Biden Rallies the Old Allies as the China Conflict Looms
The new president’s first foreign trip has been all but dominated by a challenge initiated by his predecessor: facing facts on Beijing.
“It’s gorgeous,” President Biden said this week, upon his arrival in Cornwall, England, for the G7 summit. “I don’t want to go home.”
It was a comment immediately picked up by much of conservative media as evidence enough of the new executive’s senility and disinterest in the nuts and bolts of his job back in Washington. But such a quick synopsis belies the nature of Biden’s enthusiasm for Europe, as well as his unease about the future.
Biden is a classicist, an Atlanticist, reared in the U.S. Senate since 1973, summiting there as Foreign Relations chair, and a man from a time when the U.S. enmeshment in Europe was simply ironclad. The second baptized Catholic president, his close ties to Ireland—something emphasized by the present government in Dublin—deepen his interest in the region.
And as much as present-day competition between the West and China is compared to the Cold War, Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson harkened back further this week, inking a 21st century version of the Atlantic Charter, as first signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Lost on no one was that both men see themselves as heirs in spirit to those mid-century giants, with Johnson writing a biography of the wartime prime minister and those around Biden, as reported first by Politico, noting that Biden’s admiration of the four-term American president as the best evidence available that he will seek re-election.
But Biden has come to this job not when he most wanted it—not in 1988, or 2008 when he first sought the presidency, or 2016 when he was sidelined by the Democratic establishment, or even in 2004 when he was even money to become John Kerry’s secretary of State. He comes to the White House after former President Trump’s de-emphasis of the traditional power structure of the region, replete with a friendship with Brexit champion Nigel Farage.
Notably, Johnson called Biden “a breath of fresh air” this week, in a clear slight of Trump; a former senior Trump administration official emphasizes Johnson’s taste for the 45th president was never as unwavering as portrayed. But knowing that Trump was elected in the first place—to say nothing of a potential, looming encore tour in Washington—steadies few hands in London, Brussels, Berlin, or Paris.
Times have changed.
And Biden also comes to the summit forced by political reality to confront a challenge he only recently didn’t believe in, in the slightest. “They’re not bad folks, folks,” Biden, then a candidate, said two Junes ago. “They’re not competition for us,”
The times have changed.
As one major liberal foreign policy hand, Thomas Wright of Brookings, writes in the Atlantic: “Joe Biden worries that China might win.” As Wright emphasizes, Biden may not strictly couch the matter in the Trumpian parlance of pure national power, but the result is much the same. “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that … autocracy is the best way forward,” Biden said in February. Later on, Biden pledged: “On my watch” China will not “become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.”
It could have been said by “45” himself.
Coming out of the Coronavirus catastrophe, and with a country grateful for national breather, Biden has had gilded early months in office, after a lifetime of struggle to get to the top. But trouble spots abound, on display no more poignantly than in Cornwall.
First, the administration-ordered investigation into the origins of SARS-Covid-II—brass tacks, this means looking into the plausibility of the “lab-leak theory”—has the potential to shake the White House’s reason for being. The narrative that the previous administration utterly bungled the pandemic response, despite unprecedented lockdowns, and the Democratic de-emphasis on the culpability of China, was plainly crucial to their securing victory last November. It was Trump’s fault—or so it was said.
Second, the president’s party is plainly divided on a policy course vis a vis Beijing. On the one hand, Biden’s team has proven more competent than Trump’s at securing a responsible industrial policy response to the realities of the 21st century. Free market shibboleths in the GOP likely inhibited the kind of industrial policy bill passed out of the Senate, in bipartisan fashion, earlier this week, with White House backing.
On the other hand, Biden’s team let lapse the more meat-and-potatoes method of confronting the Chinese Communist Party: the previous administration’s effort to ban Chinese-founded TikTok, regarded by many as a technology utilized to spy on the country’s youth, if not actively deleterious as a product itself.
As Republican tastemaker Peter Thiel said at the Richard Nixon Foundation alongside former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien earlier this month: “It didn’t seem like the sort of thing that if you shut it down it would be an economic catastrophe either. … It’s not that valuable a technology at all, for which reason, we can probably do without it.”
As Bradley A. Thayer of the anti-Beijing Committee on the Present Danger told me: it was “a huge mistake to lift the ban on TikTok.” Thayer argues that Biden has functionally “continued …security vulnerabilities for users” and “this includes family members of those in sensitive positions who may be tracked by children’s use,” and “equally,” the maneuver “established the normalcy of using an app that shares data with CCP.”
Politically, Biden has a potential ace-in-the-hole, however: The center-right can’t quite agree on why it distrusts China. A debate broke out this week over whether the U.S. should oppose China, in good part, for ideological reasons, or whether Washington should gird for fairly strict great power competition.
Curiously, Elbridge Colby, close with Sen. Josh Hawley, weighed in for the latter camp. Colby said Friday that ideology matters but is “secondary”; “Osama bin [Laden] said it was a theological struggle. Did that make it so? Hitler said it was a racial struggle. Did that make it so?” Both Sen. Hawley and his close ideological contemporary, Sen. Tom Cotton, declined to comment for this article.
But it is a time when many feel their country is slipping away. Take, for instance, the degradation of home ownership in America by large, often politically left-wing financial firms such as BlackRock. The reality underscored this week was, for many, evocative of the ideologically simpatico arrangement more often seen in China, between state and corporation, to the disempowerment of the people, in service of an ideology.
And as shown in that continent this week that is such a proving ground for them, it’s here where Biden and (most) right-wing populists actually agree.