alliances, allies, Beijing Olympics, Biden, China, Emmanuel Macron, European Union, France, Fumio Kishida, Germany, Japan, multilateralism, NATO, Nordstream 2, North Atlantic treaty Organization, Olympic boycott, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Putin, Russia, sanctions, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Winter Olympics
What’s worse than “terrible”? It’s an important question because if that’s a term that accurately describes President Biden’s last week or so in office, then something even stronger is clearly needed for the setbacks suffered recently by multilateralism – the foundation of his foreign policy. And most troublingly, the idea that U.S. foreign policy success requires the cooperation of major allies has been failing most conspicuously when it comes to dealing with America’s two biggest global rivals – Russia and China.
Let’s deal with Russia first, but not because I view it as the biggest threat to the United States – or even much of a threat at all. In fact, I’ve long and repeatedly written that the fate of Ukraine has no importance for America’s national security, and that Washington should accept some form of the kind of spheres of influence-type deal in Eastern Europe that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has proposed.
But the Ukraine crisis is making the most headlines right now, the subject dominated his long press conference last Wednesday, and Mr. Biden is nowhere near taking my advice. Indeed, that presser added powerfully to the evidence that the United States and its allies are deeply divided over how to respond to actual and possible Russian moves against Ukraine.
As the President made clear, “[I]t’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page. And that’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing. And there are differences. There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens — the degree to which they’re able to go.”
Indeed, that very day, France’s President Emmanuel Macron proposed that the European Union seek separate from U.S. efforts a new security agreement with Russia. Macron did state that “It is good that Europeans and the United States coordinate” but added “it is necessary that Europeans conduct their own dialogue, We must put together a joint proposal, a joint vision, a new security and stability order for Europe.”
Since Europe is a lot closer to Russia and Ukraine that the United States, and will be much more dramatically affected by events in that region, this French position seems entirely legitimate to me. At the same time, it’s tough to believe that Macron would place such importance on a Europe-only effort if he was completely happy with what he knows of American diplomacy so far.
Germany’s views seem even farther from Washington’s. Its new government has not only refused to join some other European countries (notably, the United Kingdom) in supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine. It’s blocked at least one NATO country – Estonia – from sending its own Made in Germany arms to bolster Kiev’s military.
Moreover, trade-dependent Germany, whose trade with Russia in energy and other goods is substantial, doesn’t even seem very keen on deterring or punishing Moscow for invading Ukraine with the kinds of sanctions that are widely viewed as the strongest – cutting Russia off from the global network used by almost all the world’s financial institutions to send money across borders for all the reasons that money is sent across borders. At least Berlin is sounding more open to halting final approval of the Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline if Ukraine is invaded.
Asian countries seem more prepared to resist aggression from China, especially the military kind (as opposed to Beijing’s economic efforts at intimidation). Since this post last September reporting on steps they’ve taken to transition from U.S. protectorates to countries more closely resembling genuine allies, some have made even more encouraging moves.
For example, Indonesia reportedly “is preparing itself militarily” to deal with Chinese moves against islands located in its territorial waters and major straits through which much of its (and the world’s commercial shipping) travels. The Philippines – another Southeast Asian country embroiled in maritimes disputes with China, has just bought cruise missiles from India, and reportedly some of its neighbors are interested in these devices, too.
At the same time, despite a virtual summit between President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan’s policy on using its forces to help any U.S. attempt to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack remains ambivalent at best. South Korea looks more hesistant still.
Nor is Japan backing the United States to the hilt on sanctioning Russia economically following a Ukraine attack, or even close. After the Biden-Kishida session, an anonymous U.S. official said (in a briefing posted on the White House website) that although the Japanese leader “made it clear his country would be ‘fully behind’” Washington on the issue, his response concerning economic responses Tokyo would support was “We did not get into the specifics about possible steps that would be taken in the event that we see these [potential Russian] actions transpire.”
The refusal of so many U.S. allies and others to join the Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott versus the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing also casts major doubts on the President’s emphasis on multilateralism. Can any countries declining even to keep their officials alone out of China for the games (as opposed to their athletes) be counted on to push back more concretely and powerfully against future provocations from China?
Athletes and sports fans know well the expression “Change a losing game.” For all you others, it means that if a strategy or approach is failing, switch to an alternative. But for the future of American foreign policy, the most important part of it remains unspoken, and the one that the President needs most urgently to heed: “Change it before you’ve lost.”