Top U.S. diplomats got into a public spat with Chinese officials during recent talks at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Alaska. Their arguments over human rights, cyberattacks, and economic coercion came at the Biden administration’s first high-level meeting with China, an authoritarian Leviathan Biden himself calls American democracy’s “most serious competitor” in the world. The new American president says he wants “extreme competition,” and strategic cooperation, with China, not conflict—all while seeking to “lower the temperature” of U.S. domestic politics after the chronic heat of the Trump years. But Biden has been using contentious rhetoric with Beijing and Moscow, not least in recently calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer.” So, what’s driving the Biden administration’s early antagonistic style with these authoritarian states?

According to Robert Wright—the American journalist, author of the Nonzero Newsletter, and self-described “progressive realist” critic of American foreign policy—Biden’s goal of fighting authoritarianism globally “may be the closest thing to a unifying paradigm” for the administration’s foreign policy. Biden recently said nations around the world are facing a choice between “autocracy or democracy,” adding, “We’ve got to prove democracy works.” But Wright believes the United States’ approach to these problems won’t work as intended and may even “come at great cost to humankind,” further dividing the world and inhibiting international cooperation on problems that demand global solutions.

Graham Vyse: You’re a critic of America’s foreign-policy establishment, which Obama advisor Ben Rhodes once derisively called “the Blob.” You even write a feature called “The Week in Blob,” which you’ve described as a “weekly summary of foreign policy news and the nefarious doings of America’s foreign policy establishment.” What is the Blob, and what does it have to do with the Biden administration’s foreign policy?

Robert Wright: The Blob occupies the range of opinion that stands a chance of being represented in any kind of conventional Republican or Democratic administration. If you’re somebody in Washington who stands a chance of getting appointed to a top, influential position in a Bush, Obama, or Biden administration, you’re part of the Blob.

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