The Biden doctrine is American self-care

September ended an era of "nation-building" abroad. Will it launch an era of nation-building at home?

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September 1 was the first day in 20 years that the United States was not engaged in the occupation of a foreign country, purporting to nation-build and spread democracy. As it happens, the U.S. Congress has set itself a deadline of September 27 for passing sweeping legislation on infrastructure, education, childcare, health, labor law, and beyond that would amount to a historic reinforcement of the nation’s safety net, altering lives from the cradle to the grave.

Though the outcome of wrangling in the Capitol is far from clear, this month’s bookend dates offer a way to step back and view the larger moment: After two decades of supposed nation-building and democracy spreading abroad, mostly disastrous and failed, will the United States turn to nation-building and spreading democracy…in the United States? Are we in the fulcrum of two eras separated by a September?

In one sense, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is foreign policy and legislation on issues like community college is domestic policy; and these are separate stories with their own histories and logics. But the most obvious link between them is money. Nations have expenses in the millions and in the billions and in the trillions. The misbegotten Global War on Terror was a trillions-type deal — as is the “build back better” expenditure on physical and human infrastructure proposed by President Biden. So the cessation of a foreign enterprise costing trillions and a potential new domestic undertaking in the trillions naturally invites comparison. “Let’s stop arguing about the dollars,” the Rev. Dr. William Barber told me. “Because a country that spent $21 trillion in war since 9/11 cannot say it doesn’t have the money.” Or, as a headline atop a Washington Post column by Katrina vanden Heuvel put it: “It’s clear America can afford Biden’s investments at home. Just look at how much it spent on wars.”

To view the Afghanistan withdrawal and the domestic “build back better” agenda together, as being of a piece, throws the moment into sharper relief. It becomes a matter of the country’s focus and being. What should occupy America, and how should it show up in the world? Politically diseased, cruelly unequal, institutionally eroding — but determined to spread its way of life to others? Or propelled by the humbler faith that the best thing it can do for the world is get in good health?

After all, isn’t the idea of spreading things premised on the notion that you have things to spread? Doesn’t the idea of teaching flow from knowing more than your students? Doesn’t the idea of nation-building presume that you know the successful formula for investing in the structural underpinnings of human flourishing? Since that fateful day 20 Septembers ago, American foreign policy has been rooted in a defense-contractor fantasy of giving others what America didn’t possess itself.

Biden, as we’ve gotten used to saying, is an improbable ambassador for this pivot. He was always more focused on foreign policy than in domestic. He was in favor of imperial wars and on the cautious end of his party when it came to spending at home. But here we are. Here we are after two decades of one botched foreign project after another. Here we are after an even longer spell of letting our institutions wither, our economy be hijacked by the few, our democracy fray, our elections grow less free and fair, our shared sense of reality crumble. If a Biden doctrine is emerging, it may be this: the most generous thing the United States can do for the world is self-care.


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Photo: Rob Curtis/AFP/Getty