When he was elected president, Barack Obama found himself staring down an eroding American position in the Middle East, after more than a decade of inconclusive—and costly—conflict there, a resurgent Russia, and a rising China.
Obama and his team looked across the world. They recognized that if there were to be a new era of geopolitics in which a near-peer competitor challenged the United States, that challenge would likely come from the People’s Republic of China.
Reinforcing this concern was the fact that, almost from the start of his time in office, President Obama was faced with an increase in Chinese cyberattacks, industrial espionage operations, as well as an expansive—and completely illegal—island-building program in the South China Sea.
Clearly, Beijing meant to give Washington a run for its money in the aftermath of what Chinese leaders viewed as American failures in the Middle East, the Great Recession of 2008, and the election of a naïve, young president in Barack Obama.
How did Obama respond?
Obama’s Asia Pivot—Dead on Arrival
Well, along with the more hawkish elements of his first term in office, notably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outlined a plan of strategic reorientation that would husband America’s diminished military resources to the task of deterring China’s aggression in what is today known as the Indo-Pacific region.
Almost as soon as Obama announced his much-ballyhooed pivot, little was done to fulfill that expansive objective. He was, as they once would have said in the military, O.B.E. (Overcome By Events).
First, the Arab Spring erupted as Obama was attempting to withdraw US forces from the region. Of course, Obama’s response to it—to power every Islamist organization under the guise of “democracy”—only complicated his attempts to reduce America’s footprint in the Greater Middle East.
Second, Obama further destabilized North Africa and the Levant by using US military power to not only attack the dictatorships of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria but to give aid-and-comfort to al Qaeda, Al Nusra, and even ISIS fighting in those two conflicts.
Meanwhile, President Obama couldn’t make up his mind as to whether he was going to negotiate a new great power paradigm with a resurgent Russia in Europe or if he was going to become a hawk on Russia.
Initially, Obama removed the George W. Bush era anti-ballistic missile (ABM) shield in Poland and then followed that short-sighted decision up with his accommodationist New START Treaty which basically ceded immense advantages in the nuclear weapons realm to the Russian Federation.
Naturally, Russia viewed this an invitation to increase their expansionist agenda in Europe. Obama then changed his mind after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and lent support to the pro-Russian breakaway republics in Eastern Ukraine.
Suddenly, Obama’s Asia Pivot became diluted.
America’s forty-fourth president soon found himself bogged down in the quicksand of Middle East geopolitics as quickly as his hated Republican predecessor had and instead of pivoting to Asia to contain a rising China, was responding to predictable Russian aggression in Crimea by refocusing his limited resources on the geopolitical backwaters of Europe.
Thus, the 2010s became an era of wasted opportunities to prepare the United States for the inevitable competition (and possible conflict) with the People’s Republic of China that we are today, in the 2020s, approaching.
Because of these ignorant moves by former President Obama during his time in office, the US-led international order was doomed to a premature death.
Trump Understood the China Threat
One of the many upsides of Donald Trump’s unpredictable (except to me and a few others on the Right) victory in 2016 was that he forced US foreign policy to prioritize China’s threat.
On the campaign trail, he was criticized for accusing China of having spent decades “raping” the United States with one-sided trade deals. He castigated a succession of American leaders—both Democrats and Republicans—who stupidly made those one-sided deals with Beijing.
To Trump, there was a direct line linking China’s rise with the decision by American political and business elites to gut America’s once-dominant manufacturing sector by sending those jobs and capabilities to China, beginning in the late 1970s.
Beyond that, Trump rightly understood that China’s immense economic capabilities were being used to fund a growing military that was becoming a serious threat to the United States. He wanted to challenge this, too.
Alas, Trump was in office for a single term that was cut short by controversy, both self-inflicted and, more gallingly, fabricated by his political opponents. Because of this, Trump’s own pivot to Asia was incomplete (though more comprehensive than his predecessor’s).
Joe Biden Talks Tough About China But Doesn’t Act Accordingly
Joe Biden was elected in 2020 by claiming that he was going to be tough on China. In fact, during one of the contentious presidential debates he had with former President Donald J. Trump during that presidential election cycle, Biden made the case that it was Trump, not the Democrats, who was soft on China.
This, despite the fact that Biden was Obama’s vice-president when Obama failed to complete the Asia Pivot and that everyone knew Biden’s son, Hunter, had taken millions of dollars from Chinese government-owned entities over the years.
Plus, while he was a senator, Biden was notoriously pro-engagement with the People’s Republic of China. It was Biden who supported endless trade agreements with Beijing that gutted America’s working-class.
What’s more, as senator, it was Biden who championed China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in December 2001.
That move, more than any other, solidified China’s rise as the second-largest economy (in GDP terms) today that might soon displace the United States as the world’s leading economy (America has been the leading economy since the end of the First World War).
Still, Biden talked tough.
He even brought in the hawkish Kurt Campbell to spearhead his administration’s China policy. Yet, like Obama before him, Biden has done little to reposition the bulk of America’s military and foreign policy focus to the Indo-Pacific.
Just like Obama, Biden is obsessed with Russia and Europe.
Russia Isn’t The Threat You Think It Is, Democrats!
What neither Obama nor Biden understood, though, is that Moscow will never be able to challenge the United States for dominance in the world system the way that China can—and is today.
Every moment the United States fails to reorient its focus away from Europe and even the Middle East to Asia is another window of opportunity that Beijing will happily exploit.
The Democrats have consistently demonstrated a disturbing inability to match their rhetoric about China’s rise with necessary action. Because of that, the United States is made weaker. And the world is less safe.
Both Obama and Biden are failures, in large part because they did not take the systemic, long-term challenge of China to the United States serious.
We—and our children—will pay dearly in the long-run because of it.
In fact, the United States may lose its dominant position in the world system because of this consistent failure to respond to China’s growing challenge to the United States.
A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (May 16), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.