President Joe Biden’s national security strategy was on display in March, and the picture was mostly unimpressive.
Biden himself agreed with a television news personality that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a "killer," instead of adroitly dodging the remark and providing a more benign response. Biden may not know that U.S. Ambassador George Kennan was made persona non grata in 1952 for comparing Stalin’s Moscow to Hitler’s Berlin, and the source of Putin’s contemptuous views of Hillary Clinton stemmed from her comparison of Putin’s policy toward Ukraine to Hitler’s policies toward Poland and Czechoslovakia. Even President Barack Obama was guilty of making personal and public taunts of the Russian president, which Putin never returned in kind. The Kremlin’s sensitivity to these personal attacks is well established.
Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, mismanaged the first days of important talks with his Chinese counterpart in Alaska last week. After getting Beijing’s agreement to hold the talks in the United States, the Department of State, on the eve of the talks, announced economic sanctions against two dozen Chinese officials. Poor form to say the least. And in the run-up to the talks, U.S. national security officials downplayed the significance and outcome of the talks and even questioned the need for face-to-face discussions. Blinken also went overboard publicly in reciting a long list of U.S. grievances with Chinese domestic policies, which Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi felt compelled to counter.
Strategy blunders regarding U.S. relations with both Russia and China have been driving Moscow and Beijing toward their closest bilateral relations since the 1950s. And if personnel is policy, then it is possible that the Biden administration is purposely pursuing a hard-line (and counterproductive) policy with both Russia and China. Biden has certainly peopled his national security team with individuals who are known for their hard-line views.
The No. 3 person at the Department of State is Victoria Nuland, who is well known to the Kremlin as a Cold War ideologue, particularly anti-Russian. Her involvement in the Ukraine situation in the Obama administration when she was assistant secretary for Europe helped to convince the Russians that the United States was meddling on the Russian border. Putin is definitely lobbying for a resumption of arms control talks, so he is probably aware of the lack of a serious arms control specialist on the Biden national security team, a definite oversight.
At the same time, there are serious anti-Chinese players in the Biden administration, particularly Kurt Campbell, who is the so-called China czar on the National Security Council. It was during the Obama administration, when Campbell — then assistant secretary of state for Asia — came up with the "pivot" toward Asia, in part a cover for our humiliating defeat and withdrawal of forces from Iraq. Supporters of the "pivot" include national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the "Asian czar" at the Pentagon, Eli Ratner. Biden also has created a China task force at the Pentagon when it would make far more sense to place such a group in the Department of State.
The Chinese correctly read the "pivot" as "containment," the strategy that the United States applied against the Soviet Union, which U.S. officials fulsomely cite at every opportunity. "Containing" the Soviet Union — if we did — was not a difficult task in view of the relative irrelevance of Moscow in international diplomacy and economics. "Containing" China is a fool’s errand in view of the development of China as the leading geopolitical development of the 21st century.
Maybe Biden is displaying a tough line toward both Russia and China in order to signal Moscow and Beijing that the amateurs of the Trump administration are no longer on the scene, and to establish for right-wing critics at home that he is tough enough to handle both states. My concern, however, is that Biden has sanctioned a round of dueling accusations that will get out of control and kill any opportunity for finding common ground between the key players in the geopolitical community. Another important concern is the danger of stirring anti-Chinese sentiment in this country at this time, albeit unintentional, when Asian Americans are being assaulted in record numbers.
Ironically, there are numerous opportunities for mutual agreement and understanding between Washington, Moscow and Beijing on strategic matters, nonproliferation, international terrorism and climate change that could lead to an improvement of bilateral and multilateral relations as well as a more stable international environment overall. Instead, Biden is spinning his diplomatic wheels in a fashion that will allow for bipartisan demands for increased (and unnecessary) defense spending. With the exception of the Pentagon, there will be only losers in this scenario.
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former CIA intelligence analyst from 1966 to 1990. This piece was written for The Baltimore Sun.