American diplomacy is “embarrassed about what it does best”, says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times: “realpolitik”. Washington “cut moral corners” in the Cold War to fight communism, supporting monarchists in the Greek civil war, and autocrats in South Korea and Latin America. But like his predecessors, Joe Biden likes to pretend this isn’t the American way. He initially made a big deal of refusing to speak to the autocratic Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman – even while sending his country the Patriot antimissile system.
Why the pretence? At best, it sets an “impossible moral bar” that earns the US a reputation for hypocrisy. At worst, it makes what China is offering developing countries – “economic patronage without moral strings” – ever more tempting. If the US is going to be a leader in the Ukraine crisis, it needs to be pragmatic: this is not a fight against “autocracy”, it’s against one “specific aggressor”. In fact, the support of more-or-less autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey is crucial in opposing Vladimir Putin. Just as in the Cold War, the West will need to be ruthless in distinguishing between ends and means. “It is a game for which the US has some talent, whether or not it can bring itself to say so.”