The Biden administration has handled the Ukraine crisis intelligently and effectively, formulating a policy that could be described as “deterrence plus diplomacy.” It made credible threats about the costs of a Russian invasion and rallied its European allies in an impressive show of unity. And while (correctly) refusing to promise that Ukraine will be barred from NATO, it has offered to discuss almost everything else, from arms control to missile deployments.
This crisis, however, has highlighted a larger strategic failure, one that extends beyond this administration. One of the central rules of strategy is to divide your adversaries. But, increasingly, U.S. foreign policy is doing the opposite. Earlier this month, in a more-than-5,000-word document, Russia and China affirmed a “friendship” with “no limits.” The two powers appear to be closer to one another than at any time in 50 years.
For Russia — essentially a declining power — China’s support is a godsend. The most significant reason even tough sanctions against Russia might not work is that China, the world’s second-largest economy, could help. Russia recently announced new deals to sell more oil and gas to China, and Beijing could buy even more energy and other imports from the country. It could also let Moscow use various Chinese mechanisms and institutions to evade U.S. financial restrictions. “China is our strategic cushion,” Sergey Karaganov, a Kremlin adviser, told Nikkei. “We know that in any difficult situation, we can lean on it for military, political and economic support.”
To those who would argue that this is simply a case of two autocracies ganging up, it’s worth noting that it was not always thus. In 2014 (when both countries were also autocracies), China pointedly refused to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has still not recognized the annexation of Crimea. Similarly, Beijing did not support Russia’s intervention in Georgia and has expressed its support for that country’s territorial integrity and independence.
China and Russia are both adversaries of the West, but they are very different from one another. Lumping them together is a sign that ideology has triumphed over strategy in Washington these days. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a geopolitical spoiler state. It has invaded two neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine, and occupied territory in those countries, something almost unprecedented in Europe since World War II. It has reportedly used cyberwarfare to attack and weaken more than a dozen democracies, including the United States. It has supported allies such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with brute force. It has murdered its opponents, even when they are living in countries such as Germany and England. And as a petrostate, it actually benefits from instability, which can raise oil and gas prices.
China is different. It is a rising world power that seeks greater influence as it gains economic strength. It has been aggressive in its policies toward some nations, but as a big economic actor, it can credibly claim to want stability in the world. As Robert Manning noted in Foreign Policy in 2020, “Beijing is not trying to replace the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and other U.N. institutions; it is trying to play a more dominant role in them.”
In the past, Beijing has voted for and supported sanctions against rogue regimes such as Libya, Iran and North Korea, though that cooperative spirit has been waning, especially in recent months. It has used its veto on the U.N. Security Council far less frequently than Russia or the United States. China poses a critical challenge to America, but much of what we need to do to combat it is in the realm of domestic policy, enacting measures that would unleash U.S. innovation and competitiveness.
Europe’s greatest 19th-century statesman was Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, whose central strategy was always to have better relations with each of his adversaries than they had among one another. And ever since President Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger drew China away from the Soviet Union in 1972, for decades, the United States was closer to Russia and China than they were to one another.
But not anymore. There was talk in Washington about attempting a “reverse Kissinger” — an effort to wean Moscow away from Beijing. And the Biden administration moved in that direction last year. But that was a naive misunderstanding of Putin, whose response has been to initiate the current crisis. Perhaps what was needed was not a reverse Kissinger but simply Kissinger, an effort to have a better working relationship with China. That, in any event, is what Henry Kissinger has advocated.
At the start of the Cold War, when ideology also dominated over strategy, Washington lumped all communist states together. It took the United States 25 years (and the Vietnam War) to learn that we should treat Moscow and Beijing differently. At the start of the war on terrorism, the George W. Bush administration announced that Iraq, Iran and North Korea formed an “axis of evil,” a mistake for which we are still paying the price. Let’s hope that this time we do not have to endure a long and costly misadventure before we finally recognize that we should not be helping to unite our foes.