Interview: Europeans are extremely prone to believing that "we are the world"

On the eve of the inauguration, we talked to the American foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead about the foreign policy challenges facing Joe Biden.

Preparations at the US Capitol on Tuesday.
Preparations at the US Capitol on Tuesday.Carol Guzy/ZUMA Wire/dpa

Washington-On Wednesday, Joe Biden takes the reins of the world's only true superpower. Foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead believes there is good reason to expect continuity with the Trump administration in foreign policy, especially with regard to China.

Despite the riot and the impeachment proceedings in Washington, the Trump administration stepped up pressure on China over Taiwan at the last minute. A visit by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, had been planned for last week - a real provocation towards Beijing. In the end, secretary of state Mike Pompeo cancelled the visit at the last minute, in order to ease the transition for Joe Biden. Professor Mead, in the past you have called the independence of Taiwan a "matter of honour".

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Walter Russell Mead
Walter Russell Mead, born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1952, was a long-time Kissinger Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and a lecturer at Yale University. He writes a column on foreign policy for the Wall Street Journal and is a Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College.

Well, this is more than a question of honour, although it is that. It is fundamentally a matter of the future of all of Asia. If mainland China were able to reoccupy or occupy Taiwan and control the sea lanes around it, this would be the end of Japan as an independent great power. The future of Taiwan is the future of Asia and thus there can be no accomodation of China on this point. For without Taiwan it would be impossible to maintain the rough balance of power which currently exists in Asia, given the cooperation between Japan, India, Australia and the US. Taiwan, moreover, is also the strategically vital site of production for the world's leading manufacturers of semiconductors. But provocations won't help Taiwan, only a coordinated cooperation of Taiwan's allies will help.

The Biden administration will be confronted with the same situation in Asia. Do you think that the main difference will be one of political style?

Yes. The development of China policy is interesting. One of the reasons which made Trump effective in his China policy was the broad agreement in the American population about the fact that something has to change, that the US can’t keep treating China in the same way as in the last 40 years. But the other very interesting thing is that the US and, of course, the Biden dministration is constantly being prodded and aided by Asian powers like Japan and Australia to show more engagement on all levels. Those nations play the same role which Germany played in the 1950s and 1960s out of concern over Russia in the Cold War. [West] Germany then was rather "hawkish" if you will, where Japan was notably pacifistic. Germany was concerned about Russia. Japan wasn't. Now those roles are reversed. Japan has no qualms: it wants more US political and military presence in Asia.

What are your views on the foreign policy advisors in the new administration?

Most of the members of the Democratic foreign policy establishment share the views of the most important China hawk in the Trump government: Matt Pottinger, who however has just resigned after the storm on the Capitol, incidentally one of the few members of the Trump team who still has a bipartisan reputation intact. Certainly the new National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, shares Pottinger's views. Jake shows himself, at least in my conversations with him, to be very engaged with our Asian allies and concerned about the balance of power in Asia. And now that I have heard that the Pentagon's Asian expert Kurt Campbell will become the "Asia Czar" of the Biden government, I am even more hopeful.

Jake Sullivan places an emphasis on diplomacy and treaties. He is known as the chief architect of Obama's Iran deal. Is that not very different from Mike Pompeo's approach?

There are treaties with both Iran and China which I would consider quite effective. It's not a matter of treaties in the abstract. It is a matter of what has to happen to achieve certain goals. It always comes down to the details and whether both sides intend to abide by the treaty. But here there is something specifically American: it takes two thirds of the Senate to ratify a treaty. So the US can't enter into treaties very often. So administrations tend to make Executive Agreements, which are not and cannot be binding for future presidents. That's what happened with the Iran Accords and the Paris Accords. And now that the Iranians had the experience of signing the JCPOA under Obama, only to have the Trump government withdraw .... well, one can imagine that other countries will be somewhat reluctant to believe that a commitment from one president is a commitment from the United States. Thats going to be a big problem.

Do you think that such developments portend more or rather less globalisation in the future?

Globalisation is not just what we have since 1990. We have had globalisation since the 16th century. Since then countries have become more and more intertwined. But that is not the same thing as the end of conflict. It is naive to assume that globalisation is the instantiation of a peaceful utopia. To the contrary, globalisation itself is a source of new conflicts between countries. Globalisation is both inevitable and creative but also destructive.

But do you think that even a beneficiary of globalisation like China will concentrate more on internal markets in the future?

I don't see Xi Jinping turning inward. He is as globally minded as any other Chinese leader before him. He just doesn't buy into western, bourgeois notions of globalisation. Even the Belt and Road Initiative, which I call "Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics", has a strongly internal aspect. There is massive investment in the world but very much in the kind of defensive structures which protect the interests of Chinese companies abroad. And China needs opportunities for companies that built roads and infrastructure in China over the last 20 years. So bringing state capital and large financial resources to foreign markets is just as much domestic policy. It fits Lenin's definition of imperialism exactly.

What will Europe's role in Asia be?

Europeans are always rightly critical of Americans interpreting everything according to American notions. But Europeans are extremely prone to believing that "we are the world", and that international relations in the world are similar to those within the EU. But as we just mentioned, when the Europeans make an agreement, it is binding for following governments. That is a fundamental characteristic of the EU. But it is rarely the case for the US. Similarly, the thought that the goal of international life amounts to ever closer union between nations. This European notion leads to endless misunderstandings, starting out with what their negotiating partners are even thinking. Literally no one else has signed up to these EU goals. It is not in China's intention to be in a closer union with anybody. Europeans thus often find themselves chasing their own tails.

And how do you see Biden's relationship with Europe or with China?

Biden comes from the eastern coast of Delaware. American schools of thought have always been divided between the Atlanticists and those who are oriented to the Pacific. Biden is literally physically closer to this European project of exporting existing western cultural and legal norms to the rest of the world. An American oriented toward the Pacific finds this kind of export less helpful. A year and a half ago, I had a conversation with a high-ranking Indian diplomat. He made it clear that India wants an American ally against China but any attempts at westernising Asia will be rejected as colonialism. So Biden's deep Atlanticist instincts are going to run up against the requirements of an Asia-focussed policy. Where does his idea of a global "alliance of democracies" fit in to a situtation where the Philippines, Burma, Thainland or Vietnam will be essential players? Or even, for that matter, Modi's "Hindutva" India? During the Cold War, Europe was the main partner of the US. In Asia, this will no longer be the case. This will be one of the thornier issues for the Atlanticist Biden.

Read this interview in German here.