US foreign policy is by no means becoming less ideological. Liberal ideology in its newest left-liberal form is turning from a means of expansion into an instrument for consolidating the “collective West”, defining “us and them” and splitting the international community into opposing blocs, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Suslov.
US foreign policy is undergoing an important transition. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan drew a final and symbolic line under the period of its foreign policy, which began not on September 11, 2001, but in the early 1990s — what’s commonly called the “post-Cold War” period. In the early 1990s, intoxicated by the “victory in the Cold War” declared by George Bush Sr., the United States, being confident of the “end of history” and not meeting any resistance from outside in the context of the emerging “moment of unipolarity”, embarked on a course to transform everything else in the world in accordance with its values. These included the universalisation of the collective West and the spread of the American-centric “New World Order”. It was then that the goal of American policy towards Russia and China became their liberal-democratic transformation in accordance with Western patterns and integration into the American-centric world as junior players. US policy objectives regarding so-called “Rogue countries” (that is, those who stubbornly did not want to go over to the “right side of history”) became regime change.
That policy reached an impasse in the second half of the 2000s; since then the United States has been mired in a deep foreign policy crisis, due to the fact that the world had “suddenly” stopped developing in line with the American ideological guidelines. Russia and China refused to be transformed in accordance with Western patterns and integrate into the American world order as junior players, and attempts to democratise Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East generally failed. It was obviously not possible to extend the American-centric world order to the entire international system, and this order itself gradually began to burst at the seams.
Barack Obama tried to find a way out of this crisis by changing the instruments of American foreign policy, but maintaining the paradigm of spreading the American-centric world order to the rest of the world. The “reset” of relations with Russia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Washington hoped that China would eventually be forced to join the TPP) were, in fact, the latest attempts to “draw” Moscow and Beijing into the American-centric world order. Supporting the Arab Spring and fighting Arab dictators was the latest attempt to transform the Middle East. Both attempts failed again.
The first president of the United States to abandon the paradigm of transforming the rest of the world in accordance with American values was Donald Trump. Under his administration, for the first time since the Cold War, the US didn’t initiate any new military interventions, openly declared its refusal to spread democracy by military means, and made a fundamental decision to leave Afghanistan by signing an agreement with the Taliban (banned in Russia). It announced that henceforth, US foreign and defence policy would be focused primarily on the confrontation with Washington’s global rivals and adversaries, namely China and Russia. However, both the American elite and the establishment of most of the US allies mistakenly perceived Trump and his policies as a temporary aberration, after which a “return to normal” US policy (as it was after the end of the Cold War) should occur. Trump’s turnaround did not seem real or final to many. However, their projections were all in vain.
Biden’s historical significance lies in the fact that, despite being flesh and blood part of the traditional American establishment, having removed Trump from the White House, and receiving the support of elites and the “deep state”, he not only did not abandon the foreign policy of Trump, but also saw it to its conclusion. In doing so, he gave it a much more systemic and complete character. The main ways in which Biden’s foreign policy differs from that of Trump are that the United States has increased the importance of combating transnational threats (primarily climate change), and also changed its rhetoric towards its European allies, making it more sympathetic. On most fundamental issues, however, continuity prevails.
The abandonment of the paradigm of universalisation of the American-centric world order is in no way a signal of the readiness of the United States to form a joint multipolar world order with non-Western centres of power, primarily with China and Russia. The fundamentals of American foreign policy — the commitment to primacy and ideological messianism — remain unchanged: they are the result of the nature of the American state as an ideological project and its position as the most powerful player in its environment. The history of US foreign policy does not know the joint formation of a multipolar world order and participation in it; the American ideology simply excludes this.
As a result, a new paradigm of American foreign policy is already being shaped. Its defining priority is the fight against global rivals, this time China and Russia, and attempts to build a new bipolarity, where one pole would be the “world of democracies” led by the United States, and the other pole would be the “world of authoritarians” with the leading roles played by China and Russia. From attempts to universalise the American-centric world order, the United States has moved to its consolidation and defence, and from the “post-Cold War” era to the era of a new global confrontation.
US foreign policy is by no means becoming less ideological. Liberal ideology in its newest left-liberal form is turning from a means of expansion into an instrument for consolidating the “collective West”, defining “us and them” and splitting the international community into opposing blocs.
By rejecting the old, failed foreign policy paradigm and adopting a new one, Biden has been able to lead America out of the foreign policy crisis of the past decade and a half. The fiasco in Afghanistan was associated with an incorrect assessment of how long the Ghani government would hold out after the withdrawal of American troops. However, this dramatic narrative should not be misleading: Washington was well aware that this government would fall and that the Taliban would inevitably come to power (within between several months and two years), but nevertheless decided to leave.
The new global confrontation is intended to restore meaning, order and self-confidence to American foreign policy. With its help, the United States seeks to rally allies and partners around itself, consolidate the “collective West” and strengthen its leadership, and, perhaps, even mitigate its internal problems — to try and glue back together a divided American society, albeit partially, and reduce the polarisation of the political elite.
Of course, the practice of American foreign policy is more complex and multidimensional than the rhetoric about a new global confrontation between democracies and autocracies.
First, the world does not fit into the Procrustean bed of a new ideological confrontation. As in the previous Cold War, in the fight against global adversaries, the United States needs to partner with a number of non-democratic countries (for example, Vietnam). Many of the official US allies are authoritarian (including most allies in the Middle East, including Turkey), and Washington is unlikely to abandon these alliances, even though relations with some of them have deteriorated. Loyal NATO allies such as Poland also face serious problems with democracy. However, most importantly, an increasing number of countries, including democracies, do not want to join the US-China or US-Russia confrontation on the side of one of the powers, and are striving to pursue an increasingly independent foreign policy. An illustrative example is South Korea, which, being an ally of the United States and a democracy, in every possible way avoids being drawn into anti-Chinese policies.
Therefore, it is already reasonable to raise the question of how soon the United States will enter a new foreign policy crisis associated with its inability to achieve a new global demarcation along ideological lines and rally around itself most of the “free world” in opposition to China and Russia. Where, in this case, will the American foreign policy strategy develop? But these are questions of a more distant future.
Second, an important priority of the Biden administration is the fight against transnational challenges, primarily climate change, which requires cooperation with global opponents of the United States and non-democratic countries in general. So far, the Biden administration has been trying to combine its geopolitical rivalry with Moscow and Beijing with cooperation with them regarding climate change and other global challenges. It is difficult to say whether such a combination works. Moreover, Russia and China are invited to cooperate on the basis of the Western agenda, not a joint agenda, and at the same time the United States is using the same climate agenda to discredit Moscow and Beijing, exposing them as “climate spoilers” that refuse to reduce carbon emissions on a larger scale.
Third, the Biden administration makes it clear that China, perceived as the only rival capable of undermining American global primacy today, is a much more important and strategic adversary than Russia, and the Pacific region is a much higher priority region than Europe.
It is precisely at the containment of China and the consolidation of the anti-Chinese coalition that the United States is trying to throw its main forces, sometimes to the detriment of its policy of consolidating the Atlantic community and containing Russia. The history of the creation of AUKUS and NATO’s decision to designate China in its future strategic concept (planned to be adopted in 2022) as a threat to the security of the alliance, along with Russia, speak of the same thing: Europe is interesting for the Biden administration not only as a springboard and an ally for containment Russia, but also as an assistant in the fight against China.
Equally, it is the desire of the United States to focus maximum resources and attention on the fight against China, as well as to weaken the tendency towards further rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, which has led to their mutual strengthening, including the military strengthening of China. That is the main reason why the Biden administration is now aiming to stabilise the confrontation with Russia, and to prevent its further escalation. While maintaining the existing deterrent tools (sanctions, information war, support for the current governments in Ukraine and Georgia and their Euro-Atlantic orientation, etc.), Washington, nevertheless, has not provided a qualitative increase in support for Kiev and Tbilisi and seeks to prevent what could lead to a new escalation of the military conflict in the Donbass or in the South Caucasus.
However, while confrontation with Russia is not an equal priority of US foreign policy versus confrontation with China, it remains and will remain an important issue. The United States has neither the desire nor the ability to overcome or at least significantly reduce the confrontation with Russia at the cost of its own concessions, and will strive to make it more passive.
There is no possibility of reducing confrontation on the part of the United States, primarily due to its domestic political restrictions:
In recent years, a strong anti-Russian consensus has developed there. US policymakers perceive Russia as both a geopolitical and an ideological adversary that seeks to undermine the position of the United States around the world, strengthen its main strategic rival (China), as well as undermine the American political system, and undermine America’s faith in democracy and liberal values. This perception and the need to combat it is one of the few issues on which there is almost complete agreement in the polarised political system of the United States.
In the context of this polarisation, which has turned many foreign policy topics into instruments of domestic political struggle, any positive step towards Russia becomes a pretext for accusations of treason, and anyone who takes this step pays a high price. This limitation has been observed since the time of Barack Obama, but since then, its scale has increased many times over.
Since the adoption of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in 2017, no administration has been able to significantly reduce the scale of anti-Russia sanctions.
In addition, NATO will try to maintain the Russian-American confrontation; the anti-Russian focus has sharply increased since the failure in Afghanistan. Finally, in the wake of the Afghanistan fiasco, the United States simply cannot afford to diminish support for countries directly involved in the conflict with Russia, such as Ukraine and Georgia. In order to reduce reparation damage and convince allies and partners of the reliability of American commitments, the Biden administration must show in every possible way that, although it is ready to turn away from “unnecessary” satellites, by no means will it abandon those that play an important role in the fight against global adversaries. The visits of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Georgia and Ukraine in October 2021 confirmed this very task.
The lack of any desire to improve relations with Russia is primarily due to the perception of Russia as a weakening power, which, in the opinion of the US, will in the foreseeable future be forced to seek cooperation with the West from the position of a vassal due to either a large-scale internal crisis or a geopolitical clash with China as a result of the growing asymmetry between Russia and the PRC (something the majority in the American mainstream stubbornly believe in).
As a result, the Biden administration’s policy towards Russia is essentially to wait and see as Russia returns to the western orbit while continuing the confrontation, but minimising the damage associated with this confrontation, that is, preventing it from creating an immediate threat to American security.
Thus, given the impossibility and unwillingness of the United States to reduce the intensity of the confrontation with Russia, let alone to overcome it, it is quite possible to conclude that the global confrontation with China and Russia has indeed become, and will remain in the near future, a new core and organising principle of US foreign policy. It will serve as the basis for the development of their national interests, determining the scale of their presence and the nature of their obligations in different regions of the world. One reservation: containing China and consolidating allies and partners against it will remain a higher priority than containing Russia.
In practical terms, this means that the United States will strive to increase its presence, range of partners and military-political commitments in Asia and strengthen relations with those countries it considers important in containing China (the creation of AUKUS and Biden’s statement that Washington will provide military assistance to Taiwan in the event of a military invasion by the PRC is a direct confirmation). It also intends to maintain its presence in Europe and support for Ukraine and Georgia as countries playing a central role in the geopolitical struggle with Russia at the current level. Additionally, it will seek to weaken the US presence and commitments in countries and regions that Washington does not consider central or important to the fight against China and Russia.
The latter include, for example, the Middle East. Washington does not see this region as an arena for fighting global opponents and therefore can afford to reduce its military presence and political role there. The US was guided by the same logic toward Afghanistan: they knew that the “vacuum” left there by their departure would not be filled by either Beijing or Moscow.
So, for Russian-American relations, the new paradigm of US foreign policy creates the preconditions for the formation of a model resembling a controlled or stable confrontation, when the parties are not interested in further escalation or in overcoming it through their own concessions.