U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and many other decision makers under President Joe Biden served in the Obama administration as policies toward China hardened. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo
March 24 (UPI) -- Last week was not an example of stellar American diplomacy.
The meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Special Assistant for Asia Kurt Campbell and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and senior foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi turned into a public display of charges and counter-charges, in normal times reserved for private discussions. And the previous day, President Joe Biden agreed on a nationwide television interview that President Vladimir Putin was a "killer."
Putin responded by recalling his ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, who had been largely excluded from serious discussions with his American counterparts, and challenged Biden to a debate. Perhaps in jest, Putin wished Biden good health. One wonders how Biden would have responded to the question of whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a killer for ordering the murder and dismemberment of American-Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A careful reading of the State Department's transcript of the Anchorage exchanges, presumably well edited to put the commentary in good English, seemed so polished as to suggest that the reclama by both sides may not have been spontaneous. If that was the case, was the U.S. approach daring or was it simply dumb diplomacy?
The state of U.S-Chinese and U.S.-Russian relations has been in severe decline since the Obama administration's 2011 strategic pivot to Asia, in part engineered by Kurt Campbell, and the 2014 Russian absorption of Crimea. The Asian pivot that infuriated China and scared allies was softened to "rebalancing" American naval forces to the Pacific to counter the growing power and influence of Beijing. That was followed by the Obama administration's "4 +1" military strategy "to deter and, if war comes, defeat" a series of potential adversaries topped by China and Russia. That strategy was not well received by either Beijing or Moscow.
Suppose China and Russia declared America as the enemy that must be deterred or defeated in war. What would have been the reactions here? Not good.
The Trump administration imposed a tariff war with China, as well as sanctions. China retaliated. While Donald Trump attempted to have friendly personal relations with Presidents Xi Jinping and Putin, administration policies were more aggressive. And many critics wondered why Trump seemed to pander to Putin.
Three possible reasons explain why the Biden team has taken such a hard public line vis a vis China and Russia. First, perhaps the only issue on which Republicans, Democrats and both houses of Congress agree is the threat posed by China. While Russia remains a problem, many believe, wrongly in my view, that it is a power in decline. Nonetheless, conventional wisdom argues for a tougher line regarding both states.
The administration is conforming with this view. The key foreign policy decision makers (Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, Campbell and former national security adviser Susan Rice, even though she has a domestic role) all served in the Obama administration as policies toward China hardened. Past group-think may have affected the new team.
Second, the conclusion may have been that taking a hard line was an essential part of the strategy to confront China (and Russia). Democrats dating back to Harry Truman and John Kennedy have historically favored tougher stances, one of the reasons the United States fell into the Vietnam War. Errors were not only on the Democratic side. George W. Bush was determined to change the "geostrategic landscape of the Middle East by democratizing Iraq." That remains a catastrophic decision.
Last and less likely, was this a contrived event given the contents of the polished transcript of the meeting? Both sides had strong domestic grounds for criticizing the other in order to reassure hard-liners at home and allow for flexibility in private. If these reasons apply, then a certain daring aspect to diplomacy is not completely out of the question.
My conclusion, however, is for the dumber explanation. Ranting in public or calling a major leader a killer usually does not work, especially if one of the adversaries is an economic superpower and the other a military powerhouse. That does not mean the United States cannot take a tough line.
One of the basic principles of good leadership and good diplomacy is to commend in public and criticize in private. Since the end of World War II, the United States has too often exaggerated its ability to win hearts and minds and convince other states of the power of its ideas. Are we repeating history?Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World."