In March, historic rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia announced that they had agreed to normalize relations. This news was significant because it signaled a possible change in regional order in the Middle East. But—at least for the Washington commentariat—what was more notable was that America’s fingerprints were nowhere near the deal. Instead, the rapprochement had been brokered by China, in Beijing’s latest notable turn as international negotiator. This move brought into stark relief a development that some experts have been predicting for years: the end of the post–Cold War, unipolar moment and the beginning of a new multipolar era, in which the United States must coexist with other powers.
When Biden took office, he had the chance to reorient his foreign policy for this new age. The catchphrase of Biden’s foreign policy vision on the campaign trail was “America is back”—by which he signaled an effort to reverse the perceived ills of his predecessor’s worldview. While Biden recognized the challenges posed by other powers, he pledged “to compete from a position of strength.” He intended to “begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges.” Working with other countries to confront international problems like climate change and public health was ostensibly a foundational principle of this foreign policy.
Yet, partly because of factors outside of his control—notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—and partly because of an intentional shift in American national security strategy, Biden’s foreign policymaking has been defined by great power competition. In this framing, Beijing’s attempt to play peacemaker is a sign of rivalry rather than an opportunity for collaboration.
Relations with China have been spiraling downward for years, accelerated by aggressive actions taken by both powers. Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and policies toward an increasingly powerful and belligerent government in Beijing heightened tensions between the countries. In a pertinent recent example, the discovery of a Chinese-operated spy balloon flying in U.S. airspace in February led to the cancellation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing, and diplomatic relations were very slow to recover, although Blinken and other U.S. government representatives did eventually travel to China. Biden’s delayed response to the balloon incident in June, in which he called the episode “a great embarrassment for dictators”—referring to Xi Jinping—led to another flare-up.
Read the full piece in The New Republic.