When Joe Biden started his presidency with the slogan “diplomacy is back!” some wondered what that meant in terms of a coherent foreign policy. Diplomacy, as every sixth-grader knows, is one of the many means needed to implement a policy. On its own, it is either an academic conceit or another name for charade. In the past week or so we have observed diplomacy, as practiced by the new administration, both as a conceit and a charade.
As a conceit, it appeared in the headline-catching slogan “America is back in the Paris Climate Accord” launched by Washington. Now, however, we know that the “return” is so full of “ifs and buts” that even the French, initially applauding loudly, are beginning to wonder whether they have been sold a bill of goods.
Another example was furnished by the tedious scrimmage over the “nuclear deal” with the mullahs in Tehran. President Biden had hinted at a quick return to the path traced by his former boss Barack Obama. Based on that assumption, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab imagined a scenario that would lead to defanging the mullahs with a lasting solution to the 42-year old “Iran problem.” Now, however, we know that Raab may have jumped the gun as the Biden team are still wondering what to do about a deal that Robert Malley, the diplomat in charge of the dossier, has described as defective.
In the broader scheme of things, these two examples may do little harm.
The Paris Climate Accord is more of an aspiration than a strategy while the Iranian nuclear problem has always been a way of avoiding the real issue: the danger that the Islamist regime poses for regional peace and stability. In its charade version, however, the Biden doctrine, if one might suggest such a label, tongue in cheek, could cause lasting damage because it concerns relations with China and Russia.
In the case of China, the new administration opted for a ministerial conference held in Alaska, presumably to underline the chill in relations.
Ignoring a primary lesson of diplomacy which is “getting to know you”, Secretary of State Antony Blinken seized the occasion to read out a litany of woes, leaving the Chinese wondering what was the point of a high-level meeting if it offers nothing but what is a daily staple in American news outlets. The Chinese responded by pouring scorn on America and its habit of lecturing others. What remains a mystery is how the Biden administration really sees the People’s Republic of China, especially at a time that it is engaged in a major redefinition of its role in a rapidly changing world.
Is China a rival, a challenger, a competitor, an adversary or an enemy? Is the US heading for a cold, lukewarm or even a hot war with China? How serious is the danger, expressed by some pro-Biden pundits, of China invading Taiwan and forcing the US into a regional war? On the other hand, what about other pundits, including Henry Kissinger and other China lobbyists in Washington, who want a modus vivendi with Beijing or even see it as a potential partner in tackling such problems as North Korea, Iran or Burma, not to mention the super-arlesienne of Paris Climate Accord?
Flying back home from Anchorage, the Chinese delegation may have had a sigh of relief. Blinken’s verbal tornado indicated confusion while the threat of sanctions has been downgraded to a blunt instrument.
The fact is that Biden has no China policy. Reading the riot act won’t amount to a policy.
The administration’s introductory move on Russia has been even more problematic. At a time that Biden was labeling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer”, Washington’s freelance diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad was in Moscow to launch the so-called Afghan peace conference “with the help of our Russian partner.”
Members of Biden’s team claim that Russia intervened in last year’s presidential election to secure victory for Donald Trump. The phrase “Russia wants to subvert our democracy” has become a Bidenian leitmotiv. And, yet, the same Russia is invited as a partner in stabilizing Libya, finding a future for Syria and helping keep the mullahs on leash.
One of Biden’s first “goodwill gestures” was to reinstate the outdated arms limitation accord that Trump had ditched. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov says the accord was reinstated instantly because Washington “accepted all our conditions.”
Not surprisingly, Russian media talk of “confusion” when it comes to Moscow’s relations with the new team in Washington. Calling a head of state “a killer” is not very diplomatic, to say the least. Incidentally, Talleyrand recommended that diplomats praise interlocutors in public but, if needed, insult them in private.
The questions that we asked about China also apply to Russia.
Is Russia an adversary, a rival, a competitor, a challenger or an enemy? Without a cool, clear and rational assessment of its place on a tableau of identities, shaping a coherent strategy regarding relations with powers one has to deal with is well-nigh impossible. You don’t deal with an adversary, even a troublemaker, the same way you do with an enemy. Even enemies could be further categorized, requiring different policies.
An ideological and/or political foe isn’t in the same category as an existential enemy. There are enemies that could be turned into neutrals or even partners if not actual friends. Then there are enemies who, like the bug in a Voltaire short story, are suicidal; they prefer to attack and die rather than live to make peace. There are also enemies you can ignore today because, as that great cynic Bill Clinton pontificated, you could always kill them tomorrow.
Whether China and Russia are enemies of the United States is a question that needs separate treatment.
However, without answering that question it won’t be possible to develop serious policies to deal with them.
Beyond that, it is bad policy, to say the least, to pick a fight with China and Russia at the same time, two rival powers that are deeply suspicious of each other, with contradictory rather than complementary economic and geopolitical interests. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China was a key element in nudging the Soviet Union towards détente and the Helsinki Accords.
George Shultz always advised against taking on two powerful challengers at the same time, even though the US needed to plan for simultaneously fighting two major wars. He understood that foreign policy imperatives should not be confused with military contingency, though the two are complementary. Right now it seems that Biden is more interested in proving he is anti-Trump than dealing with two opportunistic powers determined to lead us into a Thucydides trap and the world order in their narrow interests.