Washington and the West must regain the initiative with China and Russia

The Biden administration is struggling to respond to naked military threats from China and Russia against two Western-friendly democratic nations and emerging security partners.  

It has responded to Beijing’s aggressive designs on Taiwan by retaining the policy of strategic ambiguity practiced by eight administrations — as modestly modified by the Trump and Biden national security teams through enhanced military assistance, expanded diplomatic interactions, and stronger messages of moral and rhetorical support.  

Over recent months, Beijing dramatically increased both its military activities directed at Taiwan and its hostile rhetoric toward Taiwan and the United States, accusing both of “playing with fire.” But whenever President Biden suggests a clear U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan, the State Department walks it back.

Whether coincidentally or by design, Russia massed 100,000 forces along the Ukraine border and demanded security concessions from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), including a written guarantee that it would permanently deny Ukraine membership. By contrast to its ambiguous policy on Taiwan, the administration opted for strategic clarity. It rejected Moscow’s demands, as did NATO, and promised to punish Russia’s “further” invasion of Ukraine after its illegal seizure of Crimea and incursions into Eastern Ukraine in 2014. But the messaging was constrained and conflicted.

U.S. officials warned Moscow of “severe” and “unprecedented” economic sanctions that threatened “devastating” consequences for Russia’s economy. At the same time, Biden declared emphatically that the United States would not “unilaterally” use military force to defend Ukraine.  But neither did he say that Washington would lead a collective NATO response, notwithstanding that in 2008 Ukraine was assured it would be welcomed to membership in the organization.

Taking the Western military option off the table emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to escalate his aggressive negotiating tactics to a new level. He warned that if Washington carried out its sanctions threat it would mean “a complete rupture” in Russian-U.S. relations. Putin demanded the West’s capitulation “now.” That arrogant and domineering tone characterized Russia’s posture during a series of three bilateral and multilateral meetings with American and Western interlocutors last week. Putin’s agents made it clear they were there only to deliver instructions to the West, not to find mutually acceptable ways to defuse the crisis.

Putin almost certainly doubts the credibility of Washington’s threatened economic sanctions. The very harshness of the measures — e.g., cutting off Russia’s access to Western financial systems — would result in significant humanitarian suffering to the Russian people, which invariably raises moral qualms in the West. Punishing economic sanctions also have a boomerang effect on Western commercial interests.

One of the retaliatory actions being advocated by Washington is curtailment of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. But, despite Biden administration entreaties, Berlin — first under Chancellor Angela Merkel and now under her successor, Olaf Scholz — has refused to commit to such punishing action. Germany’s adamance goes back to its rejection of national security adviser-designate Jake Sullivan’s plea a year ago to delay pipeline approval. Biden may have pronounced that “America is back” to leading the Western alliance, but Germany is not yet back as a vital and loyal member when its economic interests are at variance with Western security needs.

Instead, last May, Biden yielded to the German position and waived U.S. sanctions on the pipeline company. And last week, Biden and Senate Democrats defeated legislation that would have reimposed and expanded the sanctions, losing an opportunity to convey a message of bipartisan U.S. seriousness. Putin is clearly relying on such Western disunity to continue enhancing his position and expanding his aggressive options. 

Biden’s dismissal of the collective military option is reminiscent of Washington’s disavowal of intention to defend South Korea and Taiwan in 1950. It led to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, eventually dragging America into the Korean War. A Russian invasion of Ukraine could quickly escalate to a wider European war, triggering U.S. collective security obligations under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. 

Putin — and Chinese leader Xi Jinping — are also encouraged by repeated indications that the Biden administration is seeking to constrain and even reduce America’s nuclear arsenal while they are expanding theirs. Such policies magnify the significance of the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and confirm the impression of an America in decline and retreat.  

The Obama administration’s disastrous decisions to back down from U.S. “red lines” in Syria and allow Russia back into the Middle East also fed Putin’s ambitions.

The West devoted decades to reaching out to China and Russia to integrate them into the international community. But whether the issue is China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific or Russia’s revanchism in Eastern Europe, the United States and its friends and allies are confronted with existential challenges that rank with the dangers presented in World War II and the Cold War. The painful alternatives of war or surrender can be avoided only by a demonstration of deep and broad Western resolve — not only from NATO, but also from the European Union and other multilateral organizations — that almost certainly will mean the open recognition of a new cold war.

The administration’s recent Summit for Democracy reflected the moral and ideological divide that characterizes today’s global state of affairs. It should be followed up with a broad-based information campaign that constantly reminds friends and allies — and the populations trapped under authoritarian regimes — of the existential stakes of the global struggle and enlists them in the common cause for freedom.  

In the meantime, to deal with the Ukraine crisis that Putin created, Biden should present him with a clear choice: start immediately decreasing the Russian forces at Ukraine’s border or the U.S.and NATO will begin mobilizing their own forces to defend it against Russian aggression. Putin should be made to understand that war with Ukraine would mean war with NATO — the same kind of decision that must be presented to China regarding Taiwan. In both critical places, the world’s democracies must get off their back foot and deter aggression, rather than reacting to it after the fact. North Korea and Iran are watching. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags China Jake Sullivan Joe Biden NATO Russia Second Cold War Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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