In a matter of weeks or months, Joe Biden may face the perfect foreign policy storm: three crises in three places of strategic importance – Europe, the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East. If all goes badly, this convergence may generate tectonic shifts in the international system. If managed competently, it could reassert American supremacy, even if temporarily.
This perfect storm isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the United States, which would gain a chance to enhance its diplomatic standing, strengthen existing alliances, accelerate the building of new ones and recalibrate strategic priorities in a world still perplexed by America’s erratic behavior and the credibility deficit of the Trump years. As the saying goes, never waste a good crisis, because it contains potentially positive outcomes.
The Ukraine crisis, the policy of containing China and a possible evolving crisis in Taiwan, as well as a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, will simultaneously test U.S. priorities, policies, alliance management and leadership.
Thus far, the Biden administration has been aware of the link between the three crises and has lucidly analyzed the dynamics. America’s grand strategic thinking identifies the following contours.
To begin with, Ukraine is a peripheral theater; nobody in Washington loses sleep over who controls the Donbas region. But the crisis represents a tacitly coordinated Chinese-Russian attempt to gradually restructure the U.S.-dominated world order. It also tests America’s resolve and Biden’s pledge to nurture alliances and multilateral diplomacy.
The first link being made between the crises employs a bit of flimsy conventional wisdom: If the United States fails to stand up to Russia on Ukraine, China will see this as a clear sign of American weakness and indecision. Beijing will feel emboldened to project power and in due time destabilize Taiwan. If in between Washington reenters the nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from in 2018, Republicans in Congress will try to hinder the new agreement and Iran will make clear it realizes that a possible Republican administration in 2025 could breach the deal once again.
According to the critics, this sequence would be catastrophic for the United States, so Washington must be more aggressive on the Ukrainian issue.
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This is a flimsy assumption for three reasons. First, the U.S. response to Russian threats to invade Ukraine has come in the right dosage.
This approach has featured a balanced three-pronged policy mix whose first two aspects are consolidating the NATO alliance and threatening unequivocally that harsh sanctions against Russia are available. The third aspect is a novel tool: constant dissemination of intelligence on “what Russia is planning,” from proof of a Russian false flag operation providing a bogus pretext for an invasion, to an NBC report Thursday on Russia’s alleged nine routes of invasion.
While intra-NATO cohesion isn’t perfect, Vladimir Putin’s goal of sowing disunity has failed; he has arguably strengthened NATO and given it the raison d’être it lacked for over a decade. While no one really knows what Putin’s intentions are, he seems to have been – at least at this stage – outmaneuvered. Yes, he does control the escalation process, but it’s increasingly difficult to see how Russia benefits from either an invasion or a prolonged diplomatic stalemate.
The one aspect the United States must be sensitive about is being distracted by the Ukraine crisis because of its immediacy, as opposed to the longer-term crisis brewing in the Pacific Rim. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Australia, Biden needs to assure his Indo-Pacific allies that the United States is capable of managing simultaneous crises in both Europe and East Asia.
Second, at no point has Washington indicated a policy shift that reprioritizes Ukraine over China. Furthermore, it’s doubtful that China views Ukraine as a test case. The same argument was wrongly made when the United States withdrew from Afghanistan.
In fact, if anyone in Beijing hoped Biden would reverse Donald Trump’s blatant hostility toward China and revert to Barack Obama’s approach of trying to co-opt the Chinese into an American world order, the exact opposite has happened. Not only has the Biden administration defined China as the major threat to the United States for decades to come, it has actively sought new alliances in the Indo-Pacific: the Quad – the United States, India, Japan and Australia, and AUKUS – Australia, the United Kingdom and United States.
Moreover, China has become perhaps the only major bipartisan policy approach in Washington.
Third, as for the Iranian nuclear agreement, there is absolutely no causal relationship between a deal being concluded or not and U.S. policy on Ukraine or China. The consensus in Washington is that an agreement deal is attainable but far from certain since Iran is somewhat hesitant. If there is no deal, U.S. foreign policy won’t be damaged.
Despite Israel’s critical and belligerent rhetoric, Iran isn’t a major American priority. Washington will have to weigh its options if Iran proceeds with its nuclear program. It’s already regarded as a de facto “nuclear threshold state,” but that status falls within a wide spectrum, and if Iran continues to enrich uranium at 60 percent and hint that it’s considering military-grade status at 90 percent, that will present the United States with a challenge.
The crises link up if there is an agreement. Iran expectedly failed in its attempt to win assurances from the United States that a different president, in 2025 or 2029, wouldn’t withdraw and reimpose sanctions without justification, as happened in 2018. If a new president abrogates the agreement, U.S. credibility will be tarnished. If Iran declares now that it realizes this could happen, Washington’s allies in Europe and East Asia will take note.
Republicans in Congress will try to undermine the agreement, in part by invoking the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which gives Congress the right of review. Biden, however, isn’t constitutionally required to submit a deal to Congress, and even if he did, it’s questionable whether Congress would have enough votes to override a presidential veto if he submitted it and a majority on the Hill voted against.
The critical link – China is watching Ukraine, allies are watching the Iran deal – is on shaky ground, but there is clearly a substantive link: The three crises, particularly Ukraine and China, present the United States with an opportunity to deflect Chinese and Russian aspirations to remodel the international order, create spheres of influence and downsize America’s post-1991 dominance. The confluence of these three focal points creates the impression of turmoil, but they also give the United States a chance to rise to the occasion.