. In the case of the long-running saga of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, the Biden White House — in tired, if predictable, Wilsonian fashion — seems about to meet Einstein’s definition of lunacy. Sadly, to any realist, the conventional wisdom outcome must be predictable.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises