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Power triangle: Biden administration mulls over strategic ties with frenemies Russia and China

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / SERGEI ILYIN / KREMLIN POOL) / US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Oliver Contreras / POOL) / Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ZHANG LING / XINHUA)

The Joe Biden administration in the US appears to be weighing options of how it will deal with its two strategic rivals and competitors – Russia and China. Whatever decision is made will affect the global political economy for decades to come.

Back in the 1950s, a young student, a man with a rather obvious German accent, but like so many other US students who had already had searing life experiences, was poised to finish his Harvard doctoral dissertation. That work would become one of his first two published books, in 1957. It’s now titled A World Restored: Europe after Napoleon. The young man, of course, was Henry Kissinger. By the time he entered the US academic world, he had already been a refugee from Nazi Germany, a soldier in the US army that had fought its way across Western Europe, and then a denazification officer assigned to his original home-town in Germany.

His dissertation, and the book it gave rise to, was, paradoxically, a look backwards a century earlier in order to shine some light on the newly emerging post-World War II international order. For Kissinger, the sinew and tissue of such an order could be found in the arrangements and agreements that had created the post-Napoleonic “concert of Europe” and “the long peace” that largely kept major continental war out of Europe until 1914. Key for Kissinger was a small cadre of men who loomed large in achieving this system – aristocrats like Austria’s Metternich, France’s Talleyrand, and Britain’s Castlereagh.

His intellectual accomplishment was realpolitik behaviour with a vengeance that virtually ignored any role for the idealistic impulse for inter-state foreign relations. As he wrote, “Legitimacy as used here should not be confused with justice. It means no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy.” 

His argument was that an international order accepted by all of the major powers is, by definition, “legitimate”, whereas an international order not accepted by one or more of the great powers becomes “revolutionary” and thus destabilising.

Kissinger’s evident approval of the realpolitik way, as with an earlier academic, Hans Morgenthau, put him somewhat at odds with an emerging consensus among many post-war scholars regarding the importance of idealism. Nevertheless, the force of his arguments eventually led him to increasingly influential places within academia and the government – even after his early flirtation with the idea of limited nuclear exchanges in the event of hostilities.

Reviewing a new edition of Kissinger’s book years after its initial release, Francis Fukuyama wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Alongside Hans Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations (1948), [this is] the classic statement of political realism. Although ostensibly a work about European history, Kissinger lays out the general principles of the balance-of-power diplomacy that would characterize his own policies as national security adviser and secretary of state. Academic realists, most prominently Kenneth Waltz, later sought to boil international politics down to an abstract, highly reductionist model. 

“Kissinger never suffered from this kind of physics-envy; he (and Morgenthau) were always conscious of the fact that foreign policy was made by statesmen who operated in a specific historical, cultural, and political context that shaped their goals and limited their options. Kissinger’s depictions of Metternich, Castlereagh, and Talleyrand reflect that consciousness and an attuned sensitivity to the nuances of character.

“This book lucidly argued his case that international peace was best guaranteed not through law or international organizations but through a distribution of power that moderated the ambitions of the strong. The book’s greatest failing was its inability to appreciate the fact that history for the past two centuries has been on the side of the idealist Alexander I and not the amoral calculator Metternich.” 

(As an aside, while it could be said that idealism was clearly on the side of the angels, who didn’t necessarily always rule the policy roost, nevertheless, the concept of human rights was increasingly brought into the discussion and the policy mix.)

As the Nixon administration began in 1969, Kissinger found his spot as the president’s national security adviser and then, eventually, as secretary of state. His articulation of realpolitik and his interpretation of the successful mechanisms of that “concert of Europe” gave him the ideas about a rebalancing of the strategic competition with the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War – even as the US remained deeply enmeshed in its unending war in Southeast Asia. (Of course, many of his decisions and recommendations beyond the Vietnam War remain extremely controversial to this day, and his reputation has continued to take shots.)

Kissinger found his path to a game-changing rebalance of circumstances by reaching out to a China that was still in the final throes of the national convulsion of the Cultural Revolution; a China that, despite its immense size and population, still had an economy that was a minor player globally. It was, however, a newly nuclear-armed nation and one that was increasingly splitting from the Soviet Union’s self-appointed leadership of communist societies. The possibility of eventual full diplomatic relations between the US and China, as well as investment, economic, and trade openings between the two nations proved to be critically important in a dance that began with those famous binational table tennis matches and secret flights to Beijing by Kissinger.

During the Nixon administration, the growing bilateral connection culminated in Richard Nixon’s official visit to China. And, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, it became increasingly clear that China would be the future major global player (and competitor to the US), beyond even a resurgent Russia. In that sense, Kissinger’s triangulation had opened the way for China’s extraordinary economic growth (in conjunction with new economic policies introduced by leaders like Deng Xiaoping). This eventuated in China becoming “the workshop of the world”, a global export giant, one of the US’s most important economic partners (and a significant debt holder), and a member of the World Trade Organization.

The new Biden administration, a team presumably still getting its sea legs, seems to be taking a mix of positions. Is this meant to be a clear message or set of messages in strategic terms? Or, is the administration setting itself up as the target of both competitors? Or is it trying to position itself in some other posture?

However, during Donald Trump’s tenure, much of the shine rubbed off this relationship, with numerous charges of intellectual property theft, unethical pressures on foreign companies operating in China, and cyber-hacking activities, among other complaints, along with deepening questions about China’s geostrategic ambitions. The Trump administration’s imposition of a tariff trade war (and the consequent counter-tariffs) further soured the relationship, deeply affecting US exports to China, even as the administration, by contrast, seemed bent on establishing a much closer relationship with Russia. This included behaviour by the then president that presented an obsequiousness never before demonstrated by a US president, despite actions such as Russia’s cyber-criminal actions against US targets, physical attacks on and arrests of Vladimir Putin’s domestic political opponents, as well as ongoing pressure against Ukraine. It almost seemed as if the Trump administration was intent on achieving a reverse triangulation of the one engineered by Nixon and Kissinger, aligning the US globally with its current strategic security challenger rather than its economic rival.

The new Biden administration, a team presumably still getting its sea legs, seems to be taking a mix of positions. Is this meant to be a clear message or set of messages in strategic terms? Or, is the administration setting itself up as the target of both competitors? Or is it trying to position itself in some other posture?

In recent weeks, the Biden administration’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, got into unexpectedly sharp exchanges with his Chinese counterpart in their bilateral meeting in Alaska. Meanwhile, the US has been visibly building up a still-informal strategic partnership – “the Quadrilateral” with Japan, India and Australia – into a security counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region and especially the increasingly contested South China Sea. In addition, US military strategists are in a near-constant, public conversation about whether the US continues to be capable of force projection sufficient to bar the way of a Chinese military move against the island of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the US is continuing to pursue a more vigorous, beefed up security profile for Nato, vis-à-vis Russia. In a recent meeting in Iceland of the so-called Arctic nations, Blinken’s comments pointed out a warning to Russia to avoid further militarising the Arctic Sea and adjacent territories as that area increasingly becomes open to maritime commerce. Simultaneously, however, in at least one area, the gas pipeline designed to supply northwestern Europe from Russia, the US has unexpectedly moved from a position of significant opposition to it.

As The Washington Post reported on that meeting on 20 May, “The Biden administration on Wednesday decided against sanctioning the company in charge of a Russian gas pipeline, just hours before Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the first face-to-face gathering of a Biden Cabinet member and their Russian counterpart.

“The decision drew criticism from Russia hawks in Congress who want the United States to block the multibillion-dollar Nord Stream 2 project because they say it gives Moscow leverage over U.S. allies in Europe. But Blinken stressed Washington’s preference for a ‘predictable, stable relationship with Russia’ as he sat across the table from Lavrov, each man flanked by six aides.

“Blinken and Lavrov met on the sidelines of the biennial Arctic Council meeting in Reykjavik, the chilly Nordic capital known for hosting meetings of U.S. and Soviet leaders during the Cold War. The two diplomats gave each other an elbow bump and a smile before sitting down and exchanging brief remarks on the importance of mutual cooperation — a markedly friendlier tone than Blinken’s combative first meeting with his Chinese counterparts in March.”

Regardless of that small bit of near-kiss-kiss-hug-hug with the Russians, in his recent commencement speech at the US Coast Guard Academy, President Biden seemed to be arguing for a mix of cautions and carrots to both China and Russia. Biden said:

“…[F]or decades, those [international maritime] rules supported — supported global economic strength that benefited nations everywhere and helped people around the world develop their economic potential. But, as you know, increasingly, we’re seeing those rules challenged, both by the rapid advance of technology and the disruptive actions of nations like China and Russia – with whom I’ve had direct discussions of this with President Xi as well as President Putin. [Italics added.]

“Longstanding, basic maritime principles like freedom of navigation are a bedrock of a global economic and global security. When nations try to game the system or tip the rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance.  That’s why we are so adamant that these areas of the world that are the arteries of trade and shipping remain peaceful – whether that’s the South China Sea, the Arabian Gulf, and, increasingly, the Arctic.

“It’s of vital interest to America’s foreign policy to secure unimpeded flow of global commerce. And it won’t happen without us taking an active role to set the norms of conduct, to shape them around democratic values, not those of autocrats….

“We’re fielding requests from other nations all across the Indo-Pacific that are eager to partner with our Coast Guard because of your reputation of professionalism and your unrivalled skill.

“And in the Arctic, the Coast Guard is the prow of American presence in the region, rapidly growing in strategic importance as ice recedes and new sea lanes open.  We, the United States, are an Arctic nation, and the United States must demonstrate our leadership and engagement, our diplomacy, and our operational skill.”

If one tried to draw a picture at this point of the Biden strategic vision for his nation’s triangle of relations with China and Russia, one might say his administration is still trying out a series of different approaches and contemplating how best to deal with these two “frenemies” of the US. Will the Biden team try to duplicate the Kissinger approach and pick a friend to counterbalance the other strategic rival; and, if so, which one? Or will it be based, in a more ad hoc way, on situations as they arise – something like that 19th century “concert of Europe” so beloved of Kissinger? Or will they go the route of trying to make a more formal coalition in the Indo-Pacific region towards China in order to match the way Nato already works in countering Russia, as they deal with the economic heft and military capabilities of the East Asian nation? DM

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