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Commentary: Biden joins the Putin and Xi miscalculation club

  • March 31, 2022
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

BY KUNI MIYAKE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

 

Two weeks ago, I wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin made a serious misjudgment in his decision to go to war against Ukraine on Feb. 24. Three weeks earlier, Chinese leader Xi Jinping had miscalculated Putin’s odds of success in Ukraine by declaring that the China-Russia friendship “has no limits” and no “forbidden” areas of cooperation.

 

According to my yet unproven theory of “the era of intuition, coincidence and misjudgment,” I was afraid that U.S. President Joe Biden might eventually follow his Russian and Chinese counterparts.

 

And, unfortunately, the U.S. president joined the international club of miscalculations on March 26 in Poland when he went off script at the end of a well-prepared speech on Ukraine and democracy, speaking these nine words concerning the Russian leader: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

 

Although many in the international community — and probably Putin himself — were surprised by the remarks, I was not.

 

I, for one, couldn’t help but be deeply concerned about a possible ramification of Biden’s remarks.

 

Of course, those nine words were not originally in the prepared text. If Putin’s misjudgment was a strategic mistake and Xi’s miscalculation only tactical, Biden’s remarks may reflect the president’s “moral outrage” at best, but at worst it was a major gaffe, though not fatal.

 

The democracy speech, which many of his staff had worked so hard to draft, was marred by the ad-lib he added at the end. The White House was quick to walk back the statement by saying that Biden was not discussing regime change in Russia. Some in Japan commented that it was “interference in domestic affairs and disrespectful.”

 

The statement, however, was neither a matter of rudeness nor will it have a potential negative impact on the ongoing cease-fire negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.

 

Rather, the issue is whether Biden has crossed the Rubicon and openly picked a fight with Putin that will play out in the years to come. What’s the most worrisome is a potential priority shift in the U.S. national security policy.

 

Did Biden mean that he would not rule out the possibility of the United States being militarily involved in future NATO-Russia disputes?

 

Biden’s slip of the tongue came at the worst time. It was only two days before the Department of Defense submitted the classified 2022 National Defense Strategy to Congress. That said, the U.S. defense priorities set out in the NDS by the Pentagon somehow dispelled my concern.

 

Although the unclassified version of the NDS has also not been made available, the Pentagon’s March 28 press release clarified the top U.S. defense policy priorities.

 

According to the Pentagon, the U.S. defense priorities are: first, defending the homeland, paced to the growing multidomain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China; second, deterring strategic attacks against the United States, allies and partners; and third, deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in a conflict when necessary, prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific and then being able to deal with the Russia challenge in Europe.

 

It also said that the Pentagon will continue to step up deterrence capabilities with China in mind as the “most consequential strategic competitor,” work with NATO allies and partners to deter further Russian aggression and manage “persistent threats” posed by North Korea, Iran and extremist organizations.

 

These are all fine, but the ultimate question is who at the end of the day makes the security policies in the United States. The answer is simple: It is the president and his team, not the bureaucrats, who determine U.S. national security policies and courses of action.

 

This is exactly why Biden’s “inadvertent” ad-lib was so concerning — and it is not because it could undermine the on-going cease-fire negotiations nor because his statement was diplomatically inappropriate. It is because what Biden said might reflect his real intention to now confront Russia and China simultaneously.

 

As I wrote two weeks ago, this could be a golden opportunity for China to repeat the diplomatic victory of 2001 and improve bilateral relations with the United States. “From Beijing’s perspective,” I wrote, “if Russia manages to survive the crisis in Ukraine, it would keep the United States bogged down in Europe for years.”

 

The war in Ukraine could shape up to become a historical inflection point not only for Europe but also for the Indo-Pacific where Beijing may soon find the breathing space for achieving its national ambitions.

 

It does not matter whether Biden’s remarks were intentional or a slip of the tongue, the latter of which he has long been notorious for.

 

Despite the clear writings in the 2022 NDS document, it is the president, a mere human being, who happens to make the final decisions on U.S. foreign policy.

 

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

 

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