Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers recently expressed worry that the U.S. is getting increasingly “lonely” on the international stage. In his view, China, Russia, and Iran are rapidly teaming up to counter the U.S.-led Western alliance, and he fears that they have had some success pulling other countries to either join or sympathize with this newly emerging bloc.
In some of his recent television interviews, Mr. Summers has recalled a conversation he had with a Third World delegate on the sidelines of the 2023 spring meetings of the World Bank Group and IMF in Washington, D.C. According to Mr. Summers, the delegate told him that when his country seeks assistance from the U.S., what they get are lectures, whereas approaches to China yield ports, dams, and bridges, with few questions asked. The concern is that these Third World countries will increasingly gravitate towards China, to the detriment of the U.S. and its allies.
This sentiment is gaining currency in Washington. The unwillingness of many Third World countries to condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has set off alarm bells, leading to a flurry of activities by both President Biden and high-level officials in his administration to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the Third World. The recent high-profile visits to Africa by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Vice President Kamala Harris were part of that effort.
American leaders should rightfully care about how the U.S. is perceived by the rest of the world. However, policymakers should be extremely careful not to compromise America’s basic principles in this attempt to win friends overseas. America has surely had its share of moral failings, such as propping up brutal dictators when pursuing certain foreign policy goals, but the Chinese, Russian, and Third World leaders who constantly point accusatory fingers at the U.S. are no saints.
Many Third World leaders say U.S. hypocrisy is their main reason for refusing to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine war. They argue that the U.S. itself uses its military might to invade other countries, so it has no right to criticize Russia or any other military power that invades another country. Context aside, these same countries have never had any trouble condemning the U.S. for its wrongs overseas. They do so gleefully at every little opportunity they get. There is nothing more hypocritical than calling something out in one case, and choosing to look the other way when that same thing happens in another. Those leaders and their citizens who take that attitude should look themselves in the mirror.
There is one crucially important fact that the U.S. foreign policy establishment should keep in mind as it rolls out the welcome mat for new or long-lost friends. The anti-Americanism observed in diplomatic circles does not necessarily reflect the views of the majorities of citizens in many of these countries. Autocrats routinely ban opposition and other mainstream media and assume full control of the political narratives within their borders. Tailoring foreign policy in response to such narratives emanating from echo chambers is quite clearly unwise.
When I lived in the Soviet Union, I was always astonished by the large numbers of everyday people I met on the streets of cities and towns who had little faith in the communist system their leaders so fervently touted. America was naturally painted in the Soviet media as the world’s chief villain, but when the Soviet borders were opened to allow citizens to emigrate, the longest lines of people I witnessed queuing for visas happened to be at the American embassy and consulate in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I wasn’t surprised by that. Based on my intimate knowledge of life in Africa and other parts of the Third World, I am aware that the picture there is quite similar. The large numbers of people who are risking everything to travel across dangerous routes through South America to the U.S. is enough evidence.
Regardless of what Third World leaders say, the fact remains that overwhelming majorities of average citizens in those countries prefer America’s free and open society to the repressive autocracies and theocracies on offer in their homelands. U.S. foreign policy should be designed with those people in mind, not the autocrats and theocrats. Instead of panicking and rushing to appease dictators, the U.S. should adopt a posture of strategic patience. As happened during the Cold War, that is the best way to preserve America’s status as the beacon of hope for millions around the world.
Navigating this new world of shifting allegiances will require bold leadership at home here in the U.S. Political leaders should communicate in clear terms to Americans that it takes some amount of sacrifice to guarantee a life of freedom. President Biden’s July 2022 visit to Saudi Arabia will go down in history as one of the worst mistakes of his presidency. In an effort to bring down gasoline prices in the U.S. to curb surging inflation, Mr. Biden traveled to Riyadh to convince the Saudis to increase oil supply. Not only did that appeal fall on deaf ears, the Saudis actually cut production. They deliberately poked a finger in Mr. Biden’s eye. That embarrassment of kowtowing to an authoritarian regime could have been avoided if the president had instead demonstrated political courage by telling Americans that it was worth tolerating those high gasoline prices for a while. That would have enabled his administration to look for more palatable ways to alleviate the situation.
One troubling development is the current scramble in the UN and around the world by the U.S. and its Western allies to drum up support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. This is quite a silly exercise. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which all 193 member countries of the UN are signatories to, clearly states that countries should refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. That any country requires persuasion to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is unfathomable.
Worse, in the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that many of these countries happily point to as their reason for remaining neutral, at least the U.S. tried to make its case in the Security Council. Russia simply used the law of the jungle in its invasion of Ukraine. Every single UN General Assembly vote on the Ukraine issue now is merely a pursuit of bragging rights. Cajoling delegates to vote in favor of a resolution, just to say that a majority of countries voted against Russia, is a waste of time. None of those Third World countries can—or will—contribute any money and resources to the war effort. It is time for the U.S. and its allies to concentrate on providing Ukraine the resources it needs to beat back the Russian aggression.
Today, we find ourselves at one of those critical junctures in world history. President Biden is correct when he says that the current struggle is a battle between democracy and autocracy. The choices we make now will determine what type of world our children and grandchildren will live in. This is not the time for America to lose its self-confidence. Free and open societies are inherently more resilient than autocratic ones. We will not win this battle by compromising our principles and joining the race to the bottom that the autocrats want to drag us into. And, we will lose only if we commit suicide, by allowing hyper-partisanship to destroy the country from within.