America is focusing on the wrong enemy
New Delhi—Much of the democratic world would like the United States to remain the preeminent global power. But with the US apparently committed to strategic overreach, that outcome risks becoming unlikely.
The problem with America’s global leadership begins at home. Hyperpartisan politics and profound polarization are eroding American democracy and impeding the pursuit of long-term objectives. In foreign policy, the partisan divide can be seen in perceptions of potential challengers to the US: According to a March 2021 poll, Republicans are most concerned about China, while Democrats worry about Russia above all.
This may explain why US President Joe Biden is treating a “rogue” Russia as a peer competitor, when he should be focused on the challenge from America’s actual peer, China. In comparison to Russia, China’s population is about ten times bigger, its economy is almost ten times larger, and its military expenditure is around four times greater. Not only is China more powerful; it genuinely seeks to supplant the US as the preeminent global power. By contrast, with its military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, Russia is seeking to mitigate a perceived security threat in its neighborhood.
The US squandered its “unipolar moment,” especially by waging an expensive and amorphous “Global War on Terrorism,” including several military interventions, and through its treatment of Russia.
After its Cold War victory, the US essentially took an extended victory lap, pursuing strategic maneuvers that flaunted its dominance. Notably, it sought to expand NATO to Russia’s backyard, but made little effort to bring Russia into the Western fold, as it had done with Germany and Japan after World War II. The souring of relations with the Kremlin contributed to Russia’s eventual remilitarization.
So, while the US remains the world’s foremost military power, it has been stretched thin by the decisions and commitments it has made, in Europe and elsewhere, since 1991. This goes a long way toward explaining why the US has ruled out deploying its own troops to defend Ukraine today. What the US is offering Ukraine—weapons and ammunition—cannot protect the country from Russia, which has an overwhelming military advantage.
But US leaders made another fatal mistake since the Cold War: By aiding China’s rise, they helped to create the greatest rival their country has ever faced. Unfortunately, they have yet to learn from this. Instead, the US continues to dedicate insufficient attention and resources to an excessively wide array of global issues, from Russian revanchism and Chinese aggression to lesser threats in the Middle East and Africa and on the Korean Peninsula. And it continues inadvertently to bolster China’s global influence, not least through its overuse of sanctions.
The heavy financial penalties the US has planned—including the “nuclear option” of disconnecting Russian banks from the international SWIFT payments system—would turn China into Russia’s banker, enabling it to reap vast profits and expand the international use of its currency, the renminbi. If Biden fulfilled his pledge to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is set to deliver Russian supplies directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, China would gain greater access to Russian energy.
In fact, by securing a commitment from Putin this month to a nearly tenfold increase in Russian natural gas exports, China is building a safety net that could—in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan—withstand Western energy sanctions and even a blockade.
For the US, a strengthened Russia-China axis is the worst possible outcome of the Ukraine crisis. The best outcome would be a compromise with Russia to ensure that it does not invade and possibly annex Ukraine. By enabling the US to avoid further entanglement in Europe, this would permit a more realistic balancing of key objectives—especially checking Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific—with available resources and capabilities.
The future of the US-led international order will be decided in Asia, and China is currently doing everything in its power to ensure that order’s demise. If the Biden administration does not recognize the true scale of the threat China poses, and adopt an appropriately targeted strategy soon, whatever window of opportunity for preserving US preeminence remains may well close. Project Syndicate
Brahma Chellaney is professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013).
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