leonard86_U.S. Department of Defense via Getty Images_balloon U.S. Department of Defense via Getty Images

Mob Diplomacy

To understand today’s geopolitical ructions, one must look beyond major powers’ governments and top strategists. As the recent Chinese balloon saga showed, public opinion is increasingly in the driver’s seat, and it is steering international relations away from open, honest dialogue.

MUNICH – Is sound, forward-looking foreign policy still possible? Talking to the statesmen, diplomats, intelligence operatives, and scholars gathered at the Munich Security Conference last week, I had my doubts.

Consider US-China relations. It was only a month ago that China’s vice premier, Liu He, gave a conciliatory speech that some observers saw as part of a charm offensive aimed at the West. After that, many hoped that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s previously planned trip to China this month would reduce tensions further, building on Liu’s own recent meeting with Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden’s tête-à-tête in Bali in November.

It is precisely because they are leaning into a souped-up competition that both sides seemed eager to put a ceiling on their rivalry, recognizing that more frequent contact is needed to guard against misunderstandings or accidental escalations. But then came the great Chinese balloon chase, which ended any notions of détente. As the large dirigible drifted across the United States, the Biden administration tried to hold its nerve; but public opinion soon exerted itself on national-security decision-making.

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