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The Mixed Approach Applied by the Biden Administration in Managing Foreign Affairs?
Views:145 Updated:2021-04-27


Upon the Biden administration assuming office, it set a 100-day plan. Over the past 3 months, in order to meet the targets set by this plan and even beyond it, the Biden administration has been trying to formulate an approach to manage the U.S. internal and external affairs. From what we have seen so far, on foreign issues, the application of such approach appears to be full of controversies, and somehow lack of proper consistency between words and actions, especially, when it comes on to issues in relation to China and Russia. The approach applied by the U.S. government has mostly been a mixture of soft and diplomatic words and hard actions. This piece will tend to outline how the U.S. has applied this controversial approach in managing foreign affairs, in particular, the U.S. foreign relations with both China and Russia, and then try to analyse the U.S. motivation behind the application of this controversial approach, as well as the impacts of it on the U.S. and other countries.


How Has A Controversial Approach Been Applied So Far by the U.S.?

Concerning issues related to Russia, on 13 April, as proposed by the U.S. side, the U.S. president Biden and his Russian counterpart Putin had a phone conversation, through which, Biden expressed a necessity to deescalate the U.S. tension with Russia. They also discussed possible cooperation on security and other range of issues. Besides that, the U.S. president was also hopeful of having a in-person meeting with the Russian president in a third party country. However, two days after the phone call, the U.S. side signed an executive order to impose new sanctions against Russia, in line with which, 10 Russian personnel serving in the Russian diplomatic mission in the U.S. were expelled. Also as a result of that, the Russian financial sector has been affected. According to the information cited from the U.S. Treasury Department, “as of 14 June the U.S. financial institutions will be prohibited from participation in the primary market for ruble or non-ruble denominated bonds issued after June 14, 2021 by the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, the National Wealth Fund of the Russian Federation, or the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation.” 1 In addition to these, 32 Russian entities and personnel have been sanctioned for alleged Russian interference in the U.S. 2020 election, and another 8 entities and individuals have received sanctions due to the Crimea issue.2


Then after issuing the sanctions, the U.S. government, on the same day, softened its tone to reclaim the U.S. intention to lower the temperature with Moscow, as the U.S. president claimed in a speech, “The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia”; “We want a stable, predictable relationship”; and “The way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process.”3


In the meantime, the U.S. new moves irritated the Russian side - the Russian Foreign Ministry, in response to the sanctions, expressed strong discontent and vowed to retaliate; the Russian Foreign Minister called these “unacceptable”. 4


After all, after a range of U.S.-Russia interactions more recently, instead of deescalating the tension between the two countries, the situation has got intensified.


Then, the similar mixed approach above has been applied by the U.S. in managing issues with China as well. A series of events have been involved in it. One of the important issues is connected to the China-U.S. high-level dialogue in Alaska. As proposed by the U.S. government, it was the first official face to face engagement between the two countries since the U.S. new administration took office. Some seemed to have high expectations to the China-U.S. 2+2 summit, given that China-U.S. bilateral ties, under the previous U.S. administration, was down to a very low level already, due to the trade war launched by the U.S. , as well as other series of tough measures imposed by the U.S. against China. Therefore, the Alaska dialogue was supposed to be an opportunity for China and the U.S. to warm up their relationship a bit, and further to seek possibilities of cooperation on certain core issues. Some world leaders and experts strongly suggested the two big powers to resume dialogue as soon as possible even before the Biden administration officially assumed office.


However, before the Alaska summit, the U.S. had taken a series of unfriendly actions in order to gain an upper hand in the upcoming China-U.S. high-level dialogue. One of the unfriendly moves involved was the first QUAD summit, which was jointly held by the leaders of the four countries consisting of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Though the joint statement out of the summit didn’t mention China, many believed that it targeted China and aimed to put pressure on China from a psychological perspective.


Then after the QUAD summit, the U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence paid visits to Japan and South Korea respectively. While South Korea rather kept neutral between China and the United States, Japan and the United States, as self-claimed representatives of the international community, deliberately challenged China’s interests and intervened in China’s internal affairs.


Apparently, though the U.S. proposed a talk with China, instead of creating a good atmosphere for that, it intended to seek control beforehand and as well during the summit through setting pressure on China and creating troubles. In the end, it wasn’t surprising that the China-U.S. Alaska dialogue wasn’t going to the direction as many expected.


Another major issue dealt with by the U.S. in applying its mixed approach is related to Taiwan. On the one hand, the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to the One China policy; on the other hand, the U.S. keeps  selling weapons - even more advanced weapons - to Taiwan, through which, to better serve both the U.S. economic and strategic interests. More recently, the U.S. announced to expand exchanges with Taiwan. Two former U.S. officials has just conducted a visit to Taiwan recently.


In addition to the above, upon the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to the U.S., the leaders of the two countries pledged to work more closely to deal with the challenges from China, defend the current world order, safeguard a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and maintain a deterrence capacity in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea etc.


Meanwhile, “the Strategic Competition Act of 2021” recently uncovered by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee shown that, from the political, economic, diplomatic, military, and ideological perspectives, the U.S. takes China as a strategic competitor to the U.S., its partners, and the world order.


In contrast to the range of unfriendly moves above taken by the U.S., on climate change, the U.S. rather intends to exhibit a soft attitude to China, as China’s cooperation with and support to the U.S. on this issue would be of great significance for the U.S. to resume its leading role on climate. On the World Earth Day, the U.S. government hosted a big climate event, with the participation of leaders and representatives from around 40 countries and international organizations. The countries being invited this time contribute to around 80% of the total global carbon emissions. Therefore, through organizing this event, the U.S. also expected to prove its influence and capacity in organizing collective actions on the issue of climate change.


However, some analysts also indicated that, in the next steps, whether China and the U.S. will be able to cooperate more effectively on climate change cannot be completely separated from U.S.- China further interactions on other areas of matters such as foreign and security affairs, and also the technology issue etc.


After all, the U.S. government over the past 3 months has generally applied a mixed approach in managing foreign issues especially its relations with both Russia and China. Then how to understand the U.S. motivation behind this controversial approach, and what would be the implications of it to the U.S. and other countries?



Understanding the U.S. Administration’s Mixed Approach in Managing Foreign Affairs

With the U.S. president taking office, he vowed to restore the U.S. reputation and leadership, as he spoke publicly, “ America is back.” Therefore, all the U.S. has done or intended to do over the past 3 months is to prove this point. However, because of the time restraint - the duration of 100 days is actually relatively short for U.S. to make big breakthroughs on the time-consuming issues such as rule-making - so, the U.S. government must have to seek a proper approach supported by a set of effective means to make certain achievements.


Apart from the U.S. usual domestic agenda, so far as it has exhibited, in order to reach the above goal, the U.S. administration has mainly made efforts on the following aspects of work: first, trying to recover relations with its allies; second, applying a different approach, in contrast to the former administration, to deal with other major powers; and third, re-working on the climate change issue.


From the U.S. perspective, as far as it is able to manage this three aspects of work properly, the U.S., in a relatively short period of time, will be able to re-affirm its leadership and to prove what the U.S. president has claimed - “America is back.”


Then, regarding the issue of climate change, due to the fact that it is one of the common global challenges faced by all humans in the non-traditional security area, and also that a number of developed countries as well as the large emitters like the U.S. and China are generally enthusiastic about and supportive of making joint efforts to address the climate issue, so it should be relatively easier for the U.S. to organize collective actions. We may say that the climate event organized by the U.S. has provided the U.S. government with an opportunity to regain a momentum over the climate change issue. Nevertheless, whether and how the U.S. will be able to fulfill its own commitment on climate change, as well as push the relevant agenda forward together with others will remain to be seen.


In relation to the U.S. triumph in recovering relations with its allies, till now the only country having responded very warmly to the U.S. alliance strategy is Japan. Maybe a few others of the U.S. traditional allies are not particularly against it as well, yet they appear to be more cautious about the possible implications of it.


Meanwhile, there are some voices at the international stage having already questioned the value and usefulness of the alliance relationship under the new historical context, and advised to re-assess it - if the alliance relationship, instead of contributing to problem-solving, could generate more problems, what is the big point to continue to develop it?


By the way, Japan’s enthusiasm about the alliance strategy apparently is mostly of a reflection of Japanese politicians’ strategic calculation of Japan’s interests, rather than of being pressed by the U.S. to accommodate the U.S. global strategy. The former Japanese prime minister Abe uncovered shortly after leaving office - seemingly with a sense of self-complacency - that he ever played a crucial role in successfully convincing the former U.S. former president Trump to implement the Indo-Pacific strategy. After the new Japanese prime minister assumed office, he also tended to prioritize Japan-U.S. cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Besides that, over the past year Japan has, for a few times already, expressed its interest in joining the “Five Eyes Group” to make it the six eye of this Group.


There is nothing wrong for Japan to develop normal cooperative relations with all countries based on the calculation of Japan’s interest, yet the purpose of which should aim to generate good rather than harm in terms of its relevance to regional peace and stability. Otherwise, Japan’s growing ambition, as having happened in history for a number of times already, would only cause damages to other countries, and disrupt regional peace and stability and even beyond that.


Concerning the U.S. efforts in managing its relations with major powers such as China and Russia, the mixed approach applied by the U.S. hasn’t made the interactions with the two major powers go smoothly. The U.S. tension with Russia has been intensified recently with the new round of sanctions having imposed on Russia. Also, it seems to be a growing competition between China and the U.S., along with a series of unfriendly moves having been taken by the U.S. against China.


Some observers indicated that applying a controversial approach with the combination of soft words and hard actions toward Russia is part of the U.S. tactics, with the purpose of safeguarding the U.S. national interests, as well as of making the situation under the U.S. control by making Russia exhausted and keeping Russia in a restrained position. Nevertheless, some analysts assumed that this kind of tactic cannot work on Russia. Instead of restraining its position, Russia would respond to the U.S. moves in accordance with Russia’s interests.


On China, the U.S. approach should carry the similar purpose as it applied on Russia as well. Yet apart from that, the U.S. management of its relations with China should be more sophisticated - on the one hand, the U.S. expects China to play a more constructive role on certain issues; and on the other hand, the U.S. is worried about the possible challenges caused by China’s growing to the U.S. position and interests.


Therefore, the current situation appears to be that even though a wide range of circles within the U.S. generally accept the reality that China-U.S. relations is mixed with cooperation and competition, in the process of practically dealing with this relationships, some U.S. officials have so far focused too heavily on the competitive aspect of rather than the cooperative side of China-U.S. ties. Hence, the U.S. current government, compared to its previous administration, hasn’t fundamentally worked out a different approach toward China. In addition, the application of a mixed approach by the U.S. in dealing with major powers somehow is also an indication of the U.S. rush to retain influence.


Though the controversial approach applied by the U.S. hasn’t worked out well, still it has generated certain impacts on both the U.S. and other countries.


Alongside the U.S. new administration taking office, one of the important goals set by the U.S. government was to recover the U.S. reputation. Nevertheless, some of the tactics including the controversial approach having been applied so far by the U.S. didn’t appear to be conducive to the U.S. efforts in restoring its reputation. Deliberately and frequently applying devious tactics, as guided by the classical realist school of thought, would likely generate more uncertainties, unreliabilities, and distrust in international relations. It may lead to two possible repercussions: first, some countries, in the next steps, may tend to follow the U.S. footsteps to apply the similar tactics; and second, some may choose to neglect or downgrade the words of certain U.S. politicians; and the final consequence, to a larger extent, could be that some countries’ efforts in promoting dispute settlement or problem-solving on certain core issues through political and diplomatic means would meet new challenges.


Dr. Henry Kissinger ever wrote: “in international affairs a reputation for reliability is a more important asset than demonstrations of tactical cleverness,”5 This point was used in a different historical context. In today’s world, it should still be a good advisory point for the politicians and their advisors, when it relates to the management of international affairs.


Conclusion

To deal with properly of the U.S. relations with others, and to better meet the interests of the U.S. and of the world, the U.S. and other countries especially the major powers need to jointly develop a more steady and sustainable approach. From a certain sense, promoting the formulation of a sustainable approach means that the U.S. has to abandon some of the propositions directed by its traditional theoretical frameworks, which have greatly influenced the U.S. foreign policy-making since WWII. In addition to that, as far as a multipolar world is more secure and is in the interest of most of the states, it would be good for the U.S. and others to jointly contribute to the forging of a multipolar world, rather than prohibit it from taking place. There should be no place for a new form of imperialism in today’s world.




Notes


1. U.S.Department of the Treasury,

http://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/faqs/888

2. Huaxia ed. (2021). “World Insights: U.S. sanctions against Russia come with wish for stable ties”, Xinhua, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-04/17/c_139887527.htm

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Henry Kissinger (2014). World Order, PP:73, Penguin Books.






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