Author: James Curran, University of Sydney
Within days of each other, revealing portraits of the United States and China were unveiled. In Washington, the Biden administration released its national security strategy. This says a lot about American psychology at a critical time. And Beijing witnessed the opening of the 20th Party Congress on October 16 which will see Xi Jinping confirmed as president for a record third term.
It comes as the White House launches arguably its biggest move to compete with and restrict China in its tech war, limiting the ability of global and US chipmakers to sell semiconductors and chipmaking equipment to customers. Chinese. As Bloomberg notes, it strikes at the base of China’s efforts to build its own chip industry.
This represents a dramatic escalation in technological decoupling and has been met with a forceful Chinese response. Furious officials in Beijing are already threatening economic retaliation.
With Trump’s trade tariffs still in place, Beijing has no doubt that the United States is seeking to cripple its ability to compete on an equal footing. Adding to his real estate crash, tensions stemming from Xi’s zero COVID-19 policy and slowing economic growth, this is not the atmosphere Xi wanted to follow Congress.
Biden’s national security strategy is, like those of his predecessors, sonorous in style and pronunciation. It puts America on the cusp of what the president calls a “tipping moment” for the world, a “decisive decade” for the United States.
Basically, he projects humility on past failures. Washington stresses that it has learned from its mistakes, bidding a relieved farewell to the post-Cold War era. More remarkably, he seems to have given up on the goal of promoting democracy. “We will not use our military to change regimes,” he said, “or remake societies.” This is the cleanest break of all. Biden’s pre-election emphasis on a “foreign policy for the middle class” is largely missing. The chains, it seems, are once again removed.
This remains an America that will not easily – if ever – embrace the prospect of being a “normal” nation, or even just a conventional great power. To do so would be to deny the very essence of what makes them Americans.
The business outlined by US policymakers in this strategy remains broad and comprehensive. It touches every corner of the globe, embraces a panoply of policies. The community of nations, he assumes, in a statement that may have been delivered by Woodrow Wilson in Paris in 1919, “shares our vision of the future of the international order.”
The old Cold War mind map with all its obvious contradictions still has a powerful grip. Although divine providence is not openly invoked, its pulse quickens the American system, fueling its self-confidence. “Primacy,” which appears only once in the document, is no longer the beating heart of American grand strategy. But his replacement, namely “outclassing” Russia and China, has the same meaning, even if he pledges to avoid the “temptation to see the world only through the prism of strategic competition”.
Indeed, by seeking to avoid the notion of a new Cold War and resist a world of “rigid blocs,” the document remains a manifesto for the very binary Biden declared at the start of his presidency – one between democracies and autocracies.
In doing so, the strategy is in some ways reminiscent of former US diplomat George Kennan’s lengthy telegram from Moscow in 1946 – which essentially established the intellectual basis for the containment of the Soviet Union. Biden’s paper similarly describes Russia and China as beset by problems associated with the “inherent pathologies of highly personalized autocracies” that “export an illiberal model of international order.”
This is a key judgment of strategy – Russia has proven its form in its invasion of Ukraine and its “imperialist foreign policy”, and the Chinese threat is portrayed as spreading.
But older rhetorical threads are also woven through the fabric of the document, from Presidents Truman to Kennedy and Nixon. There are echoes of Truman’s speech to Congress in March 1947 in his promise to “defend democracy in the world.” There are tensions in Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961 in the strategy’s commitment to “support each country in exercising the freedom to make choices”. And more than a dose of Richard Nixon’s call from Guam in July 1969—at another time of relative American vulnerability—for even greater Allied burden-sharing.
It should be remembered that after World War II, the United States deliberately chose to do everything it said it would never do. He entered into the very kind of “entangled alliances” that George Washington warned of in his farewell speech. He dealt with corrupt one-party states and authoritarian regimes wherever he saw fit. And he stationed troops at military bases all over the world.
Early in 1947, the prominent American foreign affairs columnist Walter Lippmann warned that containment had created a “strategic monstrosity”. This would force the United States to embark on an endless series of interventions around the world.
Lippmann reminded Kennan that “the history of diplomacy is the history of relations between rival powers which have known no political intimacy and which have not responded to calls for common ends”. Nevertheless, he added, “there have been settlements. Some of them didn’t last very long. Some of them did”. But “for a diplomat to think that rival and hostile powers cannot be brought to a settlement is to forget what diplomacy is”.
This is exactly the kind of advice that is ignored today in Beijing and Washington.
James Curran is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney.
A version of this article originally appeared here at the Australian Financial Review.