Emma Ashford: Happy Friday, Matt! It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the White House, as the president wrapped up a whirlwind tour to India and Vietnam. The media spent most of its time focused on his advanced age, and—of course—congressional Republicans decided to move forward with an impeachment investigation of the president. There’s a looming government shutdown, too.
Am I the only one irritated that no one is actually talking about foreign-policy issues?
Matt Kroenig: Well, the other items are certainly more entertaining (and, in some cases, puzzling) for a broader audience. If you understand President Joe Biden’s repeated references to “lying, dog-faced pony soldiers,” please do explain.
But I wouldn’t say that absolutely no one is talking about the foreign-policy issues. The G-20 summit and Vietnam trip were seen as successes by many. It was an opportunity for the United States to strengthen its relationship with two Indo-Pacific partners, India and Vietnam. Several of the G-20 nations announced a major infrastructure deal meant to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping limited the influence of these revisionist autocracies at the summit, while also calling into question China’s support for, and the overall value of, these types of convenings.
Your favorite mustachioed strategist, John Bolton, even wrote a piece calling for the G-20 to be disbanded due to uselessness.
What is your take?
EA: The G-20 was certainly less of a failure than it might have been. Putin and Xi both skipped the summit, but at least leaders were able to issue a consensus document at the end. It didn’t say very much, and what it did say was pretty weak. Instead of criticizing the Russian invasion, for example, it just said that “all states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition.” I guess that counts as a win, since there had been fears that even a watered-down statement would be too much, but it doesn’t exactly seem earth-shattering.
And I think the question of usefulness depends on what you think the G-20 (and institutions like it) are intended to do. If you think that they’re about promoting unity and the United States getting its way all the time, then yes—the G-20 is a complete waste of time. If, on the other hand, you view them as useful forums for leaders to coordinate and consult, then they can be quite important. The G-20 is one of the few remaining forums where Biden or his European counterparts might have to encounter Xi in a multilateral setting, and I think that is worth preserving.
You also get a better sense of the spectrum of global opinion from these gatherings than you do from the relatively homogenous G-7 gatherings. I thought it was notable that this summit—despite the absence of Xi and Putin—couldn’t get leaders to issue a statement condemning the Russian war in Ukraine, even though they did last year. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wasn’t invited to address the group, even though Washington wanted it, and he had done so in 2022. That’s an interesting sign of shifting global opinion.
MK: You are right to identify the different categories of international institutions. People talk about “the multilateral system,” but really it is two different systems. There are the bodies that bring together the like-minded and mostly democratic states in the free world (G-7, NATO, European Union, etc.). And then there are the inclusive bodies, like the G-20 and the United Nations—which will have its General Assembly meetings in New York next week—that also give nonaligned and even adversarial powers a seat at the table.
I think the broader meetings are useful for the reasons you mention: There should be forums for dialogue and even cooperation among adversarial nations where possible. But the presence of the revisionist autocracies, like China and Russia, often limits the ability of these inclusive bodies to get anything done. I mean, as you say, they can’t even agree to a statement condemning Russia’s invasion. Come on.
In contrast, the real action in multilateral settings in recent years—which the new print issue of FP discusses at length—and the area with the most opportunity for future creation, is among the free-world institutions. NATO is getting stronger. There is improved trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan coordination. New bodies, such as AUKUS and the Quad, are sprouting up and expanding in size and scope.
EA: That is certainly what happened at the start of the Cold War. The multilateral bodies set up immediately after World War II like the U.N. became less important over time as it became clear they couldn’t achieve consensus, and the United States leaned into organizations such as NATO.
But there are risks to abandoning or ignoring the less-friendly forums. For one, it can lead to groupthink in Washington. If you only hear from the countries that agree with you, you’re probably not hearing the whole story. I think Biden made a big mistake in skipping the ASEAN summit in favor of his bilateral visit to Vietnam the same week. ASEAN is important to regional states, even if it’s not a forum in which the U.S. government has significant influence.
Or perhaps Biden was just keen to avoid the traditional picture of ASEAN leaders in ridiculous local costumes?
MK: Ha. But the opportunity to don the local dress is the best part. My new favorite, from last year’s G-20, is Indonesian batik.
EA: My favorite was George W. Bush in a Peruvian poncho.
[ED: While FP’s fashion editors appreciate the sartorial choices of the men in black pictured above, can we get back on track, please?]
EA: Whoops. So you said that Biden’s trip was being hailed as a success by many. Do you think it was a success?
MK: It was a mixed bag. The G-20 statement was in the right direction but disappointing in its failure to condemn Russia. Biden’s verbal stumbles were somewhat concerning. We should want the leader of the free world to project confidence and competence on the global stage. The infrastructure deal is inspired, but will countries actually follow through?
EA: “Inspired” is too strong. People have been suggesting a U.S. alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative since soon after it was founded 10 years ago. It’s good that the United States is finally engaging with topics that are priorities for regional states, and this deal, if it comes to fruition, would provide jobs and transit links to a number of countries and potentially improve their ability to attract investment and manufacturing. But I do have to wonder why this infrastructure corridor is supposed to be more effective than existing trade links between Asia and Europe. It feels a little like the Biden administration is trying to shoehorn its strategy of linking allies in Europe and Asia into every regional policy.
The same applies to prioritizing Biden’s visit to Vietnam over the ASEAN summit. It was a historic, important visit with the potential to further build out a useful strategic partnership. And in historical context, a U.S. president making a state visit to Vietnam is a really big deal! But he also snubbed Indonesia, the host of the ASEAN summit, and once again gave the impression that the United States really only cares about security issues in a region where economics is king.
MK: Showing up is part of the job. I know Biden is a busy guy, but he should have done both ASEAN and Vietnam.
I agree the Vietnam visit is a big deal for many reasons. In part because it is a data point in my favor for one of our long-running debates! The Biden doctrine describes the world at an “inflection point” in a battle between democracy and autocracy. You and some others have argued that this language is dangerous because it will prevent the United States from engaging with like-minded autocracies such as Vietnam, Singapore, and others. I and others have argued that, like during the Cold War, the United States can trumpet democratic values, engage in deep cooperation with allied democracies, and still have pragmatic cooperation with nondemocratic partners.
The new U.S.-Vietnam “comprehensive strategic partnership” is a good example of how this balancing act can work in practice.
I am sure you agree.
EA: Uh, no. Democracy vs. autocracy is still a stupid framing. The U.S. success in building bridges with Vietnam just proves the point! It’s hard to imagine two countries less likely to want to work with each other on military issues than the United States and Vietnam—or two countries with more aligned political systems than China and Vietnam! In this case, as usual, important strategic interests trump values, and it’s not wise to lean too heavily on ideological framing.
I should add here that I think the press is overstating the value of this strategic partnership. Vietnam has strong historical ties with both China and Russia in the military space. It’s still buying Russian arms. And even though the Vietnamese are getting more wary of Chinese power, they maintain close diplomatic, commercial, and even military ties with Beijing. There are those who would argue that the country’s overtures toward the United States are more a form of hedging than a genuine choice to switch alignments. I’m OK with that, since I think it’s perfectly pragmatic. But I don’t think the Biden team would put it that way.
MK: I think it proves my point that Biden can talk values and still pursue pragmatic interests, but I guess we will have to agree to disagree.
Where American values and interests definitely point in the same direction, however, are with the threats posed by the new Axis of Autocracy. Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in a high-profile summit this week. Biden just struck a controversial prisoner-exchange deal with Tehran. What do you make of these developments?
EA: I appreciate how you lumped those two things together, as if they were somehow connected. They’re not, of course. But both are important. First, we’ve got Kim’s visit to Russia, in which he and Putin made a show of close support for each other. We know what Moscow wants from this deal: artillery supplies and, potentially, other weaponry for use in Ukraine. That’s certainly not great for U.S. interests, as it will undoubtedly prolong the war. This week’s Ukrainian strikes against the Russian naval base at Sevastopol also highlighted the risk that the war in Ukraine will escalate further. Everyone assumes that the war in Ukraine is now on a predictable path; that’s not necessarily true.
MK: Um, you mean Ukraine striking occupying forces on internationally recognized Ukrainian sovereign territory? Sounds like a good military strategy to me.
EA: In any case, it will be interesting to see what North Korea gets from a closer partnership with Russia. It would not be good for U.S. interests if the war in Ukraine ends up pushing Moscow to help Kim with his growing nuclear program, for example.
MK: Well, I lumped them together because these revisionist autocracies are working more closely together. After all, Iran has become an important supplier of weapons for Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Putin-Kim summit is just the latest example of autocratic collusion. I am afraid the United States does not really have a strategy to address this.
When asked about this at a press conference, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that if Kim helps arm Putin for his war against Ukraine, “this will not reflect well on North Korea.” Not reflect well on North Korea?! Was this an appeal to Kim’s conscience? If so, I am afraid that won’t work.
He continued to say that North Korea would “pay a price.” But what price? The United States has already put enormous pressure on North Korea in an effort to stop Pyongyang from building nuclear weapons, and it has not (yet) worked. I don’t think there are any other arrows in Washington’s quiver that will convince Kim to refrain from helping Russia.
EA: OK, fair point. Iran and North Korea do have something in common: U.S. policy toward them has completely failed to prevent them from moving toward nuclear proliferation. No matter how many sanctions or restrictions Washington piles on, it has been unable to constrain truly committed states that perceive it to be in their national interest—or at least in the interests of their leaders—to build a nuclear program.
It does sound like it’s time to try a different approach. I’m just curious what you think it should be. The West has tried “maximum pressure” sanctions. It has tried threats of military force. It has tried international condemnation. Do you have something better?
MK: Well, let’s eliminate the bad alternatives first, because I know something else that won’t work. The Iran prisoner swap was a mistake for many reasons. The United States traded real criminals who violated U.S. law by trying to smuggle back sensitive dual-use technology to aid Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for American citizens who were wrongfully detained on Iranian soil. To add insult to injury, Washington has effectively paid Tehran for the privilege, unfreezing $6 billion of Iranian oil revenue funds in overseas bank accounts. Washington should be tightening the noose around the Islamic Republic, not giving it access to revenue that it can use, as Iran’s president said, “wherever we need it,” including presumably financing terrorism and building Tehran’s nuclear program.
This comes on top of the deal with Russia to trade Viktor Bout, a convicted arms trafficker, for wrongfully detained WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner.
I’m afraid the United States is announcing that it is now open for business for prisoner swaps, which will simply incentivize rogue regimes to wrongfully seize more Americans
Here I think the better approach would be to stop these negotiations and announce to all Americans that they should stop traveling to rogue states, and if they do and are wrongfully detained anyway, then they are on their own. They should have known better.
EA: The money aspect of the deal is certainly problematic. There’s a reason why long-standing U.S. policy is not to negotiate with hostage-takers, as it does incentivize future instances. But this is also hardly the first time the U.S. government has bent the rules. Ronald Reagan’s administration, for example, infamously negotiated with the Iranians both before and after he was elected about freeing the embassy hostages. I’m sympathetic to the administration’s desire to bring these folks home, and I do believe the government has a responsibility to try to help even the least fortunate of its citizens abroad. It doesn’t make for great policy.
But just like the president on his Asian trip, I am running out of energy here. Perhaps it’s my age? Maybe I’ll just take a nap.
MK: I get it. It must be very tiring to make the impossible case against the value of U.S. global leadership each week. Please rest up, and we’ll pick it up again next time.