Biden Shouldn't Ignore the Perils of Ideological Competition | Opinion

One of the Biden administration's favorite foreign policy themes—right up alongside developing a "foreign policy for the middle class"—is that the United States, its partners and allies are waging an ideological battle with authoritarian powers over the future of the global order.

Writing in the Washington Post before his first overseas trip in June, President Joe Biden reiterated the point. In his view, democracies need to prove to the world they are united, equipped and skilled enough to deal with the multitude of challenges defining the 21st century. "Everyone at the table understood and understands both the seriousness and the challenges that we are up against and the responsibility of our proud democracies to step up and deliver to the rest of the world," the president told reporters after the G7 summit.

But is basing U.S. foreign policy on an ideological struggle really the most effective course of action?

The democracy-versus-autocracy framework the Biden administration continues to employ is an attempt to make neat, orderly sense out of a highly complex world. But its assumption that states are driven by a governing philosophy rather than the basic quest for security and power is overly simplistic.

If political systems were the main organizing principle of how states behave, every democracy on the planet would theoretically share a common set of goals. Establishing a unitary democratic consensus on China, Russia or anything else would be a straightforward proposition. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case in reality. The game of geopolitics isn't a neat and tidy mathematical equation. As President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken experienced first-hand during their respective trips to Europe, the U.S. can't just snap its fingers and assume its democratic allies and partners will follow Washington's lead or preferences.

Antony Blinken and Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a joint press conference at the Chancellery on June 23, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his second visit to Europe, following his trip to Britain and Belgium with President Joe Biden. Following his German trip, Blinken will next travel to Paris, Rome, the Vatican, Bari, and Matera, as part of his weeklong tour. Clemens Bilan - Pool/Getty Images

Statements of resolve from NATO and the G7 notwithstanding, it's abundantly clear that democracies are not in sync with regard to some of the issues that dominate world affairs today. While Germany, France and Italy are indeed concerned about Beijing's predatory behavior, none seem particularly interested in joining a U.S.-led global coalition against China. France's Emmanuel Macron scoffed at the idea of NATO turning its attention away from the North Atlantic and toward China as a primary security concern. Germany has no intention of jeopardizing its $253 billion trade relationship with China. In short: even democracies disagree on tactics and strategy.

One gets the sense that Biden administration officials relish the ideological competition. But it's an open question as to whether full-bore ideological campaigns against non-democracies are actually effective. In fact, such a paradigm is a gift to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, both of whom are masters at weaving narratives of a mischievous, bullying U.S. seeking to subvert Russia and China. Writing in Foreign Affairs last month, Thomas Pepinsky and Jessica Chen Weiss explained that preaching to China about democratic values and organizing coalitions to change its behavior provides the Chinese Communist Party with a perfect opportunity to further its own uber-nationalistic narratives about the dangers of Western encroachment. Putin, facing a mediocre economy and a spike in COVID-19 infections, would like nothing more than to change the subject and use the United States as a distraction. Washington is in essence giving the CCP and Putin an assist.

Finally, putting ideology at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy can have adverse practical effects. It can render cooperation with autocratic systems more difficult than it needs to be. The Biden administration has talked a good game about collaborating with Russia and China on shared problems. It was only several weeks ago that Biden met with Putin in Geneva for an hours-long sit down in which they committed to a new (and much needed) strategic stability dialogue.

Yet conversations that paint international relations as a contest between good and evil undermine this type of pragmatic cooperation. Compromise is hard to come by in this environment. Avenues for dialogue are constricted. Confrontation becomes the default option, while pragmatism is treated as weak or reckless. How could the Biden administration justify working with Beijing on anything of consequence if it simultaneously talks about China as the principal threat to the so-called rules-based international order? How could Xi, whose "wolf warrior" diplomats are on constant guard for the slightest rhetorical punch, explain to other members of the CCP Politburo that it's in China's interests to work with a country that appears intent on full-blown containment?

It's often said that U.S. values are identical to U.S. interests. Unfortunately, geopolitics can be cutthroat and Machiavellian. The Biden administration would be wise to deal with the world as it is instead of manufacturing a potentially dangerous clash of ideals that creates the very problems the U.S. wants to prevent.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.