President Biden has justified his broad vision to remake the American economy as the necessary step to survive long-run competition with China, a foot race in which the United States must prove not only that democracies can deliver, but that it can continue to out-innovate and outproduce the world’s most successful authoritarian state.
Mr. Biden’s rationale is not just a rallying cry, but part of an effort to lift his infrastructure and rebuilding plans to a higher, less partisan plane, much as President John F. Kennedy did in his “we choose to go to the moon” speech nearly six decades ago. But it also carries an ideological edge, with Mr. Biden warning that America’s deep polarization and the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol are playing to the autocrats’ arguments “that the sun is setting on American democracy.”
It is a compelling argument, one that ties his ambitious domestic agenda to his plan to restore American influence abroad. Yet the history of more recent efforts by American presidents to revive that unifying national emotion is mixed at best; Barack Obama attempted it with his call to meet “our generation’s Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union address 10 years ago. It fell flat.
A decade later, as Mr. Biden made clear in his speech to Congress on Wednesday night, the challenge is even more complex. The United States now faces a far more capable technological competitor, a far more complex military standoff and a starker ideological conflict than anytime since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We’re at a great inflection point in history,” Mr. Biden said.
In fact, he is facing the worst relations in two decades with very different superpower adversaries that are seeking to exploit America’s visible divisions. And so he is making the case that the country must compete with a rising power in China, while containing a disrupter in Russia.
Whether he can turn both the country and America’s allies to that task, his aides acknowledge, may well define his presidency. But even some Republicans think he has a shot.
“It’s a smart argument that should pick up some Republican votes,” Kori Schake, who served in the Defense Department and now directs foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “It’s likely to have more of an impact than President Obama’s did, because China’s behavior has become increasingly repressive at home and aggressive internationally.”
The infrastructure plan is laced with indicators of a new age of Cold War competition, more technological than military. There are billions for industrial policy — a word the Biden White House avoids — like the movement of advanced semiconductor manufacturing back to the United States, diminishing reliance on Chinese suppliers. There is talk of new alliances with Europe on fifth-generation, or 5G, communications technology for cellular networks, to make the United States less dependent on Huawei, the Chinese national champion. There is more money for basic research, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader Mr. Biden got to know a decade ago, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia are among those who “think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies, because it takes too long to get consensus,” Mr. Biden said in his speech Wednesday night.
Even the Republicans who denounce Mr. Biden’s plan as far too expensive do not argue with his China analysis. When Mr. Biden said that “there is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing — no reason, none,” he sounded a lot like George W. Bush 20 years ago.
When he added that there was “no reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries,” he was combining two of his signature arguments: that the United States has the capability to outpace China, and that a green agenda produces jobs.
Yet the technological competition, while central to the problem, is only part of it. Mr. Biden’s first 100 days in office have also been marked by pushing back on human rights violations and territorial threats, and declarations that Russia had to back off from Ukraine and China had to stop threatening Taiwan. That all adds a darker element.
“I hope, as Biden said, that our competition with China can remain free of conflict and our responses to Putin’s belligerent actions can remain proportionate, while still trying to engage with Beijing and Moscow on issues of mutual interest,” said Michael A. McFaul, the Stanford political scientist who served as Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Russia.
“I fear that the challenges from both of these autocracies also will require grander strategies of containment,” he said. “After all, we compete with China not just in markets, but also regarding security and ideological issues, which tend toward more conflictual, zero-sum outcomes.”
Mr. Biden has already acknowledged that, implicitly, in his announcement imposing sanctions this month against Russia for its SolarWinds cyberattack on federal agencies and businesses, and for its disinformation efforts during the 2020 election. But as Mr. McFaul noted, referring to the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, “Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians and Navalny supporters will remind you that those are not the only two domains in which Putin is acting belligerently against those fighting for freedom and human rights.”
What is becoming clear from Mr. Biden’s first months in office — and from the Wednesday speech — is that he is pursuing very different strategies for China and Russia.
He clearly regards Mr. Xi as a worthy competitor who will force America to up its game — thus the focus in his speech on education, speedy universal internet access and partnerships with industry in new technologies. Mr. Biden has made clear to his aides, in lengthy Situation Room sessions on China strategy, that his administration must focus the country on the existential threat of a world in which China dominates in trade and technology, and controls the flow of electrons — and the ideas they carry.
In contrast, he regards Mr. Putin’s Russia as a declining power whose only real capability is to act as a disrupter — one that seeks to split NATO, undermine democracy and poke holes in the computer and communications networks that the United States, and the rest of the world, depend upon. That came through in the speech. While he did not repeat his assent to the description of Mr. Putin as a “killer,” he focused on the recent sanctions. “He understands we will respond,” Mr. Biden said, while opening the door to new agreements on arms control and climate.
Mr. Putin may understand American pushback, but to listen to Mr. Biden’s own intelligence analysts, he appears undeterred by it. That stark reality was made clear in the Worldwide Threat Assessment published by the director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, this month.
It paints a picture of a Russia ready to “employ an array of tools, such as influence campaigns, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation, to advance its interests or undermine the interests of the United States and its allies.”
For Mr. Biden, making this twin strategy of competition with China and containment of Russia work will be the defining foreign policy challenge of his presidency. It depends on persuading Americans to make the necessary investments in restoring the nation’s vanishing technological edge, rather than just pouring money into the Pentagon. And it means convincing allies that the United States is the better model — but will also have their backs after four years in which the value of alliances was regularly denigrated.
The pandemic response, Mr. Biden suggested, paves the way. One hundred days ago, it would have been hard to imagine any country turning to the United States for coronavirus aid; now India has, and the pressure on Mr. Biden is how fast he can deploy vaccines to the rest of the world, at a moment that domestic politics suggests he needs to vaccinate all willing Americans first.
But when the pandemic abates, the divisions in the United States will remain. And those divisions, he knows, will be exploited by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin to further their argument that America is in terminal decline.
It is still a powerful argument, one Mr. Biden acknowledged when he described his conversations with nearly 40 world leaders.
“I’ve made it known that America is back,” he said. “And you know what they say? The comment that I hear most of all from them is they say: ‘We see America is back, but for how long? But for how long?’”
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