Biden Needs to Seize His ‘Nixon Moment’
The naïve belief that the United States can take on both Russia and China simultaneously will only result in the inevitable degradation of American global primacy, the worsening of global crises, and increased hostilities with two nuclear powers.
The conventional wisdom in the West holds that Russia and the United States are destined to be geostrategic enemies, at least for the foreseeable future. President Joe Biden has accepted this received wisdom wholesale as he has steadily escalated the West’s efforts against Russia in Ukraine. Washington’s approach to Moscow, however, has been incredibly shortsighted and foolish, completely missing the logic of balance-of-power politics. Instead, Washington should be currying Moscow’s support as it prepares for the inevitability of great power competition with China.
It was not always the case that American leaders failed to grasp the basic principles governing international relations. At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, President Richard Nixon faced a similar situation to what Biden confronts today. The opposing leader was not Vladimir Putin, but China’s Mao Zedong. The geostrategic rival was not Russia, but China. Long-standing hostility between Washington and Beijing, however, did not prevent Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, from seizing an opportunity to exploit an ideological rift that had developed between the Soviet Union and China.
Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing not only facilitated the normalization of Sino-U.S. relations but also motivated Moscow to deescalate tensions with Washington. Rapprochement with China helped bring about a resolution to the Vietnam War. Détente, meanwhile, built on the successes of the 1967 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It further led to the 1972 SALT I Treaty, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The Biden administration has a similar opportunity today. While there is no ideological split today between Russia and China as there was during the 1960s, Russia still has every reason to fear a rising China. Russia shares a 4,300-kilometer border with a rising behemoth. China’s population and GDP are ten times the size of Russia’s. Beijing’s military budget is nearly four times greater than Moscow’s. To make matters worse, the Russo-Ukrainian War has exposed Russia’s military weakness on the battlefield. Meanwhile, China has grown increasingly aggressive in Asia. All this suggests that Moscow and Washington have a mutual interest in working together to balance against Beijing.
The Biden administration’s failure to recognize this basic geopolitical reality has prevented it from deescalating tensions with Russia the way that Nixon did with China in the 1970s. Instead, the administration has sought to increase military support for Ukraine with the goal of inflicting a decisive defeat on Russia. Senior figures in the administration have spoken favorably of degrading Russian power to the fullest extent possible. In this way, Washington is foolishly driving Moscow and Beijing together instead of driving a wedge between them.
Russia’s flagrant violation of international norms and laws in invading Ukraine together with its numerous human rights abuses means that Biden cannot—and should not—attempt a “Nixon to China” moment. But the president must understand the strategic blunder of continuing Washington’s current strategy toward Russia. It would behoove Biden to take a page from the Nixon playbook and chart a different course. To this end, he should actively pursue a clear offramp for Russia in the Russo-Ukrainian War. But a modus vivendi with Moscow can only materialize if Biden has the strategic foresight to purposefully deescalate tensions.
In the past, the United States has shown its willingness to make bold changes to its foreign policy when doing so suited the national interest. Accordingly, Washington should not be hesitant to reevaluate its Russia policy today. The naïve belief that it can take on both Russia and China simultaneously will only result in the inevitable degradation of American global primacy, the worsening of global crises, and increased hostilities with two nuclear powers.
Rahmat Wadidi is a graduate student at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Nilay Saiya is assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University.