Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


70 days into Biden’s administration, clouds are gathering over Washington’s relations with Beijing and Moscow. Biden himself agreed with a television news personality that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “killer”, while Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, mismanaged the first days of important talks with his Chinese counterpart by announcing economic sanctions against two dozen Chinese officials.

And how about the No. 3 person at the Department of State,Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary for Political Affairs (well known to the Kremlin as a Cold War ideologue, particularly anti-Russian), and the anti-Chinese player Kurt Campbell, the so-called China czar on the National Security Council?

Russia and China are used to tough talk by American politicians during a campaign. But after taking office, diplomacy speak usually takes over, anodyne rhetoric designed not to ruffle feathers or aggravate conflict. Instead, Biden is embracing the dangerous neocon dogma while launching the second big offensive of his fledgling presidency: a massive infrastructure investment project, to be accompanied by tax hikes that remain to be defined but already have his political opponents up in arms.


Recently, President Joe Biden was asked whether he still regarded Vladimir Putin as a “killer”, a description he used during the campaign. “I do,” was the reply. To begin with, heads of state do not insult each other this way: anyway Putin shot back by pointing to the U.S. history of slavery, the slaughter of Native Americans and the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II in an “it-takes-one-to-know-one” response. It is worth mentioning that threats of capture and assassination became the currency of the political extremes in the US following the then Vice-President Joe Biden's preposterous slur that Assange was a “cyber-terrorist”.

Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, after getting Beijing’s agreement to hold the talks in the United States, downplayed the significance and outcome of the talks and went overboard publicly in reciting a long list of U.S. grievances with Chinese domestic policies. China’s top foreign policy official responded by publicly lecturing Blinken about the shortcomings and evils of American democracy and how it wasn’t a model for the rest of the world.

This is why Putin and Xi Jinping see the U.S. system of democratic capitalism as a threat to the legitimacy of their autocracies. They want to see the US weakened, divided, less influential and less well regarded around the world. And they will undertake to bring those things about although, of late, the US seem to be doing plenty of that to itself.

The state of play

Maybe Biden is displaying a tough line toward both Russia and China in order to signal Moscow and Beijing that the amateurs of the Trump administration are no longer on the scene, and to show that he is able to handle both states. But what if Biden's duelling accusations get out of control while stirring anti-Chinese sentiment in the US, when Asian Americans are being assaulted in record numbers?

Ironically, there are numerous opportunities for mutual agreement and understanding between Washington, Moscow and Beijing on strategic matters, nonproliferation, international terrorism and climate change that could lead to an improvement of bilateral and multilateral relations as well as a more stable international environment overall. Instead, Biden is spinning his diplomatic wheels in a fashion that will allow for bipartisan demands for increased (and unnecessary) defense spending. With the exception of the Pentagon, there will be only losers in this scenario.

For many years the West generally, and the US in particular, has conflated the transition toward capitalism with a turn toward liberal democracy. Russia and China have never subscribed to this logic. If, in the early post-Cold War era, there was some pretense of democracy, at least in post-communist Russia, not much remains of it 30 years on. Both Russia and China have taken an overt and bold turn toward authoritarianism, while consolidating their influence abroad.

Biden last week addressed President Xi Jinping, saying “no leader can be sustained in his position or her position unless they represent the values of the country.” Hence, he argued that he is committed to speaking against the way China is handling Hong Kong, the Uighurs and Taiwan.

The US has been watching China build the biggest and one of the world’s most powerful navies, while it also continues to exert its soft power with the far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative ( the new Silk Roads) and tightens its control at home.

Similarly, Biden is taking aim at a Russia that enjoyed almost a free rein under Trump. Unlike China, Washington sees Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a direct threat to the US and its allies, attacking democracies and weakening the EU project and NATO.

Is Biden embracing the neocon dogma?

The neocons have never forgiven Vladimir Putin for returning Russia to the authoritarian governance it has endured for all but a few brief years of its history. Such obsession is now back with Joe Biden and, with it, the neoconservatives who dominated the administration of George W Bush (in 2003 Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz convinced Bush to invade Iraq).

In Biden's quest to rally allies to oppose China and Russia, Western Europe is, instead, determined to improve its relations with them. Biden’s outburst will likely persuade Paris and Berlin that this administration is loopy and dangerous.

Besides Biden’s behaviour, the nomination of Victoria Nuland as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs has also sent an unmistakable signal to Moscow and, more importantly, to America’s European allies.

In early 2014 Nuland was taped on a cell phone call with America’s Ambassador to the Ukraine ordering the composition of the next Ukrainian government after the Maidan coup, in the tone of a colonial viceroy. Told that there might be some difficulties, Nuland explained that the UN was being enlisted in support and said, “That would be great, I think, and help glue this thing.” She added, “And, you know, fuck the EU”.

Moscow (and Paris and Berlin) will read the reinstatement of Nuland as well as Biden’s public denunciation of Putin as signs that Washington really believes in regime change in Moscow.

Who would support Biden?

China’s neighbors do have territorial disputes with Beijing affecting their freedom of action in international and economic relations. They don’t want to be absorbed into China’s orbit but China is the largest trading partner for most of them. They have a tightrope to walk and won’t want to unequivocally join a US alliance designed to confront or contain China.

The European democracies don’t regard China as a security threat. And the EU recently reached an investment agreement in principle with China, designed to increase the flow of capital in both directions.

Europe’s main objective is increased access to China’s domestic market for its companies. It isn’t going to have much interest in being part of, or being perceived as being part of, a US alliance to bring China to heel.

The public positioning vis-a-vis Biden's new administration comes amid EU talk of "strategic autonomy" from its old dependence on US security and foreign policy.

France, for instance, is trying to build "strategic" relations with Russia, while Germany wants to complete a Russian gas pipeline, causing transatlantic tension.

Except for small democracies on Russia’s border that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, European countries no longer fear Russian tanks rolling across their borders.

The Biden administration needs to be spending some time thinking about what the US should do vis-à-vis Russia and China with limited support and cooperation from other countries.

China's last achievements 

On March 28, China and Iran signed a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreement to chart the two sides’ economic, political and trade relations over the next 25 years. Such deal is a move on a global game board in response to American efforts to hinder China’s breakout as a technological superpower.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become more dependent on China as its currency weakens and the country runs short of foreign exchange. China’s financial help comes at a moment of extreme delicacy in US-Turkish relations. The Biden administration transferred its peace negotiations with Afghanistan’s Taliban from the Qatari capital of Doha to Ankara, in the hope that Turkey’s Islamist regime would be more helpful. Berlin, which has the second-largest contingent of NATO troops in Afghanistan, was livid at the American move to shift talks from Qatar to Turkey, about which German officials first learned from news media.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is under pressure to remove American troops from Afghanistan; the Trump administration promised in a deal with the Taliban a full withdrawal by May. But Turkey now wants to postpone the first meeting with the Afghan government and the Taliban from April to May, thus blackmailing US into accepting Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system.

In a separate development, China has proposed a Beijing conference including Israeli and Palestinian representatives, asserting for the first time a Chinese role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. China’s emerging iron first in the Middle East may be all the more damaging given the Biden team’s bumbling.

Biden's infrastructure investment project

This week, Biden has launched the second big offensive of his fledgling presidency: a massive infrastructure investment project, to be accompanied by tax hikes that remain to be defined but already have his political opponents up in arms.

The project revolves around a promise to modernize ageing infrastructure across the country and to meet the challenge of competing against China. Biden said he would prevent China from passing the US to become the most powerful country in the world, pledging to invest heavily to ensure the US prevails in the rivalry between the world's largest economies But it will be just the starting point for a bitter battle in Congress, with a very unpredictable outcome as the role of the federal government, which in the overwhelming majority of cases does not own the infrastructure, has not been precisely defined. Furthermore, there is the danger of the project becoming overly "technical" for the taste of most Americans, who tend to focus more on "tangible" questions, such as “What will be the impact on their commute times, and will the potholes on their roads be fixed?”.

Unless he refines his approach, Biden's plan could face insurmountable odds in Congress and he, too, risks failure while the tradition of future presidential candidates wishfully promising trillion-dollar solutions to US infrastructure problems will continue.

The first step, many experts say, is to fix and upgrade old highways, tunnels, dams and levees. “We’re good at building shiny new stuff,” Rick Geddes, a professor of infrastructure policy at Cornell University did maintain , “But we’re not good at taking care of what we already have.”

And such a massive infrastructure plan to expand government influence over the economy, laying out a two-part spending spree that will grow the national debt, could make the US less competitive with other countries and likely lead to job losses among working-class Americans.


The neo-conservatives persuaded Bush and his successor Barack Obama to spend over $6 trillion on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria causing more than 801,000 people dead as a direct result of fighting.

America had a freer hand in 2001 when George W Bush took office than any power since Rome; Russia had gone bankrupt in July 2008 and China still was a small dark cloud on the strategic horizon. In those days one spoke of America as a “hyperpower” rather than a “superpower.”

But Trump’s tirade against “endless wars” set him apart from the neoconservatives who dragged the Bush legacy behind them: with Trump the neoconservatives became less a menace than an annoyance. But now they are back.

Russia and China could potentially move closer if intimidated by Washington and the West. The US certainly possesses the weapon of sanctioning individual Russian and Chinese officials and their families. But it will have to dig deep to find a balance between restoring livelihoods and economic buoyancy post-Covid and unlocking financial resources to sustain what is likely to be a sustained struggle to tame its rivals. Triggering inflation would probably be a worry.

Clearly, Biden decided to grasp the bull by the horns forthwith rather than drift in the hope of persuading by a softer touch. It will certainly make Russia and China watchful, perhaps even defensive, and averse to incitement. Time will tell whether they will fall in line.


Both Russia and China are signalling they will only deal with the West where and when it suits them. Sanctions no longer worry them. The two powers are also showing they are increasingly comfortable working together as close economic and military partners. They will step up their cooperation in areas where they have mutual interests and the development of alternatives to the Western-dominated trade and payments systems.

That doesn't mean rivals can't work together. In fact, the U.S. and Russia have just renewed their nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And Biden has re-entered global institutions such as the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Accord, and promised a more collaborative approach at the World Trade Organization, where tensions with China threatened to pull it apart.

Biden should ask himself: “Is America entitled to act as the world’s policeman?” Currently it is more like the world’s bounty-hunter, the world’s mercenary, travelling the globe in search of a quick moral fix. Such unpredictability, such arbitrariness, means that America can be more erratic, dangerous and destructive today even than it was in earlier eras.

International law prohibits pre-emptive wars and military attacks (covert or overt, limited or massive) against a nation that poses no imminent threat. It must be remembered that authority to exercise the right to protect can only come from the United Nations. If it can be claimed by any nation, then it simply too easily becomes a fig leaf for illegal intervention.

And coming back to the UN, it is up to the UN to act, if that were the case, as the only global cop. The US, Europe, Russia and China must therefore cooperate, by design or by default, by choice or by necessity, and agree on how to proceed in identifying, together with the UN, a future world order where they all have the moral duty to play a key role so as to favour peace, global governance and security.

Only an overall agreement (able to overcome past and current rivalries, misunderstandings, jealousies and petty power games) amongst all of them can give the UN the means and capabilities to become the effective and legitimate arbitrator of challenges and disputes all over the world.