Democracy Biden’s soft-power policy faces reality of Xi-Putin big-power world

Democracy Biden’s soft-power policy faces reality of Xi-Putin big-power world

Democracy

President Joe Biden took office with what was, in many ways, a soft-power vision of foreign policy. But China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have been busy reminding the United States that today’s world is one of big-power competition.

Regional experts say one key objective of Mr. Putin’s recent actions regarding Ukraine is to convince the U.S. to deal with Russia as the great power he sees it to be. At the end of a week of inconclusive diplomacy addressing Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that if nothing else, “they are taking us seriously now.”

Democracy Why We Wrote This

The language of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy orientation – alliances, democracy, moral authority – is suggestive of values and evocative of soft power. But can it adapt to the world as it is?

On Tuesday the State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken will conclude visits to Ukraine and Germany this week with a stop in Geneva to meet with Mr. Lavrov.

“Big-power politics is back in a big way. It’s not a reality President Biden can wish away or ignore,” says Michael Desch, a professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame. The U.S., he and others say, may have to bow to the realities of the new big-power era to formally accommodate Russia’s concerns.

“‘Spheres of influence’ has a distasteful aroma about it,” he says, “but that’s generally how big-power peace has been kept throughout much of history.” 

President Joe Biden pledged an “America is back” foreign policy that would get the United States out of forever wars, renew U.S. moral authority through closer relations with allies and support for democracy, and revive economic leadership.

In many ways, it was a soft-power vision of foreign policy.

But over President Biden’s first year in office, China’s Xi Jinping and more recently Russia’s Vladimir Putin have been busy reminding the U.S. that the 21st-century world is one of big-power competition.

Democracy Why We Wrote This

The language of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy orientation – alliances, democracy, moral authority – is suggestive of values and evocative of soft power. But can it adapt to the world as it is?

After a post-Cold War era of globalization, China’s ratcheted-up pressure on Taiwan and Russia’s moves against Ukraine and efforts to reconstitute in some form the security blanket of the Soviet Union are reviving 19th-century big-power notions like “spheres of influence” – once thought by some to have been relegated to history.

The questions now are whether Mr. Biden’s soft-power foreign policy can adapt to the realities of the world as it is, and whether the tools his administration has largely turned to so far for dealing with Russia and China – like sanctions – are the right ones.

“Big-power politics is back in a big way. It’s not a reality President Biden can wish away or ignore,” says Michael Desch, a professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame and founding director of the university’s International Security Center. “But a year into his presidency and as he confronts these two very difficult and fraught situations, I see both ways in which his administration is acknowledging this big-power world they’ve entered – and ways they still have not.”

For some foreign policy experts, Mr. Biden’s ban on U.S. diplomats attending the upcoming Beijing Olympics over China’s human rights abuses, or his threat of devastating economic sanctions against Moscow while excluding a military response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine, has demonstrated little resolve, lacked clarity, and even invited more provocative actions from America’s adversaries.

“By and large, the kinds of actions Biden and his team are taking or are threatening to take do not meet this moment very well, whether we’re talking about the challenges from Russia or those posed by China,” says Simon Miles, a Russia expert and assistant professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

“I don’t think the Chinese care at all if American diplomats show up for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics,” he says. As for the Russians, he says Mr. Biden’s priorities like democracy and human rights are “not what they care about.”

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Adam Schultz/The White House/AP

President Joe Biden meets via a secure video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Situation Room at the White House, Dec. 7, 2021. Among those with Mr. Biden are Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right of center) and national security adviser Jake Sullivan (far left).

Some regional experts say one key objective of Mr. Putin’s recent actions – amassing more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, warning NATO to formally end prospects of eastern expansion or risk conflict, and intervening in friendly neighbors including Kazakhstan and Belarus – is to convince the U.S. to deal with Russia as the great-power competitor that the Russian leader sees it to be.

And there are signs the Russians believe they are making headway. At the end of a week of inconclusive diplomacy across Europe addressing the Ukraine crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that if nothing else, “they are taking us seriously now.”

Indeed, the State Department announced Tuesday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will conclude visits to Ukraine and Germany this week with a stop in Geneva to meet with Mr. Lavrov.

Secretary Blinken spoke with Mr. Lavrov Tuesday, reiterating the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” while a senior State Department official characterized Friday’s meeting in Geneva as evidence – contrary to what Russian diplomats said last week – that “diplomacy is not dead.”

Secretary Blinken is “committed to seeing if there is a diplomatic off-ramp here,” the official said, and exploring with Mr. Lavrov “where there might be an opportunity for the U.S. and Russia to find common ground.”

Democracy Accommodating Russia

As if to remind the U.S. that great-power Russia has as much a right to a sphere of influence in its neighborhood as the U.S. does in its own, Mr. Putin took his conflict with the U.S. to a global level last week by warning that without a satisfactory resolution, Russia could act to move nuclear weapons closer to the U.S. or send troops or other military assets to Western Hemisphere locations like Venezuela or Cuba.

Is Mr. Putin bluffing? That question has emerged as a central factor of the Ukraine crisis. Perhaps even the Russian leader doesn’t know yet whether he will invade Ukraine beyond the Donbass region that his troops already occupy, some analysts say. But in the meantime, he is busy keeping the West – the U.S. and Europeans – guessing and off balance, sending in undercover teams to foment instability to provide an excuse for an invasion, American intelligence says, and thinning out Russia’s diplomatic presence at its embassy in Kyiv.

But for some foreign policy experts, including Dr. Desch, the U.S. may have to bow to the realities of the new big-power era and change long-standing policy – including at NATO – to formally accommodate Russia’s security concerns.

And that will be especially true, some add, if Mr. Biden wants to remove Russia from his list of daily worries so that the U.S. can turn its attention to what the administration says is America’s foremost 21st-century big-power challenge, China.

“‘Spheres of influence’ has a distasteful aroma about it, but that’s generally how big-power peace has been kept throughout much of history,” Dr. Desch says. And in light of that, he says, the U.S. and European powers may very well have to revise what he calls the “original sin” of NATO – promising membership to all qualifying comers from Europe’s East, no matter how close geographically they are to Russia.

“Finland had a decent life during the Cold War being neutral, and I think we could trade as a quid pro quo certain guarantees about Ukrainian independence in return for taking NATO membership off the table,” he says. “It may require a kind of Nixon-goes-to-China moment,” Dr. Desch adds, “but if you really think China is the unequaled geostrategic challenge of the 21st century, you should want to settle our differences with Russia to get that distraction out of the way.”

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A Ukrainian soldier in a trench at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Jan. 8, 2022. President Joe Biden has warned Russia’s Vladimir Putin that the U.S. could impose new sanctions if Russia takes further military action against Ukraine.

For others, the real problem is that the U.S. does not seem to know exactly what it wants from a resolution of the Ukraine crisis, while Mr. Putin has a very clear strategy and is tying up the U.S. and the Europeans in deploying it.

“For me the big problem is that it’s not clear what the Biden administration endgame is here,” says Duke’s Dr. Miles. “Is it to put Putin in his place? Guarantee that Ukraine is never threatened again? It’s not at all clear.”

From the perspective of some in Europe, a concession on Ukraine would not be such a bitter pill to swallow, since Ukraine is not seen to be anywhere near meeting the requirements for NATO membership anyway.

“NATO membership for Ukraine is not on the horizon at this point, so with that being the reality, some arrangement guaranteeing political independence and other freedoms of a sovereign state” could be worked out, says Sven Biscop, director of the Europe and the World Program at Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels.

Democracy Europe focused on multilateralism

What matters most for Europeans is settling differences with Russia diplomatically – and ensuring that Europe is part of any regional negotiations and not left on the sidelines by big powers Russia and the U.S., he says.

President Biden taking any military response to Russia off the table was a “relief” to most Europeans, Dr. Biscop says, since any big-power military confrontation would come at Europe’s expense.

“What Europeans want most is that any talks [over Ukraine and Eastern Europe] be trilateral, something Russia tries constantly to make problematic by dividing Europe and feeding internal tensions,” he says. “But no Europeans were expecting the U.S. to go to war for Ukraine, since no European state is thinking of going to war for Ukraine.”

More broadly, Dr. Biscop says, Europeans – who remain focused on multilateralism as the 21st century’s best option for “addressing tensions among great powers” – are worried that in an era of big-power competition, President Biden is shifting the U.S. toward what he calls a “more classic” vision of multilateralism.

“What I see is the U.S. returning to an interpretation of multilateralism that is closer to how the Chinese have always seen it, which is as an arrangement providing places where powers meet and talk,” he says. “It’s more just a forum, but not the level at which big powers do their decision-making.”

Europeans “can feel that the U.S. agenda is driven much more by Asia, and for the most part people understand that,” Dr. Biscop says.

“We see that resolving tensions in Europe would free up bandwidth and allow the U.S. to focus on China and Taiwan,” he adds. “Some fear that the U.S. might give in too much to Russia to turn its attention” to the Pacific, “but generally we don’t want that resolution to happen without us at the table.”

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