12 August 2020

How Biden’s America could win a Cold War with China – and why it might not


Introduction: The snake charm of rhetoric

In political risk analysis, it is important to always keep in mind the fact that words matter less than the concrete realities of power. During the days of George W. Bush’s endless malapropisms, I had to gently remind my European colleagues that foreign policy was not run as a debating society. While any number of other world leaders might have been more eloquent than W, his confusing syntactical jumble were the words that mattered more than anyone else’s on the planet, as they were not being analyzed for their aesthetic beauty, but for the fact that they were backed up by the 82nd airborne division and the world’s most dynamic economy. It has always been the left in political risk analysis that seems to confuse rhetoric and reality, which is perhaps the basic reason why the political risk business (unlike the practice of foreign policy) is overwhelmingly run by realists rather than idealistic Wilsonians.

Now Joe Biden, who has somehow turned languishing in his Delaware basement into a political art form, is the latest Wilsonian in danger of being snake charmed by the power of his own voice. As the summer comes to an end, and with the former Vice President leading Donald Trump beyond the margin of error in most of the battleground states, it is high time to look at what a Biden foreign policy would actually amount to, as it may well be a reality in just under 100 days.

The world as it is

Our new era is a time of what I call loose bipolarity, whereby the US and China are far and away the dominant two superpowers on the planet. However, beneath them there are a series of great powers that also matter in global calculations of political risk. Moreover, unlike in Cold War I between the US and the Soviet Union, our present global structural framework allows Japan, India, Russia, the EU, and the Anglosphere countries a lot of room for independent strategic maneuvers of their own, as alliances no longer march in lockstep. This means that neither China nor America can take their great power allies for granted, or simply presume they will jump whenever Beijing or Washington whistle.

The Biden team’s instinctive rhetorical response to this (and critique of the Trump administration) is entirely on the money; they are right to argue that the lost art of alliance management must come to the forefront again if the US is to triumph in Cold War II. For while America has a significant advantage in that most of the great powers in our new world favour the US (Japan, India, the EU and the Anglosphere), the Trump years have seen America ignore and even imperil this grand geostrategic advantage. Too often realists have seen alliance management as a peripheral foreign policy task, vaguely important but disagreeable, akin to a small child eating their vegetables. But this betrays too narrow a definition of the national interest: if you want to advance a positive American agenda in our complicated new world, you need as many friends as you can get.

Singing from the same hymnal

Even more heartening, senior members of the Biden team are all singing from the same hymnal. Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to Biden when he was Vice President from 2009-2013 and then Deputy Secretary of State from 2015-17, is surely in line for a major foreign policy job should the Democratic nominee triumph. In interviews, Blinken highlights that partnerships are the key to successfully confronting Beijing, and that India especially must be a higher foreign policy priority. Given Russia’s long-term revisionism, US ties with the Kremlin are not likely to improve in even the medium-term, so America should focus more on keeping Russia pre-occupied by supporting Georgia and Ukraine.

Likewise Julianne Smith, Biden’s former Deputy National Security Advisor from 2012-13, and a woman touted as the possible next US Ambassador to NATO or Ambassador to the UN, is even more explicit about the need to focus on alliances. While Smith agrees with Trump that the US now finds itself in a superpower competition with China (a reality the Obama administration she served grievously underrated), to triumph the US needs Europe as an ally in the fight. Specifically, the US and the EU should proceed based on shared interests, fortifying their trade relations, coordinating disagreements with China’s myriad human rights abuses, and creating a common alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Biden himself is clearly in line with these coordinated strategic views, though he has had to play intellectual catch-up to arrive here, all the while hoping the American people have a convenient memory loss about his earlier dovish position on Beijing. For while Biden met Xi Jinping at least eight times while serving as Vice President, he signally failed to raise the alarm about China’s aggressive rise. Even during the primary season, in May 2019, Biden laughingly assured an Iowa crowd that China ‘was not competition for us’.

However he has since changed his tune. Biden now says that the democratic allies should work together to create a 5G alternative to Huawei. He wants to create a ‘unified front’ of American allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors but to still engage with Beijing over global governance issues relating to climate change, pandemics, and nonproliferation.

But the focus, as is true with Blinken and Smith, remains on alliance management. In an August 2019 interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden stressed that ‘my focus will be on rallying our friends in both Asia and Europe in setting the rules of the road for the 21st century and joining us to get tough on China and its trade and technological abuses.’ Specifically, the former Vice President called for enhanced links with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India.

There is, however, a striking caveat to all this consistency. While Biden has criticized Trump for reneging on the Obama-inspired Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal—the policy jewel in the crown of the Democratic administration’s pivot to Asia—Biden has also followed his party into the protectionist wilderness.

Now he says that no new trade deals of any kind should be agreed unless strong and enforceable provisions were put in place for American workers and the environment. Just as Barack Obama failed to push hard for TPP as the Democratic caucus slid to the protectionist left, and as Hillary Clinton abandoned a deal she had helped personally negotiate, now Biden too seems likely to bend with the political wind, abdicating membership in the revived TPP, which is the single most tangible way to cement this much-talked of Asian alliance. Likewise on Europe, Biden makes some ill-conceived strategic choices, wanting to enhance NATO’s role but for it to focus the alliance almost exclusively on dealing with declining great power Russia rather than rising superpower China.

The Devil Is In The Details

So how as a pro-alliance realist can I be against all this lovely rhetoric? Two simple things make me nervous: 1) the devil is always in the detail in terms of foreign policy analysis and 2) proposed policies matter far more than platitudes ever will in terms of political risk.

Blinken states that alliances are important, closer ties with India matter greatly and that there should be no warming with Russia. Beyond the difference in rhetoric, that is precisely what Trump has done as the US partnership with Delhi has blossomed along with the personal friendship between the president and Prime Minister Modi. And for all the shrieking about Russia, there has been no noticeable policy warming to speak of between America and the Kremlin these past four years. So the differences, in practical fact, seem minimal between what Trump has done and Blinken is proposing.

As for Smith, there is more intellectual blue water between her and Trump, but just barely. NATO solidarity is a worthy goal, but to do what exactly? The policy areas she does name (some sort of transatlantic free trade deal, coordinating moral disapproval with Beijing’s human rights record and creating BRI alternatives) are either unlikely to happen due to protectionism on both sides of the Atlantic, or are largely ineffectual symbolism. While I wholeheartedly agree with Smith that the European alliance must be mobilized to take on China, she doesn’t begin to answer the key policy questions of: ‘How?’and ‘To do what?’ The Democrats have had four years to think this through and this bare-bones outline is just not good enough.

Finally, we get to the intellectual confusions of the candidate himself. While there is absolutely no doubt that Biden came far too late to the anti-China party, the nominee is trying to make up for lost time, calling out China’s trade and human rights abuses and technology pilfering. But beneath the faux realist rhetoric there lurks a confused Wilsonian as the nominee is eloquently silent about expanding the Quadrilateral Initiative.

The Quad is a nascent security grouping linking great powers India, Japan and the US with Anglosphere member Australia in an anti-Chinese security format. To not talk about the Quad is to not talk about China’s hard power security threat in the Indo-Pacific, which is one of the major political risk concerns in this superpower competition. It would be like not discussing Berlin in the original 20th century Cold War between the US and the USSR. This is beyond intellectually strange, it is strategically gormless.

The other major policy tool for dealing with Beijing – to re-join the Japanese-salvaged TPP – also appears to be a non-starter for Biden, though leaving the trade deal is undoubtedly Trump’s biggest foreign policy calamity. Once again, the long-standing protectionist instincts of the Democratic caucus are getting in the way of grasping what would amount to a major geopolitical victory. Beyond this castrating non-policy, Biden’s not grasping a NATO pivot toward China means all this verbiage, once its sifted through, amounts to much ado about nothing.

The problem with Wilsonians is that they are taken in by words; in this case, Biden and his team seem strangely beguiled by their own campaign rhetoric, as satisfying on the surface as it is devoid of policy depth. Because despite the fact that they are strategically on the money about the new-found centrality of alliance management, a failure to beef up TPP, the Quad, and NATO leaves this noble goal as little more than a fanciful hope – at least for now.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is Chairman of the global political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and author of To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk (Princeton).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.