Biden, China, Cold War, Democrats, election 2016, election interference, globalism, Henry Kissinger, impeachment, Nordstream 2, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, Trump-Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin
Even though he’s just turned 98, I’m still surprised that none of the voluminous coverage and commentary on the just-concluded summit between President Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin featured any analysis from Henry Kissinger. Not that I agree with every policy decision or even strategy that the former Secretary of State and White House national security adviser favored – far from it.
But as I’ve written before, he’s one of the few first-rate analysts of U.S. foreign policy that I’ve encountered over my own decades in the field (and would have been even if in fact this bar was not so low). He’s still speaking out on these issues. And most important of all, Mr. Biden seems to have paid little attention either in the run-up to the Putin meeting and at the actual session (though of course, the details will long remain highly classified) to an historic insight that Kissinger helped contributed to American diplomacy whose core is as relevant as ever: the imperative of not needlessly antagonizing Russia and China at the same time.
At this point, three big caveats need to be mentioned. First, it’s an imperative if U.S. foreign policy is to take a globalist course. That’s not my favored course, and under my kind of America First framework, the approach toward each of this powers would be substantially different. But the President is a died-in-the-wool globalist, so what counts most isn’t how his decisions compare with my preferences, but how well and coherently he’s pursuing his own strategy.
Second, there’s no question that Kissinger – and the rest of the bipartisan globalist U.S. foreign policy establishment – took the engage-with-China strategy way too, and indeed disastrously, too far. But at the time, and given the prevailing Cold War priorities both he and then President Nixon held, opening ties with China largely (but not exclusively) to complicate global matters for a Soviet Union feeling its oats, not only made good sense, but was long overdue.
And third, as suggested by my Cold War reference and my claim that U.S. China policy went way overboard, both national and international circumstances have changed dramatically.
Nonetheless, although China today is the rising behemoth facing the United States and post-Soviet Russia’s power is greatly diminished, the latter is still more than strong enough militarily and technologically to cause major problems for America. These range from aggressive designs on vulnerable new U.S. allies like the Baltic countries and Moscow’s former Warsaw Pact satellites, to damaging and disruptive hacks to America’s infrastructure. (I put election interference in a different box, since only extreme partisans believe that Russian operations made the difference in 2016.)
Since the China threat is far greater – and much more multidimensional – than the Russia threat, Mr. Biden has to date sensibly continued his predecessor’s policies of pushing back both militarily (in areas like the South China Sea) and economically (by keeping the Trump China tariffs and tech sanctions in place).
But he’s also spent his first months in office until this week seemingly determined to do his utmost to villify Russia and Putin verbally, apparently heedless of how his posture threatened to push Moscow and Beijing even closer together.
That’s not to say that a rapprochement between China and Russia didn’t take place during the Trump years. It did. (See, e.g., here.) And undoubtedly one big reason was that the Trump actions were much tougher than the Trump words. That’s true whether we’re talking about energy policy (where the former President’s encouragement of American independence gravely weakened the economies of Russia and other big foreign oil and gas producers), or Europe policy (where despite Trump’s scorn for America’s militarily free-riding allies, he beefed up the U.S. air and ground force and naval presence in and around Eastern Europe, right at Russia’s doorstep).
But unlike Mr. Biden to date, Trump also just as undoubtedly sought to contain disputes and even keep open the door to lowering tensions. And one key reason for this hostile posture can only be the flagrantly false claims from so many Democratic party politicians that Trump was excusing and even enabling Putin’s hostile actions out of gratitude for that election year assistance. President Biden eagerly joined the chorus, which tragically turned any outreach toward Russia toxic politically, and now he’s paying the piper – coming under fire from vengeful Republicans and other conservatives for even so modest and reasonable a decision as meeting Putin in person.
As a result, despite this recent report that “Biden fears what ‘best friends’ [Chinese leader] Xi and Putin could do together” and that “U.S. wariness over the Russia-China relationship has grown to the point where high-level American strategists are weighing how to factor it in as they try to reorient U.S. foreign policy to focus more on a rising China,” there’s not only no evidence that the subject came up in any serious way. It’s difficult at best to imagine that Mr. Biden could actually take any noteworthy steps in this direction without sparking (understandable) charges that he’s a Trump-like Putin lapdog, too. Just think of the reactions even in his own party to his recent decision to waive U.S. sanctions on finishing the Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline, which as I’ve written, can only enrich Russia at the expense of Ukraine (whose security against Russian expansionism was declared vital to the United States itself by so many Democrats during the first Trump impeachment procedings).
An anti-American genuine Russia-China alliance is still no foregone conclusion. After all, countries bordering each other often have long histories of intense and often violent rivalries (like Russia and China). Dictators and would-be dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping rarely trust each other. As a result, countries headed by such authoritarians that are also next-door neighbors are especially unlikely partners.
But there’s also historically a great deal to the adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And for the time being – and at an especially crucial juncture – Mr. Biden will struggle mightily to heed it.