There was no shortage of niceties after the many international summits during recent weeks. But that does not in any way mean there was a unified approach to Russia and China.
It was a round of summits like none before it: first, the Group of Seven meeting in Cornwall, England, then the U.S.-EU summit and the NATO meeting in Brussels, and then the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Now, after all the summits, it is quiet again. What came out of them in the end?
First, a deluge of communiques that outdo each other with their diffuseness, love of details and diplomatic grandiloquence. The leaders’ communique from the G-7 meeting covered 25 densely typed pages, the U.S.-EU statement filled 31 pages with narrow margins, and there was the 31 single-spaced pages of the closing statement from the 30 NATO nations that read like a laundry list down to the smallest trouser button. Surely not a single one of the leaders read it.
The statements will please some minor advisers who were able to insert a sentence or even a paragraph, but the documents do nothing to advance the world. They abound with worry, appeals and warnings, but the threat of retaliation remains vague. Everything must first be checked, defined and agreed upon. The establishment of innumerable working groups is thus probably the most concrete result of all the summits.
Is the West Back?
Is America back? Does everyone everywhere accept its claim to leadership in all areas? Is the West back, the unity of the trans-Atlantic partnership after the “Westlessness” conjured up by Donald Trump? There was no shortage of niceties, but I stand by Biden’s words: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Let’s wait and see.
One thing that I did notice, however, is that there is by no means unity on two important questions. They concern relations with Russia and with China. There is no lack of common criticism of actions by both governments. Beijing is being called upon to respect international and maritime laws in the South China Sea and human rights and basic freedoms in its domestic policies. Russia is being asked to end its destabilizing behavior and its oppression of the opposition. But when it comes to the right approach to the two countries, there is disagreement between the U.S. and Europe, as well as within the U.S. and the EU.
The closing statement from NATO views Russia as a potential opponent. In more than 100 lines, Russia is reproached for its brazen attitude, its conventional and nuclear armament, provocations on its borders, spontaneous maneuvers and, albeit less centrally, its hybrid actions against allies including election interference, disinformation campaigns and malicious cyberattacks. Above all, NATO condemns Moscow for its “illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea” and its “temporary occupation”; NATO refuses to recognize either, saying, “Until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual.’”
1st, Ambassadors Will Return to their Posts
If the American president had read this passage, he would have had to cross it out. That, and the chapter in which NATO adheres to the goal of admitting Georgia and Ukraine as NATO members. Biden, who called Putin a “killer” in March, is determined to resume normal dealings in foreign policy, to make contact and to attempt to deescalate tensions and find opportunities for cooperation. Accordingly, he invited Putin to Geneva and spoke with him for three hours, in a meeting that both considered constructive and productive.
Biden addressed human rights and the case of Alexei Navalny; Putin criticized American democracy. The leaders exchanged opinions and drew red lines. But then they also established ways to approach arms control and risk reduction, even the danger of cyberattacks. First, the ambassadors will return to their posts, and then the expert discussions will begin.
This clearing of rubble makes large-scale politics possible again. Chancellor Angela Merkel should be pleased to see that talks are resuming; Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, less so; and leader of the Green Party and candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock probably views it with mistrust. The suspicion is also great in the Baltics, in Poland and in the Czech Republic. What comes of the discussions, if anything, should become apparent in three to six months, according to Biden’s estimate.
Biden Wants To Forge an Alliance against China
Things are more complicated when it comes to relations with China. There, Biden’s strategy is based on confrontation more than cooperation. Washington sees China as a source of commercial, technological and military threat. From this perspective, China is striving for regional hegemony in the Pacific and, eventually, hopes to sideline the U.S. from its status as a global power. China’s goal, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is to become the dominant political, geopolitical, military and economic power in the world. Biden’s priority is to bring together democracies across the world to form an alliance against the People’s Republic.
The Europeans do not see China as a direct military threat. It may be challenging our values; with its Silk Road project, its influence is spreading even into the EU. The oppression of the Uighurs, neutralization of Hong Kong’s autonomy and threats to Taiwan also anger Europeans. Beijing’s ambitions of world leadership, its authoritarian interventions and its imperial expansion mean that China’s rise can no longer be seen as an opportunity; more and more, it should be seen as a challenge.
The Europeans insist especially on fairness and reciprocity in trade and investment policy, and on respect and decency, even in diplomatic relations. For them, the Chinese are sometimes partners, sometimes competitors, sometimes systematic rivals. But they are not a source of existential military threat. In addition, there is the situation that France’s President Emmanuel Macron pointed to, that “NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic; China has little to do with the North Atlantic.”
Chancellor Rejects Premature Agreements
This, as well as other objections from Hungary and Greece, resulted in the China section of the NATO communique at just 36 lines, one-tenth the length of the Russia section. But it still states that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.” At the same time, NATO calls on Beijing to join a constructive dialogue about trust-building, nuclear armament, climate change and potential differences of opinion.
Biden introduced his Build Back Better World, an infrastructure project on the scale of several hundred billion dollars in public and private funds, which he praised as an alternative to China’s Silk Road project. He was not persuasive in demonstrating how it will be executed or financed, and the chancellor thus rejected any premature agreements (“We are really not yet at the point that we have specific means of funding”). There should be another working group that could begin creating the recipe for the pudding that will be baked. And even then, no one should lick their lips too soon.