In a speech that would have been appropriate for the bipolar world in 1962, President Joe Biden called for an alliance of democracies to face off against tyrannical forces across the globe. This is a misreading of current geopolitics, which is not predominantly binary, but multipolar. The world we inhabit is qualitatively similar to the post-Napoleonic world of 1820, with one predominant but overstretched great power and several other powers jostling for space, influence, and interests.
Biden’s speech, given at the 2021 Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19, was touted as a restoration speech. It was as binary as one could have expected, and to his credit, Biden did not deviate from the message.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” he said. “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face — from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic — that autocracy is the best way forward, they argue, and those who understand that democracy is essential — essential to meeting those challenges.”
In providential liberalism mode, Biden spoke of a faith that democracies will prevail in any competition: “And I believe that — every ounce of my being — that democracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.”
So, what is to be done to accomplish this? Biden suggested the United States needs to “demonstrate to our great, great-grandchildren, when they read about us, that democracy — democracy — democracy functions and works, and together, there is nothing we can’t do.”
Biden also said he hoped Europeans would choose the side of the United States in this Manichean struggle: “I hope our fellow democracies are going to join us in this vital work. Our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values. They’re not transactional. They’re not extractive. They’re built on a vision of a future where every voice matters, where the rights of all are protected and the rule of law is upheld.”
Unfortunately for Biden’s analysis, we do not live in a bipolar world. The biggest blunder of the United States in the post-Cold War hegemonic world has been to institutionalize peace on the European continent, consolidating a polity under one flag and the single leadership of the European Union. This decision conflicted with the centuries-old British hegemonic strategy of divide and rule and balance of power.
As a result, the European Union is now starting to have its own strategic interests, opposed to what Washington might desire. While America’s military power is unparalleled and Europe is still dependent on Washington, the EU has independent financial interests and trade sanction powers that diverge from the United States’ interests, and sooner or later, that elephant in the room must be addressed.
The Austro-Hungarian empire wasn’t a military superpower. Yet it siding with Imperial Germany resulted in catastrophe. Likewise, the EU siding with China in trade issues is a statistical possibility.
Even in a bipolar world, which this isn’t, the EU as an actor might choose to side with China. In a multipolar world, it is almost guaranteed that the EU will not see China as a potential threat, as the United States, and will seek to hedge and play both sides.
That poses complicated theoretical questions Biden did not answer in the speech. There is a tendency to view the core Euro powers, especially West Europeans and Germany, as free-riding on the United States. The reality cannot be further from the truth.
The German and EU strategic cultures are different. Germany has been immensely successful and is possibly the greatest practitioner of buck-passing in Europe. The country has also so far managed to play China, Russia, and the United States at the same time, while keeping France from taking over EU leadership. Those contradictory but very pragmatic instincts are now coming to a head-on collision as great power rivalry returns.
The more baffling part of Biden’s speech was equating Russia and China in the same grouping, as authoritarian countries opposed to a global democratic brigade. “The challenges with Russia may be different than the ones with China, but they’re just as real,” he said. That simply isn’t empirically true.
Russia, for example, is nowhere as despotic as Saudi Arabia or Turkey, our purported allies. India, a partner in the Quad, is increasingly turning reactionary and majoritarian, yet not a single person from Biden’s State Department would consider ditching India, as it is the only nuclear counterbalance to China in Asia. Life and foreign policy aren’t just a simple democracy versus autocracy binary.
More importantly, Biden’s frame for foreign policy puts forward a needlessly confrontational stance that will give all small states in the peripheries incentive to drag the United States into a potential confrontation with other adversarial great powers. A moderate to large power should be very wary of small states on the periphery dragging them to conflict with other large powers who might be hostile overall, but not confrontational.
Sometimes, great powers battle other great powers over strategic and tactical resources. Other times, they are dragged by small powers into conflicts that are not in the great powers’ interest. A small state has nothing to lose by doing this. Small states are mostly often activist, ideological, perpetually afraid, and seeking security.
Naturally, if one is steering the grand strategy of a great power, one should ideally aspire to workable relations with other great powers, like a “concert” or equilibrium, instead of appeasing the insecurities of highly ideological small states in regions that are not existential to your security. That’s classical realism.
A multipolar great power competition is not rhetorically attractive and is more complicated. It is not men with bloodshot eyes rushing to Normandy after calls to arms by soaring rhetoric and speeches from larger-than-life leaders.
Those are unique times. Most of human history is a grand chessboard that demands calm, slow, deliberate long-term historical strategy. It needs historical understanding, which is more than having heard about 1939 Nazi Germany, or the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The United States also needs to pass burdens to allies, prioritize regions and territories, and accept that various powers have their various interests and spheres of influence. This allows a way out from the burden of policing the world.
Instead, binary Biden, like all idealistic and simpleminded liberals in history, took his first major shot and missed it by miles. By turning everything into a simplistic good versus evil, Biden risks doubling down on the United States’ failed grand strategy of the last quarter-century.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a senior contributor to The Federalist. His research is in great power-politics and neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.