President Biden’s foreign policy promises a return to multilateralism, but it looks more like Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement with Russia and China than Winston Churchill’s grand alliance.
He envisions a community of democracies. And circles around the concepts of a D-10—the G-7 plus Australia, India and South Korea, but each member has national interests and expresses those in ways that sometimes conflict with the U.S. agenda.
Russia is simple — a 20th Century superpower, now diminished, living by 19th Century rules. Domestically, President Putin compensates for a backward, petroleum-dependent economy by whipping up anti-western sentiment, building his military and pushing the boundaries of his influence in places like Ukraine. He disrupts western elections through inexpensive cyber aggression and forces western businesses to pay tribute — that lays bare American impotence.
Mr. Putin’s shenanigans tax American and broader NATO resources that should be devoted to China’s massive military buildup. What is more criminal is Germany helping finance the Russian state by buying more of its natural gas and Germany’s stubborn reluctance to spend enough for the common defense and put troops in harm’s way.
Here we see American appeasement — dressed up as alliance building. Faced with German intransigence on Nord Stream 2, Mr. Biden redefined the issue in terms of the transit fees the Ukrainians would lose as German purchases are routed through the new pipeline, and he extracted commitments from Chancellor Merkel to keep the gas flowing through both routes and provide some financial assistance to Ukraine.
That will only serve to increase the German money Russia can pour into its military, mischief in places like Syria, Libya and Central Asia and bullying former iron curtain states along its border. By mischaracterizing the problem, Mr. Biden and Ms. Merkel cut a deal as cynical as Chamberlain sacrificing the Sudetenland.
Similarly, Mr. Biden has not adequately retaliated for Russia’s cyberpiracy and Iran’s drone attacks, for example, on Israeli shipping. Both regimes know in the end, all Mr. Biden has left is to sanction a few more of their leaders — who weren’t planning to visit Disneyland anytime soon.
The Chinese threat is more systemic. It’s a socialist-market economy that is remarkably successful and is financing a massive naval buildup that leaves the U.S. fleet overextended.
RAND wargame simulations routinely show the U.S. military having great difficulty, for example, unable to repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Presidents Trump and Biden have successfully focused India, Japan, Australia and the U.K. on supplementing U.S. military resources. Still, China has the home-field advantage in the East and South China Seas.
The fleet is heavily dependent on aircraft carriers and other large ships to enable American air dominance and support ground troops. China’s land-based missiles make those vulnerable and ineffective in theaters close to China.
Obama Undersecretary Flournoy articulated a strategy based on smaller ships, drones and other agile forces. Still, the Navy is woefully underfunded to implement that transition and without a several-year gap in battle capacity.
Much of China’s economic success was enabled by joining the WTO in 2001. Then cheating on the rules, extracting technology from western firms seeking market access, stealing intellectual property, and tying in knots the dispute settlement mechanism. USTR Tai talks about getting tough, but her China policy review doesn’t articulate a credible strategy to reform the WTO or pivot to a regional trade alliance in the Pacific.
Mr. Biden demonstrated through his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan that he is willing to stiff allies. We have not heard much from him about the squandered NATO resources or the menace a new launchpad for terrorism creates for the security of our European, Middle Eastern and South Asian friends.
Will America be there if our allies commit to facing up to Chinese aggression? Perhaps not with Mr. Biden in charge.
At a time when the United States is asking allies to spend more, the Biden budget is planning to spend less in real terms on defense.
Defense Secretary Austin appears clueless and ill-placed to transform the Navy and wider U.S. military to address the Chinese challenge.
Mr. Biden is planning a summit for democracies — a Kumbaya moment that will bring together civil society, international organizations and world leaders. They will undoubtedly talk a lot about inequality, climate change, and more prosperous countries’ responsibility to aid developing nations. But nothing much will be accomplished that has not already been achieved, for example, through the Paris Climate Agreement process.
Meanwhile, Mr. Xi continues to build ships.
I can’t wait to hear Mr. Biden proclaim, “social justice in our times.”
• Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland and a national columnist.