Revisiting Foreign Policy’s ‘The Ghost of Blinken Past’
Continuing the Trump administration’s approach, the Biden White House sees a priority in reducing Europe’s energy reliance on Russia. However, many NATO members relentlessly indulge in energy supplies expedited by the Kremlin. Despite repeated pleas from its American partners, Germany is spearheading the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is expected to dramatically increase Russian energy sales to the rest of the continent at the expense of both Ukraine and the recipients’ own energy security.
In December 2020, a Foreign Policy article titled “The Ghost of Blinken Past” introduced a book Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, had written in 1987. In Ally Versus Ally: America, Europe, and the Siberian Pipeline Crisis, Blinken argued that the Transatlantic Alliance was showing serious cracks: “more generally, a new climate of isolationism is in the air—a belief that Europe is becoming less relevant” while Western Europe hoped to import natural gas from the Siberian gas fields that the then-Soviet Union was just starting to develop. The Reagan administration feared that the Siberian pipeline would fund the USSR’s military build-up, while Europe sought engagement with the Eastern bloc. While calling European dreams of transforming the Kremlin “wishful thinking,” Blinken contended that the “U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union was less important than that towards its European allies”; containment depended on the durability of the alliance.
Given his previous remarks and positions, Blinken is expected to put more emphasis on alliance maintenance than adversary containment. Such priority is promising but could repeat the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” which manifestly demonstrated the danger of not being assertive when one needs to be.
Forging a synergetic geoeconomic policy posture through voluntary contribution is ideal. However, responsible hegemony aiming to maintain the existing liberal order requires that the superpower applies adequate pressure on its own allies when necessary. In 1987, there was little significant economic interaction across the Iron Curtain. In 2021, there are more than a few precedents of authoritarian regimes blackmailing American allies by weaponizing economic dependence. In 1987, the Soviet Union was primarily focused on defending its sphere of influence. In 2021, Vladimir Putin aspires to aggressively regain precisely those lost zones. In 1987, NATO’s European members were largely united in the organization’s purpose and direction. In 2021, profound division puts certain NATO members – particularly former Warsaw Pact and Baltic states – at risk more than others, incentivizing irresponsible moral hazards such as Nord Stream 2. If censuring Nord Stream 2 infuriates Germany, how would Poland and Slovakia receive its accommodation?
The U.S. should employ its booming shale gas industry as a way to decrease European energy reliance on Russia. A growing domestic shale industry should not only accelerate domestic growth but also help revitalize the post-pandemic global economy, as it presents an opportunity to strengthen and refurbish the liberal order. The Biden administration should encourage ramping up shale sales to its European partners.
More broadly, America’s impending energy independence should be an impetus for global engagement rather than a rationale for retrenchment. The U.S. should reconsider retreating from the Middle East, particularly the Gulf where U.S. allies’ energy supplies depend on the regional security environment. After the killing of Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, President Trump publicly wondered why American navies are still patrolling the Persian Gulf when the U.S. is nearing energy independence. However, it is precisely such independence that grants the U.S. the latitude to put more options on the table. Furthermore, America’s European and East Asian allies highly depend on those energy routes.
A Persian Gulf absent of U.S. engagement will push European allies closer to Russia to secure energy supplies. While U.S. allies can and should supplement the American Navy’s supremacy in the waters, Washington’s role as the beacon of free navigation is indispensable. The case for sustained leadership in energy supplies should be resounding in the context of great power competition.
Washington could also proactively support a diversified energy portfolio. The Israel-Cyprus-Greece EastMed gas pipeline, still in its early stage, would allow energy supplies to flow from Greece to Italy and the rest of Europe. The Trump administration and the U.S. Senate’s approach to lowering European energy dependence on Russia almost entirely focused on punishing entities involved in Nord Stream 2 construction. President Biden should be willing and ready to work with allies to construct long-term alternatives.
The global economy and trade are more intertwined with security than ever. Listening to more of the allies’ concerns is critical, but the Biden administration will ultimately have to carefully design proper incentives and disincentives to arrange truly synergetic postures. The administration needs to be vocal of its support for NATO’s collective security, conceding to some of its European allies’ complaints and concerns. This includes potentially scaling back demands for more military spending or increasing military presence in major areas of contest such as the Baltics or the Mediterranean. However, the U.S. should carefully manage an issue as fundamental as Nord Stream 2 that challenges the very foundation of mutual defense and responsibility.