April 28, 2021, 10:45 a.m.
For the past month, the United States has also faced crises thousands of miles apart. In the skies over Taiwan and along the border with Ukraine, China and Russia have tested the new US president and the US-led international order. In the unipolar era of the past few decades, even the prospect of such geopolitical tension would have been fanciful. So outstanding was the United States that it enshrined in its defense planning the ability to deter and, if necessary, win two regional wars at the same time, and identified such ability as the essential condition of a superpower.
Like the old saw about arms control – when you need it most, it's least available to you – the US has abandoned the two-war standard in recent years and has tacitly seen the end of the unipolar moment. China's rise to a near-par rival means that the United States can no longer just face multiple challengers and expect it to easily prevail. The challenge for US President Joe Biden will therefore not only be to revive US power, but also to strengthen the country's large network of alliances.
At home, Biden's opening moves were disappointing. The new administration proposes a shallow US defense budget despite increasing domestic spending by trillions of dollars. In addition, the Democrats' preoccupation with the self-despising doctrine of vigilance not only undermines public confidence, but also serves as regular propaganda layups for Washington’s opponents. Neither step is a good sign of what the Biden team recognizes as "extreme competition" with China.
But there are glimmers of hope abroad. The new government speaks of "interlocking and overlapping" coalitions designed to create "the greatest span" of China policy. It's easy to see why: The iron laws of geography force America's Asian partners to seek assistance from Washington, regardless of who sits in the White House. To his credit, the Biden team took up this logic, from early consultations in Tokyo and Seoul to a virtual summit of the leaders of the square security dialogue. Most importantly, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga broke the custom during his recent trip to Washington to join Biden in reaffirming "the importance of cross-strait peace and stability". The next step for the government's Japan policy will be to fill the capacity gap, particularly Japan's extremely inadequate defense spending, and halt the downward spiral in Japan-South Korean relations.
At the other end of Eurasia, the Biden government has chosen a combination of flattery and goodwill to move its agenda forward. She has showered her most important European allies with the attention and coordinated one statement after the other in a so-called transatlantic "love festival". In particular, the United States has given priority to cooperation with the EU-3 group – Germany, France and the UK – which occasionally includes Italy under its new Prime Minister Mario Draghi. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already visited Brussels twice.
Unlike in Asia, the secret of the Biden team's progress in Europe has relatively little to do with threat awareness. None of the EU-3 countries, all located in Western Europe, sees an immediate threat from Russia, let alone China. Indeed, at the height of the Ukraine crisis, Germany and France opted for de-escalation rather than deterrence, despite Kiev pushing for more military support. As a result, the Biden government has instead tried to open European hearts by emphasizing the so-called liberal international order, the system of institutions and relationships in which the continent thrives.
The Biden administration has given high priority to the revitalization of this system. But rather than questioning the prospect of Washington returning as a catalyst for reform, the government jumped right in again and reaped an early harvest of positive headlines under the slogan "America is Back". Without remedying the many shortcomings of its predecessor, the Biden government has rushed to rejoin the World Health Organization and the United Nations Human Rights Council, rejoined the Paris Agreement, extended the new Treaty on Strategic Arms Reduction and raised funds for the Auxiliary and manpower of the United Nations restored agency and worked feverishly to resume the Iranian nuclear deal. These steps, reminiscent of the Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism, were celebrated by Biden and his team as if they were successes themselves. The days of Trumpian leverage are over and are being replaced by bidenesque goodwill as the cornerstone of US strategy. But will the goodwill produce better results?
Of course, after four long, bloody years, delicate care is required. And the resetting of relations with Europe has made positive headlines across the continent. But these steps also risk lulling Europe into false comfort. As long as the guiding star of US strategy is an unreformed liberal order, Europe will be less inclined to invest in hard power. If the Biden administration is to fulfill its most solemn defense commitments to US allies, it must force the difficult talks of military power and economic interdependence that matter most. Soft power and liberal institutions will not deter Western opponents.
In this context, Blinkens rumination during his first trip to Brussels about the "need for a more holistic view of burden-sharing" that includes development aid. Likewise, his promise that US allies will not be forced to use China papers to face a choice between us and them in order to make the common sacrifices that will be required in the future. To complicate matters, US officials have privately shifted from highlighting US allies' skill deficits to praising their past advances in defense spending.
These signals come at a precarious time. European leaders hit by the coronavirus pandemic are already tempted to subordinate defense spending to popular priorities despite the rattling of Chinese and Russian sabers. In addition, China is now seen as the key to economic recovery for large parts of Europe. With this in mind, the Biden team risks a catastrophic success: a reset with Europe that tempts US allies to do less at a time when more is demanded.
The answer is to redirect the West's attention to what makes Moscow and Beijing so dangerous. After his first meeting with Chinese officials, Blinken argued that "our interests in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and the climate overlap with China," and later added "health security". A few weeks ago he emphasized "Areas where our interests coincide with Russia or certainly overlap".
So far, both countries have shown nothing but contempt for such offers of cooperation. China in particular has made a habit of combining economic benefits with political demands. For example, after retail giants H&M and Nike sentenced forced labor in Xinjiang, Beijing essentially erased them from local maps and hail apps. Other companies have taken note: the list of people who have been silenced over the years – or worse – reads like a who's who of western companies. To this day, Chancellor Angela Merkel has never referred to the European Union's description of China as a systemic rival. She seems to see the country as little more than an economic opportunity for Germany's hypertrophic export sector.
If anything, China is encouraged by such consent. Most recently, it responded to Western sanctions for human rights violations by targeting a number of European institutions and elected officials. It was a hammer blow in response to a gentle blow. During the Iranian nuclear negotiations, Beijing undermined the West's negotiating position by entering into a strategic partnership with Tehran. And as the pandemic spread, it tried to steal vaccine research in the United States while using the World Health Organization for propaganda. Indeed, the prospect of a China-dominated international order is dawning on Europe – and it is nothing like cooperative multilateralism.
From the Mekong Delta to the South China Sea and in industries that range from renewable energy to telecommunications, China intends to replace today's system of sovereign states and open competition with one of its tributaries and ruthless rule. It is the specter of this vision and the need for US allies to prevent it, beginning with economic considerations and military investments, that should serve as the basis for the diplomacy of the Biden administration.
This month's two-front crisis will not be the final test of the Biden government. At regular intervals, perhaps after the Beijing Olympics in 2022 or the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Beijing and Moscow will trigger another crisis at the same time. But how much longer can the world expect the United States to be everywhere all the time? It is time Washington engaged its allies to rise to the challenge.