The Biden administration has a fatally flawed understanding of our position vis a vis our geopolitical adversaries; their consequent reluctance to capitalize on weakness betrays American interests.
Geopolitics has always moved quickly in the modern era, accelerated by rapid communications and technological progress. Swift nautical vessels carried letters across vast distances in the Early Modern period; railways connected the world even faster, fundamentally altering the human perception of time itself; wired telegraphy made it so that messages could be transmitted as quickly as electrical currents could flow, while wireless telegraphy – the radio – created mass culture as we know it; television and satellite coverage made those messages into a natural audiovisual medium, bringing global events into sharp focus. Now, in the 21st century, information can flow from one corner of the world to the other instantaneously and powerful human and computer networks can work together to analyze, contextualize, and present this data nearly as quickly. This technology allows decision-makers near-total perception of the information environment. The task of statesmanship is to understand this information, determine what is salient and what is not, and – ultimately – to make choices on that basis.
Regrettably, the Biden administration is failing on that crucial task. Instead of making timely strategic and tactical decisions to forward our national interests and grand strategy, they have seemingly adopted a policy of reluctance. In an era of rising Great Power competition and conflict, we are signaling impotence with respect to our two primary geopolitical antagonists – Russia and China – just as they are each dealing with significant weaknesses of their own. This is exactly the time we should be showing strength and capitalizing on the challenges of our rivals, but instead we are proving indecisive and hesitant. That is a recipe for disaster.
There are two mutually-reinforcing contributing factors in creating this policy of reluctance: an inability to deal with information and keep up with events, and a basic instinct of overcautious reticence about American power. Since the advent of the Biden administration in January 2021, international affairs have roiled around the globe. We have seen war in Europe and Africa, unrest and protest against myriad authoritarian regimes, the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan – and a consequent rise in terrorism in the region – and destabilizing nuclear pushes by Iran and North Korea. The rapid pace of events has only increased, especially after the pandemic paused many of these situations and exacerbated others. In an environment of such constant change, one cannot wait on all the information to make a decision; the Biden administration has seemed unable to do this. The President himself is no help, as his advanced age and clear diminution of his cognitive faculties hamper proactive decision-making. His chosen foreign policy team has committed too much to too many different “stakeholders” to be able to freely decide important policy matters. By the time all parties are consulted and considered, the choice has been bypassed by events. Caution and patience are good in foreign policy, but not when it comes at the expense of necessary action.
The second factor, an instinct for reticence, conciliation, and so-called “leading from behind” is a holdover from the Obama administration – as are many of the key foreign policy figures populating the State Department and the White House. The left side of American politics has, for the last half-century or so, viewed American power and action abroad as fundamentally bad for the world; the hesitation to utilize American power and lead on international issues which impact our interests has infected the Biden administration as much as it had his Democratic predecessors. The Obama administration, given the holdovers now present in the Biden team, presents an important example. Their policies of “leading from behind”, apologizing for American power abroad, and so-called “strategic patience” did not lead to a safer, more balanced world. Instead, they led to a resurgence of terrorism in the Middle East, a powerful and antagonistic Iran, a Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea (setting the stage for the current war), and a China which deepened its commitment to its authoritarian system under Xi Jinping. Our reputation as a nation which stands by its word and would act in its own interests when those interests were threatened was severely harmed, purely in order to repudiate the unilateralism of the Bush years.
Fear of our own strength – and how that strength is received in the elite salons of Europe and Washington DC – is no way to formulate national policy or grand strategy, yet this is exactly what the Biden administration is currently doing.
Right now, our primary geopolitical adversaries – China and Russia – are experiencing periods of serious weakness. China is dealing with the largest, most widespread, and continuous round of protests against the Communist regime since the brutal crackdown in 1989 which gave us the infamous images from Tiananmen Square. These protests, sparked by a destructive and avoidable fire in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, have targeted the extreme “Zero Covid” approach of the Chinese regime, but have expanded in some places to target the regime itself. This is incredibly brave on the part of the protestors, and the failure thus far to shut this movement down speaks to the CCP’s concern about the impact such a broad crackdown would have domestically. For every day that these anti-regime protests continue and every new city to which they expand (now including Beijing and Shanghai), Xi Jinping and his lackeys lose face and give the protestors a positive sign. This is an incredible signal of vulnerability, one which we haven’t seen emanating from Beijing in quite some time.
Russia is also experiencing a period of enormous fragility in its failure to win the war in Ukraine. From its initial hopes of capturing Kyiv in days to its inability to hold even territories it has supposedly permanently annexed to Russia, the Russian military has been an epic catastrophe since the invasion was launched in February. As of now, Ukraine is on the march; it has retaken large swathes of territory, including the key city of Kherson, and is taking the fight to the remaining areas of Ukraine held by Russian forces, as well as to Russia proper. Russia’s only real response to these setbacks has been to either rattle the nuclear saber or attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. Despite the fears associated with nuclear use and the power outages caused by the attacks on infrastructure, these actions have not diminished Ukrainian resolve or battlefield accomplishments. What they have done, however, is shown Russia as a feeble nation trying desperately to extricate itself from a quagmire of its own choosing however it thinks it can.
In situations like these involving our main geostrategic foes – and yes, China and Russia are our foes, despite what the pollyannas on the left and right may contend – we need to take advantage of the weakness being displayed. Unfortunately, the Biden administration, in a position to capitalize on these challenges to our rivals, has demurred. Due to the two factors laid out above, the administration has put itself in a false position of weakness, when in reality we are quite strong at the moment – especially compared to China and Russia. We need to face up to the threats posed by these regimes which seek to depose us as hegemon and shift the world order into an authoritarian mold of their liking. That means ending our complacency, stopping our wishful thinking of diplomacy and de-escalation, and becoming comfortable with using American power and influence to the fullest extent to undermine our rivals.
What does that mean with respect to a Russia weakened by its foolhardy Ukraine invasion and a Chinese regime facing serious challenges to its domestic authority? In the past week, the Biden administration has shown exactly what not to do in each instance by leading with a strategy of reluctance.
On the Russian front, the Biden administration’s response to the Putin regime’s considerable setbacks has reeked of weakness, especially given the positive impact of American aid on those Ukrainian successes. We have consistently refused to provide the most advanced arms to the Zelensky government, worried for the potential for escalation if Ukraine were to be able to attack targets in Russia proper. This all-consuming terror of being blamed for escalation by the Kremlin and its useful idiots in the West has paralyzed the Biden administration and shifted its policy in a decidedly-conciliatory direction. Just last week, President Biden publicly stated that he would be willing to negotiate with Vladimir Putin on an end to the war in Ukraine, in consultation with our NATO allies, of course. This diplomatic overture was prompted by our “allies” in France and Germany, who have been noticeably cool on the issue of aiding Ukraine, particularly when compared to the nations on NATO’s eastern front. Biden made his statement while standing alongside Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, and shortly after the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke with Russia’s leader on the topic of a ceasefire. What’s wrong with offering to discuss peace, you might ask?
First off, the United States should not participate in any multilateral diplomatic discussions without the most important party to any such talks: the government of Ukraine. There will be no lasting settlement if it is imposed from above on the Ukrainian people; they have seen the value of Putin’s word in his evisceration of the Minsk Agreements and the value of the West’s word when we refused to hold him to account for that. The Ukrainian people will continue fighting the Russian invaders, no matter what the United States and the western Europeans decide. We are not the ones waging a war for survival, after all. Stating outright that we will not ensure Ukrainian participation in peace talks is a terrible strategy for guaranteeing a long-term solution, and shows that we are choosing to operate from a false position of weakness rather than our true position of strength.
The idea of reaching out to Russia to pursue peace is a fool’s errand, and Vladimir Putin has shown that clearly. After Biden’s statement offering talks if Putin is “deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war,” the Russian leader laid out his terms: recognition of Russia’s stolen gains in Ukraine (even those it has already lost) and a neutering of the Ukrainian potential for future resistance. If the Biden administration believed that they would receive any answer other than this, they are truly naïve. Now, the president has stated that he won’t negotiate with Putin given these demands – demands which were obvious from any of Putin’s public statements. Still, by even making the offer and setting up Putin to name his terms for discussion, they have operated from a position of subordination. Ukraine and her allies should be the ones naming terms, not the invaders who have attacked her liberty and sovereignty. The whole embarrassing situation was totally avoidable; if the US were committed to acting decisively in line with our national interests instead of giving into fear and reluctance, we would have proactively refused any talks until Russia met our demands.
At least the Biden administration and its allies in media and punditry have acknowledged the regime in Moscow as an enemy – it has only taken 15 years, mass atrocities on multiple continents, and repeated invasions of two sovereign countries aligned with the West to figure that out. Those same foreign policy “thinkers” have decidedly refused to use that language with respect to China, more evidence of a strategy of reluctance. China is the biggest threat to American hegemony in the 21st century, and its rise is the challenge of our time. American policy has shifted over the past twenty years to acknowledge China as a competitor and rival, but has lagged seriously behind in seeing China as the enemy it is. The regime in Beijing has had no such hesitation. They have been waging a Cold War of sorts against American interests and allies for years, constantly threatening regional actors in order to get their way, preparing for a military conquest of Taiwan, and lying to the world about the origins and spread of the Covid pandemic. Chinese Covid policy has, ironically enough, been the catalyst for this latest round of mass protest against the CCP regime.
Although the unrest was sparked by an apartment fire in Urumqi – one which was deadly due to the fact that Beijing’s “Zero Covid” policy callously locked residents in the building and prevented timely emergency response – it has spread to become a broader indictment of the regime as a whole. These protests, and the fact that the CCP has temporarily backed off of some of its harsher Covid restrictions, show cracks in the purportedly-airtight Chinese government. Anyone who values freedom and hates autocracy should be applauding these protestors for the righteous cause they espouse; American policymakers should be at the front of that crowd, as a weaker CCP is paramount to our interests and grand strategy. The regime is already cracking down on these protests using its technological tools of totalitarianism – including help from Apple, an American company – so it is unlikely that these demonstrations will lead to the toppling of the CCP tyranny. Still, we should do our utmost to aid Chinese dissidents in achieving that eventual goal.
Instead, the Biden administration has been exceptionally weak in responding to these protests. The statements put out by the American government have ranged from mealy-mouthed to downright avoidant, making us look scared of the reaction of the Chinese Communist Party. The administration has steadfastly declined to decry the totalitarian “Zero Covid” policies of the Chinese government, repeatedly evading condemnation of these specific abuses in favor of generic statements in support of “the right to peacefully protest.” John Kirby, a Biden spokesman, was adamant in his refusal to support the protestors’ calls for “freedom” and the removal of Xi Jinping. This reluctance to take even a basic stand in support of these particular demonstrations is part and parcel of the administration’s broader affinity for hesitation. Supporting these protests should be far less controversial than it was to support the protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020 after the police shooting of Jacob Blake (an armed man attempting to flee in a car with children), but it does not seem that the Biden team sees it this way. There are two reasons for this, both of which feed into the idea of reluctance as a driving force in Biden administration policies.
First, the administration has consistently avoided making strong statements on behalf of foreign protestors because it fears they will be labeled by their autocratic rulers as merely “American pawns.” This was the case in Iran – until the protests lasted so long that a stronger statement was impossible not to make – and it is now the case in China. There is absolutely no point in this tactic, as it does not actually avoid the outcome it seeks to evade. Authoritarian anti-American regimes around the world are always going to label anti-regime activists and demonstrators as pro-American assets. This is Dictator 101. If you listen to our autocratic adversaries, there have never been anti-regime protests that were organic or not driven entirely by the CIA. Why would we go out of our way to avoid an inevitable outcome and, in the process, both appease our enemies and alienate our potential friends standing up for their rights?
The second reason is less dumb, but more concerning. The Biden administration has refused to condemn China’s draconian Covid policies because its allies in the public health establishment and the media have been supportive of those policies throughout most of the pandemic. These public health zealots saw “Zero Covid” as a policy to be lauded, not lambasted. The coverage of China’s repressive policies in major outlets like the New York Times has been glowing – at least until recently. It is certainly hard to harshly criticize a policy that several administration officials were advocating for through much of 2021. This reticence to alienate a key domestic constituency, even if it is in the service of American interests abroad, shows the Biden administration as overly concerned with stakeholder service compared to genuine strategic concerns.
None of this is reason to avoid condemning the CCP’s absurd “Zero Covid” policy or fully supporting the demands of the courageous Chinese protestors who are speaking out against their government’s totalitarian abuses. We are in a position of strength here, but we are acting as though we are in a position of weakness. Pursuing a policy of détente with this evil regime will only cement its domestic control and promote the idea of America as a paper tiger. That is no solution, and would, in fact, create bigger problems down the line.
As the global hegemon, we seek to maintain the international status quo. That means deterring bad actors like Russia and China from making moves to overturn that world order and bring about a system more favorable to their repressive autocratic regimes. Deterrence does not come without effort and decisive action; it requires meeting our rivals’ weakness with resolute strength, not matching their feebleness with our own. Refusing or failing to take advantage of the challenges faced by our adversaries will not deter them in the future. Truth be told, allowing those opportunities to slip away through our hesitation will only cause more of the problems we seek to deter. By showing weakness and complacency when our foes are struggling, thus giving them the opportunity to recover or reset, we present ourselves as unable to act decisively even when it is in our interests to do so. It betrays us as fearful and easily deterred ourselves. Our reluctance to act now will only force our hand into action later, at a time and place when we may genuinely be in a disadvantageous position.
The Biden administration, with its policy of reluctance, can learn quite a bit from a phrase which serves as the epigraph to William Le Queux’s 1906 novel The Invasion of 1910. It says: “To be weak is to invite war; to be strong is to prevent it.” The inherent truth of that statement has not changed in the century since it was used to warn the British public of the threat of a rising Germany. One can only hope it serves as a clarion call in the 21st century to avoid the mistakes made in the 20th.