Biden’s Europe Tour, a Reminder of Past Lessons
History shows the only results of the U.S. transformational strategy have been further chaos and bloodshed.
Ahead of the EU-China summit scheduled on April 1, U.S. President Joe Biden capped his four-day visit to Europe with a remark in Warsaw, Poland, on March 26, which smacked of urging a change in the Russian leadership. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he said, alluding to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has been interpreted by many as calling for a regime change.
The White House sought to walk back that comment, with an unnamed official even telling Reuters, “The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.” But Biden remained unapologetic in Washington two days later. Asked by the media to clarify if he had indeed called for a regime change, his answer was: “…I wasn’t then nor am I now articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it.”
While Biden attended the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit, a G7 gathering, and the European Council summit, a Time report said a poll taken in the U.S. found some 70 percent respondents said they have limited or little confidence in Biden’s management of the Ukraine war.
Differences in EU, U.S. Stands
The very fact that the European Council summit last week failed to agree on additional sanctions against Moscow, despite Biden’s position, reflects the existence of different views among EU members, who are increasingly worried of the real consequences of such actions.
For example, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis cautioned that the EU may also suffer from the sanctions imposed on Russia and in some areas, they could be more painful for Europe than for Russia. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel ruled out new sanctions until Moscow “crosses another line.” Although the United States and the EU announced a taskforce to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels, important European countries are against announcing drastic measures against Russia’s energy for fear of making supply worse, a legitimate concern.
Biden’s statements are something no world leader should say, keeping in mind sheer realism and history. Suggesting an abrupt change of leadership in another country goes against the norms of international relations, particularly now, since negotiations to achieve peace must be made with the leadership of a country with nuclear weapons.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned against the U.S. president’s inflammatory language in a volatile situation. London also distanced itself from Washington. And in the U.S. itself, people criticized Biden’s remarks. Veteran diplomat Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, said there ought to be two priorities now: “Ending the war on terms Ukraine can accept, and discouraging any escalation by Putin. And [Biden’s] comment was inconsistent with both of those goals.” Hass sees Biden’s remarks as essentially discouraging Putin from any compromise. It might confirm the Kremlin’s fears of a political ousting and a systemic change. “This goes against the grain of the handling of this crisis,” he said.
The Chinese Approach
The conflict has caused untold suffering. Almost 10 million Ukrainians have been forced to leave their homes, of whom nearly 4 million are refugees outside Ukraine. The EU is assessing how to deal with a likely long refugee crisis. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has reminded the international community that without international solidarity, Ukraine’s displacement crisis could turn into a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.
China is calling for a peaceful resolution of the crisis through negotiation. It has expressed readiness to mediate and put forward a six-point initiative to address the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. Outlined by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the six measures are: Keeping humanitarian operations neutral and impartial with no politicization of humanitarian issues; keeping the focus on displaced persons and providing them shelter; protecting civilians and preventing secondary humanitarian disasters; ensuring that humanitarian aid activities are safe and smooth, including rapid, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access; ensuring safety of foreign nationals in Ukraine, allowing them safe departure and helping them return to their home countries; and supporting the UN’s coordinating role in channeling humanitarian aid and the work of the UN Crisis Coordinator for Ukraine.
China has also provided humanitarian assistance of RMB 15 million (US $2.35 million) to Ukraine. Beijing’s stand is that no nation can enhance its security at the cost of the security of another nation. Seeking bloc confrontation and absolute security will only lead to the most insecure scenario. Ukraine should become a bridge for communication between the East and the West, rather than the frontline for major power rivalry. The more complex the situation, the greater the need to remain cool-headed and rational. If the situation further escalates, the conflict could trigger extreme crises in the global economy and trade, finance, energy, food, and industrial and supply chains, which are already languishing due to the pandemic and the effects of climate change.
Let’s consider food, for example. Russia and Ukraine together account for a quarter of world wheat exports and a fifth of corn sales. Over the last decade, almost half of Ukraine’s wheat exports were exported to the Middle East and North Africa, where many governments subsidize food purchases for their citizens. The interruption of so much of the world’s wheat supply, and Ukraine’s inability to plant crops now will dramatically raise the costs.
Among the countries at risk are Egypt, with more than 100 million people and the region’s biggest wheat buyer. In recent years, Egypt has imported half its wheat from Russia and one third from Ukraine and its reserves can last only till August. In addition, Russia and Belarus are also the major producers of disposable potash, a key fertilizer ingredient. Prolonged shortfalls would have important consequences on agriculture globally.
History Tells a Different Story
A systemic change has disastrous precedents. In the past, the U.S. had sought to implement “transformational diplomacy” coupled with military intervention in several countries, from Afghanistan to those in northwest Africa. Then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “We must begin to lay the diplomatic foundations to secure a future of freedom for all people.” This view persisted over decades. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, said the reality was that “a U.S. president is inevitably a promoter of global change.”
Now we are looking at this strategy with the fresh perspective of the sudden withdrawal of the U.S. and its allies from Afghanistan in September and the results there and in all other countries that were supposed to be freed and propelled into prosperity. In the end, the “transformational” strategy proved to be counterproductive, dangerous and carrying endless misunderstandings, chaos and bloodshed.
Augusto Soto is director of the Dialogue with China Project, an independent electronic platform.