Biden’s Conundrum

by July 2021
Joe Biden in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: POOL via CNP/INSTARimages/Cover Images

President Joe Biden took office as arguably the most prepared foreign policy president since George H.W. Bush was elected back in 1989. In addition to eight years as an active vice president, deeply involved in some of the Obama administration’s key national security policy decisions, he had previously served for decades on the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, chairing it from 2001 until 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009, having served as the ranking minority member from 1997 and again from 2003 to 2007.

President Biden campaigned for office by being portrayed as the antidote to an unpredictable and poorly informed predecessor, who had no previous exposure to high policy, openly challenged allies, and coddled up to opponent nations. More than anything, the Biden presidency is already perceived as bringing with it a profound change in “tone,” if less so (on several matters) in substance. Still, with closer scrutiny, we can see considerable continuity of policy between the two presidencies.

The real conundrum facing President Biden is the tension between domestic politics and foreign policy. This is especially evident when it comes to China. Context is important here. When President Obama took office, the US economy was at the onset of a great recession. There were voices in Congress that wanted to blame China and take protectionist action. But President Obama resisted those impulses and kept the tensions the US was experiencing with China separate and apart from the economic crisis that the country was facing domestically. President Obama knew instinctively that conjoining foreign policy and domestic politics would limit flexibility and constrain policy options in both directions.

The political winds in Washington are blowing in an anti-China direction. But a sophisticated foreign policy strategy requires the active partnership of allied countries.

This important insight was soon unlearned, however. President Donald Trump based his campaign, to a large extent, on the premise that the decline of American manufacturing—and hence the pain felt by many in his “base”—was very much the result of unfair Chinese practices. As president, he embarked upon a trade war, overtly designed to gain leverage with Beijing. When the COVID-19 pandemic started to accelerate in America, President Trump decided—not surprisingly—to deflect the domestic criticism by blaming China for the pandemic. Although the facts about the origins of the pandemic in China remain contested, there is no question that Trump deliberately chose to call it the “China flu,” emphasizing China’s culpability for the pandemic and unleashing a raw nativism that greatly affected relations with China.

President Biden—amidst what has become a deadly crisis on a national scale—has focused intensively on neutralizing the COVID pandemic through an aggressive program to vaccinate all American citizens. He has, in fact, directed the intelligence community to explore the origins of the virus, but he has not echoed the pejorative references used by Trump. At the same time, he has sustained a sharp focus on China, explicitly stating that the US is in a great power competition with China; he has made this the centerpiece of his interim National Security Strategy directive, which he published in March, within weeks of taking office.

The challenge facing President Biden is to manage the emotions that stem from the raw dynamics of domestic policy, colored by the sense of crisis and of loss, while retaining the flexibility to manage a sophisticated foreign policy at a transformative stage in world history.

China is a huge challenge. It has a massive, voracious, and rapidly growing market of 1.4 billion consumers compared to only 330 million American consumers. For more than 40 years, since the days of Deng Xioaping, the PRC leadership has embraced and adhered to a form of state capitalism, presided over a staggering rate of growth, and placed the full resources and authority of the government behind public and quasi-private Chinese corporations. This support includes spying on foreign corporations, leveraging national cyber assets to gain commercial and technological advantages, and bending foreign policy to advance Chinese corporate interests.

There can be no grand strategy to deal with China that does not involve close coordination and intimate consultation with allies and partner countries. I know from countless conversations with senior government officials and corporate leaders in Europe and partner countries in Asia that they share the American concern about China’s economic nationalism and coercive approach to economic diplomacy. But none of these countries wants to be seen as joining an anti-China coalition. All of them, to varying degrees, have economic ties to China and want to advance those ties in ways that are mutually beneficial. They know that China will retaliate against those economic interests if they join an anti-China crusade. The turn of events in Australia offers a worrying lesson in this respect.

Herein lies the Biden conundrum. The political winds in Washington are blowing in an anti-China direction. In political circles, China is widely seen as a threat to America’s future prosperity. Not unlike George F. Kennan’s seminal work at the onset of the Cold War, Graham Allison’s historical analogy—the Thucydides Trap, pitching a status-quo power against an up-and-rising one—has offered a sobering template. But a sophisticated foreign policy strategy to deal with China requires the active partnership of allied countries that do not want to be characterized as anti-China or climbing aboard the US anti-China bandwagon. Political and business leaders in allied countries look to the hot rhetoric coming from the US Congress and fear they will be dragged into the swirl of US domestic politics concerning China.

The Biden team understands this dilemma. President Biden himself is well suited to manage the tension that requires quiet diplomacy and measured public statements. Still, the fractious and disputatious nature of domestic American politics will impinge on foreign policy for years to come. This is Biden’s conundrum.

Yet it is not a challenge for the US alone: Its implications need to be weighed carefully by foreign leaders—politicians, corporate executives, media pundits alike— who understand what could be at stake if Washington’s relations with Beijing continue to take an adversarial aspect.

John J. Hamre
Dr. John J. Hamre is a former US deputy secretary of defense, and the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He also served as chairman of the Defense Policy Board and as a professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
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