Fighting one Cold War was bad enough. Waging two at once would be impossible.
Two years into Joe Biden’s presidency, the United States now faces simultaneous diplomatic and national security crises with its 20th century superpower rival Moscow and its top 21st century adversary China.
The war in Ukraine, about to reach a blood-soaked first anniversary, and a spy balloon drama that has provided a first tangible symbol for many Americans of an emerging challenge from Beijing, are creating a tense moment in global geopolitics.
This revived era of great power rivalry – that would have seemed a distant prospect in the previous two decades consumed by the war on terror and Middle East wars – underscore the great burdens and responsibilities resting on a president whose worldview was framed after he came to Washington in the 1970s amid the US-Soviet chill
This dangerous period will be crystalized this weekend when Western foreign policy officials and experts gather for the annual Munich Security Conference, which is set to be dominated by the deepening war in Ukraine. But the event will also become a stage for the rivalry between the United States and China with both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi in town. The State Department says no meetings are planned as details emerge about China’s global balloon spying program and accusations fly back and forth across the Pacific.
The double diplomatic crisis has also exposed the way that Washington’s bitterly polarized politics could influence US policy overseas and the political capital every administration needs to pursue its aims. Fervent Republican criticism of Biden’s failure to shoot down a Chinese surveillance balloon before it traversed the continent followed by claims that he’s trigger happy in downing subsequent unknown aerial objects, show that for many in the GOP – critical geopolitics are just another excuse for partisan score settling.
Biden may have played into this by not speaking publicly to Americans about a trio of incidents in which jets were scrambled over the weekend. But more broadly, the Republican Party’s abdication of the internationalist principles that won the Cold War against the Soviet Union, its splits over funding for Ukraine and the possibility of another White House term for Donald Trump who turned US foreign policy into a mirror of his own volatile temperament raise even more questions as the 2024 election looms.
Many foreign policy experts might disdain the loaded term Cold War in relation to the current showdowns with Moscow or Beijing. The US is not locked for instance in the global ideological, economic and political tussle with Russia like it was with its predecessor, the Soviet Union, from the late 1940s to the end of the 1980s. By any measure apart from nuclear weapons, the US is far more powerful than Russia. The war in Ukraine and a series of disastrous battlefield defeats have meanwhile exposed the myth of Russian super power strength – even if that post-Soviet nuclear arsenal means President Vladimir Putin can wield the threat of Armageddon to head off a direct Western intervention.
There is still time, meanwhile, to avert the growing test of strength between the United States and China from turning into the kind of conflict that could plunge the world into war. And the US and Chinese economies are entwined in a way that had no parallel with the isolated, communist Soviet Union. Americans and Chinese have a huge incentive to stop their differences spilling over because both would pay an enormous economic price for any armed military clash.
Yet at the same time, there is a growing sense of the world dividing into two camps between democracies and autocracies, even if Russia’s attempts to trigger a generational US fear by edging closer to China may be overblown so far.
The Cold War might have ended with the defeat of the Soviet Union. But it was never over in the mind of Putin, the KGB officer left high and dry in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down and who has devoted his more than 20 Kremlin years to challenging the West and trying to restore respect for Russian power.
Putin sees the Ukraine war as an attempt to regain influence over Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to crush its sovereignty and to frustrate its aspirations of joining the Western clubs – the European Union and NATO. His invasion of Ukraine broke the post-Cold-War territorial settlement in Europe.
While doing everything he can to avoid setting off a direct clash with Russia, Biden is now not shying away from raising the huge stakes in the war for the Western way of life that prevailed in the Cold War. He has sent billions of dollars in American weapons into a proxy conflict he defined as “a test for the ages. A test for America, a test of the world” in his State of the Union address last week.
“Such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity,” Biden said, in remarks that also might have been aimed at nationalistic Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The US standoff with China is also increasingly one about values as well as a shadow fight between two vast militaries and two nations who wish to be the top dog in the Asia-Pacific region. When the United States talks of ensuring that China keeps to a rules-based system in terms of trade, economics, territorial claims, freedom of naval navigation and military issues, leaders in Beijing perceive an attempt to constrain what they see as their country’s rightful rise to power with international laws biased towards the West.
Biden, who has framed much of his foreign policy on the assumption that the key strategic question of the current century will be the challenge from Beijing, has repeatedly stressed that he wants “competition, not conflict” with China. But he is also adamant that the US will challenge what it sees as China’s aspirations.
“The People’s Republic of China is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it,” Biden’s National Security Strategy, published last October, said. “Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.”
The increasingly strained global political climate is playing into American domestic politics in two notable ways. It is fueling an effort by Republicans – seen especially in the current Chinese balloon drama – to portray Biden as a weak commander-in-chief who is not up to global challenges ahead of his 2024 election race. This pressure in Washington appears to be narrowing the political running room that the administration has in dealing with global threats. For example, absent some sign of contrition from the Chinese, it would be a big political risk for Blinken to reschedule a trip to Beijing, which is vitally important for putting a lid on tensions, any time soon. And the way that Biden sprang into action over the weekend to shoot down three unidentified objects in North American airspace suggests political criticism of his decision to wait until the Chinese balloon had crossed the Atlantic coast to shoot it down has conditioned his decision making. The White House denies this is the case.
Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell on Monday tapped into the classic Republican criticism of Democratic presidents – an impression that they somehow are guilty of insulting America’s own power with timidity and are leaving the country disrespected abroad and vulnerable to unscrupulous foreign powers.
The Kentucky Republican spoke disdainfully of how Americans watched the Chinese balloon “tour a big chunk of the country before the administration, finally belatedly shot it down.” He added: “How did we get into a position where the greatest nation in the world doesn’t know what is traversing our own airspace?”
It’s already clear that an accusation Biden is weak will be at the center of the 2024 race. In an unsubtle swipe, on Monday, Trump sent out a fundraising email warning that “our enemies can smell weakness in the White House from across the globe.” He claimed that Biden would not stand up for America and that his actions had led to the invasion of Ukraine and that the spy balloon saga was one of the “most humiliating moments in US history.” Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who is expected to announce a run for the GOP nomination on Wednesday, released a video drawing allusions to her hawkish Reagan-era predecessor at the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that styled her as a future scourge of Xi and Putin.
Biden, like every president must accept criticism of his global leadership, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 will blot his legacy.
But the Republican assaults on Biden’s supposed weakness are borne from short memories. They ignore Trump’s frequent genuflecting before Putin, the way he cozied up to Xi before the Covid-19 pandemic and his own self-described love affair with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un. The Afghan withdrawal was based on a timetable agreed to in a deal with the Taliban established by Trump. While Biden demonstrated the most assured leadership of a revived Western alliance since at least President George H. W. Bush at the end of the Cold War, the House GOP is embroiled in an internal feud over whether Ukraine is even worth defending. And the last GOP president before Trump, George W. Bush embroiled the nation in more than a decade long quagmire in Iraq and one of the worst foreign debacles since World War II, partly out of a desire to demonstrate US toughness.