The Secret Sauce of America

Biden’s ideas may prove flawed, but they are coherent. And the fact that his administration does not build a wall between foreign and domestic policy is an asset not a liability.

16 minutes. That is how long it took China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechim to vent his grievances against American foreign policy, the country’s global standing, and the condition of American democracy. It would not come as a surprise were it not for the circumstances. Yang did not utter his words at some China Communist Party’s forum in Beijing but in Anchorage, Alaska with American top diplomats – Secretary of State, Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan – sitting right across the table.

“It is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world”, Yang said, adding that “many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States”.

In his speech, Xi Jinping’s confidant accused the US of, among other things, provoking other countries to attack China, disrupting free trade, and overstretching “the national security through the use of force or financial hegemony”. As Blinken and Sullivan did not pull their rhetorical punches either – mentioning CCP’s actions against the Uighurs, Hong-Kong and Taiwan, as well as accusing China of undermining the global rules-based order – Yang eventually fired back that “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength”.1

The incident sparked numerous comments about the new low Sino-American relations have reached, as well as warnings about possible escalation. And yet, shocking as the exchange might seem, it should not have been surprising. As “The Economist” rightly pointed out “long before it started, it was clear that the first high-level meeting between America and China during Joe Biden’s presidency would be deemed a success only if it appeared to go badly”.2

Just two weeks before the meeting in Anchorage, in his first major address as the Secretary of State Blinken called relations with China “the biggest geopolitical test of the twenty-first century”. “China”, he said “is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system – all the rules, values, and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to”. He went on to announce that although the US relationship with China “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be”, Washington will engage China “from the position of strength”.3 Yang might not have liked the approach, but the new administration’s position was clear before the talks began.

Two Distinct Camps

It is therefore a mistake, to dismiss the whole incident simply as a display for domestic audiences in the respective countries. The meeting in Anchorage showed how slim are the chances for an imminent thaw in the icy relationship between the two global superpowers. It is obvious that the relatively peaceful times, when hopes for a G-2 world were high, are gone, and that the two countries are now in the process of creating two distinct camps. What is at stake now is how the two camps are going to be divided, and how hostile they may become. If this perspective is correct, then in Anchorage the American side seems to have achieved what it wanted.

It is obvious that the relatively peaceful times, when hopes for a G-2 world were high, are gone, and that the two countries are now in the process of creating two distinct camps.

First, Americans sent a clear signal that they do not intend to accept a reset in the relationship which China suggested back during the presidential campaign. As Thomas Wright of Brookings Institution pointed out in “The Atlantic”: “the Biden team saw these overtures for what they were: a trap to get the US to pull back from competing with China in exchange for cooperation that would never really materialize”. Biden officials knew – Wright argues – that instead of changing Beijing policy, the reset would only serve to buy the Chinese more time for their continued “push forward on all other fronts”.4

Second, by prompting Yang and the foreign minister Wang Yi to openly display China’s ambitions and intentions, Biden can dismiss any calls for a rapprochement with Xi Jinping, simply by pointing out what the Chinese said in Anchorage.

Third, provoking China to pursue its more assertive, wolf-warrior style diplomacy could help Biden secure not only domestic support, but that of other countries as well. Mainly in Europe, which is currently debating its role in the era of conflict between the two superpowers. Biden and his people are certainly aware that some Europeans believe they may benefit from the US-China conflict by acting as a mediator, or as a potential ally whose support both sides crave. The more often China speaks about “declining West and rising East”, or – as Yang put it – about the competition between “United States-style democracy”, and “Chinese-style democracy”, the more wary Europeans might become of their fate under the Chinese world order.

Provoking China to pursue its more assertive, wolf-warrior style diplomacy could help Biden secure not only domestic support, but that of other countries as well. Mainly in Europe, which is currently debating its role.

Sentiments Towards Beijing Grew All Over the World

Democratic leaders can hardly ignore popular sentiments, and in case of relations with China these are clear – the more assertive China becomes the more fears it raises. Since the beginning of the pandemic, sentiments towards Beijing have grown sour all over the world – from Australia and Japan, through Germany and France, to Canada and the US. According to a Pew Research Center’s survey, in each of these countries the number of people with unfavorable views of China has grown exponentially reaching 81 percent in Australia, 86 in Japan, 73 in the US and Canada, 71 in Germany and 70 in France.

After they successfully contained the pandemic, Chinese authorities pushed hard with diplomatic efforts to promote an image of a benevolent global power with a highly effective system of government.

All that in the year 2020 when China was supposed to triumphantly storm the global scene. After they successfully contained the pandemic, Chinese authorities pushed hard with diplomatic efforts to promote an image of a benevolent global power with a highly effective system of government.

And yet the so-called mask diplomacy – at the time hailed as a tactical masterstroke – backfired as soon as it became obvious that many of the gifts sent to countries in need were in fact commercial sales of costly and often deficient equipment. Chinese aggressive reactions – threats and sanctions – to even modest questions about the origins of the pandemic, or calls for international investigations, did not help either.

Biden’s top diplomats probably approached the talks in Anchorage with a simple assumption – that by being boastful about their ambitions, the Chinese will not scare other countries into submission, but rather into seeking unity under Washington’s leadership.

Biden and his people have stated repeatedly that the current crises facing the world are too great for any country to tackle single-handedly. “Not a single global challenge that affects your lives can be met by any one nation acting alone – not even one as powerful as the United States”, Blinken said in his speech at the State Department, echoing similar statements made by Biden. By scaring partners away, Beijing is making Washington’s job of rebuilding its alliances easier. Obviously, how this strategy evolves depends not only on China’s rhetoric but also on America’s perceived might, credibility and predictability.

“A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class”

And here Biden’s team also seems to have a plan, most often described by the concept of “a foreign policy for the middle class”. The idea has already been dismissed as elusive at best. “When discussing how his foreign policy will help Americans” – Jessica T. Mathews, former President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in “Foreign Affairs” – “Biden tends to veer quickly from trade to other issues: a higher minimum wage, better education, more affordable health care. All of those are important, but none is the province of foreign policy”. The same goes, claims Mathews, for Biden’s slogan to “Build Back Better” and his promise of massive investments in infrastructure. “The more closely one examines the specifics, the more the concept of a foreign policy for the middle class slips away”, she concludes.5

I beg to differ. Biden’s ideas may prove flawed, but they are coherent. And the fact that his administration does not build a wall between foreign and domestic policy is an asset not a liability. Relations with China may again serve well to illustrate the point.

Biden’s ideas may prove flawed, but they are coherent. And the fact that his administration does not build a wall between foreign and domestic policy is an asset not a liability.

Among the reasons behind China’s increasing assertiveness one evoked most often is a growing conviction of the United States in – as Kevin Rudd put it – “steady, irreversible structural decline”.6 The former Australian Prime Minister is right when he says such a belief – reflected in Chinese political literature – “is now grounded in a considerable body of evidence”. Growing economic inequality, political polarization which renders the Congress virtually paralyzed, racial tensions, collapsing infrastructure, the rise of the radical right and the threat of domestic terrorism, eroded alliances, and the declining level of trust among American allies – these are all real and mounting challenges facing the new administration. That is why Joe Biden needs to act swiftly and simultaneously on many different levels. Rudd argues that the President “intends to prove Beijing wrong in its assessment that the United States is now in irreversible decline. He will seek to use his extensive experience on Capitol Hill to forge a domestic economic strategy to rebuild the foundations of US power in the post-pandemic world”.

Biden Needs to Deliver to the American People

Seen from this perspective, Biden’s huge economic stimulus signed into law in mid-March is an instrument of both domestic and foreign policy. The same applies to other significant pieces of legislation coming down the pipe: from infrastructure and climate change bills to the already famous “For the People Act” – which intends, among other things, to facilitate the voting processes, increase turnout and cut down on gerrymandering. All these initiatives, however, have very slim chances of passing through a Senate crippled by a filibuster.

Without rebuilding strong alliances Biden will not be able to achieve foreign policy goals which can be demonstrated as beneficial to the American people.

One might argue I am now mixing diverse issues together. In fact, all I am trying to say is that if Biden’s foreign policy agenda is ambitious – and we can agree it is – then an ambitious domestic agenda is necessary for it to succeed. And vice versa. Without delivering to the American people (and challenging voter suppression), Democrats have no chance of retaining their control over Congress after the 2022 mid-term elections. We can safely assume that should they lose their majority, the US. will again become ungovernable, or – to be more precise – governable through executive orders only. And one does not build confidence among allies by introducing policies which can be reversed by a stroke of a pen of whoever enters the White House in 2024 or 2028. Finally, without rebuilding strong alliances Biden will not be able to achieve foreign policy goals which can be demonstrated as beneficial to the American people.

Jake Sullivan declared during the presidential campaign that in its relations with China the new administration “should put less focus on trying to slow China down and more emphasis on trying to run faster ourselves”.7 They also seem to believe that the country will not run faster without comprehensive reforms and public investment strategy.

After the first exchange with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, Sullivan said that “a confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve. And that is the secret sauce of America”. One can argue that the new administration’s plan is somehow misguided. But it is ambitious, coherent and – which comes as a welcome change – it is there.


  1. Secretary Antony J. Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Director Yang and State Councilor Wang At the Top of Their Meeting, 18 March 2011; https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-national-security-advisor-jake-sullivan-chinese-director-of-the-office-of-the-central-commission-for-foreign-affairs-yang-jiechi-and-chinese-state-councilor-wang-yi-at-th/
  2. A hostile meeting sets the tone for US-China relations, The Economist, 20 March 2021; https://www.economist.com/china/2021/03/20/a-hostile-meeting-sets-the-tone-for-us-china-relations
  3. Antony Blinken, “A Foreign Policy for the American People”, 3 March 2021; https://www.state.gov/a-foreign-policy-for-the-american-people/
  4. Thomas Wright, “The US and China Finally Get Real With Each Other”, The Atlantic, 21 March 2021; https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/03/the-us-and-china-finally-get-real-with-each-other/618345/
  5. Jessica T. Mathews, Present at the Re-creation? US Foreign Policy Must Be Remade, Not Restored, Foreign Affairs March/April 2021 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-02-16/present-re-creation
  6. Kevin Rudd, Short of War. How to Keep US-Chinese Confrontation From Ending in Calamity, Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2021; https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-02-05/kevin-rudd-usa-chinese-confrontation-short-of-war
  7. David E. Sanger, Michael Crowley, “Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan Will Meet their Chinese Counterparts in what May be a Tense First Encounter”. The New York Times, March 18, 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/18/us/antony-blinken-and-jake-sullivan-will-meet-their-chinese-counterparts-in-what-may-be-a-tense-first-encounter.html

 

Łukasz Pawłowski

is a political commentator and advisor specializing in Polish and American politics. A psychologist and sociologist by education, he holds a PhD in social sciences from the University of Warsaw and was an academic visitor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the University of Oxford. His articles have appeared in, among others, “Financial Times”, “Polityka” and “Gazeta Wyborcza”. He is a co-host of “Podkast amerykański” – a weekly podcast on American politics and society.

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