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As US President Joe Biden contemplates course corrections after his first months in office, one change seems especially worthy of consideration: a shift to a more pragmatic, less ideological foreign policy.
So far, Biden has centered his statecraft on the clash between democracy and autocracy. In his address to Congress late last month, he identified the country’s adversaries as “the autocrats of the world,” vowing that they “will not win the future. We will. America will.” Envisaging a twenty-first-century “battle between the utility of democracies … and autocracies,” Biden has called for a global “Summit for Democracy” to mobilize likeminded countries against illiberal challengers.
This approach may help rally Americans around the flag, but it is a strategic mistake. America’s relations with both China and Russia have tanked since Biden took office. China has rattled sabers over Taiwan. Chinese and US officials spar in public. Russia has issued new military threats against Ukraine. The United States and the Kremlin exchange sanctions and expel each other’s diplomats.
Given their differing interests, significant tension in US-Chinese and US-Russian relations is inevitable. But the recent escalation of hostility raises the risk of a nasty diplomatic rupture or worse, and blocks necessary cooperation on shared challenges such as climate change, global health, nuclear proliferation, and the management of an interdependent world economy.
It will be very difficult for the US to collaborate with China and Russia on virtually any issue if US grand strategy focuses on taking down illiberal powers. Instead of launching ideological salvos, the Biden administration should devise calibrated responses to the discrete threats posed by China and Russia while also pursuing pragmatic teamwork with them.
With respect to China, the US and its allies should push back against its unfair trade practices, repatriate critical supply chains and maintain an edge in key technological domains, and counter growing Chinese military capabilities. On Russia, the goal should be to check and sanction the Kremlin’s military expansionism, cyberattacks, and interference in foreign elections. And, more broadly, all democracies should denounce violations of political and human rights wherever they occur.
But in a world that is irreversibly globalized and interdependent, confronting clear and present dangers should not entail drawing a new ideological fault line. Even if containment worked against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a with-us-or-against-us strategy will not deliver the same results today. With an economy that topped out at roughly three-fifths the size of that of the US, the Soviet Union never came close to developing the wherewithal to outpace its democratic challengers. Its sclerotic socialism and coercive alliances crippled its economy and weakened its global appeal.
It’s not so with China, whose GDP will soon surpass and then far exceed that of the US. With its competent top-down political and economic governance, technological prowess, sizeable foreign investment, and ambitious diplomatic outreach (including large-scale exports of its own COVID-19 vaccine), China already enjoys substantial global sway. There is no going back to the decoupled, two-bloc global order of the Cold War.
In this emerging world, democratic governance will still retain its intrinsic advantage: humans prefer freedom. But for the first time since its emergence as a global power in the 1940s, the US now faces in China a full-spectrum competitor. And because the US needs China’s help to rein in North Korea, arrest global warming, and tackle other transnational issues, it had better start mapping out a strategy that is not just about “us versus them.”
Premising US policy on a clash between democracy and autocracy would not just fail to contain China. Worse, it would actually encourage China’s recalcitrance by consolidating its unholy alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. China and Russia have been rivals historically, and China’s rise should naturally alarm the Kremlin. But the two autocracies have instead formed a marriage of convenience to resist what they see as the West’s encroaching ambition.
Rather than pushing Russia and China together, the US should wean Russia off its cozy alignment with China. Just as the US reached out to China in the 1970s to weaken the communist bloc, Biden and his European allies should try to lure Russia westward. Biden’s expressed openness to a summer meeting with Putin is a step in the right direction. Though finding common ground will not be easy, the US has an impressive record of working with unsavory regimes when it chooses to do so.
Should Biden continue to circle the ideological wagons, he also risks weakening, rather than strengthening, solidarity among the world’s democracies. After all, it is not as though America’s European and Asian partners are spoiling for a fight with China. This past December, the European Union finalized an investment treaty with China, despite the incoming Biden administration’s objections (though ratification by the European Parliament remains uncertain). Similarly, South Korea, Japan, and other Asian democracies in China’s neighborhood are not interested in a blustery confrontation. Biden would be wise not to force US allies to make stark choices.
America’s own founders counseled patience and restraint in foreign policy. The US has long been able to rely on the power of its example to bring other countries into the democratic fold. It should now return to this long game. The best way for democracies to spread their values is to get their own houses in order, so that they can ultimately prevail against illiberal powers by outperforming them. The US and its democratic allies should continue to face down the threats posed by autocracies; but they must also reserve a place for cooperation on global challenges.