The Biden Administration last week set a new historical record by threatening sanctions against Germany, India, Russia and China in the space of 72 hours. Germany and India are, or at least were, American allies.
Washington is angry at Germany for building a natural gas pipeline with Russia, at India for purchasing a Russian air defense system, at Russia for mistreatment of President Putin’s opponents and at China for treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority.
None of Washington’s recent threats is consistent with identifiable policy objectives. On the contrary, recent outbursts from Biden and his cabinet will cement a Sino-Russian alliance against the US, undermine US efforts to rebuild relations with European allies and damage US efforts to create a “Quad” alliance against China in the Pacific.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that no one is in charge at the White House, and that senior officials are jockeying for position in a power vacuum by signaling to domestic constituencies. But the net effect recalls the old joke about the firing squad that stands in a circle.
President Biden March 16 called Russia’s President Putin “a killer” who “has no soul,” and averred that Putin would “pay a price” for allegedly trying to help Trump in the 2020 presidential election—an unprecedented combination of threat and insult that no Western leader ever has uttered except in wartime.
Visiting India last week, Lloyd Austin, “the guy who runs that outfit over there” in Biden’s description, warned India not to go through with its planned purchase of Russia’s S400 air defense system, to “avoid any kind of acquisitions that would trigger sanctions.”
According to news reports, Austin is the US secretary of defense. India is supposed to anchor the “Quad,” a four-way alliance among the US, Japan, Australia and India to contain China’s ambitions in the Pacific. Threatening one’s prospective allies with sanctions is not the conventional way in which alliances are built.
That was only one of the all-time firsts achieved by the new US team, which has been in office just two months. The meeting of US and Chinese foreign ministers and other senior officials in Anchorage, Alaska, last week began with 15 minutes of mutual insults for the benefit of attending journalists, the first time in modern history that a high-level diplomatic meeting offered a verbal Punch-and-Judy show as a warm-up act.
“US-China summit descends into insults,” was the London Times headline. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken began by raising “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion toward our allies. Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”
To which China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi retorted, in part: “We do not believe in invading through the use of force, or to topple other regimes through various means, or to massacre the people of other countries, because all of those would only cause turmoil and instability in this world. And at the end of the day, all of those would not serve the United States well.”
Secretary of State Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are global interventionists without the means of intervention. Donald Trump may be out of office, but the “endless wars” he denounced have long since exhausted the patience of American voters, as Beijing well knows. Wang told Blinken in so many words, “You and what army?” It must have stung.
Meanwhile the threat of American sanctions against Germany companies building the $11 billion Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline to Russia “could turn the relaunch of the US as the leader of a network of global alliances into a home harbor shipwreck,” as Daniel Benjamin of the American Academy in Berlin warned in Politico March 18.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and other Republican leaders have proposed severe sanctions against companies involved in the project, and if the Biden Administration backs them, the outcome would be “a major portion” of the allied Christian Democrats and Bavarian Christian Social Union “turning against the US,” Benjamin reports.
The State Department has already demanded an immediate cessation of work on the pipeline, which is 95% complete, warning that any company involved is at risk of sanctions.
Europe now pays about $2 billion a year in transit fees to the Ukraine, Slovakia and other countries for Russian natural gas, which provides about a third of its annual gas consumption. The Nord Stream II pipeline would reduce transportation costs substantially, at the expense of the Ukraine and others.
According to the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the new pipeline would provide 55 billion cubic meters of gas a year, mostly at the expense of the 87 billion cubic meters now flowing through the Ukraine pipeline. Thanks to its large underground storage capacity, Ukraine would remain an important gas supplier to Europe, and a disproportionate contributor to peak demand, but Ukraine’s geostrategic position would be weakened with respect to Russia.
The US wants to bolster Ukraine against Russia, and it also wants Europe to import more expensive liquified natural gas from the US. The German government wants to reduce gas import costs and improve relations with Russia. Chancellor Angela Merkel has put her personal prestige behind the project, and it is unlikely that American sanctions can stop the project at this point.
As I wrote in a March 19 commentary (“Life after death for the neoconservatives”), the nomination of neo-conservative Victoria Nuland as undersecretary of state for political affairs will be read in Moscow as well as European capitals as a declaration of intent for regime change in Russia. Ms. Nuland was prominently associated with America’s 2014 involvement in the Maidan coup in Ukraine, which Nuland and others in the US security establishment hoped would be repeated in Moscow.
It is far from clear, though, that the Biden Administration has such a plan, or indeed any plan at all. Its emphasis on Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang Province has no practical ramifications, because there is nothing that the United States can do to stop the Chinese from dealing with internal matters as they see fit.
Biden is a weak president at best, given to embarrassing lapses, such as his inability to remember either Lloyd Austin’s name or the fact that he was defense secretary, and his jarring reference to his vice president as “President Harris” in a March 18 talk at the White House. A third of Americans polled by Business Insider and SurveyMonkey doubted Biden’s mental fitness.
Without strong direction from the top, public officials will attempt to strengthen their positions by signaling to domestic constituencies. The Democratic majority on both houses of Congress is razor-thin, and the first midterm election after a presidential election typically goes badly for the White House incumbent.
If Biden loses either or both of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 2022 elections, the second half of his term will be an exercise in frustration. Secretary Blinken’s challenge to China at the Anchorage Summit was a reflection less of what the Administration has in mind than of its fear of appearing weak.