Many of those who recently voted for Joe Biden hoped his election would complete a transition in US foreign policy that they believed began during the Obama years, only to be followed by the election of Donald Trump in the To be roughly interrupted in 2016. The hope seemed to be that Mr Biden would finish what President Obama began – a transition from a foreign policy on which he was based Realpolitik and power politics to politics based on soft power and multilateral diplomacy serving an ethical foreign policy agenda that focuses on promoting social justice, human security and American progressivism at home and abroad. But that just won’t happen. If the first few months are any sign of this, the Biden years will not usher in a return to the kind of liberal internationalism believed to have shaped US foreign policy under President Obama. Rather, as shown by Mr Biden’s decisions on behalf of his foreign affairs team, the next administration is likely to be far more hawkish in its views than the previous Obama administration (and perhaps even the Trump administration).
From the views expressed over the past few years by Antony Blinken, Biden’s Foreign Secretary, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, the Biden team sees China as a competitor turning the liberal order and / or the liberal order on its head wants to displace the USA as a global hegemon. You don’t get the impression at all that Mr Biden’s team is made up of naive progressives who view international politics as an area of immanent harmony – an area in which peace, justice and prosperity will spontaneously erupt if we just have one more international institution can create. Sign another multilateral treaty or convince another state to adopt the norms of liberal democracy and fair trade.
Of course, Biden’s foreign policy team continues to evolve towards secondary threats – deadly epidemics, climate change, global economic collapse, massive cyber attacks, and the like. And the Biden administration has certainly not abandoned the view that America’s primary and secondary foreign policy challenges are often best addressed through multilateral institutions and agreements. However, there can be little doubt that the people who have confirmed themselves in the top positions of Biden’s foreign policy team view the factory environment of world politics as prone to conflict and war and require the leadership of a benevolent hegemon like the United States to save this factory Force to set attitudes and create the conditions of opportunity for global peace and prosperity. Nor can there be any doubt that they understand that creating and maintaining these conditions requires not only the creation of soft power, but the practice of hard power as well.
Nowhere are these reflexes more strongly represented than in the area of China policy. The emerging China Hawks Democratic Party firmly believes that an emerging China will use its newfound wealth and power to advance its own narrow self-interest, to the point of waging border wars in places like the South China Sea and the Himalayas. They also clearly believe that this poses a great threat, not just to America’s friends and allies on the periphery of China, but to the entire American-centered world order.
In some ways, of course, the rise of these China Hawks is very reassuring. The dangerous delusion of the Clinton-to-Obama era that China would over time become a responsible stakeholder in the liberal order seems largely to be attributed to nagging criticism of the mice. In his place, at least at the ruling heights of the Democratic Party, a clearer feeling has emerged that China is neither the poor, albeit revisionist, country of yesteryear nor the rich but responsible stakeholder of the recent liberal-internationalist fantasy, but an emerging one Power aggressively trying to assert what it perceives to be its rightful place in the sun. Compared to the flawed assumptions and flawed politics of the Clinton-Obama years, this new insight should be good for a time of solid strategy – a time when American power is being used to manage China’s rise and thwart its hegemonic aspirations .
And there is the problem. As I pointed out elsewhere, China is Not an emerging power, at least in the sense that it is on a linear path to become increasingly wealthy and powerful, and perhaps one day to be dominant. It’s more like a fluctuating force, one that first stumbles and then at least relatively decreases. And this looming reversal of happiness is neither a distant possibility nor one that depends on a political misstep by the Chinese Communist Party. It is embedded in China’s demographics and economy and is reinforced by the logic of geopolitical balancing. At this point, there is simply nothing the CCP can do about the “middle-income trap,” the impending prospect of “getting old before you get rich,” or the efforts of weaker neighbors to band together to limit their boundaries See you as an increasingly threatening China. Put simply, although China’s star seems to be on the rise at the moment, it has actually peaked. And it took so long for the US to be ousted as a global or even Asian hegemon.
While this may seem like a blessing, a stalled China is likely to prove anything but if history is a guide. Consider the two historic cases of Germany in 1914 and Japan in 1941. In both cases, an emerging power – a power that had grown richer and wanted to claim its rightful place in the sun – was losing ground demographically in the German case; military in the Japanese case. After realizing that their relative positions of power would likely deteriorate over time, both powers decided to wage wars that they knew had little chance of winning, knowing also that their prospects would worsen with each passing year . In both cases, the hegemonic aspirant made a desperate attempt to secure his relative position of power by starting a war to reset the international system in his favor. In no case was the war caused by states jumping through open windows of time created by actual military advantage. Instead, they were caused by a deadlocked attack by the rising power, although they were at a disadvantage because it was the least bad of several very bad options open to them. This is the danger posed by a once-rising power that has stalled and realizes that its reach has exceeded its influence. This is the challenge that the Biden government and its successors will face for the foreseeable future.
So the real question for the Biden government is not how to deal with an emerging China. Rather, it’s about how to manage a plateau – and that knows it is a plateau. In other words, the challenge for the next administration is not to maintain US hegemony in the face of a China that wants to assume the cloak of global leadership for itself. Instead, the main foreign policy challenge for Biden’s foreign policy team will be figuring out how to deal with a China whose supremacy, like Germany in 1914 and Japan in 1941, is declining as much as it was almost within reach.
And assuming the story is a guide, the Biden administration has to get this right. Because history teaches us that the cost of failure, the cost of mistreating a stalled and frustrated hegemonic competitor, can be almost unimaginably high.
Further reading on e-international relations