A key reason for Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, to visit Taiwan last week (and before that Ukraine) is her determination to expand the contours of her legacy to include dealing with America's major foreign policy rivals, Russia and China. Her primary motivation, however, is linked to her loyalty to the governing Democratic Party and her determination to prop up Joe Biden's presidency.
We may, thus, soon see Ms Pelosi land in Tehran to pave the way for a grand deal between her country and Iran. But in that case, she will need to avoid boasting about "democracy standing up to autocracy". After all, an agreement with Tehran would be a deal with the ultimate autocratic regime.
Ms Pelosi’s incentive isn't just challenging what the US deems to be autocracies running Russia and China. Sure, landing in Taiwan angered Beijing and raised concerns of military escalation. And sure, American strategic interests were key considerations for the Speaker. But was her trip really to pre-empt China's feared invasion of the island, or to draw Beijing into a trap?
Neither reason seems compelling. Rather, the visit had the flavour of political manoeuvring.
The obsessive media and public attention given to the trip had caused a stir in the financial markets, but the fundamental misreading of the situation may have been the main reason for this. From the outset, there have been no indications of a strategic US decision to begin a standoff with China. Logic also suggests the visit would not have taken place had there not been a minimum level of understanding about it between Mr Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the two leaders having spoken on the phone for nearly two hours on July 28 – less than a week before Ms Pelosi's trip.
So far, the visit appears to have served both leaders' agendas, for it has allowed them to reassert their traditional positions in an expedient political dress rehearsal. It can be seen as a step to shore up Mr Biden's credibility as well as that of the Democratic Party on foreign policy issues, without paying a high cost in the short term. It certainly enabled Mr Xi to reassert Beijing’s "red lines" on Taiwan, including its categorical rejection of the island's independence as part of its One China principle, yet without being dragged into a military confrontation that Beijing wants to avoid. Certain sections of China's elite are pushing for a confrontation with the US, and they see Ms Pelosi’s visit as a provocation requiring a response beyond military exercises. But Mr Xi is resisting these voices, opting for a restrained approach.
That doesn’t mean accidents or missteps can be ruled out. The cross-Strait issue is now bigger than both countries' leaderships. In the Chinese political system, moreover, the Communist Party collectively makes decisions.
So far, the co-existence between democracies and autocracies – as subjective as both terms are – has trumped the ideological struggle between them.
The West’s battle with Russia, for instance, is not a confrontation between two political systems, despite Ms Pelosi and others framing it as such. It is essentially a battle between the Nato military alliance and Moscow. Likewise, in its supposed ideological battle with China, the US is actually more worried about the Asian power’s rise, which Washington sees as a threat to its global primacy. Successive US administrations have, thus, resolved to contain this rise. No doubt, the ideological battle is hugely influential, but it is not the basis of their rivalry.
Iran is another example of the duplicity in America's "democracy versus autocracy" articulation.
Even though it is run by an autocratic regime (and an ideologically expansionist one), neither Mr Biden nor Ms Pelosi would have any problem securing a nuclear agreement with Iran without challenging the regime on its regional record or ideology. Indeed, there is little room for Ms Pelosi to raise the "defence of democracy against autocracy" banner in this context, for the Democratic administration would be doing the opposite: empowering an autocratic regime.
The party will insist that a deal with Tehran serves US interests, defuses a potential nuclear standoff, and avoids military confrontation that the American people do not want. However, it is just as duty-bound to acknowledge that lifting economic sanctions – a condition set by the Iranian regime in the nuclear negotiations – would provide Tehran with the resources it needs to spread its autocratic ideology across the Middle East.
The Iranian regime recently indicated that it is willing to give up its demand that the US remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its terror list. This suggests it is seeking a formula to conclude a nuclear deal. It has determined that there are creative ways to untie the knot around the IRGC, which is indispensable to the regime’s domestic and foreign policies, for it has no qualms about outsmarting western democracies while benefiting from their capitalist features.
Immaterial of how the talks pan out, the time has probably come for US administrations to stop claiming that the wars they have waged in their recent history have been primarily to serve their ideological purposes. Such duplicity has and will continue to cost America, no matter the benefits to its military-industrial complex.