The inspirational writer William Arthur Ward was surely onto something with his shrewd, nautical definition of what lies behind the philosophy of realism: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” To clearly see the world as it actually is–and then to try to make the most of things–is the essence of the Ethical Realist creed.
So, what are the weather conditions of our new era? We are now living in a time of loose bipolarity, where there are clearly two superpowers, the US and China, vying for global dominance. However, just beneath them in terms of importance, great powers—such as the Anglosphere countries, the EU, India, Japan, and Russia—all have extensive room to maneuver, to craft independent foreign policies of their own.
As such, America has the clear structural edge, with the chance to bring more powerful allies onside to tilt the superpower contest in its favor, as America has at its disposal the possible general support of the Anglosphere, the EU, India, and Japan, with only Russia drifting into China’s general orbit. The choice for the first four is one of either neutralism in the face of the Sino-American Cold War, or tilting towards Washington. For Russia, it is the reverse.
Nowhere is this truer than in the Indo-Pacific, with great powers Japan, India, and the Anglosphere (Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Canada) all organically and increasingly siding with the US, largely in response to endless Chinese regional provocations.
So, given the weather, what would a realist advocate the United States do in the Indo-Pacific, during the new administration of the admittedly Wilsonian Joe Biden? Here are four realist precepts to guide American strategic thinking in this most vital geostrategic region in the world.
1) Make sure the Biden administration’s strategic focus remains on China, America’s only possible superpower rival. Wilsonians have a tendency to lose focus; as philosophically they care about everything, in practice the all-too-often care about nothing. Realism’s strength is in articulating American interests and then correctly prioritizing them.
The new White House’s feet must be held to the fire regarding the centrality of China as America’s primary great power rival; everything else is secondary. Overall, focusing once again on great power politics—involving China, Russia, Japan, India, the Anglosphere countries, and the EU—must be the overriding American priority, as it is these power blocs along with the US that will determine the nature and future of our new era.
2) As such, realists ought to encourage the growing parallel Wilsonian hawkishness over Beijing, as creating an enduring bipartisan strategic consensus regarding the China threat over the next four years should be a political priority. While realists traditionally think in more concrete terms about strategy–of geopolitics, macroeconomics and the power structure of the world—in coming to conclusions about China, Wilsonianism offers an alternate road for arriving at the same policy destination.
Ethical realists such as Ronald Reagan and Dwight David Eisenhower poached a fine Wilsonian ideal, understanding the power of human rights in advancing America’s agenda. China’s abuses in western Xinjiang province, Tibet and their crackdown in Hong Kong speaks to the dark nature of the Communist Party regime, and impels Wilsonians to join realists in reaching the common conclusion that China’s expansionism in Asia must be halted.
3) Realists must encourage the Biden administration’s correct desire to bolster and further construct an anti-Chinese security alliance in Asia, centered on the Quadrilateral Initiative, or the Quad. A fledgling strategic alliance composed of Asian great powers India, Australia, Japan and the US, the Quad must be further expanded to include more regional Asian players and great power allies further afield, such as the UK. The new White House’s enthusiasm for alliances means this is another area ripe for realist-Wilsonian cooperation, as enhancing the Quad as the strategic bulwark against China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific is a vital realist interest.
4) Despite the unpopularity of free trade in both parties, re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now called the CPTPP) is a central American task, as it creates economic norms for the entire Pacific Rim region based on America’s terms and not China’s. Traditionally protectionist Democrats will not take the lead on this, so realist Republicans have an imperative to do so. It must be made clear to the new Biden team that if they really care about alliances as much as they claim to, and truly see China as America’s most important rival, the easiest and best thing for them to do is to push the geo-economic button, re-signing onto TPP, which ties the vast and booming Asia-Pacific rim in the macroeconomic long run to America primarily, rather than China.
These four realist precepts mark the beginnings of an effective foreign policy for the time of Biden in the Indo-Pacific. Armed with this strategic playbook, realists must serve as a loyal opposition, working with Wilsonians where we can, and calling out their mistakes where we must. Literally, nothing in foreign affairs over the next four years is more important.
A brief, final word about Europe’s increasing neutralism in this burgeoning Sino-American Cold War. To have a foot in both camps is to have influence in neither.