December 20, 2021
by: Kenneth Dekleva
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As President Joe Biden concludes his first year in office, his administration continues to face numerous national security challenges. According to many, Biden’s vast political experience and political advantages have dimmed, and America and its western allies find themselves beset by division, rancor, and doubt. Challenges such as the ongoing COVID pandemic, climate change, laggard economies, a weakened EU, cyber-attacks upon American infrastructure by Russia and China, and our adversaries’ supreme abilities in whole of government approaches to the ‘new’ Cold War, have left America and its allies paralyzed. Biden and other allied leaders are struggling to fight the ‘new’ Cold War with the ‘old’ Cold War’s tactics, such as sanctions and weapons sales to our allies. Such approaches, without a coherent strategy, are unlikely to bear fruit.
Our key adversaries, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, have often been underestimated and misunderstood. Part of this analytic bias involves seeing them as merely tactical, when they are instead formidable, cunning, ruthless, and – ultimately – very strategic. As a senior CIA colleague once said to me, “how many battles did Genghis Khan win before one could consider him a strategic genius?” Putin and Xi are fighting the ‘new’ Cold War with 21st-century tools, utilizing a formidable array of talents, assets, and hybrid, gray zone, whole of government approaches. These strategies involve uses of military, economic, political, diplomatic, cyber, informational, and intelligence tools to win this epochal conflict, which has been painted as one between autocracy and democracy. One must never forget that our adversaries believe that time and history – and their very legitimacy and governance outcomes – are on their side. And if leaders in America and its allies don’t grasp this fact and achieve a nuanced understanding of our adversaries’ true intentions, then the latter have already achieved a great psychological victory. We struggle to play checkers, while our adversaries are playing three-dimensional Chess or Go — and winning.
Putin is by now well-recognized as a brilliant, disruptive, revanchist, and ever-powerful (even if weakened by a stalled economy and COVID-19) leader, willing to project his and Russia’s strength, even at the cost of prosperity. Putin is a hard man, even when capable of ‘charm’ diplomacy, such as in his recent contacts with Xi, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi. We still lack a key understanding of his intentions, especially with respect to Ukraine, where Russia has massed over 100,000 troops on its border, and Putin has clearly drawn his ‘red line’ – that Ukraine must never be allowed to join NATO. Unlike many recent western leaders, Putin’s ‘red lines’ are backed by resolve, force, and strength. But merely watching Russian troop buildups runs the risk of missing Putin’s truest intentions — to psychologically weaken Ukraine’s resolve, to use other weapons of war such as massive GRU-enabled cyber-attacks, corruption of Ukrainian businessmen, and the SVR’s recruitment of Ukrainian politicians to never vote for NATO accession.
Xi and Biden have met multiple times since 2011, when Xi was Vice-President and later, President of China. But their most recent virtual meeting has failed to bridge the growing diplomatic divide between America and China, where China is now seen as strategic competitor. And Xi is easily the most formidable and successful leader in the world today. He has so far achieved his goals of the China Dream and the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People. The recent 6th plenum cemented Xi’s status among the pantheon of modern China’s other greatest leaders, Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Xi has successfully utilized impressive strategy in militarizing the south China Sea, cornering Taiwan (which he does not need to invade), repressing Hong Kong, Macau, and Xinjiang, and seeking to dominate the critical technologies of the 21st-century in his vaunted Made in China 2025 Program, and exporting China’s economic largess via the gargantuan Belt and Road Initiative. Paying attention to, and understanding Xi’s political psychology and leadership intentions, remains a critical national security imperative.
This month, North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un celebrates his 10th year in power, more powerful than ever. This very fact aline is an intelligence failure, as most American, South Korean, and other experts predicted that Kim wouldn’t last more than a few months. Kim proved them wrong, and has advanced a significant nuclear weapons program, while initially loosening the DPRK’s economy and improving the elites’ quality of life. He then parlayed his diplomatic skills on the world stage during 2018 and 2019, meeting with various world leaders such as Putin, Moon, Trump, and Xi. Russia’s former Ambassador to South Korea Gleb Ivashentsov saw Kim’s summits with President Trump as “a colossal achievement for Kim Jong Un, who surpassed his father and his grandfather by forcing the head of the largest imperialist nation to negotiate with him as an equal.” But the ongoing pandemic has – along with Kim’s complete ‘lockdown’ and further isolation of North Korea – led to severe economic decline and food insecurity. Lastly, after a likely health scare during 2020, Kim has lost a significant amount of weight during 2021 (likely due to bariatric surgery), showing a youthfulness and vigor as he embraces North Korea’s severe challenges over the next years. His health improvement sends a message to Biden and other leaders (including Putin and Xi) that he will remain a force to be reckoned with in Northeast Asia for the foreseeable future.
Other leaders to watch include Iran’s Supreme Leader and its new President, Ebrahim Raisi, who have done their best to stall diplomacy with America and the West regarding the moribund 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, while likely advancing Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Of note, Putin has also – in recent meetings with Israeli, Indian and Middle Eastern leaders – attempted to counter President Trump’s earlier diplomacy involving Israel and its Middle East neighbors, and the strategic relationship between America and India — the latter being critical as a counterweight to China’s increasing stature and strategic role in Asia. And Xi has used his diplomatic skills to reach out to Africa, a key source of trade and raw materials needed to fuel China’s projected growth.
In his essay “A Room and A Half,” the late Russian writer Josef Brodsky wrote of how two ravens in his London backyard served as harbingers of his parents’ demise and death. The above-mentioned adversary leaders and the existential threats which they represent to western democracies – can easily lead to a type of nihilism, where any diplomatic and political engagement is seen as appeasement, or worse. Putin and Xi are in this way, akin to Biden’s ‘ravens,’ allegedly heralding the defeat of western democracy and the triumph of their respective versions of ‘democracy.’ Thankfully, the ‘old’ Cold War offers hope and valuable lessons learned. Leadership, resolve, values, and strong actions – not mere words – matter. Presidents such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush welcomed engagement with our adversaries, but on our terms, projecting America’s best values and strengths, and yes, its exceptionalism. President Biden and other allied leaders would do well to remember these facts, as they ponder 2022’s leaders to watch.
Kenneth Dekleva is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.