America is facing a variety of dangers across the globe emanating from dictatorial powers seeking to overturn the US-led world order. China, Russia, and Iran share a base motivation: redrawing the rules of the international community to benefit their expansionist, belligerent ideologies at the expense of the United States and her allies. These nations and their smaller proxies, whether nation-states or non-state actors, are an increasingly collaborative though informal bloc. Defeating these challenges to the status quo requires acknowledging their joint impetus and resolving to confront the danger at its source. It also calls for an approach that acknowledges the divergent regional realities which accompany each power ranged against us. Despite the overarching grand strategic line, the tactics for overcoming these threats must differ if the international order is to be preserved.
By treating different instances of the overarching threat to American hegemony with a one-size-fits-all approach, we are decreasing our odds of victory. If we choose to link these distinct theaters inextricably on a tactical level, without due consideration for our national interests or the interests of our global partners, we will alienate the allies we rely on. China, Russia, and Iran are indeed allied, but we cannot afford to fight against the malign aims of all three simultaneously with a single alliance bloc. While the United States is truly a global power with interests in every corner of the world, that does not mean our allies share our unique geopolitical position. No other nation has the same reach that we do, whether friend or foe, and thus they do not share our universalizing tendency. Amalgamating these regional threats on a tactical level is doomed to fail.
Unfortunately, it does not look like the Biden administration agrees. They occasionally see the aforementioned challenges as linked but have gone too far in assuming that each of these individual threats is the same. The framework the administration favors – that of a Manichaean battle between democracy and autocracy – is fatally flawed with respect to the actual issues we face. The clash isn’t rooted in differences in governmental systems, individual rights, or cultural values, but on the attitude towards the international order. There are both autocratic countries happy to live in the current system and democratic countries that seem to chafe under it. Our friends exist across this spectrum, but they are all necessary to shore up the American-led global order. Let’s keep our eye on the ball: what matters most in 2023 is ensuring the international regime remains intact and thriving, even if it means cooperating with other nations that do not and will not share our Western values.
Not only does the Biden approach misstate the problem, it has the potential to alienate the friends – democratic and otherwise – that we need to confront it. Facing down the foes of the world order is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Most other nations do not share our global perspective and thus may not see dangers in far-away regions as pertinent to their national interests. They may be turned off by the White House’s democracy promotion efforts and its raising of domestic political concerns in the realm of geopolitics. Alienating these partners would be counterproductive towards dealing with our adversaries. Instead, we should take what we can get, focusing on the theater in which each partner operates. If our local allies can help us contain the threat we both face in their geopolitical neighborhood, there is less need for them to spread their attention further afield. By committing to this approach, we will be able to achieve our grand strategic aims through divergent on-the-ground tactics. If we fail to do so, we risk defeat across multiple regional theaters.
Since President Biden took office, we have seen countless examples of this flawed policy in action. Regional allies like Saudi Arabia have been cast aside for not fitting within the administration’s democracy/autocracy framework, leaving it to conciliate Iran in a deal brokered by China. On the other hand, our purported democratic ally Brazil, led by Biden’s pal Lula, has cozied up to the China-Iran-Russia triumvirate and directly challenged American interests. These actions, when not ignored by the White House, have been welcomed as positive developments. Besides these broader issues, three specific instances of the Biden policy showcase its defective reasoning.
The Biden administration has strongly pressured Israel into joining our Ukraine policy and acting against Russia. The Ukrainian fight is a righteous one and American policy has been highly supportive of it; if anything, our approach could be more robust. But Ukraine’s battle is not necessarily everyone else’s greatest concern. Israel, for one, has a very complex and delicate relationship with Russia, grounded in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Russia’s military is deeply involved in Syria, an Israeli neighbor with which it has an ongoing territorial dispute. Iran has used the chaos unleashed by the Syrian civil war to increase its local footprint and menace Israel more directly. Israel is dedicated to snuffing out this danger by force of arms. Given Russia’s influence on Syrian policy, coordination with Moscow is necessary for Israel to protect its territory from a genocidal foe.
Instead of trying to cajole Israel into sending advanced weaponry to Ukraine, thus angering Russia and endangering its own citizens, the US should take smaller steps and allow Israel to focus more on countering Iran, a foe both countries share. Israeli humanitarian, moral, and rhetorical support to Ukraine is useful in our aim of isolating Russia, without impacting Israel’s immediate security. Allowing Israel to take the lead on Iran would free up American resources to be deployed in other theaters, including Ukraine. The Israeli weapons systems that could potentially be used against Russia are not worth the alienation of one of our most important allies.
The Middle East is not the only extra-European theater impacted by the White House’s demands vis-à-vis the Russo-Ukrainian war; the Indo-Pacific, the critical region for US security in the 21st century, has also been roped into this policy. South Korea is a case in point. The Republic of Korea (ROK) has been a close American ally since the end of World War II and hosts a large contingent of American troops. This is meant to counter the totalitarian regime just to its north – one which acts as an unruly satrap of Beijing and Moscow. This has led South Korea to build up arms manufacturing and stockpiling, as well as to avoid conflict with the North’s benefactors. Biden, however, seeks to detour much of that stockpiled materiel to Ukraine, despite the ROK’s publicly-stated unwillingness to do so. South Korea has sent millions in humanitarian and financial aid, and has promised to help in Ukraine’s reconstruction. Still, many view this as insufficient.
Not only does this pressure campaign put our Korean allies – led by the hawkish president Yoon Suk-yeol – in a tough spot with respect to domestic politics, it sends terrible signals about our priorities to our major regional adversary: China. Alternatively, we could focus on the most salient threat to our joint interests and improve our deterrence and regional alliance structure in the process. The ROK has already cleared other nations to transfer weapons of South Korean manufacture to Ukraine, which should be, along with their non-military commitments, enough to satisfy any reasonable observer. Removing this uncomfortable strain on relations would allow us to prioritize actions in the Pacific that could greatly benefit us in countering China: improving readiness against the North Koreans, bringing the ROK into our defense arrangements for Taiwan, and working to align Japanese and Korean policy so as to end a century of conflict between two of our most important regional partners.
In Europe, the Biden policy has been similarly ineffective in this universalizing quest. Its particular challenge has come in its assumption that it could rely on our European friends – particularly the EU-dominating Western Europeans – to act in unison with us outside of the Continent, namely in regards to China. This was always a naïve fantasy, but it has recently been proven in spades. These allies prefer to ignore the truth of China as a malign global actor who abuses trade relationships for coercive purposes. Europe got a reality-check when Lithuania stood up against the CCP’s repression and was harshly economically punished for it. Thankfully, the EU has supported its member state, but the fact of Chinese aggression did not sink in. Far too many European nations support Lithuania, but imprudently don’t believe that the same could happen to them.
France and Germany have been the biggest culprits, insisting on only using mildly critical language when it comes to China to keep lucrative economic ties. France is pursuing “strategic autonomy,” leading it to conciliate China and buy into its false narrative of mutual “peace, stability, and prosperity.” Germany has trodden a similar path, stipulating that it was not interested in decoupling from China economically, but in “de-risking” its trade relations. This passive stance was further denuded of meaning by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s statement that this de-risking must be done by individual companies rather than on a national level, all but ensuring the continuation of business as usual. Clearly, these allies are not reliable when it comes to the Indo-Pacific, contrary to White House presumptions. We must take that into account, de-risking our approach to the Chinese threat by prioritizing like-minded allies like Japan, Australia, and Britain, working to bring other European nations like Poland into the fold, and marginalizing those EU countries that fail to understand the stakes with China.
We need all the friends we can get in this geopolitical fracas, but we must utilize our international relationships as efficiently as possible for each nation’s individual context. That means prioritizing our actions and not putting our allies in a difficult spot when it comes to their own national interests. The challenges posed by the China-Iran-Russia axis are linked by the shared goal of upending the US-led world order, but in reality they diverge regionally and thus require separate approaches. The broader ideological challenge should be incorporated into grand strategy on the global level, but the tactics by which we deal with each version of the threat must take into account regional differences. Of course, the US should work to convince our friends that they should take all of these dangers seriously, but persuasion should be favored over pressure. We cannot sacrifice regional allies for the non-existent global front against autocracy that the Biden administration dreams of. Effective delegation is crucial if we are to match the powers which threaten the international order, but the White House wants to get everyone in on every task. A one-size-fits-all policy will inevitably lead to that policy fitting no one, and that is a risk we cannot afford to take.