The US-China-Russia crossfire

After Biden's elections there is a widespread expectation for an American foreign policy more characterized by diplomacy and dialogue. But for now, a multilateral approach is highly unlikely

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks after a meeting with his COVID-19 Response Team on the coronavirus disease pandemic and the state of vaccinations, on the White House campus in Washington, U.S., March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

After Donald Trump’s roller-coaster years, Joe Biden’s election has provided a sense of relief. There is now a widespread expectation for an American foreign policy less confrontational, towards both allies and adversaries, and more characterized by diplomacy and dialogue.

President Biden’s first statements have provided significant reassurances. His speeches at the State Department and Munich Security Conference on February 4th and 19th respectively, and the Interim National Security Strategy Guidance (INSSG) released last month, offer a more sound analysis concerning the evolving global power balance and point to a US foreign policy in a transformational phase. In the last three decades, the world had been often compelled to adjust itself to Washington’s wrong analysis, which, sometimes, determined mistaken, damaging and self-harming policies. The Biden administration seems now attempting a course correction. Although its analysis is improving, unfortunately, it does not appear matched by corresponding international policies yet. Washington’s foreign policy and security establishment views, surprisingly, change far more slowly than ordinary American citizens’.

The Beltway’s perceptions about Russia, China and Iran, which sometimes border the obsession, still set the agenda, helped also by American mainstream media (MSM) which seem having abandoned sound investigative journalism long time ago. The contrast with American people could not be starker. According to a recent CBS poll, 54% of Americans believe their major threats reside inside their own country, not outside. Only 8% of them share the beltway’s and MSM’s threats list. True, Biden Administration is claiming to be committed to a foreign policy for the “middle class”; whatever it might mean, it is not visible yet and, above all, it is uncertain if it will ever match American people’s views.

Of course, there have been some stumbles in such correction course, as shown by President Biden’s recent unfortunate comments about his Russian and Chinese homologues. However, it is not the first time, and it will definitely not be the last one, that American Presidents surprise everyone with slips of their tongues. Fortunately, major powers used to realpolitik and known for cynic pragmatism, like Russia and China, tend watching more their opponents’ deeds than words.

Biden’s semantic stumbles, and the reactions they triggered in Moscow and Beijing, have however alarmed Washington’s European and East Asian allies. Both would prefer a less confrontational approach due to many, legitimate, political, economic and trade concerns.

How to manage a rising China

Among the core challenges Biden’s America is called to face in the next years, there is how to manage a rising China, whose global status and technological edge – also according to important American tycoons as Eric Schmidt and Elon Musk – have probably reached a point of no return; and how to confront an assertive and revisionist Russia which has an excellent capability to play the role of spoiler in various areas of crisis and owns a sort of innate capabilities to play successfully complex games having quite poor cards in his hands, as Syrian and Libyan crisis offer a vivid example. The same American President seems aware that such challenges imply “an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world”

What really matters, then, are the pillars and the basic assumptions of such a debate. In introducing the INSSG, Biden claims that the US must lead the world to “ensure the American people are able to live in peace, security, and prosperity”, emphasising that the US defends “equal rights of all people” to ensure “that those rights are protected for our own children here in America”.

Curiously, the American President seems obliquely converging with die-hard neo-con Robert Kagan, who, in a recent essay published by Foreign Affairs, has claimed that “The time has come to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility … They need to understand that the purpose of NATO and other alliances is to defend not against direct threats to U.S. interests but against a breakdown of the order that best serves those interests.”

By combining Biden’s and Kagan’s statements a highly disturbing feeling is looming: in order to maintain democracy in America, is it necessary to maintain a US-enforced world order in place without the possibility to contemplate other options? If so, such “fundamental debate about the future direction of our world” is going to be quite controversial, to say the least.

Effectively, this debate’s first opening salvos have been quite heated. Putin answered with irony to Biden’s offensive remark, but he also recalled his ambassador to Washington, and then he added something far more substantive by emphasising how Russians’ “genetic, cultural and moral codes are different” from Americans’. During their first high-level bilateral meeting with the Chinese in Alaska, the American delegation headed by Secretary of State Blinken had to listen the following stunning statement from its counterpart “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognise the universal values advocated by the United States, or that the opinions of the United States could represent international public opinion. And those countries would not recognise that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.” A blatant rejection of a US-led world order.

Such heated debate could then land into three quite distinctive outcomes: 1) a solemn reaffirmation of American global leadership, inevitably perceived as hegemony by its more profiled opponents; 2) a really multilateral system with different competing centres of powers as advocated by Moscow and Beijing; 3) or a still ill-defined, potentially highly conflictual, hybrid-system.

What is certain, for now, is that there are poor chances that a truly multilateral approach to the world order may be considered in Washington, and, thus, no chances that such an order and its founding values could be something other than a US shaped, led and enforced ones.

Unfortunately, Russia stopped subscribing to such view in 2007; China probably did the same in an unspecified period  between 2013 and 2017; the first date corresponds to the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, and the second one coincides with the birth of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.

The US-Russia-China crossfire

The real risk for Europe is to be caught in the middle of such US-Russia-China crossfire. However, President Biden’s INSSG offers also brave and remarkable opportunities to build-upon: “We cannot pretend the world can simply be restored to the way it was 75, 30, or even four years ago. We cannot just return to the way things were before. In foreign policy and national security, just as in domestic policy, we have to chart a new course.”

It is on such opening that Biden Administration should make a greater effort. It cannot recognise such a tectonic shifting in the global power balance, advocate a radical change, and then simply reassert – business as usual – the worn American leadership to manage it, accompanied by cold-war style Manichean approaches.

In the last years, reliable but isolated voices in Washington, have not been missing in warning against such outdated attitudes. The late Princeton and New York University professor, Stephen Cohen, has struggled tirelessly to have Russia’s perceptions taken into account to come to a better understanding with the Kremlin; he just achieved his systemic smearing and marginalisation from MSM.

The same occurred to one of the top American experts on China, Ambassador Chas Freeman, who, after having advocated in vain a different approach to China, has recently egregiously summarised the problem still haunting US foreign policy towards Beijing, and, unfortunately, the rest of the world: “Americans have an inbuilt missionary impulse. We enjoy protecting, tutoring, lecturing, and hectoring other peoples on how to correct their character to approximate our idealized image of ourselves. We are offended when others insist on independence from us and on preserving their own political culture.”

The new US Administration seems pursuing a policy that may appear, depending on the different viewpoints, brazen or overambitious. It aims to work pragmatically with Russia and China on some matters of interest, and to openly challenges them on others. Important efforts to limit their respective nuclear arsenals with Moscow through extending START treaty, are accompanied by Washington’s denouncing and sanctioning Russian policies towards Ukraine, Belarus, internal dissent and alleged cyber-interferences into the American political system. As far as Beijing is concerned, major convergences in struggling against climate change should coexist with tough stances and sanctions against China’s policies towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and alleged cyber-espionage.

In a such a context, it would be smart for Biden Administration to avoid antagonizing also its European allies persevering with its enduring secondary sanctions vis à vis Iran or, as in the case of Germany’s Nord-Stream 2 pipeline, preventing Berlin to purchase gas from Moscow, when, incidentally, the US is the third buyer of Russian oil. How is it possible to celebrate a Euro-Atlantic community based on shared values, as recently and solemnly reconfirmed by Biden addressing the European Council and Blinken meeting its EU counterparts in Brussels, while the US even coerce its same allies with sanctions to compel them to subscribe to its, sometimes questionable, policies? President Biden recently said: “The United States will again lead not just by the example of our power but the power of our example". The hope is that this time America will be consequential.

This is an extended and updated version of an article previously published by the author on Middle East Eye.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat who has been advising three different Italian Prime Ministers.  He has performed the role of Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process and the Syrian Crisis and, later, of Ambassador to Iraq. He is currently the CEO of MC Geopolicy, a consultancy company offering geopolitical, risk analysis and business intelligence advisory, and sits on the Advisory Board of Tanto Capital Partners, a London-based boutique investment advisory business.

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