“Goodness had nothing to do with it,“ Mae West retorts in Night After Night when a hat-check girl gushes: “Goodness, what a beautiful diamond!“ The Biden team should hire someone like her as a consultant as it labors to undo what former President Donald Trump has wrought.
In the early days of his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden could serve virtue when the price was low and the goodwill earned was high. The United States rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization. No. 46 has soothed the European allies Trump loved to offend. He has affirmed Western values by chastizing China for killing democracy in Hong Kong, and Russia for routinely assassinating regime foes.
But states don’t always do well by being good. The game is about gaining advantage while denying it to rivals like China, Russia, and Iran. The administration received an idea of just how difficult this will be when China and Iran concluded a 25-year investment deal that stands to infuse $16 billion annually into the Iranian economy. Hobbled by severe U.S. sanctions, Iran’s economy limped along with about $1 billion of foreign funds last year. Chinese cash for Iranian oil is a perfect blockade breaker aimed against Washington. Though such a deal was first mooted four years ago, the timing is the real message.
This week, the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement with Tehran canceled by Trump in 2018, are convening in Vienna to talk about reinstating the deal. Iran will arrive with its bargaining position strengthened by Beijing. Biden in turn has less leverage, but great ambitions. He intends to trade the lifting of U.S. sanctions for a refurbished nuclear deal that would not just push back Iran’s ability to build a bomb, as Obama’s deal did, but would prevent it altogether. But why would Iran make this concession if China keeps the billions flowing?
As for China, Xi Jinping’s Easter surprise sent Washington a clear signal: We can hurt you. Don’t push us in the global arena, especially in the Western Pacific, which is our lake.
So, Beijing and Tehran have neatly blindsided Mr. Nice. There is more trouble ahead. In the Middle East, Joe Biden is playing with a remake of Barack Obama’s “reversal of alliances,” as diplomatic historians call it when states switch allegiances. Recall how Obama had distanced Washington from Israel while sidling up to Iran. Recall also the former president’s distaste for Sunni potentates from Cairo to Riyadh, America’s natural allies against the “Death to America” crowd.
The Biden administration won’t cheer the Abraham Accords, the history-making Arab-Israeli realignment targeted against Iran. It has suspended the sale of F-35 combat planes to Abu Dhabi and put a hold on arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a general who took power in a putsch, is being sidelined. Relations with Jerusalem are cooling. And Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, is to pay for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
These Arab strongmen are nasty fellows, up there with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. But the moral imperative rarely wins in a Middle East where authoritarian leaders compete ruthlessly for power and primacy.
MBS et al. “may be bastards, but they are our bastards,” to borrow a notorious line ascribed variously to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. The United States supped with Stalin and sat down with fascist dictators when security demands outweighed liberal-democratic values. In our world, Putin and Xi will dine with anybody they can recruit to work against the interests of the United States.
Realpolitik is supposedly un-American, a callous game of Europe’s princes and potentates. Thomas Jefferson orated: “Our interests...will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties.” But the tragedy of American statecraft is precisely the eternal clash between goodness and geopolitics. This is nowhere more true than in the Middle East, where global greats have fought for possession and power over the last 4,000 years.
What is Biden to do as he faces the informal alliance binding Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran? Above all, stress the don’ts. Do not think that you can tame a revolutionary power like Iran. Tehran doesn’t just want more power within the system, it wants that system overthrown. So, Iran must be contained until its ambitions burn out.
Do not turn up your nose at the likes of MBS and el-Sisi. Do what you must to keep them on board and away from far greater foes who are eager to outmaneuver the United States. The Saudis have been talking on and off to the Russians about buying advanced weaponry, and Putin has feted MBS in the Kremlin.
Do not repeat the mistakes of Obama, who allowed Russia to pocket Syria. The “bastards” you dislike will be snagged by China and Russia, who will use them in their quest to evict Washington from the penthouse of global power.
Do not weaken your allies from Israel to the Gulf and thus strengthen Iran. Statecraft demands coalition-building against those who threaten the safety and wellbeing of the United States. Who else will take care of a decent international order?
Yes, America should be a “beacon of hope,” leading by the “power of our example,” as Biden put it in his inaugural. The administration should do good where it can. But Biden should not forget that power is the ultimate currency in the business of states. When the ruthless are on a roll and necessity calls, listen again to Mae West, the mistress of cold-eyed realism: “When I’m bad, I’m better.”
Josef Joffe is Professor of Practice/International Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. The views expressed are the author's own.