Commentary: The United States Should Avoid Waging a Two-Front Cold War

Xi Jinping, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin
by Francis Sempa


The Biden administration appears to be heading in the direction of waging a two-front Cold War over Ukraine in Eastern Europe and Taiwan in East Asia, both of which could turn “hot” any day. The imprudence of such an approach should be obvious, but the great danger is that such “crises” could get out of hand before the leaders involved step back from the brink.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin may want to extend Russia’s rule to Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, but he definitely wants to ensure the end of NATO expansion. China’s Xi Jinping, like all of his predecessors, wants Taiwan unified with the mainland, and while he would prefer to do it peacefully, he may be willing to risk war with the United States to achieve his goal–especially if he believes he can win such a war at an acceptable cost.

That leaves the Biden administration, which to date has been sending mixed signals to both Russia and China. Administration spokespersons have warned of severe consequences should Russia invade Ukraine, but President Biden has stated that those consequences will be primarily economic in the form of sanctions. Meanwhile, President Biden has stated that the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, but administration spokespersons have walked that back and reaffirmed the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity.” This is a recipe for confusion, misunderstanding, and possibly war on two fronts.

This muddled U.S. approach was highlighted at the recent Summit for Democracy, where the U.S. President portrayed international politics as a global struggle between democracies and autocracies and characterized the United States as democracy’s “champion.” Biden and other American democracy proponents appear to have forgotten the wise counsel of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that America was the well-wisher of freedom to all but the champion only of her own. The U.S. democracy proponents have likewise forgotten the prudent diplomacy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that sought America’s geopolitical benefit to exploit the divisions and fissures between the two most powerful autocracies on the Eurasian landmass. And they have forgotten the wise and timeless counsel of Sir Halford Mackinder, the great British geopolitical thinker, who urged the democratic statesmen of his time to reconcile democratic ideals with geopolitical realities.

Foreign policy and strategy involve understanding and prioritizing threats and then devoting the necessary resources to meet those threats. China clearly poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security interests in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. The Biden administration’s focus should be there, and it should allocate resources accordingly. China’s President Xi needs to understand that he cannot forcibly annex Taiwan without incurring unacceptable costs in a war with the United States. “Strategic ambiguity” should be replaced by “strategic clarity.” Meanwhile, the U.S. should use diplomacy to wean Russia from China’s orbit, including foregoing any further expansion of NATO and avoiding the democracy versus autocracy rhetoric. High-sounding principles are no substitute for hard-headed realpolitik. Biden’s role model should be John Quincy Adams, or George Washington, or Richard Nixon, or looking across the oceans, Otto von Bismarck or Lee Kuan Yew–statesmen who understood geopolitical realities and who were unbound by so-called universal principles. Or perhaps, Biden could simply emulate Abraham Lincoln, who during the Trent Affair in the midst of the American Civil War, wisely cautioned his Cabinet and military advisers: “One war at a time.”

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Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, the Claremont Review of Books, American Diplomacy, the Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.
Photo “Xi Jinping” by Officia do Palácio do Planalto CC BY 2.0 and photo “Vladimir Putin” by CC BY 4.0.


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