US President Joe Biden embarked on a diplomatic tour of Europe, the first since he was elected and sworn in in January. Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump who chose the Middle East as his first port of call by visiting Saudi Arabia, Biden began his America Is Back tour with the G7 summit in England where he was billed to go to Brussels for NATO’s annual summit as well as an American-EU summit.
Biden’s journeys are strategically important. He campaigned to restore American leadership on international affairs and the G7 as well as NATO summits emphasizes the importance old American alliances would play in the identification of a new strategic threat which NATO has now identified as China. President Biden and fellow Western leaders issued a confrontational declaration about Russian and Chinese government behavior on Sunday, castigating Beijing over its internal repression, vowing to investigate the pandemic’s origins, and excoriating Moscow for using nerve agents and cyberweapons.
In the past, it was quite an easy job convincing the Europeans about the threat that Russia poses. Contrary to what analysts as well as Biden and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have said, Russian-American relations are not at an all-time low right now, not since the Cold War. The lowest point of relations between both came during the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, which led to intense friction between the West and Russia.
Things have changed significantly since the end of the Obama administration as its successor chose to focus on a different strategic rival in the Pacific–China. Biden’s message that “America Is Back” may not really resonate with countries who do not see the Trump years as an interregnum between two periods of normal and have thus begun to make preparations for autonomy. The German-Russia Nord Stream II project which is aimed at supplying Europe with cheaper, Russian gas (bypassing Ukraine which Russia pays charges to) is one such example and the German indignation as well as defiance of American sanctions is a microcosm of what the mood in Europe is like as regards American leadership.
For starters, the Trump administration’s approach to getting NATO members to take Defence obligations more seriously sort of led to the acceleration of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that has now tied Biden’s hands, leading to an enormously toned down response by relaxing sanctions. French defence minister, Florence Parly very recently talked about Europe’s strategic autonomy. As an aside, the concerns which drove France to develop its own nuclear weapons in the 1960s was epitomized by the question “Will Washington commit suicide because of Paris?” Even if the Americans had sort of addressed that question by virtue of NATO’s article 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all), the damage Trump did to American credibility would take years to repair. Or, with Macron’s statement last year that NATO is brain dead, and his defence minister stopping short of calling for full strategic autonomy (so as not to spook the EU over fears of French domination of plans that would involve defence corporations which France seems to dominate on the continent), we could say that the cat is out of the bag.
Emphatically, France is also worried the renewed transatlantic love fest will slow, or even halt, an awakening among Europeans on the need to spend more on defense — something Trump encouraged at higher, harsher volume than his predecessors. Furthermore, America’s feeble response to Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 (kicking Turkey out of its F-16 development programme seems not to be enough for some hardliners in the US foreign policy establishment who would rather kick Turkey out of NATO) has served to heavily dilute its response to Germany’s romance with Russia, so much so that a hydrogen project is in the works.
What this shows is that in the face of increasing American withdrawal from global affairs, the attempt to prop up anchors to guarantee security in volatile spots becomes increasingly necessary. The Abraham Accords settled Israel’s security even though the Iran question remains. The Biden administration’s attempts to get back on the Iran Nuclear Deal is the last piece of the puzzle which is coming against the backdrop of renewed Saudi-Iran rapprochement.
America needs security anchors in key regions–Japan and South Korea in East Asia, India in the Indian Ocean, Australia in the South Pacific and Germany and Poland in Western Eurasia– to ensure it has leverage in dealing with its primary geopolitical threat, which is the emergence of a dominant power in Eurasia (whether that is Russia or China). From the geopolitical standpoint of Washington, it already dominates the Western Hemisphere from the Arctic to the tip of Chile and Africa is unimportant.
A concert of Europe for Biden will be instrumental in curbing China’s rise which both NATO and G7 members acknowledged this week when it replaced Russia with China as the number one strategic threat. Like the concert of Europe between 1815 and 1914 which sought to preserve the balance of power according to the old, pre-Napoleonic order of five great powers, the new concert will also serve to preserve the liberal American led “rules-based international order”. Unlike in the past where Russia was the enemy, the US would be looking to pour ice on warm relations between Russia and China by playing a reverse Kissinger– try to pry Russia away from China in a manner similar to the 1972 Nixon-Kissinger decision to re-engage with communist China to offset the post-Vietnam power imbalance with the Soviet Union.
The old concert of Europe consisted of Austria, Britain, France, Prussia (which is now Germany) and Russia. It is not likely that Biden would be successful in keeping Russia away from China even though Russia would never accept to be a junior partner in such a relationship. It would take massive, significant concessions from the US (some of which would include removing security guarantees for Ukraine as well as upset the basis of NATO’s existence) which would upset many status quo for this to happen.
In the final analysis, despite putting out a joint statement about the threat China poses, not everyone in the EU,G7 or NATO agrees. France and Germany have quite shown that American concerns in Europe are not shared by them. And being leading members of the EU, it is anyone’s guess the direction the union would be taking in the coming years, with more parley with China given the kinds of investments the latter has in Greece and other EU/NATO states under the Belt and Road Initiative.
The G7’s agreement of a rival initiative in principle may not really outspend China given how little action is attached to grandiose promises, and the strings attached to such Western styled loans such as emphasis on democracy and the respect of human rights which the Chinese sidestepped, thus making cheap loans and infrastructure appealing to countries in the developing world. Biden would need to balance American frustrations with Turkey over the latter’s increasing foreign policy independence which almost led it to a clash with Greece, a fellow NATO member over exploratory rights in the Mediterranean; manage fragile egos between France’s Macron and Turkey’s Erdogan who have traded insults; handle Turkey’s increasing free hand in buying Russian made air defence systems, and handle the Afghanistan question which an American exit has left its NATO allies utterly blindsided.
As China has hit back in response without holding back which is in line with its increasing diplomatic belligerence or wolf warrior diplomacy, the work has begun. The pacific, with China’s increasingly hostile behaviour in threatening free navigation as well as its status as the world’s largest navy would be seeing some action, but a concerted response or the lack thereof would tell how much success the United States can achieve.