Over the past month, the United States has faced simultaneous crises thousands of miles apart. In the skies over Taiwan and along the border with Ukraine, China and Russia have tested the new U.S. president and the U.S.-led international order. In the unipolar era of decades past, even the prospect of such geopolitical tension would have seemed fanciful. So preeminent was the United States that it enshrined the ability to deter—and, if necessary, win—two regional wars at the same time in its defense planning, describing such a capacity 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 United States abandoned the two-war standard in recent years, tacitly recognizing the end of the unipolar moment. The rise of China to near peer competitor means the United States can no longer face multiple challengers alone and expect to prevail easily. The challenge for U.S. President Joe Biden, therefore, will be not only to revitalize U.S. power but to invigorate the country’s large network of allies.
At home, Biden’s opening moves have been disappointing. The new administration is proposing a flat U.S. defense budget even as it adds trillions of dollars to domestic spending. Moreover, the Democrats’ preoccupation with the self-loathing doctrine of wokeness not only erodes public confidence but regularly serves up propaganda layups to Washington’s opponents. Neither move portends well for what the Biden team acknowledges to be “extreme competition” with China.
But there are rays of hope abroad. The new administration speaks of “interlocking and overlapping” coalitions designed to generate “the greatest wingspan” on China policy. It is easy to see why: The iron laws of geography compel the United States’ Asian partners to seek succor in Washington no matter who sits in the White House. To its credit, the Biden team has seized on this logic, starting with early consultations in Tokyo and Seoul and a virtual summit of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders. Most importantly, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga broke with custom during his recent trip to Washington to join Biden in affirming “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” The next step for the administration’s Japan policy will be to tackle the capabilities gap, especially Japan’s woefully inadequate defense spending, and arrest the downward spiral in Japanese-South Korean relations.
On the opposite end of Eurasia, the Biden administration has opted for a combination of flattery and goodwill to press its agenda. It has showered its major European allies with attention, coordinating one statement after another in what has been described as a transatlantic “love fest.” In particular, the United States has prioritized working with the EU-3 group—Germany, France, and Britain—joined, on occasion, by Italy under its new premier, Mario Draghi. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already visited Brussels twice.
Unlike in Asia, the secret to the Biden team’s inroads in Europe has relatively little to do with threat perception. None of the EU-3 countries, all situated in Western Europe, perceive an immediate threat from Russia, let alone China. In fact, Germany and France opted for de-escalation rather than deterrence at the height of the Ukraine crisis, even as Kyiv was pressing for more military support. As a result, the Biden administration has instead sought to unlock European hearts by emphasizing the so-called liberal international order, the system of institutions and relationships within which the continent thrives.
The Biden administration has set a high priority for revitalizing that system. But instead of dangling the prospect of Washington’s return as a catalyst to reform, the administration has leapt right back in, reaping an early harvest of positive headlines under the banner “America is back.” Without addressing the manifold shortcomings identified by its predecessor, the Biden administration has rushed to reenter the World Health Organization and United Nations Human Rights Council, rejoined the Paris Agreement, extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, restored funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and worked feverishly to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. Reminiscent of the Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism, these moves have been celebrated by Biden and his team as if they were achievements themselves. The days of Trumpian leverage are gone, replaced by Bidenesque goodwill as the cornerstone of U.S. strategy. But will goodwill achieve better results?
Of course, some tender care is in order after four long, bruising years. And the reset in relations with Europe has generated positive headlines across the continent. But these moves also risk lulling Europe into a false comfort. So long as the lodestar of U.S. strategy is an unreformed liberal order, Europe will be less inclined to invest in hard power. If the Biden administration intends to meet its most solemn defense obligations it has made to U.S. allies, it must force the difficult conversations about military power and economic interdependence that matter most. Soft power and liberal institutions will not deter the West’s opponents.
In this context, Blinken’s rumination during his first trip to Brussels on “the need to adopt a more holistic view of burden sharing” that includes development assistance carries some risk. Similarly, his promise that U.S. allies will not be forced to face an us-or-them choice with China papers over the shared sacrifices that will be required in the future. To complicate matters, U.S. officials have shifted in private from highlighting U.S. allies’ capability shortfalls to praising their progress to date on defense spending.
These signals come at a precarious moment. European leaders, reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, are already tempted to subordinate defense spending to more popular priorities despite Chinese and Russian saber rattling. Moreover, for large swaths of Europe, China is now seen as the key to economic recovery. Against this backdrop, the Biden team is risking catastrophic success: a reset with Europe that tempts U.S. allies to do less in an era that demands more.
The answer is to refocus Western attention on what makes Moscow and Beijing so dangerous. After his first meeting with Chinese officials, Blinken argued that “on Iran, on North Korea, on Afghanistan, on climate, our interests intersect” with China, later adding “health security” to the list. Just weeks ago, he emphasized “areas where our interests align or certainly overlap” with Russia.
To date, both countries have shown nothing but contempt for such offers of cooperation. China, in particular, has made a habit of tying economic benefits to political demands. After retail giants H&M and Nike decried forced labor in Xinjiang, for example, Beijing essentially erased them from local maps and ride-hailing apps. Other companies have taken notice: The list of who has been silenced—or worse—over the years reads like a who’s who of Western businesses. To this day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has never once invoked 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 emboldened by such acquiescence. Most recently, it responded to Western sanctions for human rights violations by targeting a slew of European institutions and elected officials. It was a hammer punch in response to a gentle slap. Meanwhile, in the midst of the Iran nuclear negotiations, Beijing undercut the West’s negotiating position by inking a strategic partnership with Tehran. And as the pandemic unfolded, it sought to steal vaccine research in the United States while exploiting the World Health Organization for propaganda. Indeed, the prospect of a Chinese-dominated international order is dawning on Europe—and it doesn’t resemble anything like cooperative multilateralism.
From the Mekong Delta to the South China Sea and in industries ranging 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 domination. It is the specter of this vision and the need for U.S. allies to help prevent it, starting with economic considerations and military investments, that should serve as the basis for the Biden administration’s diplomacy.
This month’s two-front crisis will not be the Biden administration’s last test. Periodically, perhaps after the 2022 Beijing Olympics or the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Beijing and Moscow will simultaneously trigger another crisis. But for how much longer can the world expect the United States to be everywhere all the time? It’s past time that Washington enlist its allies to meet more of the challenge.
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