Recent events in Ukraine and Taiwan have presented President Biden with an opportunity to showcase his statesmanship. Both situations presented Biden with a red line. Both times he crossed it.
Giving Biden a red line not to cross does not seem to be a good idea. Seemingly demonstrating the psychology less of a statesman and more of a school yard bully, red lines seem to challenge Biden to show that no one can tell him what he can and cannot do.
At the beginning of December, 2021, Putin drew a red line, seeking "reliable and long-term security guarantees." Those guarantees "would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory." Russia’s new red line was Ukraine. The red line was not unreasonable: Russia had not significantly reacted to decades of NATO expansion east. NATO was now at Russia’s door.
That Russia expected the US and NATO to keep their promise that they would not expand east and that Ukraine was the final red line was not a surprise to Washington. A pantheon of US officials, including such experts as George Kennen, Jack Matlock, William Burns and Robert Gate, had warned about the dangers of NATO expansion. In 2008, Burns, now director of the CIA, then US ambassador to Russia, warned that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).” Later, he warned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” Short even of expansion into Georgia or Ukraine, Burns called NATO expansion into Eastern Europe “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.” If it came to Ukraine, Burns warned, “There could be no doubt that Putin would fight back hard.” In 1997, Biden himself, then senior democrat on the foreign relations committee, warned against the dangers of pushing NATO expansion too far east.
The existence of a red line does not justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But since Biden and Zelensky both knew that NATO was not going to admit Ukraine, Biden could have assumed the role of statesman and not school yard bully challenged by a red line, clearly stated that NATO was not expanding to Ukraine and sat down at the diplomatic table to negotiate the implementation of the Minsk agreement as the best solution to a settlement in Ukraine.
When Nancy Pelosi announced her trip to Taiwan, Biden again had a chance to be a statesman but rejected it in favor of school yard bully. Biden said only that Pelosi’s trip is "not a good idea right now." China has for decades made it clear that Taiwan is a red line. When Xi Jinping warned Biden on their most recent phone call that "those who play with fire will only get burnt," and the Chinese government warned that "the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never sit idly by" – an extreme formulation it has used only once before – Washington’s language did a further metamorphosis from diplomacy to bully. The language took on the tone of not allowing China to dictate what America could do.
China’s red line is neither new or arbitrary. Joint communiqués negotiated with China between 1972 and 1982 commit the US to only low-profile, unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Though Pelosi insists that "Our visit – one of several congressional delegations to the island – in no way contradicts the long-standing one-China policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S.-China Joint Communiqués and the Six Assurances," her visit is clearly not a low-profile visit. Pelosi is not just a member of congress making a visit. She is third in line for the presidency and the highest ranking American to visit Taiwan in twenty-five years.
Biden’s claim that he lacks the power to prevent Pelosi from making the trip because, as the head of a congress, which "is an independent, coequal branch of government . . . the decision is entirely the speaker’s" will be hard for China to accept, especially since the speaker is being flown into Taiwan in a US military jet.
Biden, once again, had the opportunity to respond to a well established red line as a statesman and not as a bully. He could simply have clearly stated that Pelosi’s visit is a violation of long-standing, foundational agreements with China and that, if he couldn’t stop it, he did not sanction it, that the executive branch opposed it and that it did not represent the position of the White House.
Instead, the US crossed the red line in a military jet. The long term consequences remain to be seen, but there is little doubt that the turbulent waters have been poisoned. China fired missiles over Taiwan and positioned warships around the island in a manner that clearly demonstrate an ability to blockade Taiwan. At the same time, China announced that it was "canceling or suspending dialogue with the U.S. on climate change, military relations and other topics." China further canceled "dialogue between US and Chinese regional commanders and defense department heads."
And there is a further cost the US could pay. Pelosi’s action and Biden’s inaction demonstrate to the world again that American agreements are not signed in permanent ink. When Donald Trump illegally pulled out of the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, Iran and the world suspected that Trump was the anomaly, and that they just had to wait him out and re-engage with Biden. When Biden continued Trump’s approach to the deal, it began to look like Trump was not an anomaly but that he and Biden were the face of the American norm: international relations governed not by international agreements but by American interests. The Biden administration’s clear violation of its agreements with China reinforces that appearance. To the world, Trump’s willingness to break international agreements may be looking less like an anomaly and more like an American norm continued under President Biden. And that may make the world less likely to engage in agreements with the US.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.