President Biden must call time on the “exceptionalism” US has long exploited

Feb 2, 2021

Last year I described an essay by then candidate Joe Biden “Why America must lead again” as “less an inspirational treatise … more a collage of ideas”. With so many daunting domestic challenges to confront, it will take time for Biden to put his personal stamp on key foreign policy themes.

The fundamental theme of Biden’s essay was to replace Trump’s “Make America Great Again” with a new clarion call – “Make America a Leader Again”. Biden’s basic concern was that Trump had seriously damaged US alliance relationships and withdrawn it from too much of the multilateral world – to the obvious benefit of both China and Russia.

Regaining that “exclusive” world leadership, though, poses serious challenges and goes well beyond a reversal or even mitigation of Trump’s policies. Inevitably it must impact on the “exceptionalism” that the US has exploited for so long – well before Trump – in refusing to accept the jurisdiction of international organisations like the ICJ or UNCLOS.

The world has become a very different place from what it was in President Obama’s time – though in our region much of the change was well under way then, if not well recognised by the US. Unfortunately, Obama’s foreign policy record was a patchy one – promising much but not delivering on some key issues. True, much of this can be attributed to the paralysis imposed by a confrontational Congress but it also reflected failings of his bureaucratic team – which Trump later characterised as “The Swamp”.

Even among political and security circles now in Canberra there has been (albeit grudgingly) increasing acceptance that US influence in our part of the world has been diminishing and a realisation that military power and influence are two quite separate things.

For all his shocking mismanagement of US foreign policy, from the outset Trump identified the urgent need for significant change in tactics across key issues. This often set him at odds with the Swamp and even his own advisers. From his business background, he perceived that breaking the logjam on issues like China and North Korea required deals to be cut personally with major protagonists – deals requiring hardnosed bargaining but including compromise if need be.

This is not the place to review Trump’s tactics but suffice it to say that he was able to inject some new activity into what had become a largely reactive US foreign policy. These initiatives typified Trump’s foreign policy approach and broke sharply with that of Obama – though no real progress was achieved.

This has left Biden with both issues (and they are interconnected) very high on his foreign policy agenda. His essay last year was light on both. He presented China as “a special challenge” that he understands well having spent “many hours with its leaders” and recognised was “playing the long game”.

Taking account of the increasing US public concern about China (being whipped up by Trump and his team) his main message was to reassure Americans that he would be tough on China – but with only the sketchiest of suggestions how this could be achieved. The essay contained no specific comment on Taiwan, Korea or the South China Sea.

Since the election, Biden still has not been very expansive on his vision for foreign policy. Understandably, he has been preoccupied with a host of urgent domestic priorities and apart from climate change and arms sales to Saudi Arabia he has largely been dodging booby traps laid by Trump and former secretary of state Pompeo on Taiwan and a few other issues. Meanwhile, he has strengthened the National Security Council staff on Asia and China in preparation for taking a more whole of government approach to China.

In recent months, Biden’s now National Security Council head (Sullivan) and the head of its Indo Pacific team (Campbell) sought to map out a fresh approach to China in what they characterised as growing consensus that the “era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close”. They acknowledged that the combination of “Chinese assertiveness and US ambivalence [ed. under Trump] has left the Indo Pacific in flux”.

Searching for a new descriptor they pointed out that “strategic patience” [ed. which described much of Obama’s policy on China and North Korea] reflected uncertainty about what to do and when – while “strategic ambiguity” demonstrated uncertainty about what to signal. They described the current scene as “strategic competition” but recognised the uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win.

Coexistence with China required “accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved”. While accepting that here was a need for the US to diversify and strengthen its military posture across the region, they believed that “military primacy will be difficult to restore, given the reach of China’s weapons”. They concluded that instead the US should focus on “deterring China from interfering with its freedom of maneuver(sic) and from physically coercing US allies and partners” – although they did not mention the Indo-Pacific Defense Initiative.

US Indo-Pacific Defence Initiative: What’s really going on ?

Their views were pointedly devoid of the invective about the Chinese Communist Party and Xi expressed by Pompeo in his final months in office. Their summation was of particular interest:

“The basic mistake of engagement was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China’s political system, economy, and foreign policy. Washington risks making a similar mistake today, by assuming that competition can succeed in transforming China where engagement failed—this time forcing capitulation or even collapse.

Despite the many divides between the two countries, each will need to be prepared to live with the other as a major power. The starting point for the right US approach must be humility about the capacity of decisions made in Washington to determine the direction of long-term developments in Beijing …  It should seek to achieve not a definitive end state akin to the Cold War’s ultimate conclusion but a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values.”

Last week, in an unusually quick hearing, Blinken was approved by the Senate as Secretary of State, surprising several senior Republicans by the alacrity with which he agreed with them on most issues. He readily agreed to Republican senators’ statements on genocide of the Uighurs, support for the Taiwan Act, and the assertiveness of Xi’s China, though he was a little more guarded on Hong Kong.

But when asked what he recommended US policy towards China should be he waffled on about his view of the world being divided into the “techno-democracies” and “techno-autocracies” and the importance that the former should prevail. He accepted that the US needed to strengthen its military capability in the IndoPacific but emphasised that much more was needed to be done in the diplomatic arena including with the Quad and “partners” in Asia.

Biden has still not spoken to Xi and so is yet to become involved personally with the Chinese leadership with any attempts to improve the relationship between Washington and Beijing. Given the volatility prevailing, the longer that is delayed the more likely the speed of events requiring urgent response will start to dictate the broader policy. All the more, as China seeks to take advantage of the uncertainties in Washington with maritime actions in the Taiwan Straits and the East China Sea and further soft power countering of any US attempts to bolster wider regional support to deter Chinese assertiveness.

Kishore Mahbubani’s excellent article (“Attempts to build a new anti-China alliance will fail) provides ample testimony to the problems in that domain.

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