AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow was an unwelcome reminder that the challenge to the American-led “World Order” is real and involves adversaries joining together who have little in common. But the real danger to American interests lies not with those countries preparing to challenge us, but with our own inability to define our interests in compelling terms.
There was no better demonstration of that failure than when the National Security Council’s John Kirby took to the airwaves after Xi’s Moscow visit to express his worry that “There’s a possibility they might raise this idea of a ceasefire and try to couch themselves as peacemakers and the only ones calling for the fighting to stop.”
Kirby’s actual point was more nuanced: “A ceasefire now is effectively the ratification of Russian conquest and would, in effect, recognize Russia’s gains and its attempt to conquer its neighbors territory by force,” Kirby explained, going on to suggest, correctly, that it would likely function less as a serious effort to end the war and more as an attempt by Beijing to present themselves as peacemakers globally.
The problem is that regardless of whether American officials like Kirby are correct about Beijing’s motives or the consequences of their proposals, the situation they express fear about is precisely what is happening.
Whether it is in Ukraine, or in the Middle East, where China brokered a resumption of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Xi Jinping’s China is attempting to sell its policy as one of peace and settling differences between states. Notably, that peace is inevitably designed around terms which advance China’s interests, such as gaining leverage over Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and undermine those of the United States, such as reducing American leverage over Iran or tying down U.S. resources in defending an unstable cease-fire line in Ukraine.
But that is to be expected. It is not China’s duty to advance the interests of the United States through its foreign policy any more than it is the duty of American elites to advance the interests of Beijing or even some amorphous set of “global norms” through America’s foreign policy. That was something Donald Trump understood.
The important point, however, is not what China or the United States are offering to each other, but what they are offering to everyone else as the selling point of their system.
The United States is without a doubt correct about the threat Iran poses to the security of Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East. The Biden administration is also correct about the dangers posed to Ukraine by accepting a peace which ratifies Russian conquests. It is even correct about the threat to Russia’s long-term interests that a Chinese-led world order poses to Moscow.
Joe Biden’s Washington, however, offers little guidance as to how to win the conflicts it claims are necessary. Washington argues that Iran’s nuclear program and aggression throughout the Middle East must be countered, yet it has threatened to cut off support to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to fight Iran in Yemen, threatened Israel over internal affairs, and even sought its own deals with Tehran while expecting Riyadh and Jerusalem to obediently fund a coalition against Iran.
It can hardly be surprising that a Saudi government that cannot rely on U.S. support against Iran would chose to accept peace through the good offices of Xi Jinping rather than wait for Biden to succeed in selling Riyadh out to Tehran.
As for Ukraine, the Biden team is correct that American and Western security would be undermined by a “cease-fire” which left Russia capable of resuming the war at any time and left the U.S. obligated to respond. A Ukrainian victory is far preferable to a frozen conflict.
But the Biden team seems to lack any faith in the prospect of such a victory, much less a plan to accomplish it. They have spent the last few months trashing Ukraine’s prospects while denying Kyiv fighter jets, at the same time informing the press that they expect the conflict to end in a negotiated settlement – one which they envision will leave Crimea in Russian hands.
If the White House not only plans for the conflict to end in a cease-fire, but one which ratifies Russia’s illegal conquests, then what is their basis for panicking over the prospect of China proposing exactly that?
It reeks of hypocrisy, and raises further questions about why Ukrainians should die for something the United States will eventually impose on them someday if China is willing to offer it tomorrow. This may explain why the Ukrainian government has not shared Washington’s panic, with President Zelenskyy planning to speak with Xi Jinping this week.
The Biden administration has two options: It can refuse to recognize that, in a competitive international system, influence and alliances are about what a hegemon offers to everyone else; or it can, as Donald Trump other realists have long advocated, realize that U.S. foreign policy works best when it appeals to mutual self-interest.
The Post-World War II American-led system worked not only because it was morally correct to protect nations like Kuwait against invasion and uphold international trade and property rights, but because that served the interests of everyone. The U.S. is not primarily protecting Taiwan because of moral abstractions, but because a failure to do so would threaten the interests of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and almost every other country in the region.
The United States won the Cold War not only because it had the moral high ground, but because the cause it stood for was one which promised to make almost everyone richer and more secure. Some American administrations were more idealistic than others—but certainly in the case of America’s allies, it was pursuit of their national interests that played a central role. Since the 1990s, too many American policymakers have misread history, dropping the self-interest and leaving only self-righteousness.
America demanded its allies help invade Iraq not because it would serve any of their interests – in the case of Turkey and Saudi Arabia it was clear it would do the opposite even at the time – but because America said it was the correct thing to do. Putin’s rhetoric is full of hypocrisy, but he is not entirely wrong to allege that under Bush, Obama, and now Biden, American foreign policy seems to be one that demands and takes, but never asks what even allies like Israel actually want, much less tries to deliver it.
The irony is that this self-righteousness has extended even to elites’ treatment of the American population, who were ordered to embrace free trade and the consequent deindustrialization of America not because free trade would help them, but because it was intellectually “correct.” The best interests of the American people were also ignored when it came to immigration, economics, and global public health.
This has created an opening for China. Chinese policy is not moral. It is not designed to make the world a better place in some abstract sense.
But it is premised on delivering ostensibly “win-win” arrangements for countries Beijing wishes to woo. It does not matter if Beijing’s motives for delivering Saudi Arabia peace with Iran were to undermine the United States, or whether its efforts to promote a cease-fire in Ukraine were to tie down American resources.
For Saudi Arabia and possibly Ukraine, Xi Jinping is offering them something they need. The Biden administration is merely demanding they serve American interests, without so much concern for their own.
America should not and cannot afford to withdraw from the world. But American policymakers need to realize that in this world nothing is for free, and demanding obedience is the act of an abusive partner, not a friend or ally.
China poses a threat to America because America’s leaders have allowed it to do so. The United States has a choice. Its officials under Biden can either whine about how China has “bribed” everyone to like Beijing by giving them what they want, or they can try to compete by looking out for the interests of all countries involved.
If the Biden administration sticks to the former, it may not only be Ukraine and Saudi Arabia being “lured” into accepting peace and security from China that John Kirby is concerned about in the future. It might well be the entire world.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.