Hell hath no fury like a superpower in decline
The U.S. leadership must have set some kind of new record in managing to personally insult the leadership of the two other great powers of the world within 48 hours of each other in these early days of Biden administration foreign policy. Almost as if they were graduates of “The Donald Trump Charm School.”
It is simply astonishing that in approaching a new course of relations with Russia, President Biden should have called Vladimir Putin “a killer” and lacking “a soul.”
It is similarly astonishing to have chosen an important opening moment in our delicate relationship with China to employ derogatory language. Did Blinken believe that flashing testosterone at the first high-level meeting of Beijing’s foreign policy leadership would help achieve the diplomatic goals Washington seeks? One wonders who the secretary of state was trying to impress — Beijing or a U.S. domestic audience?
The United States undoubtedly has its own grievances towards China, and China likewise possesses many grievances towards the United States. But surely this name-calling and accusatory language are immature and counterproductive in terms of future U.S.-China or, for that matter, China-Russian relations.
And what message do these events send to other world leaders? It raises serious questions about the professionalism and vision of the new administration’s leadership as to whether Washington is any longer responsible or capable of the “global leadership” about which it talks so incessantly.
When both the U.S. president and his secretary of state seem to have chosen such ill-considered approaches to Russia and China, it certainly will make many other countries quite hesitant to sign on to an American vision and style of global leadership.
The degree of hypocrisy about “killing” or “foreign interference” is likewise disturbing if not myopic. U.S. policies over the past 20 years or more have shown a great willingness to kill in great quantity in a failing effort to achieve political goals that have stunningly failed in nearly every case. Consider the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Syrian, Somali, Libyan, Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians who are perceived as little more than “collateral damage” in endless U.S. military interventions. Not to mention American assassinations of high-level foreign officials such as Iranian General Qassem Soleimani who also happened to be perhaps the most revered public official in Iran.
Antony Blinken, seemingly without embarrassment, speaks of the United States as upholding “the rule of law globally” in the self-deception or the belief that such is the case. In fact, Washington has always expected other countries to support the international rule of law — although exempting good friends like Israel and Saudi Arabia. The United States invariably defends its own “exceptionalism” in pointedly not signing onto International law when it suits its interests. That includes foreign assassinations and the launching of several wars without authorization at the international level, provoking “Color Revolutions,” and refusing to ratify UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea or the Rights of the Child, or honor adverse judgments by the International Court of Justice. And It is difficult to understand how Blinken feels comfortable at lecturing China on its domestic failings at a time when U.S. democracy and social policy have never presented a more damaging face to the world.
Surely such self-righteousness on the administration’s part shows a lack of seriousness and honesty about U.S. history and positions. Or, more disturbingly, it suggests that Washington lacks all capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness.
In the end, this initial high-level diplomatic encounter is perhaps most distressing given the high hopes that many Americans held that so many of our problems would vanish with the departure of Donald Trump – rather than undertaking a necessarily painful examination of the inherent deep-seated flaws within the American system.
Perhaps I am wrong in making these harsh observations. Maybe, coming on strong with all guns blazing — Hollywood cowboy style — at these first public confrontations will cause Moscow and Beijing to reflect and even retreat a bit. But I doubt it. I fear these two linked events simply hammer a few more nails into the coffin of cherished American aspirations to global leadership and dominance. In that case, we may be our own most dangerous enemy if we continue to look with nostalgia at former American hegemony. That global dominance, for better or for worse, is increasingly a thing of the past. It represents a failure to recognize the unique circumstances by which America happened to play a major positive global role immediately after the collapse of Europe, Japan, and China after the brutal ordeal of World War II. Arguably, those conditions will not return, which means that the United States will be facing a very uncomfortable future reality for which it seems psychologically ill-prepared.
This country indeed has some grounds for pride in its own – imperfect — democratic order. No such democratic orders are perfect. Still, how much reflection does it take to acknowledge what “the Chinese Communist Party” has accomplished in the past thirty years? Is it more worthy to bring half a billion people out of poverty and into middle-class life in a mere generation? Or more worthy to maintain intact an American electoral system in which mediocre or bad leaders emerge as readily as good ones? Trying to define what constitutes good governance either in China or America is not readily answerable and depends on one’s values. But at the least the question should evoke some measure of humility before Washington engages in a dubious public contest with a major foreign power over alternative forms of governance.
Ultimately, improvements in Chinese forms of governance are less likely to evolve — as they have over thirty years — when insulting comparisons and demands are made of a competitor’s performance — especially when we are talking about Chinese domestic policies in so many cases — while giving a free ride to our harshly autocratic friends.
The United States is a country possessing extraordinary gifts of creativity and energy. At this point, however, its political, socio-economic, and psychological order seems to be languishing on the cross of a questionable and expensive search for total global military dominance.
Hopefully, some lessons learned will be drawn from this early, singularly amateur and emotional first foray of the Biden administration into high-level Russia and China diplomacy.