The US under Joe Biden is in irreversible decline and has lost its will to power. That, in essence, is the Chinese government’s view of America today. China’s diplomats no longer camouflage their contempt for American “malaise”. Judging by his military strutting on the Ukrainian border, Russian president Vladimir Putin shares that perspective. Both Beijing and Moscow see America’s exhaustion as a chance to settle unfinished business — in the South China Sea and in former Soviet territory. They may be dangerously misjudging America’s capacity to change its mood.
The US public turned against overseas militarism when the Iraq war began to go wrong under George W Bush. It has stayed that way ever since. Fifteen years on, it is easy to presume American “non-interventionism” has become the settled view of its people. But US history — and common sense — suggests that the climate can switch rapidly from cold to hot when confronted with new facts. Think of what happened after 9/11. Now imagine hordes of Ukrainians fleeing as Russian tanks churn up their towns this winter.
America has been expensively misjudged before. In 1950, North Korea misread the US secretary of state, Dean Acheson, when he omitted South Korea from a map of America’s “defensive perimeter” in Asia. Three years of bloody fighting ensued on the Korean peninsula. April Glaspie, US ambassador to Iraq in 1990, told Saddam Hussein that America had no opinion on “Arab-Arab conflicts” as divisions amassed on Iraq’s border with Kuwait. Within three months of Kuwait’s occupation, the US assembled a several hundred thousand-strong force in Saudi Arabia.
In 1999, Serbia’s leader, Slobodan Milosevic, bet that Nato unity would collapse after a few days of air strikes on his country. Seventy-eight days later he conceded Kosovo’s independence. Even 9/11 was a misjudgement. Papers retrieved from Osama bin Laden’s final redoubt showed that he thought the 2001 terrorist attacks would trigger America’s exit from the Muslim world. We know what happened.
The moral of the story is not that America necessarily reacts with wisdom. Many US wars, especially in response to 9/11, were self-defeating. The point is that Moscow and Beijing could easily confuse American sullenness today for permanent resignation. Public opinion can be fickle and prone to emotional swings. Biden is certainly not looking for a fight — he is bending over backwards to find a diplomatic solution for Putin over Ukraine. Yet he is a consummate politician. If US voters turned hawkish, Biden could pivot.
Putin, in particular, could be forgiven for thinking that America has become a paper tiger. While Russia has been assembling its divisions on Ukraine’s border, Biden’s White House has been preparing a two-day “summit of democracies”. The online exchanges will not alter any facts on the ground — least of all at home, where Biden lacks the votes to enact protections for American democracy. Such exercises are unlikely to make the world’s autocrats think twice.
Less than six months ago, Biden evacuated US forces from Afghanistan with such alacrity that billions of dollars’ worth of equipment was left on the ground. This looked like an eccentric way of showing that America was back. Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. Putin absorbed the costs and kept Crimea.
Why would Russia expect a different response this time? The answer, of course, is unknowable. But it is worth bearing some facts in mind. For all its overseas blunders and domestic toxicity, America has a bigger military than both Russia and China. It has fought more wars than any other country. Some of them are still happening, albeit at a low ebb. Compared with other democracies, the US has a martial culture. Americans respect their military more than any other institution.
The US is also capable of recklessness. As the writer Robert Kagan pointed out, America is a “dangerous nation”. The fact that it is in relative decline only sharpens that trait. Contested hegemons rarely go quietly into the night. Much of today’s foreign policy debate in the US focuses on the risks of miscalculating with China or Russia by confusing their red lines. The world would be a calmer place if China and Russia were equally worried about America’s red lines.