By Hal Brands
President Joe Biden has a big problem: deterring Russia from invading Ukraine and starting the largest land war in Europe since 1945. In an attempt to de-escalate the situation, he held a two-hour virtual meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
Yet Biden has a bigger problem, in that one of the pillars of his foreign policy is already crumbling. Biden is not the first president to hope that the world would quiet down so the US could focus on Asia. And amid a cold winter of crises, he’s not the first to find that the world isn’t playing along.
Biden took office declaring that competition with China represented the defining contest of this era and hoping to dial down confrontations elsewhere to focus on that challenge. His administration pursued a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, while warning that continued provocations — whether in cyberspace or elsewhere — would merit a stern response. Biden intended to defuse a gathering crisis with Iran by re-entering the nuclear deal that President Donald Trump had abandoned. He pulled out of Afghanistan on grounds that it had become an unaffordable diversion.
Biden’s desire to shift attention to China is understandable. The administration considers Beijing the greatest long-term threat to the American-led international order, as well as a here-and-now threat to peace in the Western Pacific. For years, the Pentagon and other agencies had struggled to give top priority to China because of crises and conflicts in other areas. Yet just a year into Biden’s presidency, the distractions are again dominating the agenda.
A revived nuclear deal with Iran has proved elusive, largely because hard-liners now rule Tehran’s politics. As Iran sheds restrictions on its nuclear activities, Biden may soon face a choice between allowing that country to become a near-nuclear power and accepting vastly higher risks of war to prevent it.
If US forces remain in Iraq and Syria past the end of this year, Iranian proxies in those countries may well step up their attacks. Civil war in Ethiopia has plunged Africa’s second-most populous country into chaos and is threatening to spill over into neighboring Sudan. Afghanistan faces mass famine in the wake of the US withdrawal and the Taliban takeover. China is seeking military bases not just in Asia, but in the Persian Gulf and on the Atlantic coast of Africa, as well.
Then there is Ukraine. Moscow has positioned as many as 175,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, perhaps in preparation for an invasion and prolonged occupation of key territory. Putin is demanding, as the price of restraint, that the Kiev government capitulate politically and the West promise that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. The crisis has left the administration scrambling to deter an invasion, primarily through the threat of economic sanctions, which so far haven’t had much effect on Putin’s calculus.
If Putin attacks Ukraine, he will cause the most serious European security crisis in a quarter-century. The US will have to reassure terrified allies by organizing a major reinforcement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastern flank, much as it had to do after Moscow’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The Pentagon will no longer be able to say that its focus is “China, China, China.”
Yet even if Putin steps back, the respite won’t last long. He is determined to stop Ukraine’s western drift and make it a vassal state of Moscow. The only way to appease him, for more than a moment, will be to offer concessions on Ukraine’s future that Biden has, rightly, refused to make. Meanwhile, “stable and predictable” is out the window: The West may want de-escalation with Putin, but he shows little interest in de-escalation with the West.
The situation may feel familiar for many Biden administration officials, given how many of them previously served President Barack Obama. In early 2012, the Obama administration concluded a global strategy review, which held that the US could pivot to Asia because Europe was peaceful and a season of war in Iraq was ending. Within two years, Russia had invaded Ukraine, the ISIS was terrorizing the Middle East, and the world was wondering what happened to Obama’s Asia pivot.
Superpowers with global commitments find it hard to pick and choose among regions. The more desperate Washington becomes for calm on non-Asian fronts so it can focus on China, the more incentive it gives Russia and Iran to press for advantage. Those gambits produce the very instability America seeks to avoid, throwing US strategy into disarray. A global power that seeks to husband its strength for rivalry in one region may simply end up with weakness everywhere.
This is Biden’s dilemma, but in fairness, it isn’t fully his fault. His predicament stems from a gap between America’s commitments and its ability to uphold them, which has been growing ever wider as the threats posed by the likes of Beijing, Moscow and Tehran grow more severe. Biden may, through a combination of luck and skill, find his way out of a challenging winter. But history tends to torment countries that ignore such gaps for long.