It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Will Biden’s Approach to China and Russia Work?

The new administration’s interim national security guidance gets many things right—but it has its shortcomings.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Peace activists wearing masks pose with mock nuclear missiles.
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of a Berlin landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, on Jan. 29. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma! The big news this week is an unclassified U.S. intelligence community report about foreign election interference. Russia and Iran meddled in the 2020 U.S. election—and I don’t know whether Americans should have their feelings hurt—but apparently China didn’t think it was worth the effort. What is your take on this news?

Emma Ashford: Yes, the Russians interfered in U.S. elections. Again. I doubt anyone is surprised. And they apparently used similar tactics as they did in 2016: no direct interference in the voting process but instead, a lot of mudslinging and disinformation. The intelligence community concluded that, just like 2016, the Russians were trying not just to elect Donald Trump but to sow distrust in the U.S. political system.

Not surprising, but my takeaway was pretty simple: The policies adopted after 2016—some sanctions, a hardening of diplomatic relations with Russia—have done nothing to stop this from happening again.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma! The big news this week is an unclassified U.S. intelligence community report about foreign election interference. Russia and Iran meddled in the 2020 U.S. election—and I don’t know whether Americans should have their feelings hurt—but apparently China didn’t think it was worth the effort. What is your take on this news?

Emma Ashford: Yes, the Russians interfered in U.S. elections. Again. I doubt anyone is surprised. And they apparently used similar tactics as they did in 2016: no direct interference in the voting process but instead, a lot of mudslinging and disinformation. The intelligence community concluded that, just like 2016, the Russians were trying not just to elect Donald Trump but to sow distrust in the U.S. political system.

Not surprising, but my takeaway was pretty simple: The policies adopted after 2016—some sanctions, a hardening of diplomatic relations with Russia—have done nothing to stop this from happening again.

MK: I think the solution is to fight fire with fire. If they interfere in U.S. domestic politics, Washington can do the same to them. Russian President Vladimir Putin is already convinced that Washington is actively attempting to undermine his regime (even though it is not). And there is quite a bit to do—maybe send a daily text message to every Russian about Putin’s corruption. Basically, make a list of all the things Putin believes are necessary for his regime’s survival and threaten to hold them at risk.

Democracies are easier to penetrate, but autocracies are more brittle, so the United States has a kind of escalation dominance in this space. If Putin doesn’t like it, then he can knock off messing around in U.S. elections.

EA: Except that we have already seen what happens when Putin and his cronies are fearful that Americans are trying to undermine them. You’re right that there is more that Washington could do on that front, but it isn’t clear to me why it would provoke anything other than more frantic attacks from Russia to try and weaken the United States. And as a long-time Russia watcher, I am somewhat skeptical of the notion that Russians are unaware their leaders are corrupt. Certainly, revelations like the recent videos of Putin’s grandiose palace stoke dissatisfaction, but they aren’t going to bring down the regime.

I’d make two more points here. First, you often catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Making the Kremlin less fearful that the U.S. government is trying to overthrow the regime might yield better results than an all-out attempt to do so.

Second, and more importantly, the United States has done an incredibly poor job in recent years signaling its core interests. No matter what Russia does—poisoning a defector, sending aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, interfering with U.S. elections—the U.S. response is the same: sanctions. But the election interference is far, far more important than these other issues. If U.S. officials act like all those things are the same and they elicit the same response, it’s no wonder that Washington can’t deter Moscow from election meddling.

MK: It is reported that America conducted major offensive cyber operations to prevent Russia from meddling in the 2018 midterm election. And I agree with you that sanctions are an unsatisfactory response to a core interest like the integrity of the U.S. democratic system. That’s why a stronger response (one that might change Putin’s mind) is needed.

But Russia wasn’t alone. Moscow’s efforts might have been canceled out by Tehran’s, which believed (probably correctly) that the Biden administration would be better for its interests. And, as I alluded to before, Beijing apparently couldn’t decide who would be tougher on China, so it sat this one out.

EA: There’s probably a comedy to be made about all the foreign hackers hanging out in U.S. systems all just accidentally spying on one another! But it’s a serious concern. And I think there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that Americans need to get much better on defense. Defense against cyberattacks is hard, but Washington obviously isn’t even meeting the minimum bar.

The China point is really interesting. The national intelligence report explicitly says that “China sought stability in its relationship with the United States, did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling.” To me, that suggests that China is trying to stop further decline in its relationship with the United States. Unlike Russia, which has very little left to lose, this is a clear indicator that Beijing wants to maintain acceptable relations with the United States.

There are certainly differences from the Trump administration on things like alliances, climate change, and diplomacy. But there’s a great deal of continuity on China, trade, and other issues.

MK: Beijing would like the kind of stability in the relationship that allowed them to eat America’s lunch for the past two decades! Rather, they saw no need to sway the election because both candidates promised to be tough on China.

This was a theme in the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released since our last debate. I thought it was smart for Biden to get his priorities out to the administration and the world without making them wait one year for a formal National Security Strategy. I also thought the document was quite good, hitting important themes like competition with China, strengthening the United States at home so it can better lead abroad, and reasserting U.S. influence within alliances and international institutions.

Were you a fan of the document?

EA: I was extremely impressed to see such detailed guidance issued so soon after the election. Most administrations take a year or so to put out a full National Security Strategy. But my initial assumption about why this was issued so fast—that it was intended to lay out an explicitly anti-Trump agenda on foreign policy—doesn’t seem to be borne out by the document. There are certainly differences from the Trump administration on things like alliances, climate change, and diplomacy. But there’s a great deal of continuity on China, trade, and other issues. No mention of great-power competition, for example, but an explicit emphasis on authoritarian powers as a key adversary.

MK: I think part of the purpose was to fill what they saw as a vacuum of U.S. leadership following the Trump administration. I think the other was, as the title suggests, to literally give guidance to the rest of the U.S. government. Having worked in the Pentagon, I’m guessing the professionals in the building are already off and running on the next National Defense Strategy, and this was the president’s effort to make sure department strategies reflect his priorities.

My concerns about an otherwise good strategy document were the promises to reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and to rebalance relationships in the Middle East. A robust U.S. nuclear force is needed to achieve important Biden priorities like defending allies in the free world and deterring authoritarian powers. (The U.K. is going in the other direction with its nukes, as we should discuss later). And Trump’s approach to the Middle East (of siding with traditional partners against Iran) produced real dividends, including the Abraham Accords.

EA: I actually thought the Middle East section was one of the strongest in the document. It notes that “we will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values. … Our aim will be to de-escalate regional tensions.” Maybe they’ve been reading all the sensible takes here with Foreign Policy recommending just that! It’s a good, balanced approach, particularly after four years where we almost ended up at war with Iran several times.

And while it’s not exactly fair to complain that a document produced this fast isn’t comprehensive, I did think it was a little too heavy on statements of principle and too light on actual strategies for achieving those goals. The emphasis on human rights, for example, is in conflict with the emphasis on working with other states on vital interests. And the emphasis on domestic economic prosperity conflicts in some ways with the vision of an open, liberal trading order.

These contradictions are already playing out in practice. Two key administration officials traveled to the region this week. And for all the emphasis on diplomacy in the strategy documents, the focus was on semi-military groupings like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

A robust U.S. nuclear force is needed to achieve important Biden priorities like defending allies in the free world and deterring authoritarian powers.

MK: I was pleased to see the Indo-Pacific selected as the destination for the first high-profile trip by the Biden administration. It signals the administration will prioritize the region and long-standing alliances with Japan and South Korea.

And I see the Quad (a grouping of the four leading democracies in the Pacific: the United States, Australia, India, and Japan) as more than a proto-military alliance. Indeed, the group announced this week that it will provide up to 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines throughout Southeast Asia. So this counterbalancing coalition against China can exercise both hard and soft power.

EA: The vaccine announcement is certainly good news. But the interim strategic guidance argued that the United States would pursue diplomacy with allies and adversaries. Instead, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin used this trip to describe China as the “pacing threat,” and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned about Chinese “coercion and aggression.”

Look, the positive here is that top U.S. officials actually met Chinese diplomats in Alaska at the end of this trip to discuss the coronavirus response as well as disagreements on Hong Kong and Xinjiang. More importantly, the White House described it as an opportunity for both sides to take stock of the other.

That’s a good thing; since the collapse of various strategic dialogues under the Trump administration, there’s been almost no high-level contact between the two governments. But all the tough talk leading up to these meetings doesn’t imply that they will be particularly fruitful—or that the administration is thus far doing a good job of turning that part of its strategic guidance into practice.

There needs to be a dual-track approach for China. Essentially, U.S. officials should say: if you do things we don’t like, we will make your life difficult, but if you are willing to come to the table and be reasonable, we are happy to talk.

MK: Essentially, there needs to be a dual-track approach for China. Diplomats often talk about a dual-track approach for rogue states: Essentially, U.S. officials should say: if you do things we don’t like (like pursue nuclear and missile programs), we will make your life difficult, but if you are willing to come to the table and be reasonable, we are happy to talk. So, the U.S. government is both getting tougher on China and sitting down with them in Alaska. I think it is a coherent approach.

And it’s a good thing. The threat is growing. The U.S. government has said that China’s nuclear arsenal could double in the coming decade. But the bigger shock this week is the U.K.’s nuclear buildup. As someone raised in Scotland (where the U.K. bases its nukes), what is your take on this news?

EA: I don’t follow British defense policy quite as closely as I should. But I’ve always found nuclear policy—and the fact that Britain’s nuclear subs are based in Scotland, not England—to be one of the sillier arguments in favor of Scottish independence. I’m sure increasing the arsenal won’t help the Westminster government’s case there, which is why I’m a bit perplexed. My understanding from arms control experts is that there doesn’t appear to be a particularly good reason for the increase in nuclear weapons. Do you have a take on this question?

MK: I was surprised to hear the news, and I am not sure of the rationale. I tend to agree with Cold War nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, who thought that the nuclear balance in Europe depends primarily on U.S. and Russian forces and those of Britain and France are less significant.

But I do fear that Russia is using the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (which limits the United States and Russia to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic weapons) as a way to gain a numerical nuclear advantage over the United States. Moscow locks Washington in with the New START treaty and then builds a bunch of tactical and futuristic nuclear weapons not covered in the treaty. So perhaps an enhanced U.K. force can help the West maintain a stable nuclear balance.

What’s the point of building even more nuclear weapons when the United States or Russia already have enough to destroy the world three times over? Making the rubble bounce?

EA: We’ve had that debate before. The new weapons systems are concerning and speak to the need for new and improved arms control. But this move is just baffling. What’s the point of building even more nuclear weapons when the United States or Russia already have enough to destroy the world three times over? Making the rubble bounce?

MK: I hate that argument. The United States barely has enough nuclear weapons to cover enemy nuclear targets, so current force levels are not in danger of destroying the world even one time. I wrote an entire book on why nuclear superiority matters. We should devote a column to this debate one day. But please continue.

EA: OK, let’s punt on that one. Suffice it to say that Britain’s choice to increase its nuclear stockpile is strategically unclear and potentially in violation of its international treaty obligations.

More broadly, however, it’s all part of a defense review that was published by the British government this week, and I thought the more interesting part was that it explicitly calls for the U.K. to pivot its diplomatic, trade, and military engagement toward the Indo-Pacific. Britain has almost no military presence in the region right now, so this would be a big shift.

It also seems somewhat contradictory. Post-Brexit Britain needs trading partners, sure, but trying to have a “moderating impact” on China militarily—as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it—will surely make trade harder.

MK: Well, since everyone else is doing it, maybe we should issue a strategic guidance review for this column.

EA: So we pivot to Asia next time?

MK: See you in Tokyo and Seoul! But let’s put off the Alaska leg until it’s warmer.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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