Alfred W. McCoy – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 17 Oct 2022 02:06:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.8 The New Cold War Heats Up Asia: China and the U.S. Face an Unprecedented Crisis https://www.juancole.com/2022/10/heats-unprecedented-crisis.html Mon, 17 Oct 2022 04:04:31 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=207624 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – If the world is indeed entering a new Cold War, it bears little resemblance to the final years of that global conflict with its frequent summits between smiling leaders and its arms agreements aimed at de-escalating nuclear tensions. Instead, the world today seems more like the perilous first decade of that old Cold War, marked by bloody regional conflicts, threats of nuclear strikes, and the constant risk of superpower confrontation.

While world leaders debate the Ukraine crisis at the United Nations and news flashes from that battle zone become a part of our daily lives, the most dramatic and dangerous changes may be occurring at the other end of Eurasia, from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. There, Beijing and Washington are forming rival coalitions as they maneuver over a possible war focused on the island of Taiwan and for dominance over a vast region that’s home to more than half of humanity.

And yet, despite the obvious dangers of another war, the crises there are little more than a distraction from a far more serious challenge facing humanity. With so many mesmerized by the conflict in Ukraine and the possibility of another over Taiwan, world leaders largely ignore the rising threat of climate change. It seems to matter little that, in recent months, we’ve been given unnerving previews of what’s to come. “Geopolitical divides are undermining… all forms of international cooperation,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told world leaders at the General Assembly last month. “We cannot go on like this. Trust is crumbling, inequalities are exploding, our planet is burning.”

To take in the full import of such an undiplomatic warning from the planet’s senior diplomat, think of geopolitical conflict and climate change as two storm fronts — one a fast-moving thunderstorm, the other a slower tropical depression — whose convergence might well produce a cataclysm of unprecedented destructive power.

The Geopolitics of the Old Cold War

Although the rival power blocs in this new Cold War across Eurasia resemble those of the 1950s, there are subtle differences that make the current balance of power less stable and potentially more prone to armed conflict.

Right after China’s communists captured Beijing in October 1949, their leader Mao Zedong forged a close alliance with the boss of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, that shook the world. With those two communist states dominating much of the vast Eurasian land mass, the Cold War was suddenly transformed from a regional into a global conflict.

In 1950, when that new communist alliance launched a meat-grinder war against the West on the Korean peninsula, Washington scrambled for a strategy to contain the spread of communist influence beyond an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across Eurasia. In January 1951, the National Security Council (NSC) compiled a top secret report warning that “the United States is now in a war of survival,” which it was in danger of losing. Were actual combat to erupt in Europe, the 10 active U.S. army divisions there could be crushed by the Soviet Union’s 175 divisions. So, the NSC recommended that Washington increase its reliance on “strategic air power” to deliver its expanding “atomic stockpile.” In addition, it suggested Washington should match its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commitment by building a “position of strength in the Far East, thus obtaining an active strategic base against Russia in the event of general war with the Soviets.”

With surprising speed, American diplomats implemented that strategy, signing treaties and mutual-defense pacts meant to encircle Eurasia with rings of steel, especially in the form of new air bases. After transforming the just-formed NATO into an expressly military alliance, Washington quickly negotiated five bilateral defense pacts along the edge of Asia with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia. To bolster that continent’s long southern flank, the Western alliance then forged two mutual-defense pacts: METO (the Middle East Treaty Organization) and SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization). To complete its 360° encirclement of Eurasia, the U.S. formed NORAD (the North American Aerospace Command) with Canada, deploying a massive armada of missiles, bombers, and early-warning radar to check any future Soviet attacks across the Arctic.

Within a decade, the U.S. had constructed an aerial empire, subsuming the sovereignty of the dozens of allied nations and allowing U.S. Air Force jet fighters to fly their skies as if they were their own. This imperium of the clouds would be tethered to the earth by hundreds of U.S. air bases, home to 580 behemoth B-52 bombers, 4,500 jet fighters, and an armada of missiles that, by 1960, allowed the Air Force to claim nearly half the Pentagon’s swelling budget.

Although this defense architecture rested on the threat of thermonuclear war, it introduced a surprising element of geopolitical stability to the superpower confrontation of that era. As a start, it stretched Soviet defenses thin along a 12,000-mile frontier and so, strangely enough, reduced the threat that a single, concentrated point of confrontation could escalate into an atomic war. Indeed, during the 45 years of the Cold War, there would be just four moments when nuclear war threatened, all quickly defused: the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958, the Berlin crisis of 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the Able Archer NATO exercise of 1983. With the Soviets effectively confined, Washington could inflict a maximum cost at a minimum price whenever its rival tried to break out of its geopolitical isolation, first with moderate success in Cuba and Angola and then with devastating effect in Afghanistan, precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. and China Face Off

Some 30 years after that Cold War ended, however, strategic gaps have appeared in Washington’s encirclement of Eurasia, particularly along the continent’s southern flank. Among other things, its strong Cold War era position in the Middle East has weakened considerably. Once subordinated allies have become increasingly independent of Washington’s writ — notably, Turkey (forming an “axis of good” with Russia and Iran), Egypt (purchasing $2 billion in Russian jet fighters), and even Saudi Arabia (doing major oil deals with Moscow). Meanwhile, despite a trillion-dollar, decade-plus U.S. intervention there, Iraq is collapsing into failed-state status, while moving ever closer to Iran.

The most significant gap was, however, opened by Washington’s chaotic withdrawal from its disastrous 20-year war in Afghanistan, which critics quickly branded “Biden’s Afghan Blunder.” Yet that decision was more strategic than it first appeared. China had already been consolidating its dominance in Central Asia through multibillion-dollar development deals with nations around Afghanistan, like Pakistan, and even before that collapse in Kabul, geopolitical strangulation had forced the U.S. military to send any air support for its ground forces there on a 2,000-mile round-trip flight from the Persian Gulf. Now, a full year later, with the U.S. military facing serious challenges in both Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait, that once-controversial withdrawal seems almost strategically prescient.


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At the western end of Eurasia, President Biden’s calibrated response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only repaired the damage done to NATO by Donald Trump’s attacks on the alliance but fostered a trans-Atlantic solidarity not seen since the coldest days of the Cold War. Apart from the joint effort to arm and train Ukraine’s military, there has been a fundamental, long-term shift in Europe’s energy imports with profound geopolitical implications. After the European Union (EU) reacted to Vladimir Putin’s invasion by banning imports of Russian coal and oil, while Moscow cut critical natural gas from its pipelines, the U.S. helped fill the breach by shipping 60% of its swelling natural gas exports to Europe.

To handle those fast-rising imports, the EU is spending countless billions on a crash program to build costly terminals for Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). To replace the 118 million tons of natural gas imported from Russia annually before the war, the EU is scrambling to double its current array of two-dozen LNG terminals, while simultaneously negotiating long-term contracts with producers in America, Australia, and Qatar to construct costly liquification plants (like the $25-billion Driftwood project now underway in Louisiana). With stunning speed, such massive investments at both ends of the energy supply chain are ensuring that Europe’s economic ties to Russia will never again be as significant.

At the eastern end of Eurasia, on the other hand, an ongoing dangerous stand-off with China over Taiwan is complicating Washington’s efforts to rebuild its Cold War strategic bastion in the Pacific. Last October, Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted that the “historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled,” while, in May, President Biden announced his intention “to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan.” During her controversial August visit to that island, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated, “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan… remains ironclad.” As China’s jets flood that island’s airspace and American warships steam defiantly through the Taiwan Strait, both powers have launched pell-mell naval construction programs. The U.S. Navy is aiming to have at least 321 manned vessels, while China, with the world’s largest shipbuilding capacity, plans a battle force of 425 ships by 2030.

In recent years, China has relentlessly expanded across Asia economically, while building the world’s largest trading bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. In the future, Beijing may even have the means to slowly draw some of America’s allies into its sphere of influence. While Japan still sees the U.S. commitment to Taiwan as part of its own defense and South Korea has shed its usual ambiguity to issue a joint statement about “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” other Asian allies like Australia and the Philippines have taken a more ambiguous position.

Should China launch an invasion of Taiwan — which, warns that island’s foreign minister, might well happen next year — the price of involvement for the U.S. could prove prohibitive. In a series of war game scenarios proposed by a Washington think tank last August, intervention to save Taiwan could cost the U.S. Navy at least 79% of its forces, meaning something like two aircraft carriers, dozens of surface ships, and hundreds of aircraft.

The increasing unreliability of some of Washington’s allies is amply evident along Eurasia’s southern tier. As part of its ongoing strategic realignment, in 2017 Washington ended its 50-year alliance with Pakistan via a Trump tweet condemning Islamabad’s “lies and deceit.” Following Tokyo’s lead, Washington then forged a naval-oriented entente called the “Quad” with three other Asia-Pacific democracies — Australia, India, and Japan.

India is clearly the keystone in this loose alliance by virtue of its strategic position and its growing navy of 150 warships, including nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier now under construction. Yet New Delhi’s ad hoc alliance with those kindred democracies is proving ambiguous at best. It has indeed hosted most of the Quad’s annual joint naval maneuvers aimed at checking China in the Indian Ocean. However, it has also joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a key instrument for advancing Beijing’s Eurasian ambitions. Indeed, it was at that organization’s meeting in Uzbekistan last month that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly rebuked Vladimir Putin over his Ukraine invasion.

Countering the American array of alliances, China is — through its naval expansion and economic development initiatives — challenging Washington’s once-dominant position in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. Through its trillion-dollar infrastructure investments, Beijing is laying a steel grid of rails, roads, and pipelines across the breadth of Eurasia, matched by a string of 40 commercial ports it’s built or bought that now ring the coasts of Africa and Europe.

Already possessing the world’s largest (if not most powerful) navy, Beijing’s busy dockyards are constantly launching new warships and nuclear submarines. It also recently built its first major aircraft carrier. Moreover, it already has the second largest space network with more than 500 orbital satellites, while achieving a breakthrough in quantum cryptography by sending unhackable “entangled photon” messages more than 1,200 kilometers.

Reflecting its sharpening technological edge, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, China has developed sophisticated cyber and anti-satellite tactics to “counter a U.S. intervention during a regional military conflict.” And in July 2021, it conducted the world’s first “fractional orbital launch” of a hypersonic missile that circled the globe at an unstoppable speed of 3,800 miles per hour before striking within 24 miles of its target — ample accuracy for the nuclear payload it could someday carry. In short, the only certainty in any future U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan would be unparalleled destruction as well as an unimaginable disruption of the global economy that would make the fighting in Ukraine seem like a border skirmish.

Environmental Cataclysm

And yet, stunningly enough, that’s not the worst news for Asia or the rest of the planet. The fast-building climate crisis poses a far greater threat. Last February, when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, Secretary-General António Guterres called it “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

In just a decade or two, when global warming reaches 1.5° Celsius, storms and drought will ravage farmlands in even more devastating ways than at present, while reefs that protect coasts will decline by up to 90%, and the population exposed to coastal flooding will increase by at least 20%. The cumulative changes are, in fact, mounting so rapidly, the U.N. warned, that they could soon overwhelm the capacity of humanity and nature to adapt, potentially yielding a planet that might, sooner or later, prove relatively uninhabitable.

In the six months following the release of that doomsday report, weather disasters erupting in Asia would give frightening weight to those dire words. In Pakistan, annual monsoon rains, turbocharged by warming seas, unleashed unprecedented floods that covered an unparalleled one-third of the country, displacing 33 million people and killing 1,700. Those waters ravaging its agricultural heartland are not even expected to fully recede for another six months.

While Pakistan is drowning, neighboring Afghanistan is suffering a prolonged drought that has brought six million people to the brink of famine, while scorching the country’s eastern provinces with wildfires. Similarly, in India, temperatures this summer averaged 109° to 115° Fahrenheit in 15 provinces and remained at that intolerable level in some cities for a record 27 days.

This summer, China similarly experienced staggering weather extremes, as the country’s worst recorded drought turned stretches of the great Yangtze River into mudflats, hydropower failures shuttered factories, and temperatures hit record highs. In other parts of the country, however, heavy floods unleashed lethal landslides and rivers ran so high that they changed course. By 2050, the north China plain, now home to 400 million people, is expected to experience killer heatwaves and, by century’s end, could suffer weather extremes that would make it uninhabitable.

With world leaders now absorbed in military rivalries at both ends of Eurasia, once-promising international cooperation over climate change has virtually ceased. Only recently, in fact, China “suspended” all climate talks with the U.S. even though, as of 2020, those two powers were responsible for 44% of the world’s total carbon emissions.

Last November, just four months before the Ukraine war started, the two countries issued an historic declaration at the U.N.’s Glasgow Climate Change Conference recognizing the “urgency of the climate crisis” and stating that they were “committed to tackling it through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s…to avoid catastrophic impacts.” To honor that commitment, China agreed to “phase down” (but not “phase out”) its reliance on coal starting in 2025, just as the U.S. promised “to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035″ — neither exactly a dream response to the crisis. Now, with no climate communication at all, things look grim indeed.

Not surprisingly, the collision of those geopolitical and environmental tempests represents a mindboggling threat to the planet’s future, giving the very idea of a cold war turning into a hot war new meaning. Even if Beijing and Washington were to somehow avert armed conflict over Taiwan, the chill in their diplomatic relations is crippling the world’s already weak capacity to meet the challenge of climate change. Instead of the “win-win” that was the basis for effective U.S.-China relations for nearly 30 years, the world is faced with circumstances that can only be called “lose-lose” — or worse.

Copyright 2022 Alfred W. McCoy

Via Tomdispatch.com

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What Difference Does a War Make? The Geopolitics of the New Cold War https://www.juancole.com/2022/06/what-difference-geopolitics.html Wed, 22 Jun 2022 04:02:09 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=205336 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – From his first days in office, Joe Biden and his national security advisers seemed determined to revive America’s fading global leadership via the strategy they knew best — challenging the “revisionist powers” Russia and China with a Cold War-style aggressiveness. When it came to Beijing, the president combined the policy initiatives of his predecessors, pursuing Barack Obama’s “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, while continuing Donald Trump’s trade war with China. In the process, Biden revived the kind of bipartisan foreign policy not seen in Washington since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Writing in the December 2021 Foreign Affairs, a group of famously disputatious diplomatic historians agreed on one thing: “Today, China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war.” Just weeks later, the present mimed the past in ways that went well beyond even that pessimistic assessment as Russia began massing 190,000 troops on the border of Ukraine. Soon, Russian President Vladimir Putin would join China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing where they would demand that the West “abandon the ideologized approaches of the Cold War” by curtailing both NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and similar security pacts in the Pacific.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine loomed in late February, the New York Times reported that Putin was trying “to revise the outcome of the original Cold War, even if it is at the cost of deepening a new one.” And days later, as Russian tanks began entering Ukraine, the New York Times published an editorial headlined, “Mr. Putin Launches a Sequel to the Cold War.” The Wall Street Journal seconded that view, concluding that recent “developments reflect a new cold war that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have initiated against the West.”

Instead of simply accepting that mainstream consensus, it couldn’t be more important right now to explore that Cold War analogy and gain a fuller understanding of how that tragic past does (and doesn’t) resonate with our embattled present.

The Geopolitics of Cold Wars

There are indeed a number of parallels between our Cold Wars, old and new. Some 70 years ago, in January 1950, Mao Zedong, the head of a Chinese People’s Republic ravaged by long years of war and revolution, met Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Moscow as a supplicant. He was seeking a treaty of alliance and friendship that would provide much-needed aid for his fledgling communist state.

Within months, Stalin played upon this brand-new alliance by persuading Mao to send troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War, where China soon began hemorrhaging money and manpower. Until his death in 1953, Stalin kept the U.S. military bogged down in Korea, as he sought “an advantage in the global balance of power.” With Washington focused on war in Asia, Stalin consolidated his grip on seven “satellite states” in Eastern Europe — but at a cost. In those years, a newly created NATO would be transformed into a genuine military alliance, as 16 nations dispatched troops to Korea.


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Last February, in a reversal of Cold War roles, Putin arrived at that Beijing summit as a supplicant, desperately seeking Chinese President Xi Jinping’s diplomatic support for his Ukrainian gambit. Proclaiming their relations “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” the two leaders asserted that their entente had “no limits… no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

Soon after, the Russian president would invade Ukraine, while ominously putting his nuclear forces on high alert, a warning to the West not to meddle in his war. In a clear parallel to the old Cold War, nuclear weapons are far too dangerous for a direct superpower conflict to break out, so the U.S. and its NATO allies chose surrogate warfare in Ukraine. Just as the Soviet Union once armed North Vietnam with surface-to-air missiles and tanks to bloody the U.S. military, so Washington now began supplying Kyiv with high-tech weaponry to damage the Russian army.

As Ukrainian defenders armed with U.S.- and NATO-supplied shoulder-fired missiles destroyed 2,500 of its armored vehicles, Russia would be forced to pull back from its bid to capture the Ukrainian capital and shift to a months-long slog to seize the Russian-speaking Donbas region near its own border. This effort has, in turn, sparked an artillery duel now fast approaching the sort of strategic stalemate not seen since the Korean War (a conflict that remains unresolved nearly 70 years later).

Beneath such surface similarities between the two eras, however, lies a crucial if elusive difference: geopolitics. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe, this is essentially a method for the management of empire. At the high tide of the British Empire in 1904, English geographer Halford Mackinder published an influential article arguing that Europe, Asia, and Africa weren’t, in fact, three separate continents but a unitary landmass he dubbed “the World-Island,” whose strategic pivot lay in the “heartland” of central Eurasia. Mackinder later boiled his thinking down to a memorable maxim: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

Apply Mackinder’s principles to the old Cold War and you can indeed see an underlying geopolitics that lends coherence to an otherwise disparate conflict spread across four decades and five continents. In the 500 years since European exploration first brought the continents into continuous contact, the rise of every major world power has required one thing above all: dominance over Eurasia, now home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. Those five centuries of imperial rivalry could be summarized, thanks to Mackinder, in a succinct geopolitical axiom: “The exercise of global hegemony requires control over Eurasia, and contestation over that vast continent thus determines the fate of empires and their world orders.”

By the time the Cold War ended in 1991, Washington had translated that axiom into a three-part geopolitical strategy to defeat the Soviet Union. First, it encircled Eurasia with military bases and mutual-defense pacts to contain Beijing and Moscow behind an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across that vast land mass. Second, the U.S. intervened, using either conventional force or CIA covert operations whenever the communists threatened to expand their power beyond that “curtain” — whether in Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, Washington aggressively defended its own hemisphere from communist influence of any sort, however homegrown — whether in Cuba, Central America, or Chile.

In a magisterial sweep through a millennium of Eurasian history, Oxford scholar John Darwin found that, after World War II, Washington achieved its “colossal imperium… on an unprecedented scale” by becoming the first power ever to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia.” Initially, Washington defended Eurasia’s western axis through the NATO defense pact signed with a dozen allies in April 1949, making the Cold War, at its outset, little more than a regional conflict over Eastern Europe.

In October 1949, however, communists surprised the world by capturing China. Moscow then forged a Sino-Soviet alliance that suddenly threatened to become the dominant force on the Eurasian land mass. In response, Washington moved quickly to counter that geopolitical challenge by forging four bilateral defense pacts, thereby developing a 5,000-mile chain of military bases along the Pacific littoral from Japan and South Korea all the way to Australia. By serving as the frontier for the defense of one continent (North America) and a springboard for its dominance of another (Eurasia), the Pacific littoral would become Washington’s key geopolitical fulcrum.

In the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet alliance would suddenly collapse into a bitter rivalry — a lucky break for Washington that left Moscow without a major ally anywhere in Eurasia. Reeling from their breach with Beijing, the Soviet leaders would spend several decades trying, unsuccessfully, to break out of their geopolitical isolation by expanding into Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, southern Africa, and, fatally, Afghanistan, catalyzing a succession of local conflicts that led to the deaths of some 20 million people between 1945 and 1990.

A New Geopolitical Balance

At the close of the Cold War, when the U.S. seemed to stand astride the globe like a Titan of Greek legend, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and a devotee of Mackinder’s geopolitical theory, warned that Washington should take care to avoid three pitfalls that could erode its global power. It must, he warned, preserve its strategic “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia through NATO; it must prevent “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along the Pacific littoral; and it must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” in the “middle space” of that vast landmass.

Now, skip three decades and, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO countries have worked with surprising unanimity to slap sanctions on Moscow, ship advanced weaponry to Kyiv, and even take in previously neutral Sweden and Finland as possible members. In this way, Washington seems to have forged a trans-Atlantic solidarity not seen since the Cold War and preserved, at least for now, Washington’s strategic “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia.

By his surprisingly blunt statement last month that the U.S. would “get involved militarily to defend Taiwan” (a key driver of the global economy through its mass production of sophisticated computer chips) and his warning that a possible Chinese attack there would be “similar to what happened in Ukraine,” President Biden has been trying to assert an ever stronger American military presence in the Pacific. China has, however, also been moving in that region, militarily, politically, and diplomatically, potentially winning over islands that were once an American preserve.

Whatever Washington has done to strengthen its “strategic perch” in Europe by rallying NATO and allies in the Pacific as well, it has clearly failed to meet Brzezinski’s critical third criteria for the preservation of its global power. Indeed, the rise of China as “an assertive single entity” in the pivotal “middle space” of Eurasia could potentially prove a fatal geopolitical blow to Washington’s global ambitions, the equivalent of the impact the Sino-Soviet split had on Moscow during the old Cold War.

As its foreign reserves reached an extraordinary $4 trillion in 2014, Beijing announced a trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meant to build an economic bloc encompassing the whole of Mackinder’s tri-continental world island. To overcome Eurasia’s vast distances, China quickly began constructing a steel grid of rails, roads, and gas pipelines that, when integrated with Russia’s networks, would reach across the continent. Within just five years, a World Bank study found that BRI transportation projects were boosting trade among 70 nations by up to 9.7% and lifting 32 million people out of poverty. By 2027, Beijing is expected to commit $1.3 trillion to this project, which would make it the largest investment in history — more than 10 times the foreign aid Washington allocated to its famed Marshall Plan that rebuilt a ravaged Europe after World War II.

To strengthen its regional influence and weaken the U.S. grip on the Pacific littoral, China has also used the BRI to court allies in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2020, in fact, it formed a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest trade pact with 15 Asia-Pacific nations representing 30% of global trade.

Taking a leaf out of Stalin’s geopolitical playbook, President Xi has much to gain from Vladimir Putin’s headstrong plunge into Ukraine. In the short term, Washington’s focus on Europe slows any serious strategic “pivot” to the Pacific, allowing Beijing to further consolidate its burgeoning commercial dominance there. By allying with Russia and so meeting its own food and energy needs, while maintaining ties to Europe through formal neutrality in the Ukraine war, Beijing could emerge, like Moscow after the Vietnam War, with its global influence markedly enhanced and the U.S. geopolitical position significantly weakened.

The Limits of Historical Analogy

However strong the geopolitical continuities between the two eras may be, history also spins skeins of discontinuity, making the past, at best, an imperfect guide to the present. During the 30 years after the Cold War ended, a relentless economic globalization has incorporated China as the world’s industrial workshop and Russia as a key provider of energy, minerals, and grains into the world economy.

As a result, despite recent sanctions, geopolitical “containment” of the sort once used against the old Soviet Union’s feeble command economy is no longer feasible. With the war already causing what the World Bank calls an “an enormous humanitarian crisis,” pressures are building for some way to reintegrate Russia into a global economy that is suffering badly from the ostracism of a country that ranks first in world wheat and fertilizer exports, second in gas production, and third in oil output.

By blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and advancing toward its main one, Odessa, Putin has disrupted grain exports from both Russia and Ukraine, which together provide almost one third of the world’s wheat and barley and so are critical to feeding the Middle East, as well as much of Africa. With the specter of mass starvation looming for some 270 million people and, as the U.N. recently warned, political instability growing in those volatile regions, the West will, sooner or later, have to reach some understanding with Russia.

Similarly, Europe’s escalating embargo of Russia’s natural gas and oil exports is proving profoundly disruptive to global energy markets, stoking inflation in the United States and sending fuel prices soaring on the continent. Already, Putin has successfully shifted much of his country’s oil and gas exports from Europe to China and India. Within months, the European Union’s embargo will likely hit a wall as Germany finds its premature closure of nuclear power plants has created an irresolvable dependence on Russian natural gas imports.

As the conflict in Ukraine becomes a protracted military stalemate, there are signs that both sides are reaching their war-making limit and may yet be forced to seek a diplomatic resolution. Even if the flow of heavy weapons from the West continues, Ukraine’s battered army can, at best, push Russia back to the territory it held before the start of current hostilities, perhaps leaving Moscow in control of Ukraine’s southeast, much or all of the Donbas region, and the Crimea.

In contrast to the Pentagon’s triumphalist rhetoric about using the war to render Russia’s military permanently “weakened,” French President Emmanuel Macron has made the sober suggestion that “we must not humiliate Russia so… we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.” Although controversial, that view may yet prevail. If so, there might well be a diplomatic agreement in which Ukraine swaps bits of territory for the acceptance of a neutral status akin to Austria’s, allowing it to join the European Union, but not NATO.

By attacking Ukraine and alienating Europe, Putin has suffered a serious but not necessarily fatal geopolitical blow. Blocked from expanding westward, he is now accelerating Russia’s “pivot to the East” and rapidly integrating its economy with China’s. In doing so, he’s likely to consolidate Beijing’s geopolitical dominance over the vast Eurasian land mass, the epicenter of global power, while the United States, wallowing in domestic chaos, suffers a distinctly non-Cold War-ish decline.

In this century as in the last one, the geopolitical struggle over Eurasia has proven to be a relentless affair, one that, in the years to come, will likely contribute both to Beijing’s rise and to the ongoing erosion of Washington’s once formidable global hegemony.

Copyright 2022 Alfred W. McCoy

Via Tomdispatch.com

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How to End the War in Ukraine: A Solution Beyond Sanctions https://www.juancole.com/2022/04/ukraine-solution-sanctions.html Wed, 20 Apr 2022 04:02:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=204177 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – As the war in Ukraine heads for its third month amid a rising toll of death and destruction, Washington and its European allies are scrambling, so far unsuccessfully, to end that devastating, globally disruptive conflict. Spurred by troubling images of executed Ukrainian civilians scattered in the streets of Bucha and ruined cities like Mariupol, they are already trying to use many tools in their diplomatic pouches to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to desist. These range from economic sanctions and trade embargoes to the confiscation of the assets of some of his oligarch cronies and the increasingly massive shipment of arms to Ukraine. Yet none of it seems to be working.

Even after Ukraine’s surprisingly strong defense forced a Russian retreat from the northern suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, Putin only appears to be doubling down with plans for new offensives in Ukraine’s south and east. Instead of engaging in serious negotiations, he’s been redeploying his battered troops for a second round of massive attacks led by General Alexander Dvonikov, “the butcher of Syria,” whose merciless air campaigns in that country flattened cities like Aleppo and Homs.

So while the world waits for the other combat boot to drop hard, it’s already worth considering where the West went wrong in its efforts to end this war, while exploring whether anything potentially effective is still available to slow the carnage.

Playing the China Card

In January 2021, only weeks after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Moscow began threatening to attack Ukraine unless Washington and its European allies agreed that Kyiv could never join NATO. That April, Putin only added force to his demand by dispatching 120,000 troops to Ukraine’s border to stage military maneuvers that Washington even then branded a “war threat.” In response, taking a leaf from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s tattered Cold War playbook, the Biden administration initially tried to play Beijing off against Moscow.

After a face-to-face summit with Putin in Geneva that June, President Biden affirmed Washington’s “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” In a pointed warning to the Russian president, he said,

“You got a multi-thousand-mile border with China… China is… seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world. You’re in a situation where your economy is struggling… I don’t think [you should be] looking for a Cold War with the United States.”

As Russian armored units began massing for war near the Ukrainian border that November, U.S. intelligence officials all-too-accurately leaked warnings that “the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive… involving up to 175,000 troops.” In response, over the next three months, administration officials scrambled to avert war by meeting a half-dozen times with Beijing’s top diplomats and beseeching “the Chinese to tell Russia not to invade.”

In a video conference on December 7th, Biden told Putin of his “deep concerns… about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine,” warning that “the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation.”

In a more amicable video conference just a week later, however, Putin assured China’s President Xi Jinping that he would defy any human-rights boycott by Western leaders and come to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. Calling him his “old friend,” Xi replied that he appreciated this unwavering support and “firmly opposed attempts to drive a wedge into our two countries.” Indeed, during the February Olympics opening ceremony, the two of them publicly proclaimed a de facto alliance that had “no limits,” even as Beijing evidently made it clear that Russia should not spoil China’s glittering Olympic moment on the international stage with an invasion right then.

In retrospect, it’s hard to overstate the price Putin paid for China’s backing. So desperate was he to preserve their new alliance that he sacrificed his only chance for a quick victory over Ukraine. By the time Putin landed in Beijing on February 4th, 130,000 Russian troops had already massed on the Ukrainian border. Delaying an invasion until the Olympics ended left most of them huddled in unheated canvas tents for three more weeks. When the invasion finally began, idling vehicles had burned through much of their fuel, truck tires sitting without rotation were primed for blow-outs, and the rations and morale of many of those soldiers were exhausted.

In early February, the ground in Ukraine was still frozen, making it possible for Russia’s tanks to swarm overland, potentially encircling the capital, Kyiv, for a quick victory. Because the Olympics didn’t end until February 20th, Russia’s invasion, which began four days later, was ever closer to March, Ukraine’s mud month when average temperatures around Kyiv rise rapidly. Adding to Moscow’s difficulties, at 51 tons, its T-90 tanks were almost twice as heavy as the classic go-anywhere Soviet T-34s which won World War II. When those modern steel-clad behemoths did try to leave the roads near Kyiv, they often sank deep and fast in the mud, becoming sitting ducks for Ukrainian missiles.

Instead of surging across the countryside to envelop Kyiv, Russia’s tanks found themselves stuck in a 40-mile traffic jam on a paved highway where Ukrainian defenders armed with shoulder-fired missiles could destroy them with relative ease. Being enveloped by the enemy instead of enveloping them cost the Russian army most of its losses to date — estimated recently at 40,000 troops killed, wounded, or captured, along with 2,540 armored vehicles and 440 rocket and artillery systems destroyed. As those crippling losses mounted, Russia’s army was forced to abandon its five-week campaign to capture the capital. On April 2nd, the retreat began, leaving behind a dismal trail of burned vehicles, dead soldiers, and slaughtered civilians.

In the end, Vladimir Putin paid a high price indeed for China’s support.

President Xi’s foreknowledge of the plans to invade Ukraine and his seemingly steadfast support even after so many weeks of lackluster military performance raise some revealing parallels with the alliance between Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, and China’s Mao Zedong in the early days of the Cold War. After Stalin’s pressure on Western Europe was blocked by the Berlin airlift of 1948-1949 and the formation of NATO in April 1950, the Soviet boss made a deft geopolitical pivot to Asia. He played upon his brand-new alliance with a headstrong Mao by getting him to send Chinese troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War. For three years, until his death in 1953 allowed an armistice to be reached, Stalin kept the U.S. military bogged down and bloodied in Korea, freeing him to consolidate his control over Eastern Europe.

Following this same geopolitical strategy, President Xi has much to gain from Putin’s headstrong plunge into Ukraine. In the short term, Washington’s focus on Europe postpones a promised (and long-delayed) U.S. “pivot” to the Pacific, allowing Beijing to further consolidate its position in Asia. Meanwhile, as Putin’s military flattens cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol, making Russia an outlaw state, a mendicant Moscow is likely to become a cut-rate source of much-needed Chinese fuel and food imports. Not only does Beijing need Russia’s gas to wean its economy from coal but, as the world’s largest consumer of wheat, it could achieve food security with a lock on Russia’s massive grain exports. Just as Stalin capitalized on Mao’s stalemate in Korea, so the elusive dynamics of Eurasian geopolitics could well transform Putin’s losses into Xi’s gains.

For all these reasons, Washington’s initial strategy had little chance of restraining Russia’s invasion. As retired CIA analyst Raymond McGovern argued, drawing on his 27 years studying the Soviet Union for the agency, “Rapprochement between Russia and China has grown to entente.” In his view, the sooner Biden’s foreign-policy team “get it through their ivy-mantled brains that driving a wedge between Russia and China is not going to happen, the better the chances the world can survive the fallout (figurative and literal) from the war in Ukraine.”

Sanctions

Since the Russian invasion began, the Western alliance has been ramping up an array of sanctions to punish Putin’s cronies and cripple Russia’s economic capacity to continue the war. In addition, Washington has already committed $2.4 billion for arms shipments to Ukraine, including lethal antitank weapons like the shoulder-fired Javelin missile.

On April 6th, the White House announced that the U.S. and its allies had imposed “the most impactful, coordinated, and wide-ranging economic restrictions in history,” banning new investments in Russia and hampering the operations of its major banks and state enterprises. The Biden administration expects the sanctions to shrink Russia’s gross domestic product by 15% as inflation surges, supply chains collapse, and 600 foreign companies exit the country, leaving it in “economic, financial, and technological isolation.” With near unanimous bipartisan support, Congress has also voted to void U.S. trade relations with Moscow and ban its oil imports (measures with minimal impact since Russia only supplies 2% of American petroleum use).

Although the Kremlin’s invasion threatened European security, Brussels moved far more cautiously, since Russia supplies 40% of the European Union’s gas and 25% of its oil — worth $108 billion in payments to Moscow in 2021. For decades, Germany has built massive pipelines to handle Russia’s gas exports, culminating in the 2011 opening of Nordstream I, the world’s longest undersea pipeline, which Chancellor Angela Merkel then hailed as a “milestone in energy cooperation” and the “basis of a reliable partnership” between Europe and Russia.


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With its critical energy infrastructure bound to Russia by pipe, rail, and ship, Germany, the continent’s economic giant, is dependent on Moscow for 32% of its natural gas, 34% of its oil, and 53% of its hard coal. After a month of foot-dragging, it did go along with the European decision to punish Putin by cutting off Russian coal shipments, but drew the line at tampering with its gas imports, which heat half its homes and power much of its industry.

To reduce its dependence on Russian gas, Berlin has launched multiple long-term projects to diversify its energy sources, while cancelling the opening of the new $11 billion Nordstream II gas pipeline from Russia. It has also asserted control over its own energy reserves, held inside massive underground caverns, suspending their management by the Russian state firm Gazprom. (As Berlin’s Economy Minister Robert Habeck put it, “We won’t leave energy infrastructure subject to arbitrary decisions by the Kremlin.”)

Right after the Ukraine invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a crash program to construct the country’s first Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals on its north coast to unload supplies from American ships and those of various Middle Eastern countries. Simultaneously, German officials flew off to the Persian Gulf to negotiate more long-term deliveries of LNG. Still, the construction of such a multibillion-dollar terminal typically takes about four years, and Germany’s vice-chancellor has made it clear that, until then, massive imports of Russian gas will continue in order to preserve the country’s “social peace.” The European Union is considering plans to cut off Russian oil imports completely, but its proposal to slash Russian natural-gas imports by two-thirds by year’s end has already met stiff opposition from Germany’s finance ministry and its influential labor unions, worried about losses of “hundreds of thousands” of jobs.

Given all the exemptions, sanctions have so far failed to fatally cripple Russia’s economy or curtail its invasion of Ukraine. At first, the U.S. and EU restrictions did spark a crash in Russia’s currency, the ruble, which President Biden mockingly called “the rubble,” but its value has since bounced back to pre-invasion levels, while broader economic damage has, so far, proved limited. “As long as Russia can continue to sell oil and gas,” observed Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson International Economics Institute, “the Russian government’s financial situation is actually pretty strong.” And he concluded, “This is the big escape clause of the sanctions.”

In short, the West has seized a few yachts from Putin’s cronies, stopped serving Big Macs in Red Square, and slapped sanctions on everything except the one thing that really matters. With Russia supplying 40% of its gas and collecting an estimated $850 million daily, Europe is, in effect, funding its own invasion.

Reparations

Following the failure of both Washington’s pressure on China and Western sanctions against Russia to stop the war, the international courts have become the sole peaceful means left to still the conflict. While the law often remains an effective means to mediate conflict domestically, the critical question of enforcing judgements has long robbed the international courts of their promise for promoting peace — a problem painfully evident in Ukraine today.

Even as the fighting rages, two major international courts have already ruled against Russia’s invasion, issuing orders for Moscow to cease and desist its military operations. On March 16th, the U.N.’s highest tribunal, the International Court of Justice, ordered Russia to immediately suspend all military operations in Ukraine, a judgment Putin has simply ignored. Theoretically, that high court could now require Moscow to pay reparations, but Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could simply veto that decision.

With surprising speed, on day five of the invasion, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) at Strasbourg ruled in the case of Ukraine v. Russia (X), ordering the Kremlin “to refrain from military attacks against civilians and civilian objects, including residential premises, emergency vehicles and… schools and hospitals” — a clear directive that Moscow’s military continues to defy with its devastating rocket and artillery strikes. To enforce the decision, the court notified the Council of Europe, which, two weeks later, took the most extreme step its statutes allow, expelling Russia after 26 years of membership. With that not-terribly-painful step, the European Court seems to have exhausted its powers of enforcement.

But matters need not end there. The Court is also responsible for enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights, which reads in part: “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.” Under that provision, the ECHR could order Russia to pay Ukraine compensation for the war damage it’s causing. Unfortunately, as Ivan Lishchyna, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice, points out: “There is no international police or international military force that can support any international court judgment.”

As it happens, though, there is a blindingly obvious path to payment. Just as a U.S. municipal court can garnish the wages of a deadbeat dad who won’t pay child support, so the European Court of Human Rights could garnish the gas income of the world’s ultimate deadbeat dad, Vladimir Putin. In its first five weeks, Putin’s war of choice inflicted an estimated $68 billion dollars of damage on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure (its homes, airports, hospitals, and schools), along with other losses worth about $600 billion or three times that country’s total gross domestic product.

But how would Ukraine collect such a sum from Russia? Any Ukrainian party that has suffered damage — whether individuals, cities, or the entire nation — could petition the European Court of Human Rights to enforce its judgement in Ukraine v. Russia (X) by awarding damages. The Court could then instruct the Council of Europe to direct all European corporations buying gas from Gazprom, the Russian state monopoly, to deduct, say, 20% from their regular payments for a Ukraine compensation fund. Since Europe is now paying Gazprom about $850 million daily, such a court-ordered deduction, would allow Putin to pay off his initial $600 billion war-damage debt over the next eight years. As long as his invasion continued, however, those sums would only increase in a potentially crippling fashion.

Though Putin would undoubtedly froth and fulminate, in the end, he would have little choice but to accept such deductions or watch the Russian economy collapse from the lack of gas, oil, or coal revenues. Last month, when he rammed legislation through his parliament requiring Europe’s gas payments in rubles, not euros, Germany refused, despite the threat of a gas embargo. Faced with the loss of such critical revenues sustaining his economy, a chastened Putin called Chancellor Scholz to capitulate.

With billions invested in pipelines leading one-way to Europe, Russia’s petro-dependent economy would have to absorb that war-damage deduction of 20% — possibly more, if the devastation worsened — or face certain economic collapse from the complete loss of those critical energy exports. That might, sooner or later, force the Russian president to end his war in Ukraine. From a pragmatic perspective, that 20% deduction would be a four-way win. It would punish Putin, rebuild Ukraine, avoid a European recession caused by banning Russian gas, and prevent environmental damage from firing up Germany’s coal-fueled power plants.

Paying for Peace

Back in the day of anti-Vietnam War rallies in the United States and nuclear-freeze marches in Europe, crowds of young protesters would sing John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s hope-filled refrain, even though they were aware of just how hopeless it was even as the words left their lips: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” But now, after weeks of trial and error over Ukraine, the world just might have a chance to make the aggressor in a terrible war at least begin to pay a price for bringing such devastating conflict back to Europe.

Perhaps it’s time to finally deliver a bill to Vladimir Putin for a foreign policy that has involved little more than flattening one hapless city after another — from Aleppo and Homs in Syria to Chernihiv, Karkhiv, Kherson, Kramatorsk, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, and undoubtedly more to come in Ukraine. Once the world’s courts establish such a precedent in Ukraine v. Russia (X), would-be strongmen might have to think twice before invading another country, knowing that wars of choice now come with a prohibitive price tag.

Copyright 2022 Alfred W. McCoy

Via Tomdispatch.com

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The New Eurasian Wars on our Endangered Planet https://www.juancole.com/2022/03/eurasian-endangered-planet.html Fri, 11 Mar 2022 05:02:20 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=203422 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Just as the relentless grinding of the earth’s tectonic plates produces earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so the endless superpower struggle for dominance over Eurasia is fraught with tensions and armed conflict. Beneath the visible outbreak of war in Ukraine and the U.S.-Chinese naval standoff in the South China Sea, there is now an underlying shift in geopolitical power in process across the vast Eurasian landmass — the epicenter of global power on a fast-changing, overheating planet. Take a moment to step back with me to try to understand what’s now happening on this increasingly embattled globe of ours.

If geology explains the earth’s eruptions, geopolitics is the tool we need to grasp the deeper meaning of the devastating war in Ukraine and the events that led to this crisis. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, geopolitics is essentially a method for the management of empire through the use of geography (air, land, and sea) to maximize military and economic advantage. Unlike conventional nations, whose peoples can be readily mobilized for self-defense, empires are, by dint of their extraterritorial reach and the perils inherent in any foreign military deployment, a surprisingly fragile form of government. To give an empire a fighting chance of survival against formidable odds requires a resilient geopolitical architecture.

For nearly 100 years, the geopolitical theories of an obscure Victorian geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, have had a profound influence on a succession of leaders who sought to build or break empires in Eurasia — including Adolf Hitler, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and, most recently, Vladimir Putin. In an academic essay published in 1904, when the Trans-Siberian Railway was completing its 5,700-mile crawl from Moscow to Vladivostok, Mackinder argued that future rails would knit Eurasia into a unitary landmass that, along with Africa, he dubbed the tri-continental “world island.” When that day came, Russia, in alliance with another land power like Germany — and, in our time, we might add China — could expand across Eurasia’s endless central “heartland,” allowing, he predicted, “the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight.”

As the Versailles Peace Conference opened in 1919 at the end of World War I, Mackinder turned that seminal essay into a memorable maxim about the relationship between East European regions like Ukraine, the Central Asian heartland, and global power. “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,” he wrote. “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

At the core of recent conflicts at both ends of Eurasia is an entente between China and Russia that the world hasn’t seen since the Sino-Soviet alliance at the start of the Cold War. To grasp the import of this development, let’s freeze frame two key moments in world history — Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s Moscow meeting with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in December 1949 and Vladimir Putin’s summit in Beijing with Xi Jinping just last month.

To avoid facile comparisons, the historical context for each of those meetings must be kept in mind. When Mao came to Moscow just weeks after proclaiming the People’s Republic in October 1949, China had been ravaged by a nine-year war against Japan that killed 20 million people and a five-year civil war that left seven million more dead.

In contrast, having defeated Hitler, seized an empire in eastern Europe, rebuilt his socialist economy, and tested an atomic bomb, making the Soviet Union a superpower, Stalin was at the peak of his strength. In contrast to China’s army of ill-equipped infantry, the Soviet Union had a modern military with the world’s best tanks, jet fighters, and missiles. As the globe’s top communist, Stalin was “the boss” and Mao came to Moscow as essentially a supplicant.

When Mao Met Stalin

During his two-month trip to Moscow starting in December 1949, Mao sought desperately needed economic aid to rebuild his ravaged land and military support for the liberation of the island of Taiwan. In a seemingly euphoric telegram sent to his comrades in Beijing, Mao wrote:

“Arrived in Moscow on the 16th and met with Stalin for two hours at 10 p.m. His attitude was really sincere. The questions involved included the possibility of peace, the treaty, loan, Taiwan, and the publication of my selected works.”

But Stalin surprised Mao by refusing to give up the territorial concessions in northern China that Moscow had won at the 1945 Yalta conference, saying the issue couldn’t even be discussed until their subsequent meeting. For the next 17 days, Mao literally cooled his heels waiting during a freezing Moscow winter inside a drafty dacha where, as he later recalled, “I got so angry that I once pounded the table.”

Finally, on January 2, 1950, Mao cabled the communist leadership in Beijing:

“Our work here has achieved an important breakthrough in the past two days. Comrade Stalin has finally agreed to… sign a new Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.”

With Russia giving up its territorial claims in exchange for assurances about demilitarizing the long border between the two countries, their leaders signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in February 1950. It, in turn, sparked a sudden flow of Soviet aid to China whose new constitution hailed its “indestructible friendship” with the Soviet Union.

But Stalin had already planted the seeds for the Sino-Soviet split to come, embittering Mao, who later said Russians “have never had faith in the Chinese people and Stalin was among the worst.”

At first, the China alliance proved a major Cold War asset for Moscow. After all, it now had a useful Asian surrogate capable of dragging the U.S. into a costly conflict in Korea without the Soviets suffering any casualties at all. In October 1950, Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River into a Korean maelstrom that would drag on for three years and cost China 208,000 dead troops as well as 40% of its budget.

Following Stalin’s death in May 1953 and the Korean armistice two months later, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to repair relations by presiding over a massive, yet distinctly inequitable program of economic aid to China. However, he also refused to help that country build an atomic bomb. It would be a “huge waste,” he said, since China was safe under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. At the same time, he demanded the joint development of uranium mines Soviet scientists had discovered in southwest China.

Over the next four years, those initial nuclear tensions grew into an open Sino-Soviet split. In September 1959, Khrushchev visited Beijing for a disastrous seven-hour meeting with Mao. In 1962, Mao finally ended diplomatic relations entirely, blaming Moscow for failing to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. during that year’s Cuban missile crisis.

In October 1964, China’s successful test of a 22-kiloton nuclear bomb marked its arrival as a major player on the world stage. That bomb not only made it an independent world power but transformed the Sino-Soviet split from a war of words into a massive military confrontation. By 1968, the Soviet Union had 16 divisions, 1,200 jet aircraft, and 120 medium-range missiles arrayed along the Sino-Soviet border. Meanwhile, China was planning for a Soviet attack by building a nuclear-hardened “underground city” that spread for 30 square miles beneath Beijing.

Washington’s Cold War Strategy

More than any other event since World War II, the short-lived Sino-Soviet alliance changed the course of world history, transforming the Cold War from a regional power struggle over Eastern Europe into a volatile global conflict. Not only was China the world’s largest nation with 550 million people, or 20% of all humanity, but its new communist government was determined to reverse a half-century of imperialist exploitation and internal chaos that had crippled its international influence.

The rise of China and the conflict in Korea forced Washington to radically revise its strategy for fighting the Cold War. Instead of focusing on NATO and Europe to contain the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain, Washington now forged mutual defense pacts from Japan to Australia to secure the offshore Pacific littoral. For the past 70 years, that fortified island rim has been the fulcrum of Washington’s global power, allowing it to defend one continent (North America) while dominating another (Eurasia).

To tie those two axial ends of Eurasia into a strategic perimeter, Cold War Washington ringed the Eurasian continent’s southern rim with chains of steel -– including three navy fleets, hundreds of combat aircraft, and a string of mutual-defense pacts stretching from NATO in Europe to ANZUS in the South Pacific. It took a decade, but once Washington accepted that the Sino-Soviet split was the real thing, it belatedly began to cultivate an entente with Beijing that would leave the Soviet Union ever more geopolitically isolated, contributing to its ultimate implosion and the end of the Cold War in 1991.


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That left the U.S. as the world’s dominant power. Nonetheless, even without a near-peer rival on the planet, Washington refused to cash in its “peace dividend.” Instead, it maintained its chains of steel ringing Eurasia — including those three naval fleets and hundreds of military bases, while making multiple military forays into the Middle East (some disastrous) and even recently forming a new Quadrilateral alliance with Australia, India, and Japan in the Indian Ocean. For 15 years following Beijing’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001, a de facto economic alliance with China also allowed the U.S. sustained economic growth.

When Putin Met Xi

Last month, when Vladimir Putin met Xi Jinping in Beijing at the start of the Winter Olympics, it proved a stunning reversal of the Stalin-Mao moment 70 years earlier. While Russia’s post-Soviet economy remains smaller than Canada’s and overly dependent on petroleum exports, China has become the planet’s industrial powerhouse with the world’s largest economy (as measured in purchasing power) and 10 times the population of Russia. Moscow’s heavy-metal military still relies on Soviet-style tanks and its nuclear arsenal. China, on the other hand, has built the world’s largest navy, its most secure global satellite system, and its most agile missile armada, capped by cutting-edge hypersonic missiles whose 4,000 miles-per-hour speed can defeat any defense.

This time, therefore, it was the Russian leader who came to China’s capital as the supplicant. With Russian troops massing at Ukraine’s borders and U.S. economic sanctions looming, Putin desperately needed Beijing’s diplomatic backing. After years of cultivating China by offering shared petroleum and natural-gas pipelines and joint military maneuvers in the Pacific, Putin was now cashing in his political chips.

At their February 4th meeting, Putin and Xi drew on 37 prior encounters to proclaim nothing less than an ad-hoc alliance meant to shake the world. As the foundation for their new “global governance system,” they promised to “enhance transport infrastructure connectivity to keep logistics on the Eurasian continent smooth and… make steady progress on major oil and gas cooperation projects.” These words gained weight with the announcement that Russia would spend another $118 billion on new oil and gas pipelines to China. (Four-hundred billion dollars had already been invested in 2014 when Russia faced European sanctions over its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.) The result: an integrated Sino-Russian oil-and-gas infrastructure is being built from the North Sea to the South China Sea.

In a landmark 5,300-word statement, Xi and Putin proclaimed the “world is going through momentous changes,” creating a “redistribution of power” and “a growing demand for… leadership” (which Beijing and Moscow clearly intended to provide). After denouncing Washington’s ill-concealed “attempts at hegemony,” the two sides agreed to “oppose the… interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights.”

To build an alternative system for global economic growth in Eurasia, the leaders planned to merge Putin’s projected “Eurasian Economic Union” with Xi’s already ongoing trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to promote “greater interconnectedness between the Asia Pacific and Eurasian regions.” Proclaiming their relations “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” an oblique reference to the tense Mao-Stalin relationship, the two leaders asserted that their entente has “no limits… no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” On strategic issues, the two parties were adamantly opposed to the expansion of NATO, any move toward independence for Taiwan, and “color revolutions” such as the one that had ousted Moscow’s Ukrainian client in 2014.

Given the Ukraine invasion just three weeks later, Putin got what he so desperately needed. In exchange for feeding China’s voracious appetite for energy (on a planet already in a climate crisis of the first order), Putin got a condemnation of U.S. interference in “his” sphere. In addition, he won Beijing’s diplomatic support — however hesitant China’s leadership might actually be about events in Ukraine — once the invasion started. Although China has been Ukraine’s main trading partner since 2019, Beijing set aside those ties and its own advocacy of inviolable sovereignty to avoid calling Putin’s intervention an “invasion.”

A Planet Mackinder Would Hardly Recognize

In fact, even before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia and China were pursuing a strategy of ratcheting up slow, relentless pressure at both ends of Eurasia, hoping the U.S. chains of steel ringing that vast continent would sooner or later snap. Think of it as a strategy of push-push-punch.

For the past 15 years, Putin has been responding to NATO in just that manner. First, through surveillance and economic leverage, Moscow has tried to keep client states in its orbit, something Putin learned from his four years as a KGB agent working with East Germany’s Stasi secret police in the late 1980s. Next, if a favored autocrat is challenged by pro-democracy demonstrators or a regional rival, a few thousand Russian special forces are sent in to stabilize the situation. Should a client state try to escape Moscow’s orbit, however, Putin promptly moves to massive military intervention and the expropriation of buffer enclaves, as he did first in Georgia and now in Ukraine. Through this strategy, he may be well on his way to reclaiming significant parts of the old Soviet sphere of influence in East Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Due south of Moscow in the ever-volatile Caucasus Mountains, Putin crushed NATO’s brief flirtation with Georgia in 2008, thanks to a massive invasion and the expropriation of the provinces of North Ossetia and Abkhazia. After decades of fighting between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia recently sent in thousands of “peace-keeping” forces to resolve the conflict in favor of the loyal, pro-Moscow regime in Azerbaijan. Further east, when democratic protesters challenged Moscow’s local ally in Kazakhstan in January, thousands of Russian troops — under the rubric of Moscow’s version of NATO — flew into the former capital, Almaty, where they helped crush the protests, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

In the Middle East where Washington backed the ill-fated Arab spring rebels who tried to topple Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, Moscow operates a massive air base at Latakia in that country’s northwest from which it has bombed rebel cities like Aleppo to rubble, while serving as a strategic counterweight to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf.

But Moscow’s main push has been in Eastern Europe. There, Putin backed Belarus’s strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, in crushing the democratic opposition after he had rigged the 2020 elections, and so making Minsk a virtual client state. Meanwhile, he’s been pressing relentlessly against Ukraine since his loyal client there was ousted in the 2014 Maidan “color revolution.” First, he seized Crimea in 2014 and then he armed separatist rebels in that country’s eastern region adjacent to Russia. Last month, after proclaiming that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia,” Putin recognized the “independence” of those two separatist enclaves, much as he had done years before in Georgia.

On February 24th, the Russian president sent nearly 200,000 troops across the Ukraine’s borders to seize much of the country and its capital, Kyiv, as well as replace its feisty president with a pliable puppet. As international sanctions mounted and Europe considered providing Ukraine with jet fighters, Putin ominously put his nuclear forces on high alert to make it clear he would brook no interference with his invasion.

Meanwhile, at the eastern end of Eurasia, China has pursued a somewhat similar, if more subtle push-push strategy, with the punch yet to come. Starting in 2014, Beijing began dredging a half-dozen military bases from atolls in the South China Sea, slowly ramping up their role from fishing ports to full-fledged military bases that now challenge any passing U.S. naval patrol. Then came swarming fighter squadrons over the Taiwan Strait and East China Sea, followed, last October, by a joint Chinese-Russian fleet of 10 ships that steamed provocatively around Japan in what had previously been considered unchallenged U.S. waters.

If Xi follows Putin’s playbook, then all that push/push could indeed lead to a punch — possibly an invasion of Taiwan to reclaim lands Beijing sees as an integral part of China, much as Putin sees Ukraine as a former Russian imperial province that should never have been given away.

Should Beijing attack Taiwan, Washington might find itself hamstrung to do anything militarily except express admiration for the island’s heroic yet futile resistance. Should Washington send its aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straits, they would be sunk within hours by China’s formidable DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles or its unstoppable hypersonic ones. And once Taiwan was gone, Washington’s position on the Pacific littoral could be effectively broken and a retreat to the mid-Pacific preordained.

All of this looks possible on paper. However, in the grim reality of actual invasions and military clashes, amid the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, and on a planet that’s seen better days, the very nature of geopolitics is likely to be up for grabs. Yes, it’s possible that, if Washington is whipsawed between the eastern and western edges of Eurasia with periodic eruptions of armed combat from the Xi-Putin entente, its chains of steel could strain and finally snap, effectively evicting it from that strategic land mass.

As it happens, though, given a Sino-Russian alliance so heavily based on the trade in fossil fuels, even if Vladimir Putin doesn’t himself go down thanks to his potentially disastrous invasion of Ukraine, both Beijing and Moscow may find themselves whipsawed in the years to come by a troubled energy transition and climate change. The ghost of Sir Halford Mackinder might then point out to us not just that U.S. power will fade with the loss of Eurasia, but that so much other power may fade as well on an ever hotter, ever more endangered planet he couldn’t in his lifetime have truly imagined.

Copyright 2022 Alfred W. McCoy

Via Tomdispatch.com

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China is Rising as a Superpower by vastly Expanding Planet-Wrecking Fossil Fuels https://www.juancole.com/2022/02/superpower-expanding-wrecking.html Fri, 25 Feb 2022 05:02:52 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=203147 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Consider us at the edge of the sort of epochal change not seen for centuries, even millennia. By the middle of this century, we will be living under such radically altered circumstances that the present decade, the 2020s, will undoubtedly seem like another era entirely, akin perhaps to the Middle Ages. And I’m not talking about the future development of flying cars, cryogenics, or even as-yet-unimaginable versions of space travel.

After leading the world for the past 75 years, the United States is ever so fitfully losing its grip on global hegemony. As Washington’s power begins to fade, the liberal international system it created by founding the United Nations in 1945 is facing potentially fatal challenges.

After more than 180 years of Western global dominion, leadership is beginning to move from West to East, where Beijing is likely to become the epicenter of a new world order that could indeed rupture longstanding Western traditions of law and human rights.

More crucially, however, after two centuries of propelling the world economy to unprecedented prosperity, the use of fossil fuels — especially coal and oil — will undoubtedly fade away within the next couple of decades. Meanwhile, for the first time since the last Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago, thanks to the greenhouse gases those fossil fuels are emitting into the atmosphere, the world’s climate is changing in ways that will, by the middle of this century, start to render significant parts of the planet uninhabitable for a quarter, even possibly half, of humanity.

For the first time in 800,000 years, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has blown past earlier highs of 280 parts per million to reach 410 parts. That, in turn, is unleashing climate feedback loops that, by century’s end, if not well before, will aridify the globe’s middle latitudes, partly melt the polar ice caps, and raise sea levels drastically. (Don’t even think about a future Miami or Shanghai!)

In trying to imagine how such changes will affect an evolving world order, is it possible to chart the future with something better than mere guesswork? My own field, history, generally performs poorly when trying to track the past into the future, while social sciences like economics and political science are loath to project much beyond medium-term trends (say, the next recession or election). Uniquely among the disciplines, however, environmental science has developed diverse analytical tools for predicting the effects of climate change all the way to this century’s end.


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Those predictions have become so sophisticated that world leaders in finance, politics, and science are now beginning to think about how to reorganize whole societies and their economies to accommodate the projected disastrous upheavals to come. Yet surprisingly few of us have started to think about the likely impact of climate change upon global power. By combining political projections with already carefully plotted trajectories for climate change, it may, however, be possible to see something of the likely course of governance for the next half century or so.

To begin with the most immediate changes, social-science analysis has long predicted the end of U.S. global power. Using economic projections, the U.S. National Intelligence Council, for instance, stated that, by 2030, “Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power,” while “China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.” Using similar methods, the accounting firm PwC calculated that China’s economy would become 60% larger than that of the United States by 2030.

If climate science proves accurate, however, the hegemony Beijing could achieve by perhaps 2030 will last, at best, only a couple of decades or less before unchecked global warming ensures that the very concept of world dominance, as we’ve known it historically since the sixteenth century, may be relegated to a past age like so much else in our world.

Considering that likelihood as we peer dimly into the decades between 2030 and 2050 and beyond, the international community will surely have good reason to forge a new kind of world order — one made for a planet truly in danger and unlike any that has come before.

The Rise of Chinese Global Hegemony

China’s rise to world power could be considered not just the result of its own initiative but also of American inattention. While Washington was mired in endless wars in the Greater Middle East in the decade following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Beijing began using a trillion dollars of its swelling dollar reserves to build a tricontinental economic infrastructure it called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that would shake the foundations of Washington’s world order. Not only has this scheme already gone a long way toward incorporating much of Africa and Asia into Beijing’s version of the world economy, but it has simultaneously lifted many millions out of poverty.

During the early years of the Cold War, Washington funded the reconstruction of a ravaged Europe and the development of 100 new nations emerging from colonial rule. But as the Cold War ended in 1991, more than a third of humanity was still living in extreme poverty, abandoned by Washington’s then-reigning neo-liberal ideology that consigned social change to the whims of the free market. By 2018, nearly half the world’s population, or about 3.4 billion people, were simply struggling to survive on the equivalent of five dollars a day, creating a vast global constituency for Beijing’s economic leadership.

For China, social change began at home. Starting in the 1980s, the Communist Party presided over the transformation of an impoverished agricultural society into an urban industrial powerhouse. Propelled by the greatest mass migration in history, as millions moved from country to city, its economy grew nearly 10% annually for 40 years and lifted 800 million people out of poverty — the fastest sustained rate ever recorded by any country. Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2016 alone, its industrial output increased from $1.2 trillion to $3.2 trillion, leaving the U.S. in the dust at $2.2 trillion and making China the workshop of the world.

By the time Washington awoke to China’s challenge and tried to respond with what President Barack Obama called a “strategic pivot” to Asia, it was too late. With foreign reserves already at $4 trillion in 2014, Beijing launched its Belt and Road Initiative, while establishing an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with 56 member nations and an impressive $100 billion in capital. When a Belt and Road Forum of 29 world leaders convened in Beijing in May 2017, President Xi Jinping hailed the initiative as the “project of the century,” aimed both at promoting growth and improving “people’s well-being” through “poverty alleviation.” Indeed, two years later a World Bank study found that BRI transportation projects had already increased the gross domestic product in 55 recipient nations by a solid 3.4%.

Amid this flurry of flying dirt and flowing concrete, Beijing seems to have an underlying design for transcending the vast distances that have historically separated Asia from Europe. Its goal: to forge a unitary market that will soon cover the vast Eurasian land mass. This scheme will consolidate China’s control over a continent that is home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. In the end, it could also break the U.S. geopolitical grip over a region that has long been the core of, and key to, its global power. The foundation for such an ambitious transnational scheme is a monumental construction effort that, in just two decades, has already covered China and much of Central Asia with a massive triad of energy pipelines, high-speed rail lines, and highways.

To break that down, start with this: Beijing is building a transcontinental network of natural gas and oil pipelines that will, in alliance with Russia, extend for 6,000 miles from the North Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea.

For the second arm in that triad, Beijing has built the world’s largest high-speed rail system, with more than 15,000 miles already operational in 2018 and plans for a network of nearly 24,000 miles by 2025. All this, in turn, is just a partial step toward what’s expected to be a full-scale transcontinental rail system that started with the “Eurasian Land Bridge” track running from China through Kazakhstan to Europe. In addition to its transcontinental trunk lines, Beijing plans branch-lines heading due south toward Singapore, southwest through Pakistan, and then from Pakistan through Iran to Turkey.

To complete its transport triad, China has also constructed an impressive set of highways, representing (like those pipelines) a problematic continuation of Washington’s current petrol-powered world order. In 1990, that country lacked a single expressway. By 2017, it had built 87,000 miles of highways, nearly double the size of the U.S. interstate system. Even that breathtaking number can’t begin to capture the extraordinary engineering feats necessary — the tunneling through steep mountains, the spanning of wide rivers, the crossing of deep gorges on towering pillars, and the spinning of concrete webs around massive cities.

Simultaneously, China was also becoming the world’s largest auto manufacturer as the number of vehicles on its roads soared to 340 million in 2019, exceeding America’s 276 million. However, all of this impressive news is depressing news as well. After all, by clinging to coal production on a major scale, while reaching for a bigger slice of the world’s oil imports for its transportation triad, China’s greenhouse-gas emissions doubled from just 14% of the world’s total in 2000 to 30% in 2019, far surpassing that of the United States, previously the planet’s leading emitter. With only 150 vehicles per thousand people, compared to 850 in America, its auto industry still has ample growth potential — good news for its economy, but terrible news for the global climate (even if China remains in the forefront of the development and use of electric cars).

To power such headlong development, China has, in fact, raised its domestic coal production more than a thousand-fold, from just 32 million metric tons in 1949 to a mind-boggling record of 4.1 billion tons by 2021. Even if you take into account those massive natural-gas pipelines it is building, its enormous hydropower dams, and its world leadership in wind power, as of 2020 China still depended on coal for a startling 57% of its total energy use, even as its share of total global coal-fired power climbed relentlessly to a record 53%. In other words, nothing, it seems, can break that country’s leadership of its insatiable hunger for the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.

On the global stage, Beijing has been similarly obsessed with economic growth above all else. Despite its promises to curb greenhouse-gas emissions at recent U.N. climate conferences, China is still promoting coal-fired power at home and abroad. In 2020, the Institute of International Finance reported that 85% of all projects under Beijing’s BRI entailed high greenhouse-gas emissions, particularly the 63 coal-fired electrical plants the project was financing worldwide.

When the 2019 U.N. climate conference opened, China itself was actively constructing new coal-fueled electrical plants with a combined capacity of 121 gigawatts — substantially more than the 105 gigawatts being built by the rest of the world combined. By 2019, China was the largest single source of pollution on the planet, accounting for nearly one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was warning that such emissions were “putting billions of people at immediate risk.” With an impassioned urgency, he demanded “a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet” by banning all new coal-fired power plants and phasing them out of developed nations by 2030.

Together, the planet’s two great imperial powers, China and the United States, accounted for 44% of total CO2 emissions in 2019 and so far both have made painfully slow progress toward renewable energy. In a joint declaration at the November 2021 Glasgow climate conference, the U.S. agreed “to reach 100% carbon-pollution-free electricity by 2035,” while China promised to “phase down” (but note, not “phase out”) coal starting with its “15th Five-Year Plan.”

The U.S. commitment soon died a quiet death in Congress, where President Biden’s own party killed his green-energy initiative. Amid all the applause at Glasgow, nobody paid much attention to the fact that China’s next five-year plan doesn’t even start until 2026, just as President Xi Jinping’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2060 is a perfect formula for not averting the climate disaster that awaits us all.

In its hell-bent drive for development, in other words, China is digging its own grave (and ours as well).

Climate Catastrophe Circa 2050

Even if China were to become the preeminent world power around 2030, the accelerating pace of climate change will likely curtail its hegemony within decades. As global warming batters the country by mid-century, Beijing will be forced to retreat from its projection of global power to address urgent domestic concerns.

In 2017, scientists at the nonprofit group Climate Central calculated, for instance, that rising seas and storm surges could, by 2060 or 2070, flood areas inhabited by 275 million people worldwide, with Shanghai deemed “the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding.” In that sprawling metropolis, 17.5 million people are likely to be displaced as most of the city “could eventually be submerged in water, including much of the downtown area.”

Advancing the date of this disaster by at least a decade, a 2019 report on rising sea levels in Nature Communications found that 150 million people worldwide are now living on land that will be submerged by 2050 and Shanghai was, once again, found to be facing serious risk. There, rising waters “threaten to consume the heart” of the metropolis and its surrounding cities, crippling one of China’s main economic engines. Dredged from sea and swamp since the fifteenth century, much of that city is likely to return to the waters from whence it came in the next three decades.

Simultaneously, soaring temperatures are expected to devastate the North China Plain between Beijing and Shanghai, one of that country’s prime agricultural regions currently inhabited by 400 million people, nearly a third of that country’s population. It could, in fact, potentially become one of the most lethal places on the planet.

“This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future,” said Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a climate specialist at MIT who published his findings in the journal Nature Communications. Between 2070 and 2100, he estimates, the region could face hundreds of periods of “extreme danger” and perhaps five lethal periods of 35° Wet Bulb Temperature (where a combination of heat and high humidity prevents the evaporation of the sweat that cools the human body). After just six hours under such conditions, a healthy person at rest will die.

Rather than sudden and catastrophic, the impact of climate change in North China is likely to be incremental and cumulative, escalating relentlessly with each passing decade. If the “Chinese century” does indeed start around 2030, it’s unlikely to last long once its main financial center at Shanghai is flooded out and its agricultural heartland is baking in insufferable heat.

A Democratic World Order

After 2050, the international community will face a growing contradiction, even a head-on collision, between the two foundational principles of the current world order: national sovereignty and human rights. As long as nations have the sovereign right to seal their borders, the world will have no way of protecting the human rights of the 200 million to 1.2 billion climate-change refugees expected to be created by 2050, both within their own borders and beyond. Faced with such extreme disorder, it is just possible that the nations of this planet might agree to cede some small portion of their sovereignty to a global government set up to cope with the climate crisis.

To meet the extraordinary mid-century challenges to come, a supranational body like the U.N. would need sovereign authority over at least three significant priorities — emission controls, refugee resettlement, and environmental reconstruction. First, a reformed U.N. would need the power to compel nations to end their emissions if the transition to renewable energy is still not complete by, at the latest, 2050. Second, an empowered U.N. high commissioner for refugees would have to be authorized to supersede national sovereignty by requiring temperate northern countries to deal with the tidal flows of humanity from the tropical and subtropical regions most impacted and made least inhabitable by climate change. Finally, the voluntary transfer of funds like the $100 billion promised poor nations at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference would have to become mandatory to keep afflicted communities, and especially the world’s poor, relatively safe.

In the crisis to come, such initiatives would by their very nature change the idea of what constitutes a world order from the amorphous imperial ethos of the past five centuries to a new form of global governance. To exercise effective sovereignty over the global commons, the U.N. would have to enact some long overdue reforms, notably by creating an elective Security Council without either permanent members or the present great-power prerogative of unilaterally vetoing measures. Instead of superpower strength serving as the ultimate guarantor for U.N. decisions, a democratized Security Council could reach climate decisions by majority vote and enforce them through the moral authority, as well as the self-interest, of a more representative international body.

If a U.N. of this sort were indeed in existence by at least 2050, such a framework of democratic world governance could well be complemented by a globally decentralized system of energy. For five centuries now, energy and imperial hegemony have been deeply intertwined. In the transition to alternative energy, however, households will, sooner or later, be able to control their own solar power everywhere the sun shines, while communities will be able to supplement that variable source with a mix of wind turbines, biomass, hydro, and mini-reactors.

Just as the demands of petroleum production shaped the steep hierarchy of Washington’s world order, so decentralized access to energy could foster a more inclusive global governance. After five centuries of Iberian, British, American, and Chinese hegemony, it’s at least possible that humanity, even under the increasingly stressful conditions of climate change, could finally experience a more democratic world order.

The question, of course, is: How do we get from here to there? As in ages past, civil society will be critical to such changes. For the past five centuries, social reformers have struggled against powerful empires to advance the principle of human rights. In the sixteenth century, Dominican friars, then the embodiment of civil society, pressed the Spanish empire to recognize the humanity of Amerindians and end their enslavement. Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century activists lobbied diplomats drafting the U.N. charter to change it from a closed imperial club into the far more open organization we have today.

Just as reformers moderated the harshness of Spanish, British, and U.S. imperial hegemony, so, on a climate-pressured planet of an almost unimaginable sort, civil society will certainly play an essential role in finally putting in place the sort of limitations on national sovereignty (and imperial ambitions) that the U.N. will need to cope with our endangered world. Perhaps the key force in this change will be a growing environmental movement that, in the future, will expand its agenda from capping and radically reducing emissions to pressuring powers, including an increasingly devastated China, to reform the very structure of world governance.

A planet ever more battered by climate change, one in which neither an American nor a Chinese “century” will have any meaning, will certainly need a newly empowered world order that can supersede national sovereignty to protect the most fundamental and transcendent of all human rights: survival. The environmental changes in the offing are so profound that anything less than a new form of democratic global governance will mean not just incessant conflicts but, in all likelihood, disaster of an almost-unimaginable kind. And no surprise there, since we’ll be dealing with a planet all too literally on the brink.

Copyright 2022 Alfred W. McCoy

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Eurasia’s Ring of Fire: The Epic Struggle over the Epicenter of U.S. Global Power https://www.juancole.com/2022/01/eurasias-struggle-epicenter.html Mon, 17 Jan 2022 05:02:35 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=202457 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Throughout 2021, Americans were absorbed in arguments over mask mandates, school closings, and the meaning of the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Meanwhile, geopolitical hot spots were erupting across Eurasia, forming a veritable ring of fire around that vast land mass.

Let’s circle that continent to visit just a few of those flashpoints, each one suffused with significance for the future of U.S. global power.

On the border with Ukraine, 100,000 Russian troops were massing with tanks and rocket launchers, ready for a possible invasion. Meanwhile, Beijing signed a $400 billion agreement with Tehran to swap infrastructure-building for Iranian oil. Such an exchange might help make that country the future rail hub of Central Asia, while projecting China’s military power into the Persian Gulf. Just across the Iranian border in Afghanistan, Taliban guerrillas swept into Kabul ending a 20-year American occupation in a frantic flurry of shuttle flights for more than 100,000 defeated Afghan allies.

Farther east, high in the Himalayas, Indian Army engineers were digging tunnels and positioning artillery to fend off future clashes with China. In the Bay of Bengal, a dozen ships from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, led by the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson, were conducting live gunnery drills, practice for a possible future war with China.

Meanwhile, a succession of American naval vessels continually passed through the South China Sea, skirting Chinese island bases there and announcing that no protests from Beijing “will deter us.” Just to the north, U.S. destroyers, denounced by China, regularly sailed through the Strait of Taiwan; while some 80 Chinese jet fighters swarmed into that disputed island’s air security zone, a development Washington condemned as “provocative military activity.”

Around the coast of Japan, a flotilla of 10 Chinese and Russian warships steamed aggressively across waters once virtually owned by the U.S. Seventh Fleet. And in frigid Arctic oceans way to the north, thanks to the radical warming of the planet and receding sea ice, an expanding fleet of Chinese icebreakers maneuvered with their Russian counterparts to open a “polar silk road,” thereby possibly taking possession of the roof of the world.

While you could have read about almost all of this in the American media, sometimes in great detail, nobody here has tried to connect such transcontinental dots to uncover their deeper significance. Our nation’s leaders have visibly not done much better and there’s a reason for this. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe, both liberal and conservative political elites in the New York–Washington corridor of power have been on top of the world for so long that they can’t remember how they got there.

During the late 1940s, following a catastrophic world war that left some 70 million dead, Washington built a potent apparatus for global power, thanks significantly to its encirclement of Eurasia via both military bases and global trade. The U.S. also formed a new system of global governance, exemplified by the United Nations, that would not only assure its hegemony but also — or so the hope was then — foster an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.

Three generations later, however, as populism, nationalism, and anti-globalism roiled public discourse, surprisingly few in Washington bothered to defend their world order in a meaningful way. And fewer of them still had any real grasp of the geopolitics — that slippery mix of armaments, occupied lands, subordinated rulers, and logistics — that has been every imperial leader’s essential toolkit for the effective exercise of global power.

So, let’s do what our country’s foreign policy experts, in and out of government, haven’t and examine the latest developments in Eurasia through the prism of geopolitics and history. Do that and you’ll grasp just how they, and the deeper forces they represent, are harbingers of an epochal decline in American global power.

Eurasia as the Epicenter of Power on Planet Earth

In the 500 years since European exploration first brought the continents into continuous contact, the rise of every global hegemon has required one thing above all: dominance over Eurasia. Similarly, their decline has invariably been accompanied by a loss of control over that vast landmass. During the sixteenth century, the Iberian powers, Portugal and Spain, waged a joint struggle to control Eurasia’s maritime commerce by battling the powerful Ottoman empire, whose leader was then the caliph of Islam. In 1509, off the coast of northeast India, skilled Portuguese gunners destroyed a Muslim fleet with lethal broadsides, establishing that country’s century-long dominance over the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, the Spanish used the silver they had extracted from their new colonies in the Americas for a costly campaign to check Muslim expansion in the Mediterranean Sea. Its culmination: the destruction in 1571 of an Ottoman fleet of 278 ships at the epic Battle of Lepanto.


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Next in line, Great Britain’s dominion over the oceans began with an historic naval triumph over a combined French-Spanish fleet off Spain’s Cape Trafalgar in 1805 and only ended when, in 1942, a British garrison of 80,000 men surrendered their seemingly impregnable naval bastion at Singapore to the Japanese — a defeat Winston Churchill called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

Like all past imperial hegemons, U.S. global power has similarly rested on geopolitical dominance over Eurasia, now home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. After the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan failed to conquer that vast land mass, the Allied victory in World War II allowed Washington, as historian John Darwin put it, to build its “colossal imperium… on an unprecedented scale,” becoming the first power in history to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia.”

In the early 1950s, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong forged a Sino-Soviet alliance that threatened to dominate the continent. Washington, however, countered with a deft geopolitical gambit that, for the next 40 years, succeeded in “containing” those two powers behind an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across the vast Eurasian land mass.

As a critical first step, the U.S. formed the NATO alliance in 1949, establishing major military installations in Germany and naval bases in Italy to ensure control of the western side of Eurasia. After its defeat of Japan, as the new overlord of the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, Washington dictated the terms of four key mutual-defense pacts in the region with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia and so acquired a vast range of military bases along the Pacific littoral that would secure the eastern end of Eurasia. To tie the two axial ends of that vast land mass into a strategic perimeter, Washington ringed the continent’s southern rim with successive chains of steel, including three navy fleets, hundreds of combat aircraft, and most recently, a string of 60 drone bases stretching from Sicily to the Pacific island of Guam.

With the communist bloc bottled up behind the Iron Curtain, Washington then sat back and waited for its Cold War enemies to self-destruct — which they did. First, the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s shattered their hold on the Eurasian heartland. Then, the disastrous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s ravaged the Red Army and precipitated the break-up of the Soviet Union.

After those oh-so-strategic initial steps to capture the axial ends of Eurasia, however, Washington itself essentially stumbled through much of the rest of the Cold War with blunders like the Bay of Pigs catastrophe in Cuba and the disastrous Vietnam War in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, by the Cold War’s end in 1991, the U.S. military had become a global behemoth with 800 overseas bases, an air force of 1,763 jet fighters, more than a thousand ballistic missiles, and a navy of nearly 600 ships, including 15 nuclear carrier battle groups — all linked by the world’s only global system of communications satellites. For the next 20 years, Washington would enjoy what Trump-era Defense Secretary James Mattis called “uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain. We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, operate how we wanted.”

The Three Pillars of U.S. Global Power

In the late 1990s, at the absolute apex of U.S. global hegemony, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, far more astute as an armchair analyst than an actual practitioner of geopolitics, issued a stern warning about the three pillars of power necessary to preserve Washington’s global control. First, the U.S. must avoid the loss of its strategic European “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia. Next, it must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” across the continent’s massive “middle space” of Central Asia. And finally, it must prevent “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along the Pacific littoral.

Drunk on the heady elixir of limitless global power following the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington’s foreign-policy elites made increasingly dubious decisions that led to a rapid decline in their country’s dominance. In an act of supreme imperial hubris, born of the belief that they were triumphantly at the all-American “end of history,” Republican neoconservatives in President George W. Bush’s administration invaded and occupied first Afghanistan and then Iraq, convinced that they could remake the entire Greater Middle East, the cradle of Islamic civilization, in America’s secular, free-market image (with oil as their repayment). After an expenditure of nearly $2 trillion on operations in Iraq alone and nearly 4,598 American military deaths, all Washington left behind was the rubble of ruined cities, more than 200,000 Iraqi dead, and a government in Baghdad beholden to Iran. The official U.S. Army history of that war concluded that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.”

Meanwhile, China spent those same decades building industries that would make it the workshop of the world. In a major strategic miscalculation, Washington admitted Beijing to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, bizarrely confident that a compliant China, home to nearly 20% of humanity and historically the world’s most powerful nation, would somehow join the global economy without changing the balance of power. “Across the ideological spectrum,” as two former Obama administration officials later wrote, “we in the U.S. foreign policy community shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking.” A bit more bluntly, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster concluded that Washington had empowered “a nation whose leaders were determined not only to displace the United States in Asia, but also to promote a rival economic and governance model globally.”

During the 15 years after it joined the WTO, Beijing’s exports to the U.S. grew nearly fivefold to $462 billion while, by 2014, its foreign currency reserves surged from just $200 billion to an unprecedented $4 trillion, a vast treasure it used to launch its trillion-dollar “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), aimed at uniting Eurasia economically through newly built infrastructure. In the process, Beijing began a systematic demolition of Brzezinski’s three pillars of U.S. geopolitical power.

The First Pillar — Europe

Beijing has scored its most surprising success so far in Europe, long a key bastion of American global power. As part of a chain of 40 commercial ports it’s been building or rebuilding around Eurasia and Africa, Beijing has purchased major port facilities in Europe, including outright ownership of the Greek port of Piraeus and significant shares in those of Zeebrugge in Belgium, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Hamburg, Germany.

After a state visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019, Italy became the first G-7 member to officially join the BRI agreement, subsequently signing over a portion of its ports at Genoa and Trieste. Despite Washington’s strenuous objections, in 2020, the European Union and China also concluded a draft financial services agreement that, when finalized in 2023, will more fully integrate their banking systems.

While China is building ports, rails, roads, and powerplants across the continent, its Russian ally continues to dominate Europe’s energy market and is now just months away from opening its controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea, guaranteed to increase Moscow’s economic influence. As the massive pipeline project moved to completion last December, Russian President Putin intensified pressures on NATO with a roster of “extravagant” demands, including a formal guarantee that Ukraine not be admitted to the alliance, removal of all the military infrastructure installed in Eastern Europe since 1997, and a prohibition against future military activity in Central Asia.

In a power play not seen since Stalin and Mao joined forces in the 1950s, the alliance between Putin’s raw military force and Xi’s relentless economic pressure may indeed slowly be pulling Europe away from America. Complicating the U.S. position, Britain’s exit from the European Union cost Washington its most forceful advocate inside Brussels’ labyrinthine corridors of power.

And as Brussels and Washington grow apart, Beijing and Moscow only come closer. Through joint energy ventures, military maneuvers, and periodic summits, Putin and Xi are reprising the Stalin-Mao alliance, a strategic partnership at the heart of Eurasia that could, in the end, break Washington’s steel chains that have long stretched from Eastern Europe to the Pacific.

The Second Pillar — Central Asia

Under its bold BRI scheme to fuse Europe and Asia into a unitary Eurasian economic bloc, Beijing has crisscrossed Central Asia with a steel-ribbed cat’s cradle of railroads and oil pipelines, effectively toppling Brzezinski’s second pillar of geopolitical power — that the U.S. must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” in the continent’s vast “middle space.” When President Xi first announced the Belt and Road Initiative at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University in September 2013, he spoke expansively about “connecting the Pacific and the Baltic Sea,” while building “the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential.”

In the decade since, Beijing has put in place a bold design for transcending the vast distances that historically separated Asia and Europe. Starting in 2008, the China National Petroleum Corporation collaborated with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to launch a Central Asia-China gas pipeline that will eventually extend more than 4,000 miles. By 2025, in fact, there should be an integrated inland energy network, including Russia’s extensive grid of gas pipelines, reaching 6,000 miles from the Baltic to the Pacific.

The only real barrier to China’s bid to capture Eurasia’s vast “middle space” was the now-ended U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. To join Central Asia’s gas fields to the energy-hungry markets of South Asia, the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline was announced in 2018, but progress though the critical Afghan sector was slowed by the war there. In the months before it captured Kabul, however, Taliban diplomats turned up in Turkmenistan and China to offer assurances about the project’s future. Since then, the scheme has been revived, opening the way for Chinese investment that could complete its capture of Central Asia.

The Third Pillar — the Pacific Littoral

The most volatile flashpoint In Beijing’s grand strategy for breaking Washington’s geopolitical grip over Eurasia lies in the contested waters between China’s coast and the Pacific littoral, which the Chinese call “the first island chain.” By building a half-dozen island bases of its own in the South China Sea since 2014, swarming Taiwan and the East China Sea with repeated fighter plane forays, and staging joint maneuvers with Russia’s navy, Beijing has been conducting a relentless campaign to begin what Brzezinski called “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along that Pacific littoral.

As China’s economy grows larger and its naval forces do, too, the end of Washington’s decades-long dominion over that vast ocean expanse may be just over the horizon. For one thing, China may at some point achieve supremacy in certain critical military technologies, including super-secure “quantum entanglement” satellite communications and hypersonic missiles. Last October, the chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, called China’s recent launch of a hypersonic missile “very close” to “a Sputnik moment.” While U.S. tests of such weapons, which can fly faster than 4,000 m.p.h., have repeatedly failed, China successfully orbited a prototype whose speed and stealth trajectory suddenly make U.S. aircraft carriers significantly more difficult to defend.

But China’s clear advantage in any struggle over that first Pacific island chain is simply distance. A battle fleet of two U.S. supercarriers operating 5,000 miles from Pearl Harbor could deploy, at best, 150 jet fighters. In any conflict within 200 miles of China’s coast, Beijing could use up to 2,200 combat aircraft as well as DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles whose 900-mile range makes them, according to U.S. Navy sources, “a severe threat to the operations of U.S. and allied navies in the western Pacific.”

The tyranny of distance, in other words, means that the U.S. loss of that first island chain, along with its axial anchor on Eurasia’s Pacific littoral, should only be a matter of time.

In the years to come, as more such incidents erupt around Eurasia’s ring of fire, readers can insert them into their own geopolitical model — a useful, even essential, means for understanding a fast-changing world. And as you do that, just remember that history has never ended, while the U.S. position in it is being remade before our eyes.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Via Tomdispatch.com

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A Rise of average world Temperatures by 2.3° C. (4.2° F.) will degrade the quality of life in every country on Earth https://www.juancole.com/2021/12/average-temperatures-country.html Fri, 17 Dec 2021 05:02:57 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=201830 By Alfred McCoy | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – When midnight strikes on New Year’s Day of 2050, there will be little cause for celebration. There will, of course, be the usual toasts with fine wines in the climate-controlled compounds of the wealthy few. But for most of humanity, it’ll just be another day of adversity bordering on misery — a desperate struggle to find food, water, shelter, and safety.

In the previous decades, storm surges will have swept away coastal barriers erected at enormous cost and rising seas will have flooded the downtowns of major cities that once housed more than 100 million people. Relentless waves will pound shorelines around the world, putting villages, towns, and cities at risk.

As several hundred million climate-change refugees in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia fill leaky boats or trudge overland in a desperate search for food and shelter, affluent nations worldwide will be trying to shut their borders even tighter, pushing crowds back with tear gas and gunfire. Yet those reluctant host countries, including the United States, won’t faintly be immune from the pain. Every summer, in fact, ever more powerful hurricanes, propelled by climate change, will pummel the East and Gulf Coasts of this country, possibly even forcing the federal government to abandon Miami and New Orleans to the rising tides. Meanwhile, wildfires, already growing in size in 2021, will devastate vast stretches of the West, destroying thousands upon thousands of homes every summer and fall in an ever-expanding fire season.

And keep in mind that I can write all this now because such future widespread suffering won’t be caused by some unforeseen disaster to come but by an all-too-obvious, painfully predictable imbalance in the basic elements that sustain human life — air, earth, fire, and water. As average world temperatures rise by as much as 2.3° Celsius (4.2° Farenheit) by mid-century, climate change will degrade the quality of life in every country on Earth.

Climate Change in the Twenty-First Century

This dismal vision of life circa 2050 comes not from some flight of literary fantasy, but from published environmental science. Indeed, we can all see the troubling signs of global warming around us right now — worsening wildfires, ever more severe ocean storms, and increased coastal flooding.

While the world is focused on the fiery spectacle of wildfires destroying swaths of Australia, Brazil, California, and Canada, a far more serious threat is developing, only half-attended to, in the planet’s remote polar regions. Not only are the icecaps melting with frightening speed, already raising sea levels worldwide, but the vast Arctic permafrost is fast receding, releasing enormous stores of lethal greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

At that frozen frontier far beyond our ken or consciousness, ecological changes, brewing largely invisibly deep beneath the Arctic tundra, will accelerate global warming in ways sure to inflict untold future misery on all of us. More than any other place or problem, the thawing of the Arctic’s frozen earth, which covers vast parts of the roof of the world, will shape humanity’s fate for the rest of this century — destroying cities, devastating nations, and rupturing the current global order.

If, as I’ve suggested in my new book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, Washington’s world system is likely to fade by 2030, thanks to a mix of domestic decline and international rivalry, Beijing’s hypernationalist hegemony will, at best, have just a couple of decades of dominance before it, too, suffers the calamitous consequences of unchecked global warming. By 2050, as the seas submerge some of its major cities and heat begins to ravage its agricultural heartland, China will have no choice but to abandon whatever sort of global system it might have constructed. And so, as we peer dimly into the potentially catastrophic decades beyond 2050, the international community will have good reason to forge a new kind of world order unlike any that has come before.

The Impact of Global Warming at Midcentury

In assessing the likely course of climate change by 2050, one question is paramount: How quickly will we feel its impact?

For decades, scientists thought that climate change would arrive at what science writer Eugene Linden called a “stately pace.” In 1975, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences still felt that it would “take centuries for the climate to change in a meaningful way.” As late as 1990, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the Arctic permafrost, which stores both staggering amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, an even more dangerous greenhouse gas, was not yet melting and that the Antarctic ice sheets remained stable. In 1993, however, scientists began studying ice cores extracted from Greenland’s ice cap and found that there had been 25 “rapid climate change events” in the last glacial period thousands of years ago, showing that the “climate could change massively within a decade or two.”

Driven by a growing scientific consensus about the dangers facing humanity, representatives of 196 states met in 2015 in Paris, where they agreed to commit themselves to a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. This, they argued, would be sufficient to avoid the disastrous impacts sure to come at 2.0°C degrees or higher.

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However, the bright hopes of that Paris conference faded quickly. Within three years, the scientific community realized that the cascading effects of global warming reaching 1.5°C above preindustrial levels would be evident not in the distant future of 2100, but perhaps by 2040, impacting most adults alive today.

The medium-term effects of climate change will only be amplified by the uneven way the planet is warming, with a far heavier impact in the Arctic. According to a Washington Post analysis, by 2018 the world already had “hot spots” that had recorded an average rise of 2.0°C above the preindustrial norm. As the sun strikes tropical latitudes, huge columns of warm air rise and then are pushed toward the poles by greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere, until they drop down to earth at higher latitudes, creating spots with faster-rising temperatures in the Middle East, Western Europe, and, above all, the Arctic.

In a 2018 IPCC “doomsday report,” its scientists warned that even at just 1.5°C, temperature increases would be unevenly distributed globally and could possibly reach a devastating 4.5°C in the Arctic’s high altitudes, with profound consequences for the entire planet.

Climate-Change Cataclysm

Recent scientific research has found that, by 2050, the key drivers of major climate change will be feedback loops at both ends of the temperature spectrum. At the hotter end, in Africa, Australia, and the Amazon, warmer temperatures will spark ever more devastating forest fires, reducing tree cover, and releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. This, in turn (as is already happening), will fuel yet more fires and so create a monstrous self-reinforcing feedback loop that could decimate the great tropical rainforests of this planet.

The even more serious and uncontrollable driver, however, will be in the planet’s polar regions. There, an Arctic feedback loop is already gaining a self-sustaining momentum that could soon move beyond humanity’s capacity to control it. By midcentury (or before), as ice sheets continue to melt disastrously in Greenland and Antarctica, rising oceans will make extreme sea-level events, like once-in-a-century storm surges and flooding, annual occurrences in many areas. If global warming grows beyond the maximum 2°C target set by the Paris Agreement, depending on what happens to Antarctica’s ice sheets, ocean levels could increase by a staggering 43 inches as this century ends.

In fact, a “worst-case scenario” by the National Academies of Sciences projects a sea-level rise of as much as 20 inches by 2050 and 78 inches in 2100, with a “catastrophic” loss of 690,000 square miles of land, an expanse four times the size of California, displacing about 2.5% of the world’s population and inundating major cities like New York. Adding to such concerns, a recent study in Nature predicted that, by 2060, rain rather than snow could dominate parts of the Arctic, further accelerating ice loss and raising sea levels significantly. Moving that doomsday ever closer, recent satellite imagery reveals that the ice shelf holding back Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier could “shatter within three to five years,” quickly breaking that Florida-sized frozen mass into hundreds of icebergs and eventually resulting “in several feet of sea level rise” on its own.

Think of it this way: in the Arctic, ice is drama, but permafrost is death. The spectacle of melting polar ice sheets cascading into ocean waters is dramatic indeed. True mass death, however, lies in the murky, mysterious permafrost. That sloppy stew of decayed matter and frozen water from ice ages past covers 730,000 square miles of the Northern Hemisphere, can reach 2,300 feet below ground, and holds enough potentially releasable carbon and methane to melt the poles and inundate densely populated coastal plains worldwide. In turn, such emissions would only raise Arctic temperatures further, melt more permafrost (and ice), and so on, year after year after year. We’re talking, in other words, about a potentially devastating feedback loop that could increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere beyond the planet’s capacity to compensate.

According to a 2019 report in Nature, the vast zone of frozen earth that covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere is a sprawling storehouse for about 1.6 trillion metric tons of carbon — twice the amount already in the atmosphere. Current models “assume that permafrost thaws gradually from the surface downwards,” slowly releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But frozen soil also “physically holds the landscape together” and so its thawing can rip the surface open erratically, exposing ever-larger areas to the sun.

Around the Arctic Circle, there is already dramatic physical evidence of rapid change. Amid the vast permafrost that covers nearly two-thirds of Russia, one small Siberian town had temperatures that reached a historic 100 degrees Farenheit in June 2020, the highest ever recorded above the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, several peninsulas on the Arctic Sea have experienced methane eruptions that have produced craters up to 100 feet deep. Since rapid thawing releases more methane than gradual melting does and methane has 25 times more heating power than CO2, the “impacts of thawing permafrost on Earth’s climate,” suggests that 2019 report in Nature, “could be twice that expected from current models.”

To add a dangerous wild card to such an already staggering panorama of potential destruction, about 700,000 square miles of Siberia also contain a form of methane-rich permafrost called yedoma, which forms a layer of ice 30 to 260 feet deep. As rising temperatures melt that icy permafrost, expanding lakes (which now cover 30% of Siberia) will serve as even greater conduits for the release of such methane, which will bubble up from their melting bottoms to escape into the atmosphere.

New World Order?

Given the clear failure of the current world system to cope with climate change, the international community will, by mid-century, need to find new forms of collaboration to contain the damage. After all, the countries at the recent U.N. climate summit at Glasgow couldn’t even agree to “phase out” coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Instead, in their final “outcome document,” they opted for the phrase “phase down” — capitulating to China, which has no plans to even start reducing its coal combustion until 2025, and India, which recently postponed its goal of achieving net-carbon neutrality until an almost unimaginably distant 2070. Since those two countries account for 37% of all greenhouse gases now being released into the atmosphere, their procrastination courts climate disaster for humanity.

Who knows what new forms of global governance and cooperation will come into being in the years ahead, but simply to focus on an old one, here’s a possibility: to exercise effective sovereignty over the global commons, perhaps a genuinely reinforced United Nations could reform itself in major ways, including making the Security Council an elective body with no permanent members and ending the great-power prerogative of unilateral vetoes. Such a reformed and potentially more powerful organization could then agree to cede sovereignty over a few narrow yet critical areas of governance to protect the most fundamental of all human rights: survival.

Just as the Security Council can (at least theoretically) now punish a nation that crosses international borders with armed force, so a future U.N. could sanction in potentially meaningful ways a state that continued to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or refused to receive climate-change refugees. To save that human tide, estimated at between 200 million and 1.2 billion people by mid-century, some U.N. high commissioner would need the authority to enforce the mandatory resettlement of at least some of them. Moreover, the current voluntary transfer of climate reconstruction funds from the prosperous temperate zone to the poor tropics would need to become mandatory as well.

No one can predict with any certainty whether reforms like these and the power to change national behavior that would come with them will arrive in time to cap emissions and slow climate change, or too late (if at all) to do anything but manage a series of increasingly uncontrollable feedback loops. Yet without such change, the current world order will almost certainly collapse into catastrophic global disorder with dire consequences for all of us.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Via Tomdispatch.com

—-

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

BBC News: “Antarctic glacier heading for dramatic change as Arctic reaches new heat record – BBC News”

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Ours won’t be the new American Century or the Chinese Century but that of Catastrophic Climate Change https://www.juancole.com/2021/11/american-century-catastrophic.html Fri, 19 Nov 2021 05:02:17 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=201315 ( Tomdispatch.com) – When the leaders of more than 100 nations gathered in Glasgow for the U.N. climate conference last week, there was much discussion about the disastrous effect of climate change on the global environment. There was, however, little awareness of its likely political impact on the current world order that made such an international gathering possible.

World orders are deeply rooted global systems that structure relations among nations and the conditions of life for their peoples. For the past 600 years, as I’ve argued in my new book To Govern the Globe, it’s taken catastrophic events like war or plague to overturn such entrenched ways of life. But within a decade, climate change will already be wreaking a kind of cumulative devastation likely to surpass previous catastrophes, creating the perfect conditions for the eclipse of Washington’s liberal world order and the rise of Beijing’s decidedly illiberal one. In this sweeping imperial transition, global warming will undoubtedly be the catalyst for a witch’s brew of change guaranteed to erode both America’s world system and its once unchallenged hegemony (along with the military force that’s been behind it all these years).

By charting the course of climate change, it’s possible to draw a political road map for the rest of this tempestuous century — from the end of American global hegemony around 2030, through Beijing’s brief role as world leader (until perhaps 2050), all the way to this century’s closing decades of unparalleled environmental crisis. Those decades, in turn, may yet produce a new kind of world order focused, however late, on mitigating a global disaster of almost unimaginable power.

The Bipartisan Nature of U.S. Decline

America’s decline started at home as a distinctly bipartisan affair. After all, Washington wasted two decades in an extravagant fashion fighting costly conflicts in distant lands, in part to secure the Middle East’s oil at a time when that fuel was already destined to join cordwood and coal in the dustbin of history (though not faintly soon enough). Beijing, in contrast, used those same years to build industries that would make it the world’s workshop.

In 2001, in a major miscalculation, Washington admitted Beijing to the World Trade Organization, bizarrely confident that a compliant China would somehow join the world economy without challenging American global power. “Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community,” wrote two former members of the Obama administration, “shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking… All sides of the policy debate erred.”

A bit more bluntly, foreign policy expert John Mearsheimer recently concluded that “both Democratic and Republican administrations… promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order.”

In the 15 years since then, Beijing’s exports to the U.S. grew nearly fivefold to $462 billion annually. By 2014, its foreign currency reserves had surged from just $200 billion to an unprecedented $4 trillion — a vast hoard of cash it used to build a modern military and win allies across Eurasia and Africa. Meanwhile, Washington was wasting more than $8 trillion on profitless wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa in lieu of spending such funds domestically on infrastructure, innovation, or education — a time-tested formula for imperial decline.

When a Pentagon team assessing the war in Afghanistan interviewed Jeffrey Eggers, a former White House staffer and Navy SEAL veteran, he asked rhetorically: “What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth a trillion? After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.” (And keep in mind that the best estimate now is that the true cost to America of that lost war alone was $2.3 trillion.) Consider it an imperial lesson of the first order that the most extravagantly funded military on Earth has not won a war since the start of the twenty-first century.

Donald Trump’s presidency brought a growing realization, at home and abroad, that Washington’s world leadership was ending far sooner than anyone had imagined. For four years, Trump attacked long-standing U.S. alliances, while making an obvious effort to dismiss or demolish the international organizations that had been the hallmark of Washington’s world system. To top that off, he denounced a fair American election as “fraudulent” and sparked a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, functionally making a mockery of America’s long history of promoting the idea of democracy to legitimate its global leadership (even as it overthrew unfriendly democratic governments in distant lands via covert interventions).

In that riot’s aftermath, most of the Republican Party has embraced Trump’s demagoguery about electoral fraud as an article of faith. As it happens, no nation can exercise global leadership if one of its ruling parties descends into persistent irrationality, something Britain’s Conservative Party demonstrated all too clearly during that country’s imperial decline in the 1950s.


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After his inauguration last January, Joe Biden proclaimed that “America is back” and promised to revive its version of liberal international leadership. Mindful of Trump’s battering of NATO (and that he, or someone like him, could take the White House in 2024), European leaders, however, continued to make plans for their own common defense without the U.S. “We aren’t in the old status quo,” commented one French diplomat, “where we can pretend that the Donald Trump presidency never existed and the world was the same as four years ago.” Add in Biden’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan as Taliban guerrillas, wearing tennis sneakers and equipped with aging Soviet rifles, crushed an Afghan military armed with billions of dollars in U.S. gear, entering Kabul without a fight. After that dismal defeat, it was clear America’s decline had become a bipartisan affair.

Global leadership lost is not readily recovered, particularly when a rival power is prepared to fill the void. As Washington’s strategic position weakens, China has been pressing to dominate Eurasia, home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity, and so build a new Beijing-centric global order. Should China’s relentless advance continue, there will be serious consequences for the world as we know it.

Of course, the current order is, to say the least, imperfect. While using its unprecedented power to promote a liberal international system based on human rights and inviolable sovereignty, Washington simultaneously violated those same principles all too often in pursuit of its national self-interest — a disconcerting duality between power and principle that has afflicted every global order since the sixteenth century.

As the first hegemon that didn’t participate in any way in the fitful, painful process of forging just such a liberal world order through six centuries of slavery, slaughter, and colonial conquest, China’s rise could ultimately threaten the current system’s better half — its core principles of universal human rights and secure state sovereignty.

The Coming of Climate Change

Beyond Washington’s strategic failings, there was another far more fundamental force already at work eroding its global power. After seven decades of the profligate kind of fossil-fuel consumption that became synonymous with the U.S. world system, climate change is now profoundly disrupting the whole human community.

As of 2019, following years of bipartisan evasions and compromises (along with partisan Republican denials of the very reality of climate change), the U.S. still relied on fossil fuels for 80% of its total energy; renewables, only 20%. The situation was even worse in China, which depended on fossil fuels for 86% of its power and renewable sources for only about 14%. As energy expert Vaclav Smil explained, the underlying global problem was 150 years of embedded inertia that made the “production, delivery, and consumption of fossil fuels… the world’s most extensive, and the most expensive, web of energy-intensive infrastructures.”

If there is ever to be a true transition beyond fossil fuels, the world’s two largest economies will have to play a determinative role in it. In the meantime, the picture is anything but cheery. Global carbon dioxide emissions rose by a staggering 50% from 22.2 gigatons in 1997 to a peak of 33.3 gigatons in 2019 and, despite a brief drop at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, are still rising. Significantly, China accounted for 30% of the world’s total in that year, and the U.S. nearly 14% — for a combined 44% share of all global greenhouse gasses.

At the 2019 Madrid climate conference, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that, if current emissions continue, global warming will reach as high as 3.9° Celsius by century’s end, with “catastrophic” consequences for all life on the planet. And at Glasgow two weeks ago, he renewed this warning, saying: “We are digging our own graves… Sea-level rise is double the rate it was 30 years ago. Oceans are hotter than ever — and getting warmer faster. Parts of the Amazon rainforest now emit more carbon than they absorb… We are still careening towards climate catastrophe.”

In the 600 years since the age of exploration first brought the continents into close contact, 90 empires have come and gone. But there have been just three new world orders, each of which survived until it suffered some version of cataclysmic mass death. After the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, wiped out an estimated 60% of medieval Europe’s population, the Portuguese and then Spanish empires expanded to form the first of those world orders, which continued for three centuries until 1805.

The devastation of the Napoleonic wars then launched the succeeding British imperial system, which survived a full century until 1914. Similarly, Washington’s hegemony, along with its current world order, arose from the devastating destruction of World War II. Now, climate change is unleashing cataclysmic environmental changes that could soon enough overshadow such past catastrophes, while damaging or destroying the global order that has pervaded the planet for the past 70 years.

As wildfires worsen, ocean storms intensify, megadroughts spread, flooding increases drastically, and the seas rise precipitously, many millions of the world’s poor will be uprooted from their precarious perches along seashores, flood plains, and desert fringes. Recall for a moment that the arrival between 2016 and 2018 of just two million refugees at the borders of the United States and the European Union unleashed a surge of populist demagoguery, which led to Britain’s Brexit, Europe’s increasing ultranationalism, and Donald Trump’s election. Now, try to imagine what kind of a world of political upheaval lies in a future in which climate change generates anywhere from 200 million to 1.2 billion refugees by mid-century.

As at least a million refugees start to crowd America’s southern border every year, while storms, fires, and floods batter coasts and countryside, the U.S. is almost certain to retreat from the world to cope with growing domestic crises. Include in that the inability of its two political parties to agree on just about anything (other than spending yet more money on the Pentagon). Similar and simultaneous pressures worldwide will certainly cripple the international cooperation that has long been at the core of Washington’s world order.

China’s Short Reign as Global Hegemon

So, when might shifting geopolitics and climate cataclysm converge to fully cripple Washington’s current world order? Beijing plans to complete the technological transformation of its own economy and much of its massive trans-Eurasian infrastructure, the Belt and Road Project, by 2027. That projected date complements a prediction by the U.S. National Intelligence Council that “China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.”

By then, according to projections from the accounting firm PwC, China’s gross domestic product will have grown to $38 trillion — more than 50% larger than a projected $24 trillion for the American one. Similarly, China’s military, already the world’s second largest, should by then be dominant in Asia. Already, as the New York Times reported in 2019, “in 18 of the last 18 Pentagon war games involving China in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. lost.” As China pushes its maritime frontier farther into the Pacific, Washington may well be faced with a difficult choice — either abandon its old ally Taiwan or fight a war it could well lose.

Weighing Beijing’s global future, it seems safe to assume that, minimally, China will gain enough strength to weaken Washington’s global grip and is likely to become the preeminent world power around 2030. Count on one thing, though: the accelerating pace of climate change will almost certainly curtail China’s hegemony within two or three decades.

As early as 2017, scientists at the nonprofit Climate Central reported that, by 2060 or 2070, rising seas and storm surges could flood areas inhabited by 275 million people worldwide and, suggests corroborating research, Shanghai is “the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding.” According to that group’s scientists, 17.5 million people are likely to be displaced there as most of the city “could eventually be submerged in water, including much of the downtown area.”

Advancing the date of this disaster by at least a decade, a report in the journal Nature Communications found that 150 million people worldwide are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by 2050 and that rising waters will “threaten to consume the heart” of Shanghai by then, crippling one of China’s main economic engines. Dredged from sea and swamp in the fifteenth century, much of that city is likely to return to the waters from whence it came, possibly as early as three decades from now.

Meanwhile, increasing temperatures are expected to devastate the North China Plain, a prime agricultural region between Beijing and Shanghai currently inhabited by 400 million people. “This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future,” according to Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a specialist on hydrology and climate at MIT. Between 2070 and 2100, he estimates, the region could face hundreds of periods of “extreme danger” when a combination of heat and humidity will reach a “wet bulb temperature” (WBT) of 31° Celsius, and perhaps five lethal periods of 35° WBT — where a combination of heat and high humidity prevents the evaporation of the very sweat that cools the human body. After just six hours living in such a wet bulb temperature of 35° Celsius, a healthy person at rest will die.

If the “Chinese century” does indeed start around 2030, barring remarkable advances in the reduction of the use of fossil fuels on this planet, it’s likely to end sometime around 2050 when its main financial center is flooded out and its agricultural heartland begins to swelter in insufferable heat.

A New World Order?

Given that Washington’s world system and Beijing’s emerging alternative show every sign of failing to limit carbon emissions in significant enough ways, by mid-century the international community will likely need a new form of global governance to contain the damage.

After 2050, the world community will quite possibly face a growing contradiction, even a head-on collision, between the foundational principles of the current global order: national sovereignty and human rights. As long as nations have the sovereign right to seal their borders, the world will have no way of protecting the human rights of the hundreds of millions of future climate-change refugees.

By then, facing a spectacle of mass global suffering now almost unimaginable, the community of nations might well agree on the need for a new form of global governance. Such a supranational body or bodies would need sovereign authority over three critical areas — emissions controls, refugee resettlement, and environmental reconstruction. If the transition to renewable energy sources is still not complete by 2050, then this international body might well compel nations to curb emissions and adopt renewable energy. Whether under the auspices of the U.N. or a successor organization, a high commissioner for global refugees would need the authority to supersede state sovereignty in order to require nations to help resettle such tidal flows of humanity. The future equivalents of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank could transfer resources from wealthy temperate countries to feed tropical communities decimated by climate change.

Massive programs like these would change the very idea of what constitutes a world order from the diffuse, almost amorphous ethos of the past six centuries into a concrete form of global governance. At present, no one can predict whether such reforms will come soon enough to slow climate change or arrive too late to do anything but manage the escalating damage of uncontrollable feedback loops.

One thing is becoming quite clear, however. The environmental destruction in our future will be so profound that anything less than the emergence of a new form of global governance — one capable of protecting the planet and the human rights of all its inhabitants — will mean that wars over water, land, and people are likely to erupt across the planet amid climate chaos. Absent some truly fundamental change in our global governance and in energy use, by mid-century humanity will begin to face disasters of an almost unimaginable kind that will make imperial orders of any sort something for the history books.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Trump was aping Third World Dictators when he Tried to make his Coup https://www.juancole.com/2021/10/trump-aping-dictators.html Wed, 27 Oct 2021 04:02:15 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=200853 ( Tomdispatch.com) – As an eyewitness, I can recall the events of January 6th in Washington as if they were yesterday. The crowds of angry loyalists storming the building while overwhelmed security guards gave way. The slavishly loyal vice-president who would, the president hoped, restore him to power. The crush of media that seemed confused, almost overwhelmed, by the crowd’s fury. The waiter who announced that the bar had run out of drinks and would soon be closing…

Hold it! My old memory’s playing tricks on me again. That wasn’t the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. That was the Manila Hotel in the Philippines in July 1986. Still, the two events had enough similarities that perhaps I could be forgiven for mixing them up.

I’ve studied quite a number of coups in my day, yet the one I actually witnessed at the Manila Hotel remains my favorite, not just because the drinks kept coming, but for all it taught me about the damage a coup d’état, particularly a political coup, can do to any democracy. In February 1986, a million Filipinos thronged the streets of Manila to force dictator Ferdinand Marcos into exile. After long years of his corruption and callous indifference to the nation’s suffering, the crowds cheered their approval when Marcos finally flew off to Hawaii and his opponent in the recent presidential election restored democracy.

But Marcos had his hard-core loyalists. One Sunday afternoon, four months after his flight, they massed in a Manila park to call for the restoration of their beloved president. After speakers had whipped the crowd of 5,000 into a frenzy with — and yes, this should indeed sound familiar in 2021 — claims about a stolen election, thousands of ordinary Filipinos pushed past security guards and stormed into the nearby Manila Hotel, a storied symbol of their country’s history. Tipped off by one of the Filipino colonels plotting that coup, I was standing in the hotel’s entryway at 5:00 p.m. as the mob, fury written on their faces, surged past me.

For the next 24 hours, that hotel’s marbled lobby became the stage for an instructive political drama. From my table at the adjoining bar, I watched as armed warlords, ousted Marcos cronies, and several hundred disgruntled soldiers paraded through the lobby on their way to the luxury suites where the coup commanders had checked themselves in. Following in their wake were spies from every nation — Australian secret intelligence, American defense intelligence, and their Asian and European counterparts — themselves huddled in groups, whispering mysteriously, trying (just like me) to make sense of the bizarre spectacle unfolding around them.

Later that same evening, Marcos’s former vice-president, the ever-loyal Arturo Tolentino, appeared at the head of the stairs flanked by a security detail to announce the formation of a “legitimate” new government authorized by Marcos who had reportedly called long-distance from Honolulu. As the vice president proclaimed himself acting president and read off the names of those to be in his cabinet, Filipino journalists huddling nearby scribbled notes. They were furiously trying to figure out whether there was a real coalition forming that could topple the country’s democracy. It was, however, just the usual suspects — Marcos cronies, leaders largely without followers.

By midnight, the party was pretty much over. Our waiter, after struggling for hours to maintain that famed hotel’s standard of five-star service, apologized to our table of foreign correspondents because the bar had been drunk dry and was closing. Sometime before dawn, the hotel turned off the air conditioning, transforming those executive suites into saunas and, in the process, flushing out the coup plotters, their hangers-on, and most of the soldiers.

All day long, on the city’s brassy talk-radio stations and in the coffee shops where insiders gathered to swap scuttlebutt, Marcos’s loyalists were roasted, even mocked. The troops that had rallied to his side were sentenced to 30 push-ups on the parade ground — a source of more mirth. For spies and correspondents alike, the whole thing seemed like a one-day wonder, barely worth writing home about.

But it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. A coterie of colonels deep inside the Defense Ministry, my source among them, had observed that comedic coup attempt all too carefully and concluded that it had actually been a near-miss.

A year later, I found myself standing in the middle of an eight-lane highway outside the city’s main military cantonment, Camp Aguinaldo, ducking bullets from rebel soldiers who had seized the base and watching as government Marines and dive bombers attacked. This time, however, those colonels had launched a genuine coup attempt. No drinks. No waiters. No wisecracks. Just a day of bombs and bullets that crushed the plotters, leaving the country’s military headquarters a smoking ruin.

Two years later, the same coup colonels were back again for another attempt, leading 3,000 rebel troops in a multipronged attack on a capital that trembled on the brink of surrender. As a cavalcade of rebel armor drove relentlessly toward the presidential palace with nothing in their way, American President George H.W. Bush took a call aboard Air Force One over the Atlantic about a desperate request from his Philippine counterpart and ordered a pair of U.S. Air Force jet fighters to make a low pass over the rebel tanks and trucks. They got the message: turn back or be bombed into extinction. And so Philippine democracy was allowed to survive for another 30 years.

Message from the Manila Hotel

The message for democracy offered from the Manila Hotel was clear — so clear, in fact, that it helps explain the meaning of tangled events in Washington more than 30 years later. Whether it’s a poor country like the Philippines or a superpower like the United States, democracy is a surprisingly fragile construct. Its worst enemy is often an ousted ex-president, angry over his humiliation and perfectly willing to destroy the constitutional order to regain power.

No matter how angry such an ex-president might be, however, his urge for a political coup can’t succeed without the help of raw force, whether from a mob, a disgruntled military, or some combination of the two. The Manila Hotel coup teaches us one other fundamental thing: that coups need not be carefully planned. Most start with a handful of conspirators plotting some symbolic attack meant to shake the constitutional order, while hoping to somehow stall the security services for a few critical hours — just long enough for events to cascade spontaneously into a desired government collapse.


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Whether in Manila or Washington, coup plotting usually starts right at the top. Just after the news networks announced that he had lost the election last November, Donald Trump launched a media blitz with spurious claims of “fraud on the American public,” firing off 300 tweets in the next two weeks loaded with false charges of irregularities and sparking loud, long protests by his loyalists at vote-counting centers in Michigan and Arizona.

When that response got little traction and Biden’s majority kept climbing, Trump began exploring three alternate routes, any of which might have led to a constitutional coup — manipulating the Justice Department to delegitimize the election, rigging the ratification of electoral votes in Congress, and the paramilitary (or military) option. At a White House meeting on December 18th, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, urged the president to “invoke martial law as part of his efforts to overturn the election” and accused his staff of “abandoning the president,” sparking “screaming matches” in the Oval Office.

By January 3rd, rumors and reports of Trump’s military option were circulating so credibly around Washington that all 10 living former defense secretaries — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Mark Esper, among them — published a joint appeal to the armed forces to remain neutral in the ongoing dispute over the election’s integrity. Reminding the troops that “peaceful transfers of power… are hallmarks of our democracy,” they added that “efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes” would be “dangerous, unlawful, and unconstitutional.” They warned the troops that any “military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be… potentially facing criminal penalties.” In conclusion, they suggested to Trump’s secretary of defense and senior staff “in the strongest terms” that “they must…refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election.”

To legitimate his claims of fraud, according to the New York Times, the president also tried — on nine separate occasions in December and January — to force the Justice Department to take actions that would “undermine an election result.” In response, a mid-ranking Trump loyalist at Justice, a nonentity named Jeffrey Clark, began pressuring his boss, the attorney-general, to write Georgia officials claiming they had found “significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.” But at a three-hour White House meeting on January 3rd, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen balked at this evidence-free accusation. Trump promptly suggested that he could be replaced by that mid-ranking loyalist who could then send the fraud letter to Georgia. The president’s own top appointees at Justice, along with the White House counsel, immediately threatened to resign en masse, forcing Trump to give up on such an intervention at the state level.

Next, he shifted his constitutional maneuvering to Congress where, on January 6th, his doggedly loyal vice president, Mike Pence, would be presiding over the ratification of results from the Electoral College. In this dubious gambit, Trump was inspired by a bizarre constitutional theory advanced by former Chapman University law professor John Eastman — that the “Constitution assigns the power to the Vice President as the ultimate arbiter.”

In this scenario, Pence would unilaterally set aside electoral votes from seven states with “ongoing disputes” and announce that Trump had won a majority of the remaining electors — making him once again president. But the maneuver had no basis in law, so Pence, after scrambling desperately and unsuccessfully for a legal justification of some sort, eventually refused to play along.

A Political Coup

With the constitutional option closed, Trump opted for a political coup, rolling the dice with raw physical force, much as Marcos had done at the Manila Hotel. The first step was to form a crowd with some paramilitary muscle to stiffen the assault to come. On December 19th, Trump called on his hard-core followers to assemble in Washington, ready for violence, tweeting: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Almost immediately, the Internet’s right-wing chat boards lit up and indeed their paramilitaries, the Proud Boys and Three Percenters militia, turned up in Washington on the appointed day, ready to rumble. After President Trump roused the crowd at a rally near the White House with rhetoric about a stolen election, a mob of some 10,000 marched on the Capitol Building.

Starting at about 1:00 p.m., the sheer size of the crowd and strategic moves by the paramilitaries in their ranks broke through the undermanned lines of the Capitol Police, breaching the building’s first-floor windows at about 2:10 p.m. and allowing protesters to start pouring in. Once the rioters had accomplished the unimaginable and seized the Capitol, they were fresh out of plans, reduced to marching through the corridors hunting legislators and trashing offices.

At 2:24 p.m., President Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country.” On the far-right social media site Parler, his supporters began messaging the crowd to get the vice president and force him to stop the election results. The mob rampaged through the marbled halls shouting “Hang Mike Pence.” Hunkered down inside the Capitol, Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) tweeted: “This is a coup attempt.”

At 2:52 p.m., Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia), a former CIA agent, tweeted from inside the barricaded House chamber: “This is what we see in failing countries. This is what leads to the death of democracy.”

At 3:30 p.m., a small squad of military police arrived at the Capitol, woefully inadequate reinforcements for the overwhelmed Capitol Police. Ten minutes later, the D.C. Council announced that the Defense Department had denied the mayor’s request to mobilize the local National Guard. While the crowd fumbled and fulminated, some serious people were evidently slowing the military’s response for just the few critical hours needed for events to cascade into something, anything, that could shake the constitutional order and slow the ratification of Joe Biden’s election.

In nearby Maryland, Republican Governor Larry Hogan had immediately mobilized his state’s National Guard for the short drive to the Capitol while frantically phoning Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who repeatedly refused him permission to send in the troops. Inside the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Charles Flynn, the brother of the same Michael Flynn who had been pushing Trump to declare martial law, was participating in what CNN called those “key January 6th phone calls” that refused permission for the Guard’s mobilization.

Following a phone call from the mayor of Washington and its police chief pleading for help, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy “ran down the hall” of the Pentagon to get authorization for the Guard’s mobilization. After a crucial delay of 90 minutes, he finally called the Maryland governor, outside the regular chain of command, to authorize the Maryland Guard’s dispatch. Those would indeed be the first troops to arrive at the Capitol and would play a critical role in restoring order.

At about 4:30 p.m., Trump finally tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home in love & peace.”

Ten minutes later, at 4:40 p.m., hundreds of riot personnel from the D.C. police, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security arrived, along with the Maryland Guard, to reinforce the Capitol Police. Within an hour, the protesters had been pushed out of the building and the Capitol was declared secure.

Just five days later, Dr. Fiona Hill, a senior Russia expert on the National Security Council under Trump, reviewed these events and concluded that President Trump had staged a coup “in slow motion… to keep himself in power.”

History’s Lessons

Beyond all the critical details of who did what and when, there were deeper historical forces at play, suggesting that Donald Trump’s urge for a political coup that would return him to power may be far from over. For the past 100 years, empires in decline have been roiled by coup attempts that sometimes have overturned constitutional orders. As their military reverses accumulate, their privileged economic position erodes, and social tensions mount, a succession of societies in the grip of a traumatic loss of global power have suffered coups, successful or not, including Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, the Soviet Union, and now the United States.

Britain’s plot was a bit fantastical. Amid the painful, protracted dissolution of their empire, Conservative leaders plotted with top generals in 1968 to oust leftist Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson by capturing Heathrow airport, seizing the BBC and Buckingham Palace, and putting Lord Mountbatten in power as acting prime minister. Britain’s parliamentary tradition simply proved too strong, however, and key principals in the plot quickly backed out.

In April 1974, while Portugal was fighting and losing three bitter anticolonial wars in Africa, a Lisbon radio station played the country’s entry in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest (“After the Farewell”) just minutes before midnight on an evening that had been agreed upon. It was the signal to the military and their supporters to overthrow the entrenched conservative government of that moment, a success which became known as the “Carnation Revolution.”

However, the parallels between January 6th and the fall of France’s Fourth Republic in the late 1950s are perhaps the most telling. After liberating Paris from Nazi occupation in August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle headed an interim government for 18 months. He then quit in a dispute with the left, launching him into a decade of political intrigue against the new Fourth Republic, whose liberal constitution he despised.

By the mid-1950s, France was reeling from its recent defeat in Indochina, while the struggle against Muslim revolutionaries in its Algerian colony in North Africa turned ever more brutal, marked as it was by scandals over the widespread French use of torture. Amid that crisis of empire, an anti-elite, anti-intellectual, antisemitic politician named Pierre Poujade launched a populist movement that sent 56 members to parliament in 1956, including Jean-Marie Le Pen, later founder of the far-right National Front.

Meanwhile, a cabal of politicians and military commanders plotted a coup to return General de Gaulle to power, thinking he alone could save Algeria for France. After an army junta seized control of Algiers, the capital of that colony, in May 1958, paratroopers stationed there were sent to capture the French island of Corsica and to prepare to seize Paris should the legislature fail to install de Gaulle as prime minister.

As the country trembled on the brink of a coup, de Gaulle made his dramatic entry into Paris where he accepted the National Assembly’s offer to form a government, conditional upon the approval of a presidential-style constitution for a Fifth Republic. But when de Gaulle subsequently accepted the inevitability of Algeria’s independence, four top generals launched an abortive coup against him and then formed what they called the Secret Army Organization, or OAS. It would carry out terror attacks over the next four years, with 12,000 victims, while staging three unsuccessful assassination attempts against de Gaulle before its militants were killed or captured.

The Coup of 2024?

Just as the Filipino colonels spent five years launching a succession of escalating coups and those French generals spent four years trying to overthrow their government, so Trump’s Republicans are working with ferocious determination in the run-up to the 2022 and 2024 elections to ensure that their next constitutional coup succeeds. Indeed, if you look back on events over the past year through the prism of such historical precedents, you can see all the components for a future political coup falling into place.

No matter how improbable, discredited, or bizarre those election fraud claims are, Republican loyalists persist in endless ballot audits in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Texas. Their purpose is not really to find more votes for Trump in the 2020 election, but to maintain at least the present level of rage among the one-third of all Americans and more than half of all Republicans who believe that Joe Biden’s presidency is fraudulent.

Since the 2020 election coincided with the new census, Republicans have been working, reports Vox news, to “gerrymander themselves into control of the House of Representatives.” Simultaneously, Republican legislators in 19 states have passed 33 laws making it more difficult for certain of their residents to vote. Driven by the white nationalist “replacement theory” that immigrants and people of color are diluting the pool of “real American” voters, Trump and his Republican loyalists are fighting for “ballot integrity” on the principle that all non-white votes are inherently illegitimate. As Trump put it on the stump in 2016:

“I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in… and they’re going to be able to vote and once that all happens you can forget it. You’re not going to have one Republican vote.”

In case all that electoral manipulation fails and Trump needs more muscle for a future political coup, right-wing fighters like the Proud Boys are still rumbling away at rallies in Oregon, California, and elsewhere across America. Just as the Philippine government made military rebels do a risible 30 push-ups for the capital crime of armed rebellion, so federal courts have generally been handing out the most modest of penalties to rioters who attempted nothing less than the overthrow of U.S. constitutional democracy last January 6th.

Among the 600 rioters arrested as of August, dozens have been allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanors and only three had been sentenced to jail time, leaving most cases languishing in pretrial motions. Already Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz have rallied to their defense, writing the U.S. attorney general to complain about an “unequal administration of justice” with “harsher treatment” for Capitol defendants than those arrested in Black Lives Matter protests.

So, in 2024, as the continuing erosion of America’s global power creates a crisis of confidence among ordinary Americans, expect Donald Trump to be back, not as the slightly outrageous candidate of 2016 or even as the former president eager to occupy the White House again, but as a militant demagogue with thundering racialist rhetoric, backed by a revanchist Republican Party ready, with absolute moral certainty, to bar voters from the polls, toss ballots out, and litigate any loss until hell freezes over.

And if all that fails, the muscle will be ready for another violent march on Washington. Be prepared, the America we know is worsening by the month.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Via Tomdispatch.com

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