What Blinken Told the QUAD

On February 11, the QUAD held a foreign ministers meeting in Australia. They issued a joint statement, but it is hard to analyze what it said because it said nothing.

However, in answers to reporters in press conferences held both before and after the meeting, they said a lot that was interesting.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or QUAD, is an alliance made up of the US, Japan, Australia and India. The QUAD is the key to the US plan in the Indo-Pacific region. Biden has said that he has “elevated the Quad partnership among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States." The sole purpose of the QUAD is to confront and contain China. As its name implies, there is a military component to the QUAD.

The QUAD is part of the alliance and bloc building US approach to the new cold war under Biden. Though its region of interest is the Indo-Pacific, and its specific target is China, the most interesting exchanges with reporters at the press conferences before and after the meeting occurred when reporters asked about Russia and Ukraine.

Before Secretary of State Blinken was given the stage to, once again, perform his act either of historical amnesia or hypocrisy, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar got to be Blinken’s foil and write the prologue to set him up.

At the press conference before the meeting, a reporter asked whether the QUAD foreign ministers would "discuss events in Ukraine." He then specifically addressed Jaishankar and said, "can I please ask you, sir, what’s India’s current view of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and do you believe that Russia has behaved appropriately?

Jaishankar responded, "this meeting is focused on the Indo-Pacific, so I’m sure you understand geography." When the reporter pressed him, he replied simply, "I think you should figure out the geography."

Jaishankar’s reply again put on public display India’s restraining effect on the QUAD’s hostile bloc mentality as well as its seemingly siding with Russia in the standoff with the US over Ukraine. But his informed reply was also interesting as a foil for Blinken. Whereas Jaishankar rightly refused to mix Russia and Ukraine into a meeting on the Indo-Pacific, Blinken couldn’t help displaying the same geographical ignorance as the reporter so that he could lash out at Russia once more.

In the post meeting press conference, a reporter once again asked, "on the crisis in the Ukraine are you able to elaborate what came of discussions today?" Unlike Jaishankar, Blinken took the question. Then, perhaps realizing that he’d traveled far from QUAD jurisdiction in a QUAD press conference, Blinken paused and said, "But let me just take one second to share why what may seem to be half a world away from here matters here in Australia, in the Indo Pacific."

The answer, Blinken explained, is that it’s not just about Ukraine, but about three very basic principles "that have . . . undergirded security, peace and prosperity for countries around the world."

The first principle is that "one country can’t simply change the borders of another by force." The Russians might remember Kosovo. More recently, Blinken might remember Western Sahara and his own acquiescence to simply changing a country’s borders by force.

More than forty-five ago, as Western Sahara was on the verge of winning its independence from colonial Spain, Morocco changed its borders by force and make Western Sahara part of Morocco. Both the UN and the International Court of Justice have ruled in favor of Western Sahara’s right to self-governance. But the US and France have thwarted the UN’s ability to act on its resolutions. Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco and an authority on Morocco’s occupation, told me many years ago in a personal correspondence that he knows of no police state worse or more repressive than Moroccan occupied Sahara.

The US, in the closing days of the Trump administration, endorsed that border change by force by officially recognizing Western Sahara as part of Morocco. Turns out you can simply change borders by force. It also turns out that Biden and Blinken continue to endorse that more pragmatic principle by refusing to reverse the Trump era decision. Zunes says that "official U.S. government maps under the Biden administration all show Western Sahara as part of Morocco with no delineation between the two."

Contrary to Blinken’s defense of principles when applied to Russia, Zunes points out that "The Biden administration, however, in refusing to rescind Trump’s recognition, is taking the position that the expansion of territory by force – notwithstanding such prohibitions in the UN Charter – is not necessarily illegal after all and can be an acceptable form of statecraft." Just not for Russia.

The second principle is that "one country can’t simply dictate to another its choices, its policies, with whom it will associate." Not if that one country is Russia. But it can if it’s the US. For decades, the US’s constant prerequisite for any improvement of relations with Cuba was that Cuba cut all ties with the Soviet Union and with the Sino-Soviet bloc. At that time it was Cuba telling the US that no country had the right to tell another how to regulate their relations with other nations.

More recently, Blinken may recall the US position on sovereign nations’ choices on with whom they associate. Blinken and fellow Biden officials have toured Africa and the Middle East telling sovereign nations with whom the US will no longer tolerate them associating. Brett McGurk of the National Security Council recently boasted that the US had woken up a number of their partners with warnings about countries with whom trade "would jeopardize the level of American cooperation." Blinken and the US have sanctioned anyone who does anything with anyone the US doesn’t like, including Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Russia, China and over a dozen other countries. Jaishankar, himself, well remembers the recent US threat to sanction India over the purchase of Russian missile defense systems.

The third principle is that "one country can’t exert a sphere of influence to subjugate its neighbors to its will." The Monroe Doctrine says otherwise. So does the catalogue of Latin American coups. The US continues to delineate and enforce its own sphere of influence while denying Russia a sphere of influence of their own. The only sense in which the US can be said to no longer subscribe to spheres of influence is the sense in which it regards the whole world as one sphere of influence: its own.

So, the QUAD meeting provided very little of interest regarding the QUAD. But it provided a lot that is interesting about the US and Russia and the US’s very selective and pragmatic application of its own principle.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.