Biden’s strategy exposed – tempestuous times ahead

Jun 21, 2021
Biden and Putin Reuters
Biden meets Putin: Biden, unlike Reagan and George H W Bush in the 1980s, has done nothing to lead his nation towards detente with Russia. (Image: Reuters)

It is safe to conclude that neither China nor Russia will be intimidated by shows of US strength or  alliance solidarity. They will keep on strengthening their military capabilities and continue to use every bit of soft and hard power to advance their vision of a multi-centric world.

Biden’s first major overseas trip as president has provided us with a fascinating insight into the thinking of the current US Administration. We can now piece together with some confidence the grand plan hatched by Biden, his senior advisers and the US security establishment more generally.

The immediate aim is to arrest the decline of US power and influence. The more ambitious goal is to restore American dominance in a rules based order, where the rules are largely set by the United States and dutifully followed by everyone else. 

In this sense, there is little difference between Trump’s “America First” vision and Biden’s “America is Back” rhetoric. The big difference is that Trump had little idea of how to prosecute his vision, whereas the Biden plan has been carefully crafted, and makes use of the extensive resources, relationships, and strategic know-how at America’s disposal. 

In a nutshell the strategy is to breathe new life into America’s strategic alliances and partnerships so that they can more effectively curb Russia’s resurgence and China’s rise. Both are seen as inimical to US interests and, if unchecked, likely to accelerate America’s economic and political decline. 

Here lies the significance of this year’s G7 and NATO summits. Within the space of a few days they brought together every major US ally and friend in Europe and Asia. This helps explain the choice of the four invitees to the G7 meeting: two close Asia-Pacific allies, South Korea and Australia, an important emerging partner, India, and one outsider, South Africa, not yet a fully fledged partner, but one the US is keen to recruit. 

The timing of these events is also revealing. First came the G7 and NATO meetings. The aim was to put on display the combined resolve and clout of America’s transatlantic and Indo-Pacific partnerships, as a prelude to the highly choreographed encounter with the Russian adversary.   

But first, the US administration had to reach a consensus with allies and friends that their collective security and economic interests were seriously threatened by Russia’s and China’s misdeeds. Biden’s geniality and sunny disposition were ideally suited for the purpose. 

The NATO communique described China’s ambitions and assertive behaviour as posing “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security.” Adherence to a rules-based order had by now become the mantra of the Biden presidency. 

A day earlier the G7 statement pointed the finger at China for undermining “the fair and transparent operation of the global economy” and failing to respect rights and freedoms in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. It pointedly called for a second and fully transparent investigation in China of the origins of Covid-19 outbreak. The message was clear. China’s lack of transparency was seriously obstructing the global response to the pandemic. 

What then is the Biden strategy? Allies and friends are to be assiduously cultivated because they are deemed crucial to the success of a revamped containment policy. From America’s vantage point, few costs are involved in this exercise. Lofty statements extolling the virtues of democratic alliances, and pledges of support in the hour of need will do for now. 

The alliances on the other had are rather useful to the United States. First, by marshalling the combined economic and military assets of their members, they present a more potent bulwark against Russian and Chinese expansion than the United States can do on its own.  

Second, they can mount an ideological offensive centred on the contrast between democratic and authoritarian principles and practices. This was the rationale for the supplementary G7 Statement on Open Societies endorsed by all four invited attendees. For the offensive to have traction, the United Sates needs allies who are able to offer credible renditions of the democratic narrative. 

Third, alliances can demonstrate in practice the superiority of US-led multilateralism in delivering global public goods. The G7 summit offered a unique opportunity to project soft power. To this end, it made commitments in three areas, each designed to impress the developing world.  

It pledged to supply poor countries one billion Covid vaccine doses, renewed the commitment to raise $100bn a year to help them cut carbon emissions, and announced the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative to meet their urgent infrastructure needs.  

These three commitments are meant to counter China’s increasing assertiveness, especially in the developing world. They stress the G7’s more transparent approach, one that does not carry with it the risks and debt trap associated with Chinese largesse. 

In the Biden era, the G7 is assuming increasing importance. The United States will probably want to see the initiative for multilateral coordination of the global economy swing decisively away from the G20 where China and Russia have a seat around the table back to the G7 from which they remain excluded.   

As for Putin’s Russia, the tone of the NATO communiqué was decidedly vitriolic. It pointed to a long list of Russia’s misdeeds. These included a major military modernisation program. a more assertive posture, provocative activities near NATO borders, continued military build-up in Crimea, military integration with Belarus, attempted interference in Allied elections and democratic processes, political and economic pressure and intimidation, widespread disinformation campaigns, malicious cyber activities, and illegal and destructive activities by Russian intelligence services on Allied territory. 

The fact that 30 NATO members were prepared to sign up to this assessment of Russia’s conduct was no doubt intended to strengthen Biden’s hand on the eve of his meeting with Putin. 

Two other aspects of the Biden strategy emerge clearly from  the three-hour US-Russian summit. One has to do with Biden’s human rights diplomacy, and the other with US plans for the dialogue with Russia. 

In the lead-up to the meeting Biden repeatedly drew attention to Moscow’s human rights violations, in particular the detention of Alexei Navalny. But it soon became clear that the airing of these concerns was meant primarily for domestic consumption. It may have also been a ploy to put the adversary at a psychological disadvantage. It was certainly not intended to be a subject of serious negotiation. 

As expected, Biden and Putin agreed to return their ambassadors to their respective postings. They had previously recalled their envoys to Washington and Moscow as relations chilled in recent months. They also agreed to proceed with cybersecurity talks and an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue “to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.” 

The Biden plan, then, is to systematically and forcefully advance US interests and influence, yet  somehow avoid a major military confrontation with either Russia or China. Is this dual objective achievable? Are these two adversaries willing to play by the rules set by US policy makers? Are they prepared to play second fiddle to an America intent on retaining global primacy? 

The answer to all three questions is no. 

To begin with, the consensus that emerged from the G7 and NATO summits is at best fragile. The European Union, and in particular France and Germany, are mindful of the importance of their trade and investment links with China.  

China is the EU’s biggest source of imports and its second-biggest export market. China and Europe trade on average over €1 billion a day. Europeans may be willing to make statements critical of Chinese policies and actions, but they are unlikely to do anything which jeopardises the economic relationship. 

Similarly, despite strong US opposition, Chancellor Merkel has stood firm in her government’s support for the German-Russian gas pipeline project, known as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. A few days prior to his meeting with Biden, Putin pointedly announced that the pipe-laying for the first line of the Nord Stream 2 has been fully completed. Where strong economic interests are at play, neither Europe nor Japan will easily give ground to US pressure  

As for the G7 announcements indicating support for poor countries, the reaction has been less than enthusiastic. The measures proposed to deal with climate change and the pandemic fall way short of their needs. As for the B3W initiative, it simply does not match what China has been offering. There is little incentive for these countries to jettison the China connection. 

It is safe to conclude that neither China nor Russia will be intimidated by shows of US strength or  alliance solidarity. They will keep on strengthening their military capabilities and continue to use every bit of soft and hard power to advance their vision of a multi-centric world.  

They will with increasing firmness lay down their own red lines. Russia has already made it clear it will not countenance NATO membership of Ukraine. Nor will China accept a declaration of independence by Taiwan.  

Will Biden’s America accept that NATO’s advance to Russia’s doorstep has gone far enough? Will it concede that it can no longer exercise exclusive control of the seas in the Indo-Pacific region? If it does not, the world is in for torrid times ahead. 

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