Photo credit: Kai Moerk/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden's grand strategy is setting the US and Beijing on a collision course. It's bad foreign policy and terrible domestic politics.

Photo credit: Kai Moerk/AFP via Getty Images
Photo credit: Kai Moerk/AFP via Getty Images

Photo credit: Kai Moerk/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden's grand strategy is setting the US and Beijing on a collision course. It's bad foreign policy and terrible domestic politics.


Is detente still a dirty word? I hope not. We may soon need it.

Back in the 1970s, that little French duosyllable was almost synonymous with “Kissinger.” Despite turning 99 last month, the former secretary of state has not lost his ability to infuriate people on both the right and the left — witness the reaction to his suggestion at the World Economic Forum that “the dividing line [between Russia and Ukraine] should return to the status quo ante” because “pursuing the war beyond that point could turn it into a war not about the freedom of Ukraine … but into a war against Russia itself.”

Nearly half a century ago, when he was in office, his efforts to achieve detente with the Soviet Union were no less controversial. It is sometimes forgotten how much Ronald Reagan’s rise to prominence in national politics owed to his critique of detente as a policy and of Kissinger as a statesman. Throughout the 1970s, Reagan’s radio broadcasts regularly taunted Kissinger for failing to save South Vietnam from Communism and acquiescing as the Soviet Union cynically exploited detente to extend its power.

In 1976 Reagan repeatedly pledged to fire Kissinger as secretary of state if his campaign for the Republican nomination and the presidency were successful. “Under Messrs. Kissinger and Ford,” he declared in March of that year, “this nation has become number two in military power in a world where it is dangerous — if not fatal — to be second best. … Our nation is in danger. Peace does not come from weakness or from retreat. It comes from restoration of American military superiority.” In a televised speech, Reagan defined detente as “negotiat[ing] the most acceptable second-best position available.” The neoconservative Norman Podhoretz went further, accusing Kissinger of “making the world safe for Communism.”

Few academic historians today are neocons. They are more likely to attack Kissinger from the left, for the slack he cut right-wing dictatorships in pursuit of his grand strategy. Yet they, too, have little positive to say about detente. A little like appeasement, which started life a respectable term in the diplomatic lexicon, detente is now disreputable.

And yet detente in the 1970s was not like appeasement in the 1930s: It successfully avoided a world war. The more I ponder that troubled, turbulent decade, the more I see detente as a smart solution to the mess the United States was in by the beginning of 1969, when Richard Nixon took up residence in the White House, with Kissinger down in the basement of the West Wing as his national security adviser.

Unable to win its war against North Vietnam, deeply divided over that and a host of other issues, the US was in no position to play hardball with the Soviet Union, as John Kennedy had and as Reagan would. Moreover, with a mounting inflation problem, the US economy was in no fit state to increase spending on defense.

The architect of detente had no illusions about the Soviets, whose cynicism and opportunism Kissinger understood only too well. Under Nixon and Gerald Ford, he pursued detente for two main reasons: to avoid World War III and to play for time, exploring the possibilities of an increasingly multipolar, interdependent world. And, as it turned out, that worked.

Detente could not deliver “peace with honor” in Vietnam. The interval between peace and conquest that it bought for South Vietnam was less than decent. Yet Armageddon was averted. And precious time was bought.

Emboldened, the Soviets mounted a series of ill-judged and costly interventions in what was then called the Third World, culminating in Afghanistan in 1979. Meanwhile, as my colleague Adrian Wooldridge has smartly pointed out, the US economy took advantage of America’s retreat from Cold War confrontation to innovate in ways that would leave the Soviets in the dust, creating the financial and technological resources that made Reagan’s (and George H.W. Bush’s) Cold War victory possible. Apple, Charles Schwab, Microsoft, Oracle, Visa — the list of world-beating companies founded in the 1970s speaks for itself.

There is a lesson here.

In purely foreign-policy terms, the grand strategy of Joe Biden’s administration is open to criticism. “What began as an effort to make sure Russia did not have an easy victory over Ukraine,” wrote David Sanger and his New York Times colleagues on May 26, “shifted as soon as the Russian military began to make error after error, failing to take Kyiv. The administration now sees a chance to punish Russian aggression, weaken Mr. Putin, shore up NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance and send a message to China, too.” That is a well-grounded assessment, in line with numerous statements by President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the US ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, and other American officials.

But what exactly does Russian “strategic failure” look like? And how much assistance will the United States have to give Ukraine to achieve it? On May 25, Newsweek alluded to “a report that stated the U.S. was preparing to target the Russian fleet to free up paths for Ukraine to export grain.” That was almost certainly an incorrect inference from a tweet by a Ukrainian government adviser.

Still, some influential figures in and around Washington seem eager to ramp up American support for Ukraine in remarkable ways. Last month, my old friend James Stavridis wrote that “an escort system for Ukrainian (and other national) merchant ships that want to go in and out of Odesa” was “worth considering” by the US and its NATO allies. The Black Sea should become “the next major front in the Ukraine war.”

Another commentator I respect, Eliot Cohen, wrote on May 11 that Ukraine was “winning the war” and that Kyiv now had the option of not merely restoring the pre-Feb. 24 line of contact, but “recovering portions of Donbas lost in the 2010s, or recovering everything, including Crimea, that was part of Ukraine in 2013.” The soon-to-be-victorious Ukrainians, he added, would also have to decide “whether to seek reparations and reconstruction aid, and whether freedom to join the European Union and the possibility of joining NATO have to be part of the eventual peace settlement.”

To his credit, Biden dialed back his administration’s goals in a measured op-ed for the New York Times on May 31. “We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia. … [T]he United States will not try to bring about [Putin’s] ouster in Moscow. So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict. We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.” But the reality is that the administration has become the arsenal of Ukraine’s democracy, not the broker of a peace that it is leaving to Ukraine to define.

Three of Europe’s most important leaders — French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi — are distinctly uneasy about this. They would much prefer to see an imminent ceasefire and the start of peace negotiations. But to speak of compromise in the current febrile atmosphere of Ukrainophilia is to invite charges of appeasement. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacted angrily to Kissinger’s argument for a peace based on the status quo ante. “I get the sense that instead of the year 2022,” Zelenskiy snapped, “Mr. Kissinger has 1938 on his calendar.”

Yet Zelenskiy himself has said repeatedly — most recently in an interview on May 21 — that he would regard as “victory” a return to the territorial position on Feb. 23, which was what Kissinger plainly meant by the status quo ante. That would mean Ukraine taking back Kherson and the ravaged city of Mariupol. It would mean pushing Russia out of its “land bridge” from Crimea to Russia. And it would mean completely reversing all the gains the Russians have made in the eastern Donbas region.

Zelenskiy knows, and so should we, what a daunting task that represents. In a speech last week, he acknowledged that Russia has seized around a fifth of Ukraine’s territory. In an interview with Newsmax, he admitted that Ukraine was losing “60 to 100 soldiers per day as killed in action and something around 500 people as wounded in action.”

Even with an open-ended commitment from the US to supply them with weapons, do the Ukrainians have the trained manpower to drive Russia out of all the territory it has occupied since Feb. 24? And if this brutal war continues through the summer, and is still being fought as the year wanes and the temperatures begin to fall in Europe, what then? Vladimir Putin is surely counting on the usual divisions within the Western alliance and within American politics to resurface sooner or later.

The most remarkable thing about the foreign policy of the Biden administration is that helping Ukraine defeat Russia is not even its top priority. “Even as President Putin’s war continues,” declared Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a speech at George Washington University on May 26, “we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order — and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.”

Blinken’s speech repays close study. About one-tenth of it was conciliatory. “We are not looking for conflict or a new Cold War,” he declared. “We do not seek to transform China’s political system. … We will engage constructively with China wherever we can.”

But the rest was as hawkish a speech on China as the one delivered by then Vice President Mike Pence in October 2018, which for me was the moment Cold War II got going in earnest. In Blinken’s words:

Under President Xi, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad. We see that in how Beijing has perfected mass surveillance within China and exported that technology to more than 80 countries; how its advancing unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, undermining peace and security, freedom of navigation, and commerce; how it’s circumventing or breaking trade rules … and how it purports to champion sovereignty and territorial integrity while standing with governments that brazenly violate them.

Blinken spelled out how the US intends to “shape the strategic environment around Beijing,” citing the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, announced by Biden on his recent Asia tour, and the Quad of the US, Australia, India and Japan, with its new Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, not forgetting AUKUS, the US deal on nuclear submarines with Australia and the UK.

But the most startling lines in Blinken’s speech were the ones on “the genocide and crimes against humanity happening in the Xinjiang region”; on US support for “Tibet, where the authorities continue to wage a brutal campaign against Tibetans and their culture, language, and religious traditions”; on Hong Kong, “where the Chinese Communist Party has imposed harsh anti-democratic measures under the guise of national security”; on “Beijing’s aggressive and unlawful activities in the South and East China Seas”; and — the coup de grace from a Chinese vantage point — on “Beijing’s growing coercion” and “increasingly provocative rhetoric and activity” toward Taiwan.

The response of the Chinese Foreign Ministry to this confrontational speech was, I thought, surprisingly restrained.

Taiwan is, of course, the key issue. As if to confirm Xi Jinping’s darkest suspicions, Biden went off script again at a press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on May 23. A reporter asked if the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. “Yes,” the president answered. “That’s the commitment we made. We agree with a one-China policy. We've signed on to it and all the intended agreements made from there. But the idea that, that it (Taiwan) can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not, is just not appropriate.”

Almost immediately, US officials, led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, walked this latest gaffe back. But when is a gaffe not a gaffe? When the president of the United States says it three times. By my count, that is the number of occasions Biden has pledged to come to Taiwan’s defense since August last year.

What are the practical implications of ditching the half-century-old policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, which dates to Kissinger’s compromise with Zhou Enlai in 1972? In his book “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict,” Elbridge Colby argues that the US can and must prioritize the defense of Taiwan. Colby was deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development under Donald Trump. His book has been a hit with China hawks precisely because it gets specific about how the US could cope with a Chinese attempt to seize Taiwan.

“Defending forces operating from a distributed, resilient force posture and across all the war-fighting domains,” Colby writes, “might use a variety of methods to blunt the Chinese invasion in the air and seas surrounding Taiwan.” The US and its allies might “seek to disable or destroy Chinese transport ships and aircraft before they left Chinese ports or airstrips. The defenders might also try to obstruct key ports; neutralize key elements of Chinese command and control … And once Chinese forces entered the Strait, US and defending forces could use a variety of methods to disable or destroy Chinese transport ships and aircraft.”

“There’s a very real chance of a major war with China in the coming years,” Colby tweeted last month. “Everyone with influence should be asking themselves: Did I do *everything* I could to deter it? And make it less costly for Americans if it does happen? … China has the will, the way, and increasingly a sense of urgency to take us on over stakes that are genuinely decisive for us (and the world, for that matter).”

Yet it is far from clear, as retired Taiwanese Admiral Lee Hsi-Min has argued, that Taiwan would be capable of putting up as tenacious a fight as Ukraine has against Russia in the event of an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, in all recent Pentagon war games on Taiwan, the US team consistently loses to the Chinese team. To quote Graham Allison and Jonah Glick-Unterman, my colleagues at Harvard’s Belfer Center, “If in the near future there is a ‘limited war’ over Taiwan or along China’s periphery, the US would likely lose — or have to choose between losing and stepping up the escalation ladder to a wider war.”

Meanwhile, according to the head of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, “We are facing a crisis deterrence dynamic right now that we have only seen a few times in our nation’s history. The war in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory — their strategic breakout —demonstrates that we have a deterrence and assurance gap based on the threat of limited nuclear employment.”

A month ago, Richard told the Senate’s strategic forces panel that China is “watching the war in Ukraine closely and will likely use nuclear coercion to their advantage in the future. Their intent is to achieve the military capability to reunify Taiwan by 2027 if not sooner.” China has doubled its nuclear stockpile within two years, increasing the number if its solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile silos from zero to at least 360.

For its part, the Biden administration is proposing to cancel the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear development program, as part of a package of military cuts that are projected by the Congressional Budget Office to reduce the defense budget as a share of gross domestic product from 3.3% in 2021 to 2.7% in 2032.

If all this adds up to a coherent grand strategy, then I’m Sun Tzu.

The truly amazing thing is that Biden’s foreign policy not only fails the basic tests of strategic coherence and credibility. It also seems exceptionally poorly designed to serve the Democrats’ domestic interests.

The Biden administration’s number one problem is inflation. The polling is clear on that, and we are five months away from midterms that are set to hand both chambers of Congress back to the Republicans. (The public is interested in only one thing more than inflation, and that is Depp v. Heard.) The Fed has the job of bringing inflation back down, but most monetary economists know that it will be very hard to do this through raising interest rates and shrinking the balance sheet without causing a recession at some point.

Currently, however, the administration's foreign policy isn’t helping fight inflation — quite the reverse. Large-scale support for Ukraine is not only expensive (the total thus far is $53 billion, according to economist Larry Lindsey). It also restricts supply via sanctions on Russia, and further restricts supply by prolonging the war, cutting off Ukrainian exports of wheat and other goods. Continuing Trump’s trade war and ramping up the support for Taiwan add a further inflationary pressure by keeping Chinese imports more expensive than they otherwise would be, and also encourage the process of “decoupling” China’s economy from ours.

Remember the old days, when foreign policy was supposed to serve a domestic political purpose? That was the era that produced the 1997 movie “Wag the Dog,” in which Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro fake a war in Albania to salvage a presidential re-election campaign. Well, Joe Biden is a very, very long way from wagging the dog. We seem to confront here a classic case of what the old German historians called the “primacy of foreign policy.” Despite the likely political cost to the president’s party, the dog is wagging the tail.

If a competent Democratic strategist were to rethink Biden's foreign policy, what might she come up with? Well, how about detente 2.0 (or deuxieme, if you prefer)? If — as I’ve argued for the past four years — we’re already in Cold War II, then Ukraine is Korea. It’s the early-innings phase of the superpower struggle, the time when the US still has military superiority but can’t help getting dragged into peripheral conflicts. We now clearly have the option to proceed from the 1950s to the 1960s, with the Taiwan Semiconductor Crisis substituting for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Alternatively — and a lot less terrifyingly — we could take a historical shortcut and proceed straight to the 1970s.

Detente has a lousy reputation, as we have seen. Neoconservatives continue to argue that it was a misconceived strategy that mainly benefited the Soviet Union and that Reagan was right to ditch it in favor of a more confrontational strategy.

But this is misleading. First, Reagan ended up doing his own version of detente with Mikhail Gorbachev — involving more radical disarmament than Kissinger himself thought prudent! Second, detente in the 1970s made a good deal of sense at a time when the US was struggling with inflation, deep domestic division, and a war that grew steadily less popular the longer it lasted.

If that sounds familiar, then consider how detente might be helping Joe Biden today if, instead of talking tough on Taiwan in Tokyo, he had taken a trip to Beijing — fittingly, on the 50th anniversary of Nixon's trip there in 1972. He could have:

1. Ended the trade war with China.

2. Begun the process of ending the war in Ukraine with a little Chinese pressure on Putin.

3. Applied joint US-China pressure on the Arab oil producers to step up production in a serious way (last week’s announcement was unserious), instead of letting them play Washington and Beijing off against one another.

Would Xi Jinping take detente if Biden offered it? Like Mao in 1972, the Chinese leader is in enough of a mess himself that he might well. Zero Covid has become Xi’s version of the Cultural Revolution, a policy that is ultimately destabilizing China, whatever the original intent was. As for China’s international position, the decision to back Putin has surely weakened it.

Last week, for example, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi signally failed to persuade 10 countries in the Pacific to sign a regional agreement on trade and security. Mao’s problem in 1972 was that he had quarreled bitterly with Moscow. Half a century later, as Kissinger pointed out at Davos, Xi Jinping’s problem is that he is too close to Moscow for comfort.

Do I think detente stands a chance of being revived? No, I don’t, because I think the Biden administration is deeply committed to the containment of China as the keystone of its foreign policy. But it is worth remembering that their hawkishness had its origins in domestic politics. This time two years ago, Biden’s handlers decided he had to be tougher on China than Trump in order to win the presidency. Well, maybe they were right about that as a matter of electoral tactics. But does the same logic apply today, with a midterm shellacking fast approaching? I think not.

It is conventional to argue that partisan polarization is the curse of modern American politics. There is only one thing that scares me more, however, and that is bipartisan consensus. Democrats and Republicans agree on almost nothing nowadays. But they do agree that resisting China’s rise should be the foundation of American foreign policy. I, too, would loathe to live in a world where China called the shots. But is Joe Biden’s deeply flawed grand strategy making such a world less likely? Or more?

If the choice is between war over Taiwan and a decade of detente, I’ll take the dirty French word.


Source: Bloomberg By Niall Ferguson

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