A third problematic issue is that the administration's recent rhetorical framing of the Russian and Chinese challenges to the existing international order as one of “autocracies versus democracy” is not necessarily the rallying cry the Beltway thinks it is. For one thing, the narrative is counter-productive as an organizing principle for strategy. It ignores the fact that much of the world beyond Washington’s immediate allies remains lukewarm on sanctioning Russia and has positively avoided taking sides in the new era of “strategic competition” between the United States and China. For another thing, it presents “an impossible moral bar that, when flunked, earns the US a reputation for hypocrisy” and “makes the classic Chinese offer to third countries—economic patronage without moral strings—ever more tempting.”
This self-created hypocrisy trap will be too easily sprung. For instance, it looms over President Biden’s upcoming visit to Riyadh to visit Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Here, the administration’s self-proclaimed role as a champion of democracy and human rights looks set to take a firm backseat to more tangible and immediate interests in settling instability in global energy markets after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and extracting “an oil production hike to ease prices at the pump” at home.
Finally, the administration’s efforts to prioritize Asia and the challenge by China have clearly been hamstrung—and have been seen as such in the region—by the flow-on effects of Russian adventurism. The administration has spoken of China being the “pacing challenge” and the only peer competitor capable of mounting a direct and sustained challenge to the existing international order. Yet its actions simply don’t match this rhetoric. While the United States is “shoveling billions of dollars into arms for Ukraine,” many Asian leaders are mindful that “the Biden administration only managed to pledge a measly $150 million for investment in Southeast Asia after a summit of regional leaders in Washington.” And U.S. military deployments in Asia—where approximately 10 to 15 percent of U.S. naval and air assets are deployed in the Western Pacific—tend to belie the sense of commitment and urgency that has been signaled by the administration’s rhetoric on the challenge posed by China.
A coherent strategy requires prioritization and trade-offs between not only means and ends but also core regions of geographic focus. However, the evidence to date suggests that the administration is unable or unwilling to make such hard but necessary choices. To be sure, the Biden administration still has some scope for a course correction, but the time to do that—not to mention the political will to achieve it—is increasingly short.
Dr. Michael Clarke is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Defence Research, Australian Defence College, and Adjunct Professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney. He is the author of American Grand Strategy and National Security: The Dilemmas of Primacy and Decline from the Founders to Trump (Palgrave 2021).