Biden Risks New Cold War
The President Joe Biden administration is aggressively pursuing a US foreign policy based on a rules-based international order that it applies to all countries — liberal democracies, emerging democracies and existing autocracies. It promotes this policy as a return to a norm that existed prior to President Donald Trump, who eviscerated alliances that had existed for decades because he found them inconvenient for his “America First” agenda. However, this Biden policy is actually a stark departure from the policies of every administration in the post-Cold War era. By rejecting the possibility, and even the desirability, of a reconciliation with autocratic governments such as Russia and China to bring them into a rules-based international order, the Biden administration is returning to Cold War policies that sought to maintain a balance of power between Western liberal democracies and the communist bloc. At that time, the order bound liberal democracies together under US hegemony in order to oppose Eastern bloc nations. The Biden administration’s re-embrace of Cold War-era policy constructs reflects a desire for stability in the face of an increasingly adversarial competition with China and Russia for global dominance. But the rules-based international order that underpins Biden’s policy lacks both currency and relevance. As such, it is doomed to fail.
There is a growing schism between the US on one hand and China and Russia on the other over the role that a rules-based international order plays in the world today. The Biden administration has made the restoration of this order led by the US a central part of its national security strategy. In the recently published Interim National Security Strategy Guidance document, Biden emphasized that “the alliances, institutions, agreements and norms underwriting the international order the United States helped to establish are being tested.” He also observed that the restoration of this international order “rests on a core strategic proposition: The United States must renew its enduring advantages so that we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength.”
The “test” Biden speaks of comes in the form of so-called “antagonistic authoritarian powers,” such as China and Russia, which use “misinformation, disinformation and weaponized corruption to exploit perceived weaknesses and sow division within and among free nations, erode existing international rules, and promote alternative models of authoritarian governance.” China, in particular, has been singled out by Biden in his interim guidance as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” Similarly, Russia “remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage.”
The Biden administration’s aggressive promotion of the rules-based international order has drawn the ire of both Russia and China in recent days. At a meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Affairs Director Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska, both sides exchanged sharp words over the US promotion of a rules-based international order. Following this meeting, China and Russia have come together in opposition to a US-led order. A visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to China on Mar. 22-23 was hailed by the Chinese as an opportunity to further develop relations between the two nations with “no limit, no forbidden zone and no ceiling as to how far this cooperation can go.” Lavrov and Yang both condemned the US practice of unilateral economic sanctions, and Lavrov criticized the Biden administration’s efforts to impose “their own rules on everyone else, which they believe should underpin the world order.”
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the central theme of US foreign policy was to bring both Russia and China into the same rules-based international order that Lavrov and Yang now so vociferously reject. One of its key elements is the network of economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO), created in the aftermath of World War II. In the years following the opening of relations between the US and China in 1972, the US has promoted the idea of bringing China into the fold to “reform” Chinese communism by having it embrace capitalism. China joined the World Bank and the IMF in April 1980, and the WTO in 2001. In 1999, China was invited to join the G20, an international forum created to facilitate policy discussions promoting international financial stability.
For decades, the Soviet Union served as the raison d’être of the rules-based international order, which stood in opposition to the communist system. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the order moved in to absorb its constituent parts, including the Russian Federation. In June 1992 Russia joined the World Bank and the IMF. To help promote Russian economic growth, and to integrate the Russian economy into that of the West, Russia was invited to join the G7, which was renamed the G8, in 1997. This helped pave the way to Russia joining the WTO in 2011. As with China, the hope was that having Russia integrated into the core institutions comprising the nonmilitary aspects of the rules-based international order would facilitate the emergence of liberal democratic institutions within Russia.
Friend or Foe?
One of the major flaws behind this effort to bring China and Russia into the economic institutions of the rules-based international order was the fact that this order was created to operate in opposition to Russia and China in a bipolar world. This adversarial relationship acted as the ideological glue that bound the Western liberal democracies together under US leadership. US hegemony over the various nations making up the order depended on having an opponent. With the elimination of both China and Russia in this role, the necessary adversarial framework holding the order together began to crumble.
The embrace of capitalism by China and Russia did not fundamentally alter their respective approaches to governance. While the US undertook a concerted effort to compel political reform in China through the imposition of sanctions, and in Russia through the “resetting” of relations, neither approach succeeded. In the end, geopolitical realities dictated that neither China nor Russia were willing to subordinate themselves to a US-dominated rules-based international order. Instead, China and Russia opted into the core institutions to promote their sovereign interests, and not as part of the hoped for assimilation of Western liberal values.
In many ways, the Chinese and Russian approach to the economic institutions of the rules-based international order represented a logical progression following the end of the Cold War. The order was formed to create a balance of power with a communist bloc comprised of the Soviet Union and communist China. When this adversarial relationship dissolved, an evolutionary transformation of the order into an inclusive entity without the past balance of power considerations was logical. This evolution could have occurred if the US were willing to forgo its role as the dominant hegemon.
There was an opportunity for this to occur in 1992-93, when President George H. W. Bush spoke of a “new world order.” Had Bush been re-elected, perhaps he would have been able to steer a policy course which saw the US hand off some of the leadership responsibilities it had assumed at the end of World War II to the United Nations. Instead, President Bill Clinton promulgated a policy based on the idea of the US as the world’s “indispensable nation,” which was simply a relabeling of the role of global hegemon.
The problem is, having invited Russia and China into the fold, the recasting of these two nations as global adversaries is not universally endorsed by the other nations of the world, or even by the American people. By promoting a schism between Russia and China on the one hand, and a US-led rules-based international order on the other, the Biden administration is promoting a zero-sum competition that is unsustainable in today’s world. Russia and China have emerged as genuine competitors to the US for global leadership. This competition is one the US is not prepared to engage in on its own. The push for a resurrected US-led rules-based international order by the Biden administration in opposition to China and Russia is unlikely to succeed. The US cannot compel hegemony in the face of a global recognition of the relevance of Russia and China to global affairs. Most of the world understands that China and Russia also have important roles to play and will not buy into such a system, which is based upon artificially induced adversarial relationships.