President Joe Biden wants the world to know America is committed to shared Western values, multilateralism and diplomacy. But our allies and adversaries may not respond as we might like, and this could all end badly.
American foreign policy must address existential threats to civilization—climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation—and China’s ambition to create an international order friendly to its autocratic capitalism.
If China and Russia viewed proliferation as a genuine threat, Iran would be subjected to severe enough multilateral pressure to either forsake its nuclear weapons ambitions or risk regime change. Instead, Beijing and Moscow assist Tehran in coping with U.S. sanctions.
Risky path forward
The Europeans would recognize the 2015 deal that froze Tehran’s weapons-making ambitions for only 10 years was never a solution and advocate the toughest sanctions possible to force its hand. The alternative path through negotiations is terribly risky and won’t curb Iran’s support for regional terrorist groups.
China, by failing to cooperate more earnestly with the World Health Organization’s investigation into COVID, raises the risk of future pandemics—perhaps to exploit its autocratic system’s advantages in squashing viruses within its borders and advance its ambitions for gaining global economic dominance.
China, unlike Europe, Japan and United States, has not committed to net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. In return for more cooperation, we can expect Beijing to seek a Western complicity to squashing democracy in Hong Kong, the genocide of Muslims in Xinjiang, and incursions on Taiwanese autonomy.
No solution to climate change is possible without India, but its sense of entitlement as a developing nation makes net-zero emissions by 2050 politically impossible without massive Western aid. Europe can barely afford to finance its own energy transformation, and Biden’s Middle Class First foreign economic policy makes assisting industrial modernization in the developing world at that scale unlikely.
Radical political change needed
It seems the Chinese and Indians don’t believe they will burn up with the rest of us. If climate change is truly an existential threat, then the Washington-Brussels axis should be angling for radical political change in Beijing and New Delhi but that’s a bit too much for the globalists on either side of the Atlantic.
A decade ago, Beijing saw no profit in truly reforming its economic system to embrace Western free-market norms—something needed to conform Beijing’s economic policies to World Trade Organization rules and norms—but at least it respected the accomplishments of the Western system. In the wake of China’s more robust recovery from COVID, they now see no need to offer even the pretense of such aspirations.
Consequently, the notion of reforming the WTO to discipline China’s state support of high-tech, for example, is fanciful.
Biden wants to combine forces with European and Asian allies to address Chinese mercantilism but without entering into new regional trade agreements. However, each nation has its own interests and perceptions of China to balance.
Germany sees its interests best served by adopting India’s now abandoned strategy of seeking equidistance between China and the United States. Just before Biden was inaugurated, Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed completion of the EU-China commercial agreement, and that will further enable Beijing’s growing influence in Southern and Eastern Europe.
In the Pacific, the Chinese have demonstrated they can impose biting sanctions on those who challenge its foreign and trade policies—for example on exports of rare earth minerals to Japan and on imports of coal, agricultural products and crustaceans from Australia and Taiwan.
Shunning new trade agreements
By re-entering the Trans Pacific Partnership, Washington could offer benefits that outweigh the costs of confronting China’s bullying but if Biden continues to shun new trade agreements, Beijing would be happy to take our place in the TPP.
China has larger ambitions—dominance in cutting edge semiconductors and artificial intelligence, reunification with Taiwan, displacing U.S. strategic dominance in the South Pacific, and demonstrating that its state-managed capitalism can deliver growth and prosperity better than the teetering U.S.-European model.
Biden wishes to convene his Summit of Democracies, but he will have to put more chips on the table to get the scope of cooperation he needs. Multilateralism and diplomacy are tools of statecraft, not ends in themselves. When raised up as idols, those invite aggression—and capitulation or war—as surely as appeasement did in the 1930s.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.