The Problem with the 'Contest with Autocrats'

Imagining that the U.S. is facing a unified authoritarian camp will end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as our policies drive them together to create one.

Russia and China have renewed their treaty of friendship, and their respective leaders claimed that the relationship was stronger than ever:

Beijing and Moscow have moved to consolidate ties by renewing a 20-year-old friendship treaty, weeks after the Russian and US leaders met in what was seen as part of efforts by Washington to drive a wedge between them.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met by video link on Monday for a second time in a month, agreeing to extend the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation.

Putin said that Sino-Russian relations had reached an “unprecedented height.” Some of this may be exaggeration for effect, but it does reflect the extent to which Russia and China have drawn closer together since the turn of the century. It is worth noting that U.S. relations with both states have deteriorated significantly during the same period, and U.S. policies have contributed to bringing the two authoritarian powers together. When they signed their friendship treaty twenty years ago, Russia was still open to working with the U.S. and western Europe, and China had not yet become Washington’s bête noire. While the U.S. wasted the last twenty years setting the Middle East on fire, it also managed to antagonize the two major powers of Eurasia at the same time. You could hardly ask for greater strategic incompetence.

The U.S. never made a concerted effort to keep these two states from working more closely together. Washington has mostly viewed Russia with contempt. Instead of calling it “Upper Volta with rockets,” Russia hawks today dismissively refer to Russia as nothing more than a “gas station parading as a country.” Russia is not nearly as powerful as the old USSR was, but it is a mistake to underestimate them or assume that Russia can be discounted so easily. Hawkish analysts have also assumed for decades that Russian and Chinese interests are too divergent to allow for a sustainable partnership. The last twenty years have shown that both have come to see the U.S. as the greater threat, and the U.S. has encouraged them in this by challenging them over issues that matter far more to them than they could possibly matter to us.

It may no longer be possible to drive a wedge between Russia and China, and as far as most people in Washington are concerned it isn’t even considered desirable. Maybe the U.S. could afford to alienate and antagonize two of the world’s major powers at the start of the century when China wasn’t as powerful and Russia was still recovering from the “shock therapy” of the 1990s, but today that is no longer the case. As the U.S. experiences relative decline, it is longer able to treat both states as adversaries to be opposed at every step. A smarter strategy would aim to exploit and widen the cleavages between Russia and China, and that would entail dropping the reflexively hostile approach to both countries that has characterized U.S. policies for at least the last 15 years.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration seems to be moving in the other direction with its framing of international politics as a battle of regime types. Biden talks about a “contest with autocrats,” and he has talked about this idea so much that Hal Brands has called it the “defining theme” of his foreign policy. This kind of talk imposes a degree of ideological rigidity on policymaking. Imagining that the U.S. is facing a unified authoritarian camp will end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as our policies drive them together to create one. The U.S. will also find that many other governments, including democratic ones, will be uninterested in siding with the U.S. in this “contest.” Biden would be wise to drop this rhetoric and the baggage that comes with it.