We recently observed in this column that US President Joe Biden’s embrace of an anti-Russia, Cold War mentality may have been guided by the desire to comfort media outlets such as MSNBC and The New York Times, which over the past five years have staked their reputations on that same commitment. For the Democrats, Russia serves as the incarnation of political evil. Calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a killer devoid of a soul fit the script of hyperreal melodrama to which Democrats seem addicted. Without a named person to play the role of incarnate evil, Democrats feel the American public may stop believing in the nation’s predestined goodness.
Biden’s America Is the New “Middle Kingdom”
Like most powerful leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping leads a government that has had people killed and routinely does things contrary to the taste of American politicians. But the image of Xi, a calm, rational bureaucrat, does not resemble the kind of theatrical villain the American public loves to hate. He lacks the character traits, the posture, the gestures, the gait and the sheer stage presence that defined leaders like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and even Hugo Chavez. Perhaps this lack of a recognizable villainous foil to the heroic US president explains why Biden’s bureaucratic secretary of state, Antony Blinken — rather than Biden himself — has assumed the task of defining the terms of the new Cold War withthat is brewing.
Here is how Blinken makes his case for a warlike posture: “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system — all the rules, values, and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to, because it ultimately serves the interests and reflects the values of the American people.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Open international system:
In the 21st century, a rulebook of geopolitical relationships, whose doors can be closed and locked only by the United States of America
Blinken succinctly describes what is meant by American exceptionalism. He distinguishes it from former President Donald Trump’s policy of “America First,” which focused on domestic issues, such as closing off the southern border to immigration and allowing real Americans to concentrate on the essential business of “winning” as they compete against their rivals and neighbors. Blinken feels that Trump’s idea that every nation should pursue its particular interest without regard for the others was a recipe for instability. In contrast, America’s imposition of leadership on dependent allies will ensure stability.
Blinken and Biden apparently believe in international solidarity — provided, of course, that it is structured around themes the US chooses. “Another enduring principle,” Blinken intones, “is that we need countries to cooperate, now more than ever. Not a single global challenge that affects your lives can be met by any one nation acting alone.” But a closer look at his idea of cooperation reveals an idea closer to former President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” than open concertation. He also makes it clear that even though Russia, Iran and North Korea stand out as a vague equivalent of Bush’s “axis of evil,” China is the real threat against which an effective coalition must be assembled.
The Biden administration simply refuses to acknowledge that China’s rise, which has effectively lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty, should be considered as having any redeeming factors that might lead the US to promote a policy of cooperation with China rather than confrontation. It may be the administration’s belief in the theory of the “Thucydides trap,” which, if taken seriously, fatalistically supposes that a waning power and a rising power must not seek to cooperate, but must be resigned to confronting each other, forcing the weaker to submit.
In his speech, Blinken made this intriguing comment about cooperation: “That requires working with allies and partners, not denigrating them, because our combined weight is much harder for China to ignore.” He is undoubtedly thinking about Trump’s propensity to lambaste US allies in Europe and elsewhere. This may also explain why the Biden administration has avoided reproaching Saudi Arabia with its crimes and blatantly undemocratic behavior.
Blinken asserts that “as the President has promised, diplomacy — not military action — will always come first.” But, contrary to most expectations, there has been no diplomacy with Iran, and the attempt at diplomacy with China last week in Alaska turned to the kind of confrontation that precedes military action. At the same time, Admiral Philip Davidson has indicated that he believes war with China will be inevitable because of the US commitment to defending Taiwan’s independence. The Financial Times notes that “Biden has taken a tough rhetorical posture towards China over its military activity around Taiwan and in the South and East China Seas.” The tone in Washington seems closer to preparation for war than an intensification of diplomacy.
The Chinese have expanded their geopolitical activity with a focus on infrastructure rather than military presence. The US sees this as an assault on its global hegemony. Underlying this feeling is the reality that since the beginning of the century, the US has seen a decline in its influence across the globe. The rise of China means that any new president of the United States must feel that getting tough with China will be electorally advantageous. But posturing with an eye to seducing the electorate can sometimes lead to actions that severely undermine the very stability Blinken believes must be ensured through American leadership.
Antony Blinken’s logic can be seen as the application of John Mearsheimer’s notion of US hegemony as the central feature of a “realist” foreign policy. That realism reflects a binary vision of the world, as a choice between hegemony and anarchy. Hegemony is the lesser of the two evils and is therefore deemed good. No great power should renounce its quest for hegemony. For the US, ever since the Monroe Doctrine established in 1823, regional hegemony has become the reigning orthodoxy.
As a realist, Mearsheimer opposes the “neo-liberal” idea that US hegemony should be guided by the belief in a moral mission. Because hegemony is good, its abuses will always be tolerable as conditions for maintaining the good. Mearsheimer even had a soft spot for Trump’s “America First” approach. Secretary Blinken and President Joe Biden have chosen to deviate from Mearsheimer by promoting a version of hegemony that relies on a return to the moralism of the neo-liberal agenda. They paint the US as a force for promoting democracy and human rights across the globe. Biden called it leading by the force of example rather than the example of force.
Blinken offers some examples. “It requires standing up for our values when human rights are abused in Xinjiang or when democracy is trampled in Hong Kong, because if we don’t, China will act with even greater impunity.” Does “standing up for” mean envisioning war? The absurdity of his statement becomes clearer when one imagines the way the Chinese might reformulate it to criticize the US: It requires standing up for our values when human rights are abused among the black population in America’s inner cities or when democracy is denied and trampled in Puerto Rico, because if we don’t, the US will act with even greater impunity. Only a global hegemon “stands up” in that manner.
The realists correctly point out that the attitude that consists of feeling justified to use force on the grounds that another nation is not living up to one’s own rigorous moral or political standards is at best a distraction and at worst an invitation to chaos. Realists, like Mearsheimer or Henry Kissinger, respect power alone rather than any abstract notion of virtue. They see moral considerations as irrelevant, though they tend to think that, according to some mysterious metaphysical principle, the values of the US are more valid or trustworthy than those of other nations.
Power will always assert itself. Superior power will usually win every spontaneous contest. That is the reality of politics. But is that a recipe for stability? The real question that every honest human being must consider is this: Should politics and political thinking alone rule human society? Is there a place for morality and not just as a feature of political rhetoric?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.