In a recent article, Guy Golan and I argued that the 21st century will be governed by three giants: The US and China, thanks to their military and financial power, and India thanks to its status as the world’s telecommunications hub. In the world of giants, no single nation will be able to later the behavior of giants, or negotiate opposite them. Thus, nations will form short-termed strategic alliances. These alliances will be based on shared interests and not shared values.
One poignant example is the recent Abraham Accords signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. This Accord is not the result of shared values, shared norms or even shared systems of government. But, rather, it is the result of a shared interest- to stem the power of Iran and limit its expansion across the Middle East. Sensing that the age of giants is approaching, many nations have adopted expansionist foreign policies. Russia has staked its claim in Crimea and Syria, Saudi Arabia hopes to control the future of Yemen, China is deepening its investments in Africa, Iran is expanding its presences across Iraq and Syria while India is courting its neighbors through vast foreign aid projects.
From the perspective of strategic alliances, both the election of Donald Trump and Brexit are confounding. The UK alone will be far less influential in the age of giants then the EU, a union that will collaboratively negotiate opposite the US, China and India. The EU’s collective bargaining power will stem both from its collective GDP and its mass purchasing power. The UK, an island onto itself, will find itself secluded and a third rate power. And while the US will be one of the giants, it will continue to rely on its allies to contain the power of the other two giants. NATO, for instance, will play a crucial role in offsetting Chinese power. Trump’s blatant disregard for alliances demonstrated that he failed to understand the profound structural change the world is undergoing. America alone cannot contend with the other two other giants.
It is interesting to note that the Biden State Department has begun to adopt the rhetoric of strategic alliances. Since his election, Biden has stated time and again that his administration would renew America’s commitment to multilateralism and to diplomacy. Unlike Trump’s America, which was a fortress of solitude, Biden’s America will be a globally engaged, and responsible giant.
In one tweet published only this week, US Secretary of State Blinken stated that complex challenges such as Covid19, climate change and a rising China cannot be solved by the US alone. Rather, America can only contend with these challenges through global partnerships.
In another tweet, President Biden explained his new ‘out looking’ foreign policy by arguing that partnerships can help America deal with problems before they wash up at Ellis Island. In other words, global partnerships will contribute to domestic tranquility.
Another Blinken Facebook post made clear that America has adopted a diplomacy first approach to foreign affairs. Military power will be a last resort. This is an important message given that US partners and allies are always weary of US unilateral action which may be interpreted as hegemonic rule. Germany, France, the UK and Japan all prefer American multilateralism to American unilateralism as the latter makes it harder for leaders and nations to support America. And when support for America declines, support for other giants may increase.
The tweets and Facebook posts examined thus far do not represent a substantial departure from previous US administrations. In his first major address as President, Barack Obama stood at Cairo University and pledged that his administration would adopt a diplomacy first foreign policy that would favor dialogue over force. Obama promised to tackle challenges through multilateral engagement, not unilateral invasions such as the ones seen in the War on Terror.
Yet two tweets published by the State Department are indicative of a new policy orientation that goes beyond ‘diplomacy first’. One tweet, shown below, makes clear reference to the term ‘alliances’. Alliances are different from partnerships as alliances evoke connotations from the world of national security. For instance, the ‘Allies’ of World War 2 or the Franco-Austrian Alliance of the 18th Century. Even NATO is labeled an alliance, not a partnership, a term that evoke connotations of friendliness instead of tanks.
A second interesting tweet, shown below, was published during Blinken’s visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels. Here, the State Department uses the term ‘strategic competitors’. Throughout the years the State Department has come up with many terms for its opponents. Some were ‘rogue states’, others were an ‘Axis of Evil’ while still others were ‘Outposts of Tyranny’. Yet all these terms referred to states that the US viewed as destabilizing to the international system. The term ‘strategic competitors’ is quite different as it lacks a moral dimension. It groups nations together not based on their disruptive behaviors or policies but based on their ability to compete with the US over world power. Moreover, strategic competitors require a strategic response, one which according to Blinken’s tweets will rest on security alliances, not partnerships.
Do these tweets necessarily indicate a transition in US foreign policy? Do they attest to the emergence of the world of giants? It is too early to say. What is certain is that a world of strategic alliances will free the US from its normative dilemmas. In a world governed by norms and values, close EU-US ties make sense. Yet dancing with the King of Saudi Arabia does not. But in a world of interest and strategic competitions, selling F-35 jets to the UAE is more than acceptable, especially if it helps limit the expansion of Iran, Russia and China in the Middle East.