Foreign Policy Brief # 106
Shortcomings in Biden’s Diplomacy Towards Russia and China
By Will Solomon
April 5, 2021
The Biden administration is making dangerous foreign policy decisions in its dealings with Russia and China, choices that may have negative, long-term repercussions. Through an unnecessarily aggressive foreign policy, the administration is undermining prospects for geopolitical cooperation, heightening the chances of future war, and bringing its “adversaries” closer together—largely in the name of nationalistic bluster.
The consequences are increasingly evident in growing closeness between China and Russia—two ostensible antagonists the Biden administration claims to want to combat. While aggressive competition is arguably not a meaningful or realistic long-term strategic objective, even by that metric the Biden administration is performing questionably.
Ultimately, the dilemma the Biden administration faces transcends the policy preferences of both the Trump and Biden administrations (not to mention the Obama and previous administrations). The fact is that the US must accept its shifting role in the world and more deeply commit to good-faith multilateralism. Without doing so, the foreign (and domestic) consequences will grow considerably worse.
As stated previously in this space, the Biden administration predicated its coming-to-power on a restoration of a “traditional” American foreign policy role. In practice, this suggested a return to post-World War II norms, an era largely defined by American hegemony, expressed through ostensibly multilateral institutions. This hegemony has been threatened for a couple decades at least, and perhaps longer. But more troublingly, the American role as enforcer in a “rules-based” international order has always been misleading, obscuring the privilege afforded America by these rules, including the ability to break them at will. The concept was possibly irreparably undermined by the invasion of Iraq—among the many other unilateral (and illegal) foreign policy choices made through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations—and that is not to even mention the devastation wrought throughout the developing world as a result of the American Cold War posture.
The restoration of a traditional American role was thus unclear in its implications; does a “traditional” role include the unilateral decision by the Bush administration to go to War in Iraq, under false pretenses (a war Biden and many of his advisors supported)? While a shift from Trump’s erratic and rhetorically volatile foreign policy is itself a meaningful change, it is only a partial one; global circumstances ultimately heavily influence American choices in a way American public discourse does not necessarily fully appreciate.
Consequently, the Biden administration comes to power at a moment in which global geopolitics are in the midst of a significant shift. One major change is the ongoing rise of China. Biden’s rhetoric towards China—while not as erratic (alternatively conciliatory and belligerent) as Trump’s—has been largely aggressive. The first bilateral meeting under the new administration in Alaska was seen as highly confrontational, by both sides. Chinese diplomats have pushed back on human rights criticism by the Biden administration by (perhaps fairly) pointing to domestic issues of racism in the United States, as well as illegal American interventions in countries like Iraq and Libya.
This dynamic is closely related to another: a growing closeness between China and Russia, as an attempt to push back against American hegemony. The Biden administration’s diplomacy towards Russia has likewise been shoddy, reinforcing these growing ties. In a recent interview, Biden referred to Putin as “a killer,” an unnecessary diplomatic faux pas that led the Russians to recall their American ambassador. This was one detail in an ongoing campaign of antagonism with respect to Russia, which has included US attempts to stop construction of the Nordstream II pipeline, which would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany—relatedly, a point of difference between the US and its European allies.
Biden, his administration, and his advisors, perhaps understandably want to reaffirm a global order that led America to be the most powerful nation on Earth. But this sort of 21st-century hegemony is just not practicable, and ultimately it is clearly not in American interests to pursue such a dominating foreign policy. While the Biden administration has tried to stress cooperation as a rhetorical principle, when applicable, in practice it has not lived up to this message, and is frequently resorting to threats and zero-sum diplomacy, if in a more understated way than Trump might’ve pursued.
Simply put, the challenges of the present are different from those of the past, and phenomena like climate change, pandemics, local wars, and other issues will be best addressed, to the extent they can be, by serious cooperation, even with unsavory regimes. Paradoxically, this will ultimately more effectively shore up the American position in today’s changing international order.
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