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Two and a Half Cheers for Biden's Diplomacy
Quite a month for boring diplomacy
Back in 2017 Elizabeth Saunders and James Goldgeier wrote a nifty little essay for Foreign Affairs about the hidden nature of good foreign policy: “successful foreign policy is largely invisible. It often means paying up front for benefits that are hard to see until you lose them, or that will only be obvious when you really need them. Sometimes, successful foreign policy even means keeping real victories quiet.”
Needless to say, the Trump administration’s diplomacy was mostly defined by the opposite style: loud and mostly unproductive. What about the Biden administration?
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Some have voiced concerns in this area. But the past month has generated a bevy of stories suggesting that the Biden administration’s diplomacy seems to be bearing some fruit. Ironically, perhaps the loudest example is the dog that didn’t bark: NATO’s reaction to the deadly missile explosion in the Polish border town of Przewodów. CNN’s story on the U.S. response can be boiled down to “senior U.S. officials in the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon calling their counterparts in Poland and Ukraine and sharing intelligence with allies.” The Washington Post’s David Ignatius summed up the diplomatic response as: “[doing] what generations of crisis managers have recommended. In a hot moment, it cooled down. Despite pressure for action, the administration realized it lacked reliable information. It waited to gather facts.”
The result was no escalation of conflict and no ruptures within NATO. For Ignatius, this was indicative of the Biden White House’s larger diplomatic strategy: “The past few weeks have been a case study in how to support a war and prevent one at the same time.” Indeed, while the Biden White House has been wary of letting hostilities with Russia escalate, they have continued to apply pressure on Putin to aid Ukraine. As the Wall Street Journal’s Ian Talley reported last week:
To tighten the finance and trade cordon established by Western countries, the U.S. is sending senior officials from major cabinet agencies to foreign capitals. Their mission: to share intelligence on sanctions evasion networks, quietly threaten reluctant authorities and firms with punitive action, and gather information on networks suspected of ferrying supplies into Russia, according to administration officials.
The diplomacy has not only increased economic pressure on Russia. Ignatius reported on CIA Director William Burns meeting with his Russian counterpart in Ankara, Turkey to communicate U.S. concerns over Russia’s nuclear rhetoric, a message that was relayed across multiple channels. If the Wall Street Journal’s Ian Talley is correct, that diplomatic pressure helps to explain Russian officials disowning that rhetoric over the past month or so.
Biden’s diplomatic offensive extended to the G20 summit. The Financial Times’ Henry Foy and Mercedes Ruehl described the communique that emerged as one in which “Russia — and China — buckled to allow a qualified condemnation of Moscow’s war against Ukraine.” The FT story makes it clear that Indonesia, determined to manage a successful summit, shouldered much of the responsibility. The Biden-Xi summit that preceded the summit, however, “set the tone for the talks that followed at the G20 proper.”
It would appear that the Biden-Xi summit has at least temporarily stabilized relations between the two most powerful countries in the world. Max Boot noted the connection as well. “Those are major diplomatic victories that further isolate Russia. Of course, on most other issues, Biden and Xi did not see eye to eye — but that’s an argument for more diplomacy, not less.”
The three-hour Biden-Xi summit allowed for both an airing of grievances and jump-started more diplomacy. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos characterized it as “a warm encounter at a chilly time.” Afterwards, Biden lowered the temperature on Taiwan. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met his Chinese counterpart for only the second time in the last two years. Climate negotiations thawed out. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China in early 2023.
How much will all of this matter? The best diplomacy in the world cannot eliminate inherent great power tensions, and those certainly exist between the United States, China, and Russia. But Saunders and Goldgeier are mostly right when they note that the payoffs can be significant. The less that states talk to each other the greater likelihood of misperception and miscommunication. It ain’t nothing to reduce the possibility of a great power war sparking from miscommunication or a trembling hand. If diplomacy prevents the war in Ukraine from escalating across Europe, or forestalls military encounters between China and the United States, those are significant gains.
I said “mostly right,” however, because Goldgeier and Saunders discussed three kinds of invisible foreign policy: “free trade, alliances, and non-splashy diplomacy all [of which] come with public costs and less visible benefits.” The Biden administration deserves full marks on strengthening alliances and quiet diplomacy. On trade, however, they are just as bad as the administration that preceded them. Hopefully, the costs of neglecting that invisible foreign policy will not rebound to America’s detriment.