A Famous Mike Tyson Quote Is the Key to Biden’s Foreign Policy

America just got punched in the mouth, and that punch will sting for decades to come.

Illustration of a tank with a boxing glove
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

The accidental political scientist Michael Gerard Tyson once provided an apt summary of America’s foreign policy: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” For nearly a decade, Tyson reigned as the most feared fighter on the planet, with a single unchanging strategy: intimidate, dominate, overpower. When he encountered an adversary who couldn’t be intimidated, dominated, or overpowered, Iron Mike had no backup plan. He effectively ended his boxing career in ear-biting frustration, unable to heed his own sage warning. There’s a lesson here for another undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

America’s final, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was a self-inflicted punch in the mouth. It followed a quick succession of bruising body blows: the collapse of a regime that the U.S. had spent $2 trillion defending, the return to power of a Taliban foe that had been ousted 20 years earlier, the loss of 13 service members in a terrorist attack that seemed to be an ill omen for the future. Whatever America’s global strategy might have been before August, it’s going to be something different going forward. The question is: What?

President Joe Biden gave some preliminary answers in a speech less than a day after the last C-17 left Kabul. For more than nine years, I served as Biden’s policy adviser for much of Asia, so I’ve had some experience interpreting the nuances of my old boss’s words and body language. Anyone interested in what U.S. foreign policy will look like in the coming years should pay attention to this speech—and to the broader context in which Biden (and his successors) will be operating.

The most important takeaway from Biden’s speech is his ramping down of ambitions for the deployment of U.S. military power:

As we turn the page on the foreign policy that’s guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. To me, there are two that are paramount: First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals, not ones we’ll never reach. And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national-security interest of the United States of America.

Such lessons require scaling back the whole enterprise—one endorsed by a range of actors across the ideological spectrum—of using U.S. resources to achieve sweeping social and political changes in other nations:

This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan … morph into a counterinsurgency, nation building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive, and united Afghanistan.

The new plan, Biden insisted, does not amount to the removal of values from the strategic equation: “I’ve been clear that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy. But the way to do that is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support.”

So what does this add up to? Are we in for a long period of American isolationism and retreat from global engagement? Without the military muscle to flesh it out, is a values-based foreign policy just an empty suit? Some commentators have compared Biden’s distaste for martial adventurism to the retreat bungled by Donald Trump—is this the same policy but with a less offensive tone?

My take: No, sort of, and definitely not.

The “no”: Joe Biden has never been an isolationist and isn’t one now. He’s always favored deep engagement with America’s partners, and even with its rivals. The change will come in the type of engagement. Biden might be less likely than his three predecessors to use military tools to accomplish political ends that aren’t directly related to counterterrorism or other national-security goals, but that’s very different from retrograding into Fortress America.

The “sort of”: Advocates of human rights (and I’m one of them) may find disappointment in some future decisions. Regimes ruthless enough to oppress their own citizens aren’t typically swayed by a disapproving United Nations resolution. How effective are the tools of diplomacy without the implicit threat of military force? Do sanctions inflict pain on governing elites or only on ordinary people? For better or worse, we’re likely to find out. This should, however, come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched Biden over the years: His foreign-policy instincts are miles away from Dick Cheney’s—but neither are they aligned with Jimmy Carter’s.

The “definitely not”: Trump’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was nothing like Biden’s. It was grounded in a view of foreign policy that owed less to Klemens von Metternich than to Tony Soprano. Trump’s strategy was that of extortion: You want American engagement? Well, how much are you willing to pay? He applied exactly the same formula to treaty allies such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan. Biden, by contrast, sees engagement as a win-win arrangement: The whole point of partnership is that it works for both partners. And that’s why he soured on the Afghanistan mission more than a decade ago.

I was with Biden on the pivotal trip to Kabul, in January 2009, that tipped the balance—and his body language during his recent speech echoed the intense frustration he expressed on that visit. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, was unable to reform his wildly dysfunctional government and unwilling to express what Biden felt was a bare modicum of gratitude for the support America was providing. One can argue the merits (many of Karzai’s failures were the result of the Bush administration’s demands), but the result is the same: The partnership, in Biden’s view, simply wasn’t working. If it had been, Biden would have been able to tamp down his frustration and get on with business.

How much will the framework Biden laid out last week set the stage for U.S. foreign policy in the years to come? Here, it’s useful to consider where Biden’s outlook fits within the parameters of American strategy more broadly.

U.S. foreign policy has two basic axes: nationalist versus internationalist, and interventionist versus noninterventionist. The universe of ways in which these can be combined is fairly limited: Since at least the later part of the Cold War, noteworthy mash-ups have largely been confined to self-described realists (a large and amorphous group), neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, and isolationists (in both left-wing and right-wing flavors).

Joe Biden has always been a realist, leaning somewhat more internationalist than the precise midpoint sometimes favored by the establishment. He’s been willing to dip a toe into the liberal-interventionist pool (for example, during the Bosnia campaign of the 1990s), but has never had much truck with the neocons or isolationists. And that’s where, in his Afghan-withdrawal speech, he’s signaled he’s likely to remain.

This, too, is roughly where U.S. foreign policy will likely stay even after the Biden presidency. Whether that transition occurs in less than four years or more like eight, whether his successor is a Democrat or a Republican, the broad parameters of American policy will probably remain much the same. Interventionists on both the right and the left will have a very difficult time persuading the electorate to engage in another war of choice anytime soon. Isolationists can write op-eds and deliver speeches to congressional chambers, but none has truly dictated global strategy since America first became a superpower. And they are unlikely to in the future: The U.S. tried to treat the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as impenetrable moats in the run-ups to both world wars, and such seclusion is all the less feasible in an age when fiber-optic cables have replaced steamships.

Every time America has taken a punch to the mouth in modern history, it has abandoned its old plan. But each new strategy has simply been a recombination of these old ones. After the Vietnam War, it was a blend of realism and isolationism. After the twin blows of 1979—the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—President Ronald Reagan introduced his signature recipe of a warlike strand of realism and a budding neoconservatism. After America’s moral shame of standing idle during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, liberal interventionism entered the mix, although still restrained by realist caution. Post-9/11, liberal interventionism and neoconservatism briefly ran parallel in Afghanistan; in Iraq, neoconservative flights of fancy and the hawkish variant of Rumsfeldian realism ruled the roost.

How will these be combined next? The ingredients might be limited, but the blending matters enormously. After all, even Trump’s strategy was contained within these boundaries: isolationist in rhetoric, Rumsfeldian realist when filtered through the bureaucracy, and always larded with heavy doses of personal bile and corruption.

During his heyday, Mike Tyson had the most devastating punch of any human on Earth. That was the beginning and end of his strategy, and for years it served him well. He never learned to adapt his fight plan, because he never had to. When he stepped into the ring with Evander Holyfield, the betting odds were 8–1 in his favor. The smartest sporting handicappers in 1996 were as wrong as the smartest Afghan-policy prognosticators in 2021. But Holyfield refused to be intimidated, dominated, or overpowered. He just kept hitting Iron Mike in the mouth.

America is, as President Biden has indicated, about to rewrite its plan for approaching a tough and unforgiving world. It has a decision to make: emulate Tyson, the defeated heavyweight champ, or Tyson, the all-too-prescient political sage?