President Biden has justified his broad vision of remaking the US economy as the necessary step to survive long-term competition with China, a running race in which the United States must prove not only that democracies can deliver, but they can continue to outperform. innovate and surpass the most prosperous authoritarian state in the world.
Mr Biden’s vindication is not just a rallying cry, but part of an effort to elevate its infrastructure and rebuild its plans towards a taller, less partisan plane, just like President John F.’s speech there has almost six decades. But it also has an ideological advantage, with Mr. Biden warning that America’s deep polarization and the Jan.6 attack on Capitol Hill play to the autocrats’ arguments “that the sun is setting on American democracy.”
It’s a compelling argument, which ties its ambitious national agenda to its plan to restore American influence abroad. Yet the story of more recent efforts by US presidents to rekindle this unifying national emotion is mixed at best; Barack Obama tempted it with his call to meet “the Sputnik moment of our generation” in his State of the Union address 10 years ago. He fell flat.
A decade later, as Mr. Biden made clear in his speech to Congress on Wednesday night, the challenge is even more complex. The United States now faces a much more capable technological competitor, a much more complex military standoff, and more serious ideological conflict than ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We are at a great turning point in history,” said Mr. Biden.
In fact, he faces the worst relationship in two decades with very different superpower opponents who seek to exploit America’s visible divisions. And so he argues that the country must compete with a rising power in China, while containing a disruptor in Russia.
If he can bring both the country and America’s allies towards this task, his collaborators acknowledge, he can define his presidency well. But even some Republicans think he stands a chance.
“It’s a smart argument that should garner Republican votes,” Kori Schake, who served in the Department of Defense and now leads foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank . “It will likely have more impact than President Obama’s, as China’s behavior has become increasingly repressive at home and aggressive internationally.”
The infrastructure plan is interspersed with indicators of a new era of Cold War competition, more technological than military. There are billions for industrial policy – a word the White House Biden shuns – like the return of advanced semiconductor manufacturing to the United States, decreasing reliance on Chinese suppliers. There is talk of new alliances with Europe on fifth generation communication technology, or 5G, for cellular networks, to make the United States less dependent on Huawei, the Chinese national champion. There is more money for basic research, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader Mr. Biden knew ten years ago, and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin are among those who “believe that democracy in the 21st century cannot compete with autocracies, because it takes too much. time for consensus, ”Biden said in his speech Wednesday night.
Even Republicans who denounce Mr. Biden’s plan as far too expensive don’t dispute his analysis of China. When Mr. Biden said that “there is simply no reason why the blades of wind turbines cannot be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing – no reason, none,” he looked a lot like George W. Bush. 20 years ago.
When he added that there was “no reason American workers could not run the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries,” he was combining two of his signature arguments: that the United States United have the ability to get ahead of China, and that a green agenda creates jobs.
Yet technological competition, while central to the problem, is only part of it. Mr. Biden’s first 100 days in office were also marked by cracking down on human rights violations and territorial threats, and declarations that Russia must withdraw from Ukraine and China must stop. threaten Taiwan. It all adds a darker element.
“I hope, as Biden said, that our competition with China can remain conflict-free and that our responses to Putin’s belligerent actions can remain proportionate, while trying to engage with Beijing and Moscow on issues of mutual benefit, ”said Michael A. McFaul, the Stanford political scientist who served as Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Russia.
“I am concerned that the challenges of these two autocracies also require greater containment strategies,” he said. “After all, we compete with China not only on markets, but also on security and ideological issues, which tend towards more conflicting, zero-sum outcomes.”
Mr Biden has already acknowledged this, implicitly, in his announcement to impose sanctions this month against Russia for its SolarWinds cyberattack on federal agencies and businesses, and for its disinformation efforts in the 2020 election. But as Mr McFaul noted, referring to imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, “Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians and Navalny supporters will remind you that these are not the only two areas. in which Putin acts belligerently against those who struggle for freedom. and human rights. “
What is clear from Mr. Biden’s first months in office – and from Wednesday’s speech – is that he pursues very different strategies for China and Russia.
He clearly sees Mr. Xi as a worthy competitor who will force America to improve its game – hence the emphasis in his speech on education, rapid universal access to the Internet, and partnerships with industry in new technologies. Mr. Biden has made it clear to his aides during lengthy sessions in the situation room on China’s strategy that his administration needs to focus the country on the existential threat of a world in which China dominates trade and commerce. technology and controls the flow of electrons – and the ideas they convey.
In contrast, he sees Mr Putin’s Russia as a declining power whose only real ability is to act as a disruptor – a power that seeks to divide NATO, undermine democracy, and dig holes in it. computer and communications networks than the United States, and so on. of the world, depend. It came out of the speech. While he did not reiterate his assent to Mr Putin’s description as a “killer,” he focused on the recent sanctions. “He understands that we will respond,” Biden said, while opening the door to new agreements on arms control and the climate.
Mr. Putin may understand the American crackdown, but listening to Mr. Biden’s own intelligence analysts, he doesn’t seem daunted by it. This harsh reality was clearly defined in the Worldwide Threat Assessment released by the Director of National Intelligence, Avril D. Haines, this month.
He paints a picture of a Russia ready to “use a range of tools, such as influence campaigns, intelligence services and counterterrorism cooperation, to advance its interests or undermine the interests of the United States and of the United States. their allies ”.
For Mr. Biden, making this dual strategy of competition with China and containment of Russia work will be the defining foreign policy challenge of his presidency. It depends on persuading Americans to make the investments necessary to restore the country’s dying technological advantage, rather than just pouring money into the Pentagon. And that means convincing the allies that the United States is the best role model – but they will also have their backs after four years in which the value of alliances has been regularly denigrated.
The response to the pandemic, Biden suggested, is leading the way. A hundred days ago, it would have been hard to imagine a country turning to the United States for coronavirus help; now India, and the pressure on Mr Biden is how quickly he can roll out vaccines to the rest of the world, at a time when domestic politics suggest he must first vaccinate all willing Americans.
But when the pandemic subsides, divisions in the United States will persist. And these divisions, he knows, will be exploited by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin to deepen their argument that America is on the end of its decline.
It’s still a powerful argument, Biden acknowledged when he described his conversations with nearly 40 world leaders.
“I have made it known that America is back,” he said. “And you know what they say?” The comment I hear the most from them is that they say, “We see America is back, but for how long? But for how long? “