When the sitting president of the United States closets himself and refuses to appear publicly or to personally articulate his policies except when pressured to do so, people notice. When a president of the United States fumbles and mumbles publicly to the degree that what he is saying borders on undecipherable, people notice. When a sitting American president publicly disparages his own country, people notice. When America’s national security policies are delivered as indecisive, weak and apologetic, people notice.
When a U.S. president behaves in such ways, it is not only people in America who notice. Leaders of other nations, including key allies and major adversaries alike, take note also.
Weakness and vacillation may carry a political price domestically for a president, costing him and his political allies votes. More important, however, that same perception of weakness and inconsistency comes with a price abroad, and in terms of national security the price can be far more dangerous.
While President Biden may be comfortable saying little and doing even less, governing as an absentee president places our country in a decidedly uncomfortable posture abroad.
On the world stage, where since the demise of the Soviet Union three decades ago, the United States has reigned as the only true superpower, the absence of leadership is seen as weakness. If you are perceived as weak, you will be challenged accordingly.
As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and many others have understood, a nation’s bargaining power to negotiate with other nations is based as much on how it is perceived by others as on its inherent power. A nation’s posture will be diminished in direct proportion to the degree it is seen as weak or indecisive, even if that weakness is based on its internal policies and priorities more than its actual diplomatic and military policy initiatives.
In the case of the Biden administration, however, the weakness is real, and is being openly telegraphed to at least one of our major adversaries – China.
Just last week, for example, in response to a question posed to Secretary of State Tony Blinken at a public forum, he stated that the United States is “not standing against China.” Now, either the president no longer considers China an adversary of the United States, or he does but is afraid to irritate Beijing by directly intimating such. Either way, the statement is deeply troubling insofar as it telegraphs weakness and hesitancy to the Chinese government.
By any real measure China is an adversary of ours and is openly challenging us on every index according to which national power is measured – geographic, technologic, economic and military.
As politics among nations is practiced in the real world if you do not “stand against” your adversaries, you are considered to have backed away, which most decidedly is not the position from which you want to be dealing with major world powers like China and Russia. Blinken’s timid statement vis-à-vis China followed his defensive posturing at a meeting in Alaska with his Chinese counterpart just a few days earlier. And while not directed at Russia, the weakness the Secretary of State portrayed assuredly was heard by Vladimir Putin, who understands the rules of the game even if Biden does not.
To be lectured at by Chinese officials, as was Blinken in Alaska, should have been met by a rhetorical blast clearly heard not only in Beijing, but also in Pyongyang, Tehran and Moscow. Yet, it was met by silence which, here again, in the international arena will be seen and responded to as weakness.
Already, the regime in Tehran is demanding that the United States, not Iran, must “come back to compliance” with the nuclear deal that Iran itself already had broken. Putin meanwhile is verbally challenging Biden after the U.S. President’s childish and unnecessary statement to a reporter that Putin is a “killer.”
Meanwhile, as our adversaries around the globe are flexing their muscles and challenging the Biden Administration, our Secretary of Defense appears fixated on LGBTQ policies in the ranks of our armed forces.
It is in just such unsettling circumstances that mistakes are made, and, unlike domestic political gaffes, national security blunders and misperceptions often lead to conflict and even war.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.