Biden Walks A New Cold War Tightrope

Demonization, abroad as well as at home, fortifies barriers that we can ill afford in today’s interdependent world.
Claire Wilson for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

President-elect Joe Biden gave a splendid victory speech this week that the world has been longing to hear. Displaying a pumped-up vigor lacking during the campaign, he called for an end to the “demonization” of opponents in American politics, setting the consummate tone for healing a riven nation.

It was a long road for Biden. He so persevered in his battle to save America’s soul from the corrosion of the Trump era amid the unprecedented hurdles of a pandemic that a line from the poet May Sarton springs to mind: “One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.”

One wonders now if the president-elect’s admonition against demonization will extend to the world stage, in particular with respect to the other superpower, China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, he has called a “thug.” Or, does not demonizing partisan foes at home imply demonizing opponents abroad as the way to build domestic consensus?

While that epithet aimed at Xi was unfortunate, and is surely profoundly offensive to a man who sees himself as the historic rejuvenator of Chinese civilization, its sense is not entirely off base. There is a great deal to criticize and stand up against: Xi’s cult of personality and abolition of limits to his time in power; the Uighur camps, the Hong Kong suppression, the blustering threats on Taiwan, the unilateral moves in the South China Sea, the clampdown on web freedom and the bullying behavior of “wolf warrior” diplomats.

If that were not enough to soil China’s image in the world, Xi has undercut the Middle Kingdom’s chief soft-power emissaries. This week, the authorities summarily pulled the plug on a $37 billion IPO by Ant, the fintech arm of Jack Ma’s Alibaba that is the very symbol of innovation. Earlier this year, China’s best-known director, Zhang Yimou, was forced to pull his film “One Second” from the Berlin Film Festival at the last minute because it touched too directly on the forbidden discussion of the disastrous Mao-led Cultural Revolution.

As Samuel Huntington said of the 9/11 attacks authored by Osama bin Laden, these are the kinds of challenges that give the West back its core identity as a civilization of open societies. But, in truth, China is not the greatest threat to our system. Our own dysfunction is the main threat to our system. To the credit of Biden and his team, they do recognize that America’s strength in facing international challenges can’t be separated from making America structurally sound again at home, repairing decayed democratic institutions, addressing racial injustice, mending social inequality and restoring the middle class and upward mobility through massive public investment in green infrastructure.

Yet, as Biden reaches across the aisle in order to tackle these issues, his easiest, earliest and likeliest path to do so is to be tougher, if more consistent, than Trump on China with respect to trade, tech competition and human rights. That is so far the sole area of bipartisan consensus that could bring together Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, respectively the Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. Senate.

Joe Biden and the other legislative leaders of his generation in both parties cut their political teeth during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so it is not difficult to see how they might revert to learned instinct from those years of confrontation. The president-elect has already committed to convening a “summit of democracies” during his first year in office to take on the global challenge of authoritarian states. And Tony Blinken, one of his top aides who could become national security adviser or secretary of state, has joined with the neoconservative Robert Kagan to call for a “league of democracies.”

This approach is walking a geopolitical tightrope. There is plenty to be tough about when it comes to China, which is just as responsible for the breakdown in relations as the U.S. Any missteps would consolidate a new Cold War already in the making.

To create a forum of democracies, not unlike the G7, seems a sensible idea. Such a forum could gather when necessary to call out and constrain China, when, for example, it threatens direct military moves against Taiwan. But to institutionalize systemic conflict in a permanently established league as a kind of incipient NATO of the Indo-Pacific region risks once again perilously dividing — and militarizing — the world at a time, unlike the Soviet period, when the paramount challenges such as health and climate security cross all borders and political orders.

The most reasonable configuration going forward would be a forum that can mobilize the democratic world when Chinese belligerence crosses the line combined with a “partnership of rivals” in which the democracies join with China to cooperate on climate action and stemming pandemics. Down the road, cooperation might be possible as well in forging a common code of conduct in the use of emergent technologies that impact humanity as a whole — genetic engineering and the uses of artificial intelligence, particularly when it comes to the command and control of nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, so far, the Biden team appears to implicitly embrace this general approach by pledging to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, bringing together once again the two largest carbon emitters on the planet as allies in the fight against global warming. But where will they go next?

Demonization, abroad as well as at home, fortifies barriers that we can ill afford in today’s interdependent world. Planetary realism that takes into account 21st-century realities, not rehearsing the brinkmanship of a bygone era, is the wiser course ahead.