Butterfly Effect: Biden, Don't Be a Brezhnev
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Joe Biden won't win the new Cold War against China and Russia using the tactics of the earlier one.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Last Saturday was Myanmar’s bloodiest day so far since the February coup. But the killings of more than 100 protesters by the country’s security forces drew two distinct responses globally.
President Joe Biden described the killings as “absolutely outrageous.” The defense chiefs of 12 nations, including the U.S. and several of its closest allies in Europe and East Asia, collectively condemned the violence. “A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting — not harming — the people it serves,” they said in a joint statement.
But not all of America’s most valued friends were on board. Saturday was also Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day. And officials from India and Vietnam — vital American partners against Beijing in Asia — attended the military parade in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital, alongside peers from Russia, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand.
That, just two weeks after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined Biden, and Prime Ministers Yoshihide Suga and Scott Morrison of Japan and Australia respectively in a summit of their so-called Quad grouping. “We are united by our democratic values,” Modi told his counterparts there, gathered by shared concerns about China’s expansionism in Asia.
The divide over Myanmar underscores the limitations of Biden’s Cold War-era approach to dealing with adversaries like Russia and China. In his first press conference as president last week, Biden spoke of his desire to carve out an alliance of democracies against authoritarian regimes. It’s an idea he has mooted repeatedly, in 2018 and then again during his campaign, as the antidote to Beijing and Moscow.
In parallel, Biden has doubled down on the use of sanctions against China and Russia over human rights violations and, in the case of Moscow, the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Yet the search for formal alliances — where countries are committed to taking common positions on key issues and defending each other — and reliance on sanctions represent strategies from a bygone era that’s no longer reflective of the current world order. They reflect ideas from the 1980s, a period when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was the one whose stagnant thinking hollowed out the U.S.S.R.’s future as a world leader.
Today, countries such as India and Brazil that would need to be a part of any meaningful alliance of democracies are ruled by governments with authoritarian tilts. Far from an alliance-driven world, we’re today in an age where every country wants the flexibility to do business with everyone else.
In Myanmar, India’s worried about ceding space to China. Over in the Middle East, meanwhile, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran — countries that don’t see eye to eye on anything else — are all wooing Chinese investments. India and Indonesia, another giant democracy, both have militaries that for decades have depended on Russian weapons systems. They can’t — and won’t — break with Moscow, even as they try and strengthen ties with Washington and share worries about Beijing.
And what about sanctions? Surely the pain they’ll inflict on American rivals will weaken them, right?
In truth, sanctions truly work in forcing change when they’re enforced unanimously by most of the world. That’s what happened with South Africa, when sanctions against the apartheid regime, especially in the late 1980s, were near universal and helped force a racist political system to concede defeat.
By contrast, when just one country or group of nations imposes sanctions against an adversary, it hurts them, but far from grievously. Targeted nations merely search for — and usually find — other willing partners ready to trade with them. Sanctions against Russia under the previous two administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump ensured the bond between Moscow and China grew stronger.
Apart from China, Russia has also used the crisis to forge partnerships with Singapore and the Philippines, both traditionally staunch partners of the West. Through these ties, Russia has gained a toehold in Southeast Asia’s large single market. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about potentially sourcing the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, opening up a front of cooperation with Moscow.
None of this reduces the importance of maintaining and strengthening existing alliances. NATO remains a vital bulwark against Russia’s ambitions in Europe. America’s alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand in the Indo-Pacific region help maintain a balance of power there.
But trying to expand or build new, unsustainable alliances in this complex world would be a recipe for failure. Instead, Biden’s team might do better to forge issue-based partnerships with friends on areas of convergence. Even with just Beijing, there already exists much common ground between America and its friends — whether it’s over concerns relating to China’s 5G technology or its expansionism in the South China Sea.
Focusing on these mini partnerships will help Biden elevate U.S. strategic influence in the world, as he has promised to do with assertions like “America’s back.” If he instead tries to re-create a Cold War-like global architecture of alliances, the U.S. might find itself like the Soviet Union once did: trapped in the past, against an adversary willing to be far more flexible. We know who won the Cold War.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi