Can the Russia-US-China Relationship Get Worse? With “Uncle Joe” it Just Might.
Can the Russia-US-China Relationship Get Worse? With “Uncle Joe” it Just Might.
Every U.S. President since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 has promised to improve U.S. relations with Russia and failed. Bill Clinton thought his friendship with Boris Yeltsin would usher in a new era of Russian democracy; instead, it ushered in Vladimir Putin. George W. Bush famously said in 2001 that he had looked in Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul” – only for Russia to invade Georgia in the last months of his second term. Barack Obama promised a “Russian reset;” instead he got Russian annexation of Crimea, Russia intervention in Syria, and Russian manipulation of American democracy. President Trump said he wanted to be “friendly” with Russia and to work with Moscow to defeat the Islamic State; instead, he identified Russia as a peer competitor and sold Ukraine advanced anti-tank missiles, much to Russia’s chagrin.
If Joe Biden beats President Trump in the upcoming election, he will become the first U.S. president in almost two decades to enter office promising to make U.S.-Russia relations worse. Considering that, from Russia’s perspective, the current bilateral relationship under the stewardship of the Trump Administration is “maybe even worse [than the Cold War],” imagining what “worse” might actually look like is a frightening exercise.
Biden’s negative views towards Russia predate recent U.S. intelligence warnings that Russia has already interfered in the 2020 presidential campaign. (Reportedly, Russia used disinformation tactics to support the campaign of his Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders, and continues to interfere by trying to get President Trump re-elected.) After all, Biden was Obama’s Vice-President and had a front-row seat to that administration’s failed attempts at improving U.S.-Russia relations.
Even so, Biden’s views seem to have hardened during his time out of office. In January 2018, Biden co-wrote an article in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine with Michael Carpenter, who served as both a foreign policy advisor to Biden and as the Director for Russia on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Biden and Carpenter concluded that “the Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy around the world.” From Biden’s perspective, the U.S.-Russia relationship is not just a geopolitical competition between great power rivals, but a Manichean ideological struggle between good and evil, democracy and authoritarianism, freedom and servitude.
The problem is that Biden also seems to have a similar view of China and its president, Xi Jinping. During a Democratic debate in February, Biden said Xi “is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body, this is a guy who is a thug.” In the intervening months, Biden has campaigned on being tougher on China than President Trump (who is arguably the “toughest” president on China to occupy the Oval Office since Harry Truman). Many of the individuals who would serve on the Biden Administration’s foreign policy team have also hardened their positions on China in recent years. At a time when Americans cannot seem to agree on anything, Republicans and Democrats are crossing the aisle to reshore entire industries for fear of China’s growing power.
Even if the Trump Administration had not spent the last four years damaging U.S. relationships by putting forward a short-sighted vision of “America First” at all times, and even if a hypothetical Biden Administration could wave a magic wand and repair the damage overnight, the ability of the United States to take on both Russia and China would be uncertain at best. Factor in COVID-19 and America’s ongoing identity crisis and the inescapable conclusion is that this is too big even for these mighty United States. And yet, if you believe what both Trump and Biden are saying on the campaign trail, that is exactly what the United States is going to do, no matter who wins in November.
The US has been in this sort of predicament before. When Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968, the US was reeling from the Vietnam War and from social unrest worse than the recent spate of protests in America. Nixon assessed that the US was destined to live in a multipolar world and decided the best way forward was to embrace pragmatic engagement with Beijing, whose government at the time the US did not even recognize. It was a shocking about-face because Nixon had made a reputation for himself as a sworn enemy of Communism. Indeed, he owed his earliest political victories to his almost militant bent towards anti-Communism. In the end, it took a man of his anti-Communist stature to patch up U.S. relations with the world’s most populous communist power.
It is ironic to consider that perhaps Biden’s anti-Russia stance augurs well for future relations between Washington and Moscow. Biden certainly has the requisite anti-Russia credentials to pull off a “reverse-Nixon-maneuver.” The US also has a strategic need to add another critical partner to its conflict with China, and at the very least to halt the steady improvement in China-Russia relations being driven by Washington’s hostile stance towards both. After all, if so many U.S. Presidents have promised to make relations with Russia better and failed, why not venture a different approach? Promising to make relations with Russia worse and failing seems a more productive failure, all things considered.
Trump’s approach to foreign policy, such as it is, is almost entirely transactional. One can accuse the Trump administration of being short-sighted and overly obsessed with a “what have you done for the US lately” approach, but it can hardly be ascribed a consistent ideological character. Such an approach comes with its own pitfalls, but it has also meant that the US has not committed a cardinal sin of foreign policy of which it has oft been guilty: misreading the room. The U.S. failure in Vietnam in the 1960s, for instance, was primarily a result of American policymakers mistaking a war that was really about Vietnamese nationalism and self-determination for a war they thought was about American democracy and Soviet Communism. That is precisely the sort of mistake the US under a Biden presidency could be in danger of making if Biden’s campaign current campaign rhetoric is to be believed.
Biden believes that Russia is an ideological foe, a thuggish heir to the Soviet Union, hell-bent on the destruction of liberal democracy. That is a profound misreading. Putin’s ideology is Russian nationalism and Putin’s Russia is (relative to the Soviet Union) a more ethnically homogenous state whose goal is the protection of the Russian nation, not a revolution of the global proletariat. Ditto China, which has always picked and chosen the parts of Communism it liked best while ignoring the others. Xi’s goal is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, not the great subjugation of liberal democracy. Xi’s China wants to reclaim what it sees as China’s rightful place at the center of global politics and to banish foreign interference from the country once and for all. It does not want to conquer California or undo the American Revolution.
Does this mean Russia (or China for that matter) is angelic? Of course not. No nation is, not even the self-righteous American republic. Does this mean Russian or Chinese nationalism cannot be horribly destructive forces? Of course not, all nationalisms, like all “-isms,” can be good or bad depending on the ends to which they are directed. Does this mean there is a moral equivalency between Russia and the US, or between Russia and China? Again, of course not, there are degrees of moral effrontery, and comparing Russia’s corruption with China’s mass imprisonment of Uighurs with America’s legacy of structural racism is not a particularly productive use of time.
All it means is that the logical, realist, geopolitical thing to do if the US is serious about fighting a Cold War with China is to improve relations with Russia. Which probably means it stands little chance of happening. It makes too much sense for these nonsensical times.