Essay

The Tasks Before the Biden Administration

by Anatol Lieven

US domestic politics and political culture 8 mins read

The key tasks of the Biden administration are the following:

  • To sustain successful competition with China;
  • To do so without worsening the risk of catastrophic war;
  • To do so without draining national resources that are urgently needed to strengthen America’s domestic infrastructure and technological base;
  • To these ends, to reduce US commitments and risks elsewhere;
  • To strengthen national unity and solidarity at home, as essential goals in themselves and for the sake of US strength in the world;
  • To develop strategies to limit climate change, both to avert future disasters and as part of competition with China.
  • To stabilize and develop the USA’s own neighborhood in Central America;

The competition between the US and Chinese superpowers will be the central issue of international politics for at least a generation to come. Given China’s enormous size, strong nationalism, and successful capitalist economy, this competition cannot end with a knock-out victory for the USA like that over the USSR.

A successful conventional war with China would have disastrous economic consequences; a lost war would shatter America’s international position; a nuclear war would end modern civilization. Military deterrence of China must therefore be conducted in such a way as to minimize the possibility of war.

In the South China Sea, this should involve the minimum naval and air patrols necessary to make clear the US non-recognition of Chinese legal sovereignty. If possible, this should be accompanied by mutually-agreed ground rules.

Chinese possession of these atolls is not in itself very important. A century from now, they will be under water due to climate change. In any conflict, the greatest disruption would be to China’s own trade. The key to America’s position in the Far East is Japan. As long as Japan is an ally with US bases, America will remain a great power in the region.

Maintaining the alliance with Japan and deterring China from aggression requires a US Navy capable of dominating the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It does not require one capable of defeating China in her own littoral waters – a goal that may already be impossible.

To deter China from invading Taiwan, the USA should continue to warn Taiwan against declaring formal independence, while arming Taiwan sufficiently to make a Chinese invasion a bloody affair that would impose colossal political and economic costs on China. This can be accompanied by conciliatory declarations that the USA hopes for long-term reunification, as long as this is accomplished by entirely peaceful and consensual means.

US partnership with India needs to be managed in such a way that the Indian navy and air force will be partners in dominating the Indian Ocean, but that India will not be encouraged to take actions that would provoke China into going to war in the disputed areas of the Himalayas. India would probably lose badly, and the USA would face the choice of going to war itself or suffering national humiliation. India should therefore not be encouraged to take part in operations defying China in the South China Sea.

Rivalry with China and urgent domestic reform require reducing US commitments and costs elsewhere without thereby increasing the risk of local crises that will drag the USA back in again. This requires détente with the two other main rivals of the USA, Russia and Iran.

Urging the West Europeans to strengthen their armed forces against Russia is pointless. Russia has no intention of attacking NATO, and you could create a European army of 20 million men and it still wouldn’t fight Russia over Ukraine. Nor is there any possibility of bringing Ukraine into NATO and the EU. The US goal therefore must be to avert future crises by reaching a settlement in Ukraine that will guarantee both its independence and its neutrality.

In the Middle East, Russia is a key de facto ally in fighting Islamist extremism, and may become an essential ally in containing Turkish ambitions. Co-operation with Russia in the region however also requires détente with Russia’s partner Iran. The USA therefore must return to the nuclear deal, and allow the full opening of Iran to Western trade and investment. This is also essential if Iran is not to become a powerful ally of China, as now seems possible.

The essential factor in competition with China (as in the struggle with Soviet communism) is the comparative success of the US and Chinese domestic systems and their international image. No warships and aircraft will maintain US global leadership if the USA suffers intensified domestic dysfunction and decay. Following Eisenhower’s example in the 1950s, US administrations therefore need to make superpower competition a spur to investment in domestic infrastructure, job creation, research and development, social solidarity and fiscal security.

At the core of its domestic economic program must be the fostering of alternative energy, electric vehicles and energy conservation; both because climate change risks doing more direct future damage to the USA than anything China could achieve short of nuclear war, and because Beijing has made global dominance in these fields a key strategic objective.

As the latest US elections graphically illustrate, there now exists a real possibility of violent political crisis at home, which would destroy the image of US democracy and severely weaken the USA internationally. The Biden administration must therefore make national unity a central goal.

US racial tensions are a dangerous national weakness. Patriotism therefore requires that both US parties cease to exploit them for political advantage. Since high immigration has been a driver of tensions (especially in times of economic depression), existing limits on immigration must be maintained, and a massive effort devoted to the development of Central America.

This is necessary to reduce both the impetus for people to migrate north and opportunities for China to seek regional influence. It is ridiculous that in 2018 Ukraine received more (measly) US aid than Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua put together. No other major power neglects its own neighborhood in this way. China certainly does not.

Contribution to Symposium in The National Interest  December 2020