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Matt Duss on Biden’s State of the Union & the Risks of an Anti-China Consensus in Washington

Written by on 09/02/2023


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Yes, this is Democracy Now! Let’s turn now to the issue of foreign policy, as we continue to look at President Biden’s State of the Union. While most of the speech focused on domestic policy, Biden also spoke about China.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Before I came to office, the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was failing in the world. Not anymore. We made clear, and I made, in my personal conversations, which have been many, with President Xi, that we seek competition, not conflict. But I will make no apologies that we’re investing to make America stronger; investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future that China intends to be dominating; investing in our alliances and working with our allies to protect advanced technologies so they will not be used against us; modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression.

Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world. Anyone else in the world. I’m committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world. But make no mistake about it: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did. Let’s be clear: Winning the competition should unite all of us. We face serious challenges across the world. But in the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker. Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Matt Duss, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. His recent co-authored piece in The New Republic is headlined “A Better Biden Doctrine.”

Your response to President Biden’s State of the Union, and, most importantly, the foreign policy of the United States right now, Matt?

MATT DUSS: Sure. Thanks for having me on.

I mean, I think the — you know, what’s notable from the speech, the foreign policy section, was how little the president actually talked about foreign policy last night. This was a speech, I think, that sounded a number of progressive left themes with regard to corporate power, with regard to protecting Social Security, Medicare, creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, going after Big Pharma. But the foreign policy section was very, very thin. I think he talked about China. He talked about Russia and Ukraine. He talked about climate change and a few broader themes about supporting democracy around the world.

But, you know, the tiny amount of speaking about foreign policy he did last night, I think, is reflective of the administration’s broader approach to foreign policy, which is they want to spend as little time talking and arguing about foreign policy as necessary. And I think that, perhaps, makes some political sense. There are other things on the minds of the American people. But there are, in fact, really important issues around the world that we need to deal with and we need to debate. And, you know, the president needs to engage on these issues more than we saw last night, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: He talked about competition, not confrontation, with China. But, in fact, you have this — now more U.S. military bases in the Philippines, a kind of encircling of China. Can you talk about what should be Chinese policy and what it is right now, with Blinken canceling his visit to Beijing? Some said at times like this of increased tension, that’s exactly when a summit should be held.

MATT DUSS: Yeah, right, in my view, and I said this. I think the decision to cancel the secretary of state’s trip was a mistake. I think it fed into the overreaction around the spy balloon — which the president did not mention last night. He, of course, mentioned China. He did not mention the balloon, despite Washington having spent the previous few days freaking out about it. You know, I think the administration’s response to the balloon was actually quite correct, measured and firm, but not overreacting. But as I said, I do think the decision to cancel the trip was the wrong one, because, as you noted, this is — you know, these are precisely the moments when we should be talking, when the U.S. and China should be talking.

The president, yes, said we should — you know, competition with China is something that should unify us. And this is concerning, because, yes, there are elements of China’s policy that are a challenge to the United States, that are of great concern, both internally and externally — there’s no question about that — but I do think this idea of trying to create political unity around competition or confrontation with China or any external threat has a very bad history. We only need to look at the past 20 years of the U.S. “global war on terror” to see that efforts to build political consensus around external threats have enormously devastating consequences not only for our policy but for our politics.

And on that, I would also note something the president also didn’t talk about, which is the global war on terror, which is ongoing, despite the president’s claim at the United Nations in 2021 that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, that the United States is no longer at war. That is untrue. There are still thousands of U.S. troops deployed in countries around the world under the authorization that was passed immediately in the wake of the September 11th attacks. We have troops increasingly engaged in Africa — in Somalia, in Kenya, in Niger and other countries. And for the president not to acknowledge that is simply to, I think — you know, to play a role in hiding these conflicts and this ongoing war on terror from the American people. And I think that is not appropriate in a democracy. We need to acknowledge that this war is still very much ongoing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to part of President Biden’s State of the Union where he talked about Ukraine.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages, test for America, a test for the world. Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free of tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy? For such defense matters to us, because it keeps the peace and prevents open season on would-be aggressors and threatens our prosperity. One year later, we know the answer: Yes, we would. And we did. We did.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden will be in Poland on February 24th, unclear if he would go over to Ukraine or if Zelensky would then join him in Poland — of course, right next door to Ukraine. And Zelensky today is in his second international trip. He is in the U.K., and he’ll be addressing the Parliament, of course, calling for more weapons. Matt Duss, your assessment of U.S. policy when it comes to Ukraine?

MATT DUSS: I think, actually, the president’s, you know, version of it there tracks with the facts. You know, I think the administration — as my colleague Stephen and I wrote in the piece that you referenced, the way the president has helped manage alliances and partnerships in response to Russia’s invasion of last February, I think, has been impressive. I think it shows a way of practicing U.S. leadership that forges consensus and then mobilizes that consensus.

I mean, the war, obviously, is devastating. It is ongoing. We would like to see the war end as soon as possible. But I think being realistic about when that is possible is part of the challenge we face right now. I think Putin has given no evidence whatsoever that he’s interested in a workable resolution of this conflict. I think he and the Russians and the Ukrainians at this point both seem to believe that they can continue to achieve their goals through military means. So, for the time being, I think the administration’s theory of the case is sound, which is that they’ll continue to support Ukraine’s defense to create the best possible moment or the best possible environment for negotiations when that becomes possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see parallels to the lead-up to the invasion? I mean, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iran — the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, you had, you know, the U.S., with NATO, pushing NATO to be larger. And then, with China, are you seeing a parallel situation, where they are increasing their U.S. military bases — Biden is doing this — and pushing China?

MATT DUSS: No, I think we have — again, I think those are all very fair points. We need to understand, you know, China’s perspective. We also need to understand the perspective of China’s neighbors, many of whom are close partners and allies of the United States and who are very concerned. They are democratic countries who have their own concerns with China’s policies. These are independent actors in their own right. So, we need to not just treat this as a U.S.-China situation. In the same way, we should not treat the Ukraine war as just a U.S.-Russia situation.

That said, I think the president sounded the right notes on China, which is that — at least with regard to seeking cooperation where we can and not characterizing this relationship solely as conflict. Although I do grant that some of the steps that the United States has been taking — and again, Stephen and I reference this in our piece — is putting the United States on a really troubling track, that we — could very likely lead to future conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Matt, for joining us, Matt Duss, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. We’ll link to your new piece that you co-wrote with Stephen Wertheim, “A Better Biden Doctrine,” at democracynow.org.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by economist Dean Baker and new Congressmember Delia Ramirez, who gave the Working Families response to State of the Union. Stay with us.



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