Walter Russell Mead wants you to know that Things Are Happening in The World and Biden has not somehow magically stopped them from happening:
Last week Russian troops fanned out across Kazakhstan; the Myanmar junta sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to four more years in prison; and China transferred a senior official from Xinjiang to lead the People’s Liberation Army’s garrison in Hong Kong. Two things are clear. First, America’s geopolitical adversaries aren’t impressed by the Biden administration. Second, the administration’s attempts to make a priority of human rights and democracy have so far failed to reverse or even to slow the retreat of democracy around the world.
One might wonder what it is that the US could or should have done to prevent these events, but Mead will not give you any answers. He cherry picks a series of events from different countries, imagines that they form a pattern, and then concludes, as he concludes almost every week, that it proves that “adversaries aren’t impressed by the Biden administration.” Mead does not attempt to explain what the administration might have done differently to “impress” them, nor does he consider whether the events he mentions are in America’s power to change or even influence. He simply lists things and inevitably lays blame for them at Biden’s door because he has “failed to reverse or even to slow the retreat of democracy around the world.”
Reading Mead columns is like opening a time capsule from the mid-2000s. The references may be more recent, but the mindset of the writer remains mired in the hubris of the Bush era. It used to be that almost every hawkish pundit and analyst viewed the world in this simplistic, ridiculous way, but there are still some, including Mead, that interpret every undesirable or neutral event as a “failure” of American leadership and/or a setback for the cause of democracy. According to this view, the agency and interests of other states are at best secondary considerations when trying to explain why anything happens in the world. If an adversary does something we don’t like, it is because they are insufficiently in awe of the president’s resolve. The possibility that some things are beyond America’s reach or that things happen for reasons unrelated to how American power is perceived continues to elude people with this worldview.
Consider Mead’s first three examples. Presumably these are the examples Mead finds most compelling because he leads off his argument with them. First, Russia has sent troops into Kazakhstan (at the request of the Kazakh government) in response to the recent unrest and violence that broke out across the country in the last week. What does this have to do with what Putin thinks of Biden or his foreign policy? As far as I can tell, nothing at all. Russia has moved to shore up Tokayev in what appears to be at least partly an intra-elite battle for control inside Kazakhstan. Maybe Putin is “impressed” by Biden, and maybe he isn’t, but the decision to send troops into Kazakhstan has nothing to do with Biden or the United States. Strike one.
What about the Tatmadaw’s new sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi? This would appear to be a purely internal move related to their consolidation of power. Are we supposed to believe that the junta in Naypyidaw would have refrained from adding to her sentence if Biden had done something differently? If so, what is that something? Once again, Mead will not so much as hint at what that might be. Strike two. Finally, the Chinese government appoints an official that had served in Xinjiang to govern Hong Kong. I can see how this is bad news for people in Hong Kong, but I cannot for the life of me see how the US government under any president could have influenced Beijing’s personnel decisions inside their own country for the better. Strike three. Mead saw some things in the headlines and tried to shoehorn them into a “Biden is failing” narrative. He should have chosen his examples more wisely.
Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.