Who is the Real Enemy?

Former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen did not wait for January to send New Year greetings to his successor, Jens Stoltenberg. Summing up the task NATO needs to address as soon as Donald Trump is out of the White House, he wrote, ‘In 2021 the US and its allies have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse global democratic retreat and put autocracies like Russia and China on the back foot. That will happen if major democracies unite in the pursuit of freedom’ (1).

A number of them did just that, a generation ago, when they invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq. Apparently, it’s time they took on more powerful adversaries.

But which should they tackle first? Since the US plans to assume the leadership of the democratic crusade (‘America is back, ready to lead the world’ Joe Biden said on 24 November), satellite states would do well to realise that Americans no longer agree on the identity of their main opponent. Their reasons have little to do with global geopolitics, and a lot with internal divisions.

Democrats believe the main enemy is Russia: throughout the lastfour years, the party’s leaders, echoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have maintained that ‘with [Trump] all roads lead to Putin.’

Republicans, have responded tit-for-tat, in a way that recalls playground squabbles, by nicknaming the president-elect ‘Beijing Biden’. Biden’s son Hunter has done business in China, and globalisation, which Republicans blame on Democrats, has meant great business for China. QED.

On 10 December, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did his best to deepen the existing divide between the countries. Claiming, without irony, to be concerned about people’s privacy, the former CIA director first warned the world that China’s president Xi Jinping ‘has his eye on each and every one of us’. He then attacked the 400,000 students China sends to US universities each year, claiming that some are there to steal industrial and scientific secrets.

Pompeo also blamed the universities themselves (‘Many of our colleges are bought by Beijing’) and, finally, products made by Huawei, claiming that users are putting themselves ‘in the hands of the Chinese security apparatus’ (2). This is the message Republicans will use against Biden. It will replace four years of anti-Russian paranoia fed by the Democrats to attack Trump. The China Sea, Taiwan, the Uyghurs, Hong Kong: all of these will be used to test the new administration’s determination to stand up to China.

Rasmussen was clear-sighted on one point at least: ‘President-elect Joe Biden has a queue of America’s weary allies outside his door.’ But as long as they remain members of an alliance led by a power that has lost its bearings, they are unlikely to find peace any time soon.

This column first appeared on Le Monde Diplomatique.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.