It is no coincidence that Biden’s first major trip abroad will focus on these two powers. He will face several challenges in his mission to stand up against Beijing and Moscow’s dictatorial regimes.
A theme is already emerging in the budding foreign policy of U.S. President Joe Biden: The 21st century will be the stage for significant conflict between democracies and autocracies.
Despite the many contrasts between Donald Trump and Biden’s administrations, there is at least one major international topic on which we seem determined to ensure some continuity: China.
After an initial review of the tariffs put in place by Trump, Biden’s team has indicated their intention to maintain the present policies, at least for now. In the spring, the first bilateral meeting between diplomatic leaders from the two countries, which took place in Alaska, proved to be particularly heated. What’s more, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have both made it clear they desire to fight back against China’s increasing power.
Where Biden is different from the Trump era is in his willingness to bank on multilateralism to apply this counterpower. However, if he is planning on teaming up with the United States’ traditional allies to face Beijing, few of them seem to want to adopt such a hardened position. The evidence: In their communication on June 14, NATO members were unable to agree on a stronger term than “systemic challenge” to describe China.
When the time comes for the American president to call for a united front to enforce concrete policies directly against China, he may face a cluster of resistance, including from allied democratic countries.
The game against the Russians does not look particularly easy. After three successive presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump — who believed they could distinguish themselves from their predecessors by improving relations with Moscow, nobody in Washington is under any illusions anymore. Geopolitical disputes between the United States and Russia are both real and long-lasting.
In fact, the list of sources of tension between the two countries has grown in recent months, with an increase in cyberattacks against American companies and government agencies, which come not only from Russia but elsewhere, possibly committed with the Russian government’s blessing.
A few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin added a further layer of provocation, giving an interview to U.S. network NBC, in which he described Trump as a “talented individual” and denied playing any role in the imprisonment and torture of his main political opponent in Russia, Alexei Navalny, while refusing to promise the activist’s release from prison alive. When asked if he was a killer, Putin dodged the question.
That set the scene for the bilateral meeting between Biden and Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday. However, despite the new American president’s desire to project a powerful image in front of his Russian counterpart, a key question remains on the eve of the summit: What can the United States and its allies really do about Russian influences, and in some cases, acts of aggression?
They have already expelled Russia from the Group of Seven (which, we must remember, was previously the Group of Eight), imposed a multitude of diplomatic and economic sanctions throughout the years, and published all kinds of diplomatic statements condemning the regime. Even after all these efforts, it’s hard to see any concrete results, to say the least.
At the end of the day, whether it is with China and Russia, nobody wants an escalation of tensions that could descend into armed conflict. However, the methods employed until now, including those used by the new American president, are no miracle solution. The United States and its allies are perhaps more challenged than they dare to admit by the task of having to deal with, at least in the short term, a more polarized world in which democracy doesn’t necessarily always have the last word.