Gerry Shih, “Faced with sanctions and condemnation from the West, China becomes bedfellows with Russia,” Washington Post, March 24, 2021 (7:52 a.m. EDT).
This article could have been entitled, “Speak loudly and carry a twig.”x
President Joe Biden can speak powerfully, when he speaks as the captain of his team, and is on script. He speaks most powerfully through his team’s and his actions. The two most powerful things he has said are things he has done:
1) He has organized a capable team which is leading the fight against Covid-19 and which has achieved a level and pace of vaccinations which is the envy of the world; and
2) He has secured the passage of a $1.9 trillion Covid recovery package which is a historic achievement.
But when Biden speaks off-script, he is a loose canon, and often makes colossal mistakes. This is the Joe Biden we have known for 40 years.
He hasn’t changed, except in one critical regard. He has developed the ability to stay on message, as he did during the campaign.
Without his first-rate campaign team, which successfully imposed message discipline on Biden, he would never have won the 2020 election.
However, there is evidence that suggests that Biden, like Donald Trump, resents the handlers who seek to impose message discipline on him.
Actually, Biden is a great communicator, when he is on message. Without message discipline he can make huge mistakes.
1) Frank Bruni, “Biden Has Disappeared
His presidency will be transformational to the extent that he transforms himself,” New York Times, March 19, 2021.
2) Maureen Dowd, “Old Pol, New Tricks, Biden’s got the buzz. Who’s smirking now?” New York Times, March 20, 2021.
One such mistake has been to grant unscripted interviews on television. In his interview with George Stephanoupoulis, on ABC-TV, Stephanapoulis asked him if he thought Vladimir Putin was “a killer”. Biden, unaccompanied by his handlers and off-script, naively answered, “Yes.”
The answer enraged Putin, who at a press conference, said,
“What would I answer him? I would tell him: be healthy,” Putin said. “I wish him good health. I say this without irony, no jokes. This is first of all.”
Coming from a former KGB officer, those words amounted to an assassination threat, and were undoubtedly understood in Russia and elsewhere as such.
Anyone knowledgeable about diplomacy and international affairs knows the risks and costs of speaking such unvarnished truths about other heads of state with whom one must seek cooperation, on some matters, in the future.
In Anchorage, Alaska, in the first meeting of its kind in some time between the Chinese Foreign Minister and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Blinken made the monumental mistake of grandstanding for domestic opinion, instead of attepting to establish good working relationships with the Chinese. Here, Blinken’s lack of previous day-to-day overseas diplomatic experience may have been a factor in the harshness of his approach, though he has held high-level foreign policy positions in the State Department and the White House.
Biden’s first big mistakes vis-à-vis Russia and China were to publicly call Putin a “killer” and to adopt a confrontational attitude at the first bi-lateral meeting at the foreign minister level with China.
In both cases, Buden and Blinken were playing primarily to their domestic audience. The point is not that Biden and Blinken should not have spelled out in detail their criticisms of China. The point, rather, is that this was the wrong time and the wrong place to make these points.
To do so in a face-to-face meeting with the Chinese foreign minister and his delegation, in public, may have been particularly offensive on a personal level, in terms of Chinese culture.
The common front against the West should come as no surprise. Its timing has at least symbolic significance.
For an insightful account of Chinene-Russian cooperation against the U.S.and its allies, see,
Piotr Smolar, “La Chine et la Russie opposent un front commun à l’Occident; Ces deux régimes autoritaires, redoutables dans le domaine cyber, sont alliés dans les arènes multilatérales, s’épaulant au nom d’une même lecture des relations internationales,” Le Monde, le 24 Mars 2021 (14h00, mis à jour à 18h44).
The Trenchant Observer