The United States needs as many friends as it can get in the intensifying struggle with China, Russia and Iran. But to build large and effective coalitions, it will need to be flexible. At the global level, where competition encompasses security, technology and commerce, it makes sense to appeal to universal principles rooted in the Western traditions of individual liberty and representative government. But at the regional level, especially in those places where most of the United States’ natural partners are not democracies, we will need to be pragmatic and appeal to the shared interests of preserving the independence and sovereignty of individual states against revisionist encroachments.

President Joe Biden speaks at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. December 15, 2022. (Cheriss May/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden speaks at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. December 15, 2022. (Cheriss May/The New York Times)

So far, it is the first level of competition that has gotten the most attention. That’s partly because much of it to date has been focused in one way or another on Europe. In working to rally European allies to resist Chinese dominance in key technological and commercial fields, and to present a common front to China in international fora, U.S. diplomats have appealed to the common principles that differentiate the United States and Europe from China. The war in Ukraine has heightened this focus by casting into sharp relief the differences between the Western system of open society and voluntary alliances (to which Ukraine aspires) and the closed system of autocratic government and territorial expansion represented by Russia. A universal message resonates in Europe, which, of the world’s major regions, has by far the largest number of mature democracies, as well as in the Asian democracies Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia, which not coincidentally have also supported Ukraine.

But the further one moves away from Europe, the less this is the case. This pattern has been on vivid display throughout the Ukraine war in the developing world, where a large number of countries in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia have not rallied to Western invocations to help Ukraine in the name of bolstering democracy against the forces of autocracy. That includes many countries that share U.S. concerns about the rise of China. Most notably, India, the most populous country in the world and a member of the Quad, has rejected U.S. and European calls to denounce the Russian invasion and indeed has continued to buy weapons and energy from Russia. In a similar fashion, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), all of which are U.S. partners against Iran, have refused to implement Western sanctions and have maintained strategic relations with Russia throughout the conflict.

A Sobering Reality

This pattern points to a sobering reality: Outside of Europe and parts of Asia, most of the countries that the United States needs to work with to counter Russia and China are either weak democracies or not democracies at all. In the Middle East, where Russia and China have been ratcheting up their diplomatic outreach, most countries are either repressive secular regimes or autocratic monarchies. Of the countries in this region, only one (Israel) is a democracy. Among the remainder, the average Freedom House democracy score is 25 (compared to 86 in Europe). In Southeast Asia, it is a similar picture. Among the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), four (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines) are considered “partly free,” while the remaining six are autocratic. The average Freedom House score is 68.

In both the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the rapidly escalating stakes of geopolitical competition necessitate that the United States proactively deepen cooperation with nondemocratic and partly democratic states. In the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, the United States will need to ramp up diplomacy with Arab states to build an expanded counter-Iranian coalition centered on the Abraham Accords. The linchpin of this effort will be Saudi Arabia, which has an abysmal human rights record but shares U.S. and Israeli concerns about Iran and is seeking a combination of civilian nuclear power assistance and U.S. security guarantees.

Similarly, as China intensifies its naval and air buildup in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, the United States will need to work closely with its treaty ally, the Philippines, where civil liberties and press freedom have been under assault, to secure access to ports and bases in close proximity to the strategically located Luzon Strait, south of Taiwan. The United States will also need to work with Vietnam, a single-party communist state with which the United States nevertheless shares common strategic interests and the Biden administration recently inked an upgraded partnership.

Prioritizing Independence and Sovereignty

In working to build these regional coalitions, the United States will have to put the shared interests of independence and sovereignty ahead of democratic principles. The immediate and urgent aim has to be to enhance security vis-à-vis the common opponent in each of these regions. This is the classic business of “capability-aggregation” that has been the main purpose of alliances since antiquity. That requires creating effective networks with the mostly small states that share our aversion to the nearby revisionist power’s agenda generally and, specifically, are able to assist in the task of backing or bucking up the most vulnerable frontline state in their vicinity — Israel, Taiwan or Ukraine.

At the regional level, then, the United States’ aim is bounded and discrete: to enhance mutual security against a dangerous rival in a specific place with its own unique dynamics that is thousands of miles apart from other threatened regions. Nevertheless, these regional dynamics are connected to the global level in two important senses.

First, if the region in question were to fall under the preponderant sway of a major rival, it will have deleterious effects for wider U.S. interests (e.g., loss of sea lanes and share of global trade, dispiriting effects to other regions). And second, the United States’ friendships across regions “add up” in the important sense that we are playing a numbers game vis-à-vis China in key competitive fields like software, semiconductors, supply chains, markets and support for the dollar as the primary reserve currency. The numbers game also plays out in the U.N. General Assembly and other multilateral bodies where the United States competes with Russia and China for support. All of which is to say: succeeding at the regional levels, via separate and discrete means, aids in fortifying the United States’ aggregate position in the world.

Taking a nuanced approach is all the more important since the most powerful of our rivals, China, does not require the countries it courts to choose its model of government as a prerequisite to partnership. Unlike Moscow during the Cold War, which actively sought to export the communist ideology, Beijing is perfectly willing to work with regimes of all stripes in order to advance its economic and political goals in the world. While the communist regime in China is built around an ideology, Chinese foreign policy is opportunistic. Its approach has been on display over the last few years in Europe, where China has worked to cement commercial and technological relationships with the very democratic states that make up the heart of the U.S. alliance system. And the method is paying off; to highlight one example: Even as the United States’ European allies have reduced energy reliance on Russia during the Ukraine war, they have quietly increased dependency on Chinese components and raw materials necessary to promote a transition to “green” technologies.

The Need to Pursue a Dual Track

Faced with such opponents, the United States should pursue a dual track. With democratic allies in Europe and Asia, and in international fora, we should emphasize the principles that set the West apart from our adversaries and articulate a competing vision for a world that is free and open. But in parallel, in other regions we should be pragmatic and stay focused on the shared aim of common security against the local revisionist. That does not mean abandoning who we are or what we stand for as a nation. But it does mean not making democracy-promotion the main focus of our relationships and as Walter Russell Mead put it, not taking the approach of “lecture more, and when that fails, use sanctions.” Instead, we should play the long game and compete for positive influence. In practice, that means looking for military, commercial and other forms of cooperation that increase mutual security and prosperity while enhancing our image as a reliable partner. The model should be U.S. diplomacy in contested regions during the Cold War, when we engaged with nondemocratic states like Spain and Greece on security while building political and economic influence that avoided the mistake of estranging key partners to the rival bloc while equipping the West to prevail in the broader struggle.

Even as it pursues this bifurcated approach, the United States should look for opportunities to maintain the moral high ground against its foes. The barbarism on display in the Hamas attacks, in Russian atrocities in Bucha, and Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs is a natural outworking of their repressive forms of government. Those atrocities are not just intrinsically appalling from a moral standpoint; they also represent a competitive disadvantage for our rivals, in that they showcase the very real human downsides of their vision for the world — downsides that we should highlight with all of our partners.

In all of this, the United States should be animated by a real sense of urgency, given the imminent and growing perils of the current international situation. Not since the 1940s has the country faced such a dangerous moment. In this setting, alliances and partners are a major strategic advantage for the United States. China, Russia and Iran all share the distinction of possessing few allies. Against these aggressive, autocratic and revisionist states, we should look for as many friends as we can get and build our cooperation with other countries on the basis of what we have most in common with each other.

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