Biden’s on a mission! He’s working the phones, twisting arms, giving speeches, and otherwise campaigning for a cause. Only it’s not abortion rights or climate survival, stopping gun violence, or protecting voter rights. Rather, he’s busy creating a Cold War–like network of alliances to defend the “rules-based world order” against rogue states like Russia and China.
For Biden, creating this network is the paramount task of our time. It’s as if he’s channeling Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Paul Nitze, and other architects of America’s Cold War strategies. Mobilized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he declared in Poland on March 26, “we emerged anew in the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression”—language that sounds all too reminiscent of those early Cold War endeavors. But as in that earlier epoch, Biden’s efforts are likely to increase the pace of global militarization while providing diplomatic cover for “our” autocracies, like Hungary and Saudi Arabia. And, at home, critical concerns that affect most Americans will go unattended as Biden travels the world in search of partners.
Consider this: Since January 1, Biden has traveled to Belgium and Poland (March 23–26), South Korea and Japan (May 24–28), Germany and Spain (June 25–30), and Israel and Saudi Arabia (July 13–16) as part of this effort. He has also met with the leaders of those and other friendly nations at the White House and spoken with many of them by phone. In all of these meetings and in all of these conversations, the message has been the same: Join me in constructing a global web of democratic and rules-abiding nations to isolate autocratic and rules-defying states like Russia and China.
“That’s why I came to Europe again this week with a clear and determined message for NATO [and] for all freedom-loving nations,” he declared in Warsaw, Poland, on March 26. “We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come.”
During his first trip to Europe, in March, Biden devoted most of his oratory to rallying the Europeans behind US efforts to blunt the Russian advance in Ukraine through arms deliveries and economic sanctions. But he made it clear that his plans for an invigorated defense of the “rules-based world order” applied as much to Asia as to Europe. To accentuate this point, he flew across the Pacific in late May and devoted four days to beefing up US alliances in what is now termed the “Indo-Pacific.”
Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time
Questioned about the urgency of such a demanding trip at a time when the war in Ukraine still demanded Biden’s daily attention and the country was experiencing a rash of mass shootings (the Buffalo market shooting occurred on May 14, the Uvalde school massacre 10 days later), White House officials insisted it was necessary to demonstrate that Biden could “walk and chew gum at the same time”—that is, rally Europe against Russia while simultaneously surrounding China with pro-US alliances.
While in Asia, Biden met with Kishida Fumio, the recently chosen, conservative prime minister of Japan, and Yoon Suk Yeol, the recently elected, conservative president of South Korea. In both of those meetings, Biden reaffirmed America’s long-standing defense ties with each country and praised their leaders’ invigorated commitment to a “regional rules-based order”—a grandiose strategic concept incorporating not just their immediate areas but Taiwan and the South China Sea as well.
In a joint declaration issued on May 21, for example, Presidents Biden and Yoon “reaffirm[ed] their commitment” to “lawful unimpeded commerce” and “lawful use of the seas” in “the South China Sea and beyond.” They further “reiterate[d] the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Although China is not mentioned by name in this statement or in comments made by Biden and Prime Minister Kishida after their talks in Tokyo, the language employed—hinting at joint efforts to defend Taiwan and open passage through the South China Sea—suggest concurrence with Biden’s goal of encircling China with hostile military alliances.
In a further manifestation of this drive, Biden used his visit to Tokyo to convene a summit of leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad”)—a loose military alliance of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, largely designed to curb China’s geopolitical reach. Here, too, Biden emphasized his goal of uniting like-minded countries in a global drive to isolate Russia and China. In a press conference following the summit, he excoriated Russia for its brutal invasion of Ukraine and intimated that the same destabilizing forces were lurking in Asia, requiring renewed effort by the Quad.
Walking, Chewing Gum, and Juggling Too!
Biden was back in Washington for just four weeks before he left on another alliance-building venture, to Germany and Spain (on June 24) and then for barely two weeks after that before leaving for the Middle East (on July 12).
While in Europe, Biden joined a meeting of the G7 group of advanced economies at Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, and attended a summit meeting of NATO leaders in Madrid. At the first of these, Biden secured a joint $600 billion commitment to the Partnership on Global Infrastructure and Investment, a half-baked alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative; at the second, he helped facilitate Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO, by persuading Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to overcome his objections to the move. (As decisions in NATO are made by consensus, Erdogan can veto any proposed membership agreements.) Biden also presided over another major White House objective: the adoption by NATO of a new strategic concept that identifies China as well as Russia as major threats to alliance security.
Having firmed up his plans for a concerted European and Asian drive to isolate Russia and China, Biden then turned his attention to the Middle East. From the media’s perspective, Biden’s top priority in making the trip was to persuade the Saudis to pump more oil, thereby helping to lower gasoline prices in the United States and bolster the Democrats—who are seen as vulnerable on the inflation issue—in the midterm elections. But those able to read between the lines saw another key motive: to counter Chinese influence in the region and create a Middle Eastern equivalent of the US-led networks being constructed in Europe and Asia to isolate Russia and China. You might call this trying to walk, chew gum, and juggle at the same time.
To counter growing Beijing’s growing influence in the region, Biden promised to share advanced US telecom technology with the Saudis and to anoint the kingdom as a legitimate member of the rule-abiding international order—all this despite the fact that its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), has been accused by human rights leaders and the Central Intelligence Agency of masterminding the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-based Saudi dissident and journalist.
“This trip is about once again positioning America in this region for the future,” Biden announced at the end of his meetings with the Saudis and other Middle Eastern potentates. “We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill.”
The Wrong Crusade at the Wrong Time
For someone who has been widely portrayed as lethargic and clumsy, Biden has demonstrated vigor and leadership in his drive to construct a new, Cold War–like web of pro-US alliances. But this has come at a devastating price at home. At a moment when the United States has been wracked by successive crises over abortion, gun rights, extreme storms and heat waves, soaring inflation, and threats to our democracy, Biden has mostly been AWOL. If only he had devoted as much attention to any one of these perils as he has to building global alliances, perhaps our domestic political environment would not be as forbidding as it now appears.
On the other side of the coin are legitimate concerns over Biden’s foreign policy endeavors. Yes, Russia poses a significant military threat to Europe’s security, and the United States does bear a legal obligation under the NATO treaty to assist its European allies if they come under armed attack. But should the US president, rather than European leaders, be shouldering primary responsibility for organizing Europe’s defense? And yes, China poses a variety of challenges to the US and its allies. But is it really in our best interests to be increasing tensions with China and at a time when its cooperation is essential in overcoming such mutual concerns as climate change, supply chain disruptions, and global pandemics?
Any close assessment of Biden’s stated intentions, moreover, would reveal enormous contradictions. He has claimed, in each of his foreign endeavors, that his primary objective is to defend the sphere of democratic and law-abiding countries against autocratic, rules-defying states. But this claim falls apart on even the most glancing inspection. Hungary, one of NATO’s so-called “frontline” states, is ruled by the autocratic regime of Viktor Orbán and maintains close ties with Moscow. India, a key member of the Quad, is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been accused of consistently violating the rights of the country’s large Muslim minority. And to include Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern dictatorships in a network of “free” and “democratic” states is an insult to all of us.
Surely, any prudent calculation of America’s national interests at this time would call for a presidential team that is laser-focused on the troubles and dangers that face ordinary Americans, along with the mounting threats to our own democracy. If Biden truly cares about the things he says he does—democracy and human rights above all—he should be at the White House day and night leading the fight to defend those very values here at home.