By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
What a time for American statecraft. Antony Blinken was in Kiev last week to discuss Ukraine’s rampant corruption with President Volodymyr Zelensky, by various accounts the greediest grifter of them all. Kamala Harris attended a summit in Jakarta to show Southeast Asians that America cares about them, but when the Biden regime sends Harris abroad it seems to signal just the opposite.
With our secretary of state and vice-president in mind, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that American foreign policy comes to rest ever more on fictions, symbolic gestures to impress the folks back home, and pretensions—all reflecting Washington’s Great Flinch from the 21st century. Oh, for the 20th, when Americans leapt tall buildings and seemed to make the world match their imaginings.
But it is “the Big Guy” whose travels last week make this point most saliently. Joe Biden attended this year’s Group of 20 summit in New Delhi and afterward flew to Hanoi for talks with the Vietnamese leadership. And it seems the best he could do in either capital was tread water, given nobody else present much wanted the things he wanted.
I simply cannot understand how the president can go forth among other leaders with an agenda so at odds with the perfectly legible realities of our time. The only people even pretending Biden returned from South and East Asia with any kind of success to his credit were Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, and the American correspondents covering the president’s forays abroad. In both cases, cheerleading is part of the job.
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The president’s objectives at the G–20 summit appear to have been two, or maybe two and a half. Let us consider these and ask why this president flatly refuses to wake up from dreams that are no longer anything like sweet. As the world turns ever more swiftly into a new order, Americans need and deserve foreign policy professionals who are serious, imaginative and a little courageous. There are plenty of such people among us, but this past week is a bitter reminder there is no place for them in Washington.
The administration’s No. 1 purpose in New Delhi was to persuade the group’s members to line up behind Washington and its European allies against Russia and to issue a communiqué at summit’s end condemning its intervention in Ukraine. I do not know why the White House even announced this objective, so far is it from plausible.
The Delhi G–20 ended as it began on the Ukraine question: Western members backed Washington’s proxy war and the rest, representing most of the world, declined to do so. The communiqué issued last Saturday evening—and for a while it was a question whether there would be one—expressed sympathy for the suffering of Ukrainians and asserted that no state has a right to invade another. This amounts to a passive-aggressive recognition of the West’s provocations prior to the Russian intervention. “It saved the summit,” a Swiss television commentator remarked, “but what is this declaration worth? In the final statement Russia is no longer held responsible by most members for the war in Ukraine.”
Someone will have to explain to me how Jake Sullivan could conclude Sunday, with no trace of irony, that the declaration “does a very good job” supporting the principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty. It does, but since when has the U.S. displayed any regard for either?
In truth, I cannot see why Biden went to Delhi at all unless it was to strike the pose of statesman. Even before he boarded Air Force One, The New York Times reported he would not hold any bilateral talks with other G–20 leaders with the exception of casual encounters —a weird way at a summit, as even The Times acknowledged. Then Katie Rogers, a Times reporter who covers the White House, reported this from Delhi: “Facing a summit rife with deep divisions, Mr. Biden did not speak publicly about the war or almost anything else.”
How ridiculous is this? My surmise—and it is only this—is that Biden’s mental decline reaches the point it is better to stay silent than risk another case of obvious incoherence in so public a forum as G–20. If this is the case, Kamala Harris is better at doing and saying nothing, and no one expects any more of her. She could have covered for Biden, surely.
Objective No. 2 had to do with what we are now calling “deliverables”—concrete proposals and commitments to appeal to the G–20’s non–Western majority. Chief among these is a grand, not to say grandiose infrastructure plan to link India and the Middle East and, further down the, ahem, belt and road, connecting the Subcontinent, the Persian Gulf and Europe. Bearing the Africans in mind—the G–20 announced in Delhi that it invites the African Union to join—the Biden regime also said that, with the European Union, it will explore the idea of a rail line linking landlocked Zimbabwe with Angola, which is blessed with plentiful Atlantic coast ports.
Other goodies for non–Western members include an overhaul of the World Bank and associated multilateral institutions and financing to help poor nations address the climate change crisis.
Reforming the multilaterals, those instruments of coercion, in favor of those nations they have forced-marched into neoliberal orthodoxies since they were created at Bretton Woods as World War II ended and the U.S. began dreaming of global empire? Come now. Joe Biden has sold Americans on a lot of silly things over the decades, but this is a silly thing too far. I haven’t read a word anywhere in the non–Western press indicating any member of the G–20 majority takes this thought in the slightest seriously.
It is the infrastructure bit that seems to me and many others yet further over the top. The U.S., having disastrously destroyed its rail network at the behest of the oil, steel, and rubber lobbies back in the 1950s, has subzero claim to competence in this line. What institutions in partnership with what corporate agglomeration under what circumstances and with what money is going to go across the world with construction gear and rolling stock to build ports and rail lines in which the American interest is at bottom geopolitical?
I have been wondering for years what the U.S. would do in response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the alive-and-well BRI, when all the sniping from the sidelines got too stale. Now I know: It comes forth with a pale, unserious imitation. The U.S. has traded for many decades in promises such as this it never keeps. Zhou Rong, a financial studies scholar at Renmin University in Beijing, said it best as G–20 drew to a close. “It is not the first time that the U.S. has been involved in a ‘much said, little done’ scenario,” Zhou remarked in an interview with Global Times, the Chinese daily.
The much larger matter at issue in Delhi last weekend was never mentioned directly but was everywhere evident. In each dimension—the Ukraine question, the material enticements, the promises of reform and assistance—the American presentation amounted to little more than political calculation—an effort to enlist non–Western nations in the new Cold War. G–20 members have signaled repeatedly these past couple of years that they have no interest in another global binary of the kind Biden and his foreign policy people are building. They will take what the Western bloc has on offer, such as it may be, but—by and large, in the ideal—this will be in the way of transactions among equals, not bribes.
We are left with this question: Will the G–20 prove effective in the future as divisions between its Western and non–Western members harden as they appear to have done in Delhi?
I come to the half of Biden’s two and a half objectives in Delhi—the grace note, the “as long as I am here…”
Having hosted Narendra Modi at the White House just this summer, Biden appears to have made another attempt, a brief one this time, to bring the Indian prime minister over to the Western side on Ukraine and various elated questions. Same thing: There is no chance of this. I have written previously in this space of the Non–Aligned Movement and its reemergence in all but name. There seems to be some stubborn refusal in Washington to accept that India, in particular, will never abandon a principle it was instrumental in establishing during the first Cold War.
The misreading Biden or those who do his thinking for him made in New Delhi is a more or less straight match of the misreading he or they made in Hanoi when Biden arrived at the Vietnamese capital last Sunday. And he or they got, more or less, the same result yet again.
The Hanoi visit follows all sorts of developments intended to consolidate a network of Asian nations, arranged in an arc, that will almost literally encircle China from the Bay of Bengal (the east coast of India), around to the west coast of South Korea. There have been summits with various East and South Asian leaders, new defense arrangements with Manila, the AUKUS alliance, the so-called Quad, which brings together—supposedly, on paper and at talks fests—the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan. Look at the map: The Republic of Vietnam would fit as well into this wall.
I am not sure whose account of this brief encounter is more deceptive—Biden’s or The New York Times’s. Here is the Times’s lead as written by Katie Rogers and Peter Baker, as they introduce what they will go on to term “a landmark visit”:
President Biden cemented a new strategic relationship with Vietnam on Sunday, bringing two historical foes closer than they have ever been and putting the ghosts of the past behind them out of shared worry over China’s mounting ambitions in the region.
And here is Biden at a news conference after he had talks with Nguyễn Phú Trọng, the ruling party’s general secretary:
Today we can trace a 50–year arc of progress in the relationship between our nations, from conflict to normalization. This is a new, elevated status that will be a force for prosperity and security in one of the most consequential regions of the world.
Say whaaa? A new strategic relationship? Normalization? What are these people talking about?
You cannot quite tell from The Times report unless you read it very, very carefully. When you do so, you recognize that Baker and Rogers—along with the president they serve, of course—are indulging in sheer hocus-pocus to obscure the fact that absolutely nothing got done in Hanoi. It turns out that the new relationship Biden “cemented” means bilateral relations are “equivalent to those it [Vietnam] has with Russia and China.” Excuse me, but what difference, in practice, will this bureaucratic taxonomy make? And then this, way down in the 11th paragraph. The reference is to some kind of agreement that is never described or explained:
Despite Vietnam’s new agreement with Mr. Biden, China remains its dominant foreign partner, given the countries’ longstanding economic ties…
As to Biden’s boasts, relations between Washington and Hanoi were normalized 28 years ago. By then Hanoi had long, long earlier put the war in the past to face forward in its dealings with America and Americans, as anyone who has been to Vietnam can readily attest. There were no ghosts to bury. There was no enmity to transcend.
What are we going to call all this—Blinken talking to a crook to clean up Ukraine’s crookery, Harris proving a nonentity once again, Biden appearing to wander aimlessly around the world stage? What about “metaphysical diplomacy,” statecraft detached from discernible realties? However we name these sorts of spectacles, they are at bottom saddening. There is so much to be done in the world, and America could be key to doing much of it. But its purported leaders prefer dreams to responsibilities, it seems—so the past 10 days of faux-diplomacy tell us.
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Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.