In recent days, just as President Joe Biden was settling into his confrontation with Russia over the fate of Ukraine, up popped a cluster of other crises involving foes that hadn’t been heard from for months.
North Korea has test-launched six missiles this month, the same number the country launched all of last year. (They included two hypersonic missiles, which can supposedly maneuver around defensive systems on their way down to the target.)
This may merely be Chairman Kim Jong-un’s way of crying for attention, but it unnerves our allies within range (notably Japan and South Korea), so the Biden administration has been obliged to offer Kim’s team a sit-down with no preconditions, even if such talks are unlikely to go anywhere.
Also this week, U.S. forces in Syria revived their old alliance with the Kurds to fight off ISIS militias storming a prison where many of their Islamist brethren were held—leading many who came across the headline to wonder, ISIS is still around? Though its caliphate is long shattered, the organization mustered enough men and firepower to sustain fierce fighting for six days.
Meanwhile, the monthslong talks with Iran putter on in Vienna, with some progress, some stasis, and no clear sign that the Obama-era nuclear deal will be revived—meaning the mullahs of Tehran might yet develop an atom bomb, with tension-ratcheting, possibly calamitous consequences for the region and the world.
There is not only no rest for a 21st century superpower—there’s no time to focus. Joe Biden came to office determined to disentangle the U.S. from the war in the Middle East and to contain Chinese expansionism with the help of long-standing allies. Yet events—many of them outside his control—have tossed him into emergency mode, putting out fires or at times inflaming them. Like other recent presidents, he’s finding it hard, if not impossible, to set a foreign policy agenda, because the world is simply too chaotic.
Foreign affairs used to be a little less complicated. Back during the Cold War, when Washington and Moscow divided the world in two spheres of influence, nearly every regional and global problem was somehow tied to the bipolar U.S.-USSR standoff—and even when it wasn’t, the two superpowers figured out a way to make it so. When the Soviet Union shattered and the Cold War ended, so did the international security system that held the world together, if sometimes oppressively. There are now no solid “power blocs,” but rather wobbly coalitions of convenience, where two countries may be aligned on one issue but at odds on another. No one leader—or no pair of opposing leaders—can set the day’s agenda, much less shape how it plays out.
The presidents in this century have tried to wiggle out of the new confines and lay their own course, but often not without a lot of frustration.
George W. Bush wanted to renew the great-power competition with longtime rivals while the U.S. outgunned them—then came 9/11 and the rise of sectarian terrorist groups. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was scheduled to give a talk on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, about the biggest threats facing America; the leaked text of the speech, which she never delivered, didn’t so much as mention al-Qaida.
Barack Obama wanted to leave behind the antique squabbles of the Middle East and “pivot” to the dynamism of Asia-Pacific—then came the Taliban’s surge in Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. You could easily imagine him reciting the only memorable line from The Godfather Part III, Michael Corleone’s anguished lament while trying but failing to flee the family business: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
The big excitement in Biden’s first few months was the formation of the Quad—the glittering new alliance of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia that would unify Asia under its helm while fending off the rise of China. The Quad has dropped off the news feeds and briefing books for a while now; it hasn’t been of much use in the latest crises.
And now, who could have guessed that after 20 years of flailing about on new missions to justify its existence in the post–Cold War world, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—founded in 1949, as the Cold War was just taking shape—would be jolted to new life by returning to its original purpose: keeping the Russian bear in its cage?
An acquaintance who went to work for Henry Kissinger at the start of the Nixon administration recalls telling his new boss that he was looking forward to all the things he would learn on the job. Kissinger replied that he’d been hired for what he already knew; there would be no time for learning.
This is the predicament facing Biden and his team of advisers and diplomats in the multipolar age. So many crises, of such different natures, origins, and complexities, unfolding in different phases, all at the same time—there’s been nothing like it in modern times, maybe at any time. They have to get by on what they already know, but no one knows much.
Correction, Jan. 31, 2022: This piece was updated with the exact wording of the quote in The Godfather Part III.