The conventional wisdom at the tragic first year mark of the Russian-Ukrainian War is that President Joe Biden and his national security team have done an excellent job of managing support for Ukraine and challenging Russia’s invasion. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, an excellent Kremlinologist, summed it up this way in the current issue: “Biden has conducted a foreign policy of competence and moral clarity, skillfully balancing strength, diplomacy, and restraint.” Well, I would take issue with the conventional wisdom.
Biden and his secretaries of state and defense have pursued a policy of dual containment of both Russia and China that has contributed to the strengthening of Sino-Russian bilateral relations and created a worsening Cold War situation with both Beijing and Moscow. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger have been credited with manipulating the U.S.-Soviet-Chinese triangle in a way that gave the United States stronger relations with both China and the Soviet Union than China and the Soviet Union had with each other. Biden will probably be credited with contributing to the worsening of these bilateral relations and weakening the U.S. geopolitical situation in general.
David Remnick’s “The Talk of the Town” editorial argues that Biden “has recognized and advertised the immense stakes of the conflict, but he has taken pains not to provide a direct conflict with Russia.” However, in his Warsaw speech last week, Biden consistently taunted and mocked Putin, mentioning him by name nearly a dozen times. This is similar to President Barack Obama’s personal attacks on Putin in his second term, when he taunted Putin’s posture and behavior.
Conversely, Putin never was personally critical of Obama, and in his speech in Moscow last week he never mentioned Biden by name. The Obama-Biden team also also provided Putin with an opening to China by announcing the containment of China in 2011. Obama and Biden boasted of a “pivot” from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region, which Beijing understood to be the beginning of a containment policy. The notion that we can actually “contain” a nation as politically and economically powerful as China is simply ludicrous.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also took a page out of the Obama-Biden playbook when he issued a bellicose “red line” against any Chinese effort to supply weaponry to Russia for its invasion forces. Ignoring the past ten years of criticism of Obama and his “red line” regarding Syria’s chemical weapons, Blinken emphatically warned Beijing that it should not consider supplying weapons to Russia. In view of the $30 billion (and climbing) in U.S. weapons deliveries, Blinken’s self-aggrandizing threat is similarly ludicrous.
In any event, it would be difficult to monitor Chinese military deliveries to Russia in view of the long border that these nations share. Moreover, what is it that the United States can do about it? Economic sanctions against China would have a terrible impact on the Western economies, particularly the United States. The Biden administration is already having difficulty moving on its $1 trillion infrastructure bill because of its heavy dependence on China for the very items essential to rebuilding infrastructure.
Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also have unleashed or simply failed to monitor the bellicose remarks of senior general officers that have outrageously predicted an American war with China in the next several years. The worst of these remarks involved General Michael Minihan, chief of the Air Mobility Command, who issued a bombastic and unusual memorandum that predicted a Sino-American war in two years, when Xi Jinping will have secured his third term following controversial presidential elections in the United States and Taiwan. Minihan, the archetype of “Dr. Strangelove’s” Jack Ripper, credited the Air Force with causing the largest “pile of our nation’s enemy dead.” “Lethality matters most,” he wrote last year, for “when you can kill your enemy, every part of your life is better. Your food tastes better. Your marriage is stronger.” Minihan, by the way, is commanding more than 110.000 troops!
Biden himself picked an unusual venue—Warsaw, Poland—for trumpeting the success of the democratic nations against their authoritarian rivals. Biden ignored the substantive divide between the eastern and western member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and firmly planted himself with the confrontational eastern line toward Russia. He did this last year in Warsaw; last week, he ignored the authoritarian tendencies of the current Polish government. The European Union has serious differences with Poland’s right-wing governing party, Law and Justice, particularly regarding changes to the judicial system as well as Warsaw’s insistence that Polish law trumps European legislation.
Biden’s remarks were reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter’s praise for Iran’s “democracy” in 1977, when he described the American stance on Iran’s place in the world order, stating: “Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.” Carter[ also praised Iran’s “democracy,” and described the hated Shah as a “popular king” among the Iranian people. Two years later, the Khomeini revolution represented one of the CIA’s worst intelligence failures.
I would remind the Biden team of Barbara Tuchman’s “Guns of August,” which President John F. Kennedy reportedly read during the Cuban missile crisis. The book led to Kennedy’s commitment to find a diplomatic solution and to ignore the bellicose remarks of his secretaries of state and defense. It does not appear that either Vladimir Putin or Volodymyr Zelensky are prepared to pursue diplomacy, but Xi Jinping has at least floated the idea of peace talks. Zelensky has reacted somewhat positively to the idea of talks. The Biden administration needs to signal Beijing that there is the possibility of a positive outcome on a serious geopolitical issue. “Red lines” and threats are certainly not going to produce a positive response from Beijing.
It’s time to stifle the hot air of the balloon crisis, and approach the Chinese on the basis of rival superpowers who understand that “jaw-jaw” is better than “war-war.” At the moment, the alternative is greater—and even catastrophic—escalation as well as a wider war. All the political posturing and American punditry about Ukraine’s “absolute victory” has become increasingly obtuse.