Biden should not ignore the perils of ideological competition

Biden’s favorite foreign policy theme, right up there with developing a “foreign strategy for the middle class”, is that the United States and its allies are engaged in an ideological struggle with authoritarian powers over how the world will change.

President Joe Biden stated the same point in the Washington Post, just before his first overseas trip in July. He stated that democracies must show the world that they are united and equipped to handle the many challenges of the 21st century. After the G7 summit, the president stated that everyone at the table understood the seriousness of the issues and the responsibility of democracies to deliver the goods to the rest.

Is it really the best way to move the United States?

Biden’s democracy-versus-autocracy framework continues to be used as a way to make order out of a complex world. It is too simplistic to assume that states are driven more by a governing philosophy than their basic quest for power and security.

If political systems were the main organizing principle for how states behave, all democracies would theoretically have a common set goals. It would be easy to establish a united democratic consensus about China, Russia, or any other issue. This is not the reality. Geopolitics is not a simple mathematical equation. The U.S. cannot just assume that its democratic partners and allies will follow Washington’s lead, as President Biden and Secretary Of State Antony Blinken saw firsthand on their respective European trips.

Biden should not ignore the perils of ideological competition

It’s clear, despite the G7 and NATO declaring their resolve, that democracies don’t agree on some of the most important issues facing the world today. Germany, France, and Italy are all concerned about Beijing’s predatory behavior. However, none of them seem keen to join a U.S.-led international coalition against China. Emmanuel Macron, France’s foreign minister, laughed at the idea that NATO would shift its focus away from the North Atlantic to China as a top security concern. Germany does not intend to compromise its 253 billion trade relations with China. In other words, even democracies can disagree about strategy and tactics.

It is clear that the Biden administration officials enjoy ideological competition. It’s not clear if full-blown ideological campaigns against nondemocracies work. This paradigm is a gift from Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. They are both masters at crafting narratives about a bullying U.S. that seeks to subvert Russia or China. Last month, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas Pepinsky explained to Foreign Affairs that the Chinese Communist Party has the perfect opportunity to promote its nationalistic narratives about Western encroachment. Putin, who is facing a poor economy and an increase in COVID-19 infection, wants nothing more than to distract from the United States. Washington, in essence, is providing assistance to Putin and the CCP.

The last thing that can be detrimental to U.S. foreign policies is putting ideology first. This can make a cooperation with autocratic regimes more difficult than necessary. Biden’s administration has been talking a lot about working with Russia and China to solve common problems. Biden and Putin met in Geneva a few weeks ago for an hour-long meeting in which they agreed to a new strategic stability dialogue.

But international relations are not a contest of good and evil. This is why pragmatic cooperation is so important. In this environment, compromise is difficult to find. There are few avenues for dialog. Confrontation is the default option while pragmatic thinking is deemed weak and reckless. How can the Biden administration justify cooperating with Beijing on any matter of consequence, while simultaneously referring to China as the main threat to the rules-based international system? How can Xi, whose wolf fighter diplomats are constantly on guard for any rhetorical punches, explain to the CCP Politburo why it is in China’s best interests to work alongside a country that seems intent on full-blown containment?

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It is often stated that U.S. values and U.S. interests are almost identical. Geopolitics can be both machiavellian and cutthroat. Instead of creating a dangerous clash of ideals that causes the same problems the U.S. seeks to avoid, the Biden administration would be smart to accept the world as it stands.