The US read Russia’s action correctly: it is an indefensible, illegal invasion of Ukraine. But the US read the world wrong. It has somehow missed, or refused to accept, the subtle shift to a multipolar world.
On March 14, President Biden sent national security advisor Jake Sullivan to Rome to meet with the Chinese director of the central foreign affairs commission, Yang Jiechi. The US official walked in with the hubris of a hegemon to dictate terms to China.
Sullivan informed China that "there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them." The US was telling China that they were not permitted to help Russia evade US sanctions nor to help Russia by supplying weapons: "We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country, anywhere in the world," Sullivan said.
But the US words didn’t have the effect they thought they would have. Though the US still walked into the room in the role of the leader of a unipolar world, it didn’t see that the cast had changed. Rather than yielding to the American hegemon, China simply dismissed the US dictate. Alexander Lukin, head of the International Relations Department of HSE University in Moscow and a leading expert on Russia and Russia-China relations, told me that "As we can see from China’s official report of the talks in Rome, it ignored this warning."
China simply dismissed the arrogant US demand "and challenged the US with its own criticism of the US policy towards Taiwan," Lukin said.
So, the US escalated the call. Four days later, on March 18, President Biden called Chinese President Xi Jinping and repeated what China was forbidden to do and reminded XI of the consequences. The US would not permit China to provide material support for Russia, and Biden "described the implications and consequences" if China did.
But the outcome was the same. XI dismissed Biden.
While the Biden administration has "declined to characterize XI’s comments on the call," Chinese reports of the call emphasized that China "does not want to see the situation in Ukraine to come to this," supports negotiations, but does not condemn Russia. The Chinese readout of the call also says that XI told Biden that the US and NATO need to "have dialogue with Russia to address the crux of the Ukraine crisis and ease the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine." He told Biden that "major countries to respect each other [and] reject the Cold War mentality."
XI also admonished Biden with the line, "Let he who tied the bell on the tiger’s neck take it off," clearly implying that US and NATO provocations had led to the war.
The US was unable to order China away from supporting Russia because they had overestimated their ability to drive a wedge between the two comprehensive strategic partners. They had been misled by their own delusions of hegemony.
Just prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia and China had recast their relationship, declaring that the "Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation." China clearly said that "there are no forbidden areas." In their hubris, Biden and Sullivan did not take this caution seriously. The US forbade China’s relationship with Russia; China reiterated that there are no forbidden areas.
The US believed Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine was an opportunity to drive a wedge between Russia and China, since the two had said they support international law and reject invading other countries and not respecting the sovereignty of other nations. That separation would be the divide the US would use to drive a wedge between the two.
But American delusions of hegemony prevented them from believing China and Russia’s public profession of "a relationship that probably cannot be compared with anything in the world," of a "relationship [that] even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness." Instead of cracking under US pressure, China stunned the States by reaffirming that "The friendship between the two peoples is iron clad.”
That promise was fulfilled when China twice abstained from siding with the US over Russia at the UN: first in the nonbinding General Assembly vote and then in the more important and legally binding Security Council vote.
And it was not only China that the US misread. Despite intense pressure from the US for India to take a clear position and abandon Russia, India joined China and abstained first in the Security Council and then a second time even in the non-binding General Assembly vote.
But it is not only the two largest countries in the world that the US had misread. They had misread the world and failed to see the shift in progress away from a unipolar world. There was a startling divide in the General Assembly vote that has not been reflected in the US government nor media picture of a unipolar world united against Russia. Many countries hesitated to gravitate tightly to the US pole.
While the European and English speaking world voted in a bloc under US hegemony, other parts of the world were more divided. There was a gulf between the nations that have benefited from the US led unipolar world and those who have been the victims of that benefit. Nearly half of Africa abstained from the General Assembly vote.
Much of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and the wider Muslim world has hedged its support of the US. These regions that have born the cost of the benefits the US led unipolar world delivered to Europe and the English speaking world are more skeptical of the US narrative and more hesitant to trust its self portrayal as defender of small nations against larger, hungrier invaders who side step the Security Council and dismiss international law.
Though it is hard to get an authoritative picture of which countries, while declining to vote against US pressure in a non legally binding General Assembly vote, went beyond their vote and acted in a manner consistent with the US reading of the world, Noam Chomsky has recently pointed out "that most of the world is keeping apart" from the action. He uses sanctions over non-binding votes as a measure and cites a map of sanctions against Russia by political analyst John Whitbeck that paints "the U.S. and the rest of the Anglosphere, Europe and some of East Asia" in one color but "[n]one in the global south."
The US is correct in reading the world as being united in condemning Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. But China’s strength in rebuffing US hegemonic dictates, its strengthened commitment to a partnership with Russia that counterbalances the US in an attempt to create a new multipolar world, and the divide in the world between Europe and the English speaking world who want to hold on to the privilege they have enjoyed in the US led unipolar world and the majority of the world who is resisting the pull of the single pole, suggest that the US, struggling under the aging delusion of hegemony, is still reading the world wrong.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.