Alfred W. McCoy – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 13 Mar 2024 02:20:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The American Empire in (Ultimate?) Crisis Wed, 13 Mar 2024 04:04:33 +0000 ( ) – Empires don’t just fall like toppled trees. Instead, they weaken slowly as a succession of crises drain their strength and confidence until they suddenly begin to disintegrate. So it was with the British, French, and Soviet empires; so it now is with imperial America.

Great Britain confronted serious colonial crises in India, Iran, and Palestine before plunging headlong into the Suez Canal and imperial collapse in 1956. In the later years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union faced its own challenges in Czechoslovakia, Egypt, and Ethiopia before crashing into a brick wall in its war in Afghanistan.

America’s post-Cold War victory lap suffered its own crisis early in this century with disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, looming just over history’s horizon are three more imperial crises in Gaza, Taiwan, and Ukraine that could cumulatively turn a slow imperial recessional into an all-too-rapid decline, if not collapse.

As a start, let’s put the very idea of an imperial crisis in perspective. The history of every empire, ancient or modern, has always involved a succession of crises — usually mastered in the empire’s earlier years, only to be ever more disastrously mishandled in its era of decline. Right after World War II, when the United States became history’s most powerful empire, Washington’s leaders skillfully handled just such crises in Greece, Berlin, Italy, and France, and somewhat less skillfully but not disastrously in a Korean War that never quite officially ended. Even after the dual disasters of a bungled covert invasion of Cuba in 1961 and a conventional war in Vietnam that went all too disastrously awry in the 1960s and early 1970s, Washington proved capable of recalibrating effectively enough to outlast the Soviet Union, “win” the Cold War, and become the “lone superpower” on this planet.

In both success and failure, crisis management usually entails a delicate balance between domestic politics and global geopolitics. President John F. Kennedy’s White House, manipulated by the CIA into the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, managed to recover its political balance sufficiently to check the Pentagon and achieve a diplomatic resolution of the dangerous 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union.

America’s current plight, however, can be traced at least in part to a growing imbalance between a domestic politics that appears to be coming apart at the seams and a series of challenging global upheavals. Whether in Gaza, Ukraine, or even Taiwan, the Washington of President Joe Biden is clearly failing to align domestic political constituencies with the empire’s international interests. And in each case, crisis mismanagement has only been compounded by errors that have accumulated in the decades since the Cold War’s end, turning each crisis into a conundrum without an easy resolution or perhaps any resolution at all. Both individually and collectively, then, the mishandling of these crises is likely to prove a significant marker of America’s ultimate decline as a global power, both at home and abroad.

Creeping Disaster in Ukraine

Since the closing months of the Cold War, mismanaging relations with Ukraine has been a curiously bipartisan project. As the Soviet Union began breaking up in 1991, Washington focused on ensuring that Moscow’s arsenal of possibly 45,000 nuclear warheads was secure, particularly the 5,000 atomic weapons then stored in Ukraine, which also had the largest Soviet nuclear weapons plant at Dnipropetrovsk.

During an August 1991 visit, President George H.W. Bush told Ukrainian Prime Minister Leonid Kravchuk that he could not support Ukraine’s future independence and gave what became known as his “chicken Kiev” speech, saying: “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” He would, however, soon recognize Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as independent states since they didn’t have nuclear weapons.

When the Soviet Union finally imploded in December 1991, Ukraine instantly became the world’s third-largest nuclear power, though it had no way to actually deliver most of those atomic weapons. To persuade Ukraine to transfer its nuclear warheads to Moscow, Washington launched three years of multilateral negotiations, while giving Kyiv “assurances” (but not “guarantees”) of its future security — the diplomatic equivalent of a personal check drawn on a bank account with a zero balance.

Under the Budapest Memorandum on Security in December 1994, three former Soviet republics — Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine — signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and started transferring their atomic weapons to Russia. Simultaneously, Russia, the U.S., and Great Britain agreed to respect the sovereignty of the three signatories and refrain from using such weaponry against them. Everyone present, however, seemed to understand that the agreement was, at best, tenuous. (One Ukrainian diplomat told the Americans that he had “no illusions that the Russians would live up to the agreements they signed.”)

Meanwhile — and this should sound familiar today — Russian President Boris Yeltsin raged against Washington’s plans to expand NATO further, accusing President Bill Clinton of moving from a Cold War to a “cold peace.” Right after that conference, Defense Secretary William Perry warned Clinton, point blank, that “a wounded Moscow would lash out in response to NATO expansion.”

Nonetheless, once those former Soviet republics were safely disarmed of their nuclear weapons, Clinton agreed to begin admitting new members to NATO, launching a relentless eastward march toward Russia that continued under his successor George W. Bush. It came to include three former Soviet satellites, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland (1999); three one-time Soviet Republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (2004); and three more former satellites, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia (2004). At the Bucharest summit in 2008, moreover, the alliance’s 26 members unanimously agreed that, at some unspecified point, Ukraine and Georgia, too, would “become members of NATO.” In other words, having pushed NATO right up to the Ukrainian border, Washington seemed oblivious to the possibility that Russia might feel in any way threatened and react by annexing that nation to create its own security corridor.

In those years, Washington also came to believe that it could transform Russia into a functioning democracy to be fully integrated into a still-developing American world order. Yet for more than 200 years, Russia’s governance had been autocratic and every ruler from Catherine the Great to Leonid Brezhnev had achieved domestic stability through incessant foreign expansion. So, it should hardly have been surprising when the seemingly endless expansion of NATO led Russia’s latest autocrat, Vladimir Putin, to invade the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, only weeks after hosting the Winter Olympics.

In an interview soon after Moscow annexed that area of Ukraine, President Obama recognized the geopolitical reality that could yet consign all of that land to Russia’s orbit, saying: “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”

Then, in February 2022, after years of low-intensity fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, Putin sent 200,000 mechanized troops to capture the country’s capital, Kyiv, and establish that very “military domination.” At first, as the Ukrainians surprisingly fought off the Russians, Washington and the West reacted with a striking resolve — cutting Europe’s energy imports from Russia, imposing serious sanctions on Moscow, expanding NATO to all of Scandinavia, and dispatching an impressive arsenal of armaments to Ukraine.

After two years of never-ending war, however, cracks have appeared in the anti-Russian coalition, indicating that Washington’s global clout has declined markedly since its Cold War glory days. After 30 years of free-market growth, Russia’s resilient economy has weathered sanctions, its oil exports have found new markets, and its gross domestic product is projected to grow a healthy 2.6% this year. In last spring and summer’s fighting season, a Ukrainian “counteroffensive” failed and the war is, in the view of both Russian and Ukrainian commanders, at least “stalemated,” if not now beginning to turn in Russia’s favor.

Most critically, U.S. support for Ukraine is faltering. After successfully rallying the NATO alliance to stand with Ukraine, the Biden White House opened the American arsenal to provide Kyiv with a stunning array of weaponry, totaling $46 billion, that gave its smaller army a technological edge on the battlefield. But now, in a move with historic implications, part of the Republican (or rather Trumpublican) Party has broken with the bipartisan foreign policy that sustained American global power since the Cold War began. For weeks, the Republican-led House has even repeatedly refused to consider President Biden’s latest $60 billion aid package for Ukraine, contributing to Kyiv’s recent reverses on the battlefield.

The Republican Party’s rupture starts with its leader. In the view of former White House adviser Fiona Hill, Donald Trump was so painfully deferential to Vladimir Putin during “the now legendarily disastrous press conference” at Helsinki in 2018 that critics were convinced “the Kremlin held sway over the American president.” But the problem goes so much deeper. As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted recently, the Republican Party’s historic “isolationism is still on the march.” Indeed, between March 2022 and December 2023, the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Republicans who think the U.S. gives “too much support” to Ukraine climbed from just 9% to a whopping 48%. Asked to explain the trend, Brooks feels that “Trumpian populism does represent some very legitimate values: the fear of imperial overreach… [and] the need to protect working-class wages from the pressures of globalization.”

Since Trump represents this deeper trend, his hostility toward NATO has taken on an added significance. His recent remarks that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to a NATO ally that didn’t pay its fair share sent shockwaves across Europe, forcing key allies to consider what such an alliance would be like without the United States (even as Russian President Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly sensing a weakening of U.S. resolve, threatened Europe with nuclear war). All of this is certainly signaling to the world that Washington’s global leadership is now anything but a certainty.

Crisis in Gaza

Just as in Ukraine, decades of diffident American leadership, compounded by increasingly chaotic domestic politics, let the Gaza crisis spin out of control. At the close of the Cold War, when the Middle East was momentarily disentangled from great-power politics, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the 1993 Oslo Accord. In it, they agreed to create the Palestinian Authority as the first step toward a two-state solution. For the next two decades, however, Washington’s ineffectual initiatives failed to break the deadlock between that Authority and successive Israeli governments that prevented any progress toward such a solution.

In 2005, Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw his defense forces and 25 Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip with the aim of improving “Israel’s security and international status.” Within two years, however, Hamas militants had seized power in Gaza, ousting the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas. In 2009, the controversial Benjamin Netanyahu started his nearly continuous 15-year stretch as Israel’s prime minister and soon discovered the utility of supporting Hamas as a political foil to block the two-state solution he so abhorred.

Not surprisingly then, the day after last year’s tragic October 7th Hamas attack, theTimes of Israel published this headline: “For Years Netanyahu Propped Up Hamas. Now It’s Blown Up in Our Faces.” In her lead piece, senior political correspondent Tal Schneider reported: “For years, the various governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu took an approach that divided power between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — bringing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to his knees while making moves that propped up the Hamas terror group.”

On October 18th, with the Israeli bombing of Gaza already inflicting severe casualties on Palestinian civilians, President Biden flew to Tel Aviv for a meeting with Netanyahu that would prove eerily reminiscent of Trump’s Helsinki press conference with Putin. After Netanyahu praised the president for drawing “a clear line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism,” Biden endorsed that Manichean view by condemning Hamas for “evils and atrocities that make ISIS look somewhat more rational” and promised to provide the weaponry Israel needed “as they respond to these attacks.” Biden said nothing about Netanyahu’s previous arm’s length alliance with Hamas or the two-state solution. Instead, the Biden White House began vetoing ceasefire proposals at the U.N. while air-freighting, among other weaponry, 15,000 bombs to Israel, including the behemoth 2,000-pound “bunker busters” that were soon flattening Gaza’s high-rise buildings with increasingly heavy civilian casualties.

After five months of arms shipments to Israel, three U.N. ceasefire vetoes, and nothing to stop Netanyahu’s plan for an endless occupation of Gaza instead of a two-state solution, Biden has damaged American diplomatic leadership in the Middle East and much of the world. In November and again in February, massive crowds calling for peace in Gaza marched in Berlin, London, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Istanbul, and Dakar, among other places.

Moreover, the relentless rise in civilian deaths well past 30,000 in Gaza, striking numbers of them children, has already weakened Biden’s domestic support in constituencies that were critical for his win in 2020 — including Arab-Americans in the key swing state of Michigan, African-Americans nationwide, and younger voters more generally. To heal the breach, Biden is now becoming desperate for a negotiated cease-fire. In an inept intertwining of international and domestic politics, the president has given Netanyahu, a natural ally of Donald Trump, the opportunity for an October surprise of more devastation in Gaza that could rip the Democratic coalition apart and thereby increase the chances of a Trump win in November — with fatal consequences for U.S. global power.

Trouble in the Taiwan Straits

While Washington is preoccupied with Gaza and Ukraine, it may also be at the threshold of a serious crisis in the Taiwan Straits. Beijing’s relentless pressure on the island of Taiwan continues unabated. Following the incremental strategy that it’s used since 2014 to secure a half-dozen military bases in the South China Sea, Beijing is moving to slowly strangle Taiwan’s sovereignty. Its breaches of the island’s airspace have increased from 400 in 2020 to 1,700 in 2023. Similarly, Chinese warships have crossed the median line in the Taiwan Straits 300 times since August 2022, effectively erasing it. As commentator Ben Lewis warned, “There soon may be no lines left for China to cross.”

After recognizing Beijing as “the sole legal Government of China” in 1979, Washington agreed to “acknowledge” that Taiwan was part of China. At the same time, however, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, requiring “that the United States maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force… that would jeopardize the security… of the people on Taiwan.”

Such all-American ambiguity seemed manageable until October 2022 when Chinese President Xi Jinping told the 20th Communist Party Congress that “reunification must be realized” and refused “to renounce the use of force” against Taiwan. In a fateful counterpoint, President Biden stated, as recently as September 2022, that the US would defend Taiwan “if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”

But Beijing could cripple Taiwan several steps short of that “unprecedented attack” by turning those air and sea transgressions into a customs quarantine that would peacefully divert all Taiwan-bound cargo to mainland China. With the island’s major ports at Taipei and Kaohsiung facing the Taiwan Straits, any American warships trying to break that embargo would face a lethal swarm of nuclear submarines, jet aircraft, and ship-killing missiles.

Given the near-certain loss of two or three aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy would likely back off and Taiwan would be forced to negotiate the terms of its reunification with Beijing. Such a humiliating reversal would send a clear signal that, after 80 years, American dominion over the Pacific had finally ended, inflicting another major blow to U.S. global hegemony.

The Sum of Three Crises

Washington now finds itself facing three complex global crises, each demanding its undivided attention. Any one of them would challenge the skills of even the most seasoned diplomat. Their simultaneity places the U.S. in the unenviable position of potential reverses in all three at once, even as its politics at home threaten to head into an era of chaos. Playing upon American domestic divisions, the protagonists in Beijing, Moscow, and Tel Aviv are all holding a long hand (or at least a potentially longer one than Washington’s) and hoping to win by default when the U.S. tires of the game. As the incumbent, President Biden must bear the burden of any reversal, with the consequent political damage this November.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, Donald Trump may try to escape such foreign entanglements and their political cost by reverting to the Republican Party’s historic isolationism, even as he ensures that the former lone superpower of Planet Earth could come apart at the seams in the wake of election 2024. If so, in such a distinctly quagmire world, American global hegemony would fade with surprising speed, soon becoming little more than a distant memory.


Trump and the End of the American Century Mon, 15 Jan 2024 05:02:48 +0000 ( ) – With recent polls giving Donald Trump a reasonable chance of defeating President Biden in the November elections, commentators have begun predicting what his second presidency might mean for domestic politics. In a dismally detailed Washington Post analysis, historian Robert Kagan argued that a second Trump term would feature his “deep thirst for vengeance” against what the ex-president has called the “radical Left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country,” thereby launching what Kagan calls “a regime of political persecution” leading to “an irreversible descent into dictatorship.”

So far, however, Trump and the media that follow his every word have been largely silent about what his reelection would mean for U.S. foreign policy. Citing his recent promise of “a four-year plan to phase out all Chinese imports of essential goods,” the New York Times did recently conclude that a renewed trade war with China “would significantly disrupt the U.S. economy,” leading to a loss of 744,000 jobs and $1.6 trillion in gross domestic product. Economic relations with China are, however, but one piece of a far larger puzzle when it comes to future American global power, a subject on which media reporting and commentary have been surprisingly reticent.

So let me take the plunge by starting with a prediction I made in a December 2010 TomDispatch piece that “the demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines.” I added then that a “realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could be all over except for the shouting.”

I also offered a scenario hinged on — yes! — next November’s elections. “Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair,” I wrote then, “a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence.”

Back then, of course, 2025 was so far off that any prediction should have been a safe bet. After all, 15 years ago, I was already in my mid-60s, which should have given me a “get-out-of-jail-free” card — that is, a reasonable chance of dying before I could be held accountable. But with 2025 now less than a year away, I’m still here (unlike all too many of my old friends) and still responsible for that prediction.

So, let’s imagine that “a far-right patriot,” one Donald Trump, does indeed “capture the presidency with thundering rhetoric” next November. Let me then don the seven-league boots of the historical imagination and, drawing on Trump’s previous presidential record, offer some thoughts about how his second shot at an America-first foreign policy — one based on “demanding respect for American authority” — might affect this country’s global power, already distinctly on the decline.

As our Lonely Planet Guide to a country called the future, let’s take along a classic study former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in retirement in 1997. Drawing on his view that Eurasia remained the “central basis for global primacy,” he argued that Washington had to do just three things to maintain world leadership: first, preserve its position in Western Europe through the NATO alliance; second, maintain its military bases along the Pacific littoral to check China; and finally, prevent any “assertive single entity” like China or Russia from controlling the critical “middle space” of Central Asia and the Middle East. Given his past record and current statements, it seems all too likely that Trump will indeed badly damage, if not destroy, those very pillars of American global power.

Wrecking the NATO Alliance

Trump’s hostility to alliances in general and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in particular is a matter of historical record. His hostility to NATO’s crucial mutual-defense clause (Article 5) — requiring all signatories to respond if one were attacked — could prove fatal. Just days after his 2018 sycophantic summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked Trump, “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”

Weighing his words with uncharacteristic care, Trump replied: “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question.” He then offered what could, in a second term, prove a virtual death sentence for NATO. “Montenegro,” he said, “is a tiny country with very strong people…They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War Three.”

Since then, of course, Putin has invaded Ukraine and the Biden White House has rallied NATO to defend that frontline European state. Although Congress approved a massive $111 billion in aid (including $67 billion in military aid) for Ukraine in the war’s first 18 months, the Republican-led House has recently stalled President Biden’s request for an additional $67 billion critical to Kyiv’s continued resistance. As the campaign for his party’s nomination gathers momentum, Trump’s pro-Putin sentiments have helped persuade Republican legislators to break with our NATO allies on this critical issue.

Keep in mind that, right after Russia invaded in February 2022, Trump labeled Putin’s move “genius,” adding, “I mean, he’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart.” Last September, after Putin thanked him for claiming that, were he still president, he could end the war in 24 hours, Trump assured Meet the Press: “I would get him into a room. I’d get Zelensky into a room. Then I’d bring them together. And I’d have a deal worked out.”

In reality, a reelected Trump would undoubtedly simply abandon Ukraine, at best forcing it into negotiations that would be tantamount to surrender. As formerly neutral nations Finland and Sweden have rallied to NATO and alliance stalwarts like Britain and Germany make major arms deliveries to Ukraine, Europe has clearly labeled Russia’s invasion and war an existential threat. Under such circumstances, a future Trump tilt toward Putin could swing a wrecking ball through the NATO alliance, which, for the past 75 years, has served as a singular pillar in the architecture of U.S. global power.

Alienating Allies on the Pacific Littoral

Just as NATO has long served as a strategic pillar at the western end of the vast Eurasian land mass, so four bilateral alliances along the Pacific littoral from Japan to the Philippines have proven a geopolitical fulcrum for dominance over the eastern end of Eurasia and the defense of North America. Here, the record of the first Trump administration was, at best, mixed. On the credit side of history’s ledger, he did revive “the Quad,” a loose alliance with Australia, India, and Japan, which has gained greater coherence under President Biden.

But only time spared Trump’s overall Asian diplomacy from utter disaster. His obsessive personal courtship of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, marked by two meaningless meetings and the exchange of 27 mash notes, failed to produce any sign of Pyongyang’s (nuclear) disarmament, while weakening America’s alliance with long-standing ally South Korea. Although Japan’s prime minister obsequiously paid court to Trump, he battered that classic bilateral alliance with constant complaints about its cost, even slapping a punitive 25% duty on Japanese steel imports.

Ignoring the pleas of close Asian allies, Trump also cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving the door open for China to conclude its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 15 Asia-Pacific countries that now account for nearly a third of Beijing’s foreign trade. Another four years of Trump’s “America first” diplomacy in the Pacific could do irreparable damage to those key strategic alliances.

Further south, by using Taiwan to both confront and court Chinese President Xi Jinping, while letting the Philippines drift toward Beijing’s orbit and launching a misbegotten trade war with China, Trump’s version of Asian “diplomacy” allowed Beijing to make some real diplomatic, economic, and military gains, while distinctly weakening the American position in the region. Biden, by contrast, has at least partially restored it, a strengthening reflected in a surprisingly amicable San Francisco summit last November with President Xi.

In South Asia, where the bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan dominates all diplomacy, President Trump trashed a 70-year military alliance with Pakistan with a single New Year’s Day message. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,” Trump tweeted, “and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools… No more!” Since then, Pakistan has shifted decisively into Beijing’s orbit, while India now plays Moscow and Washington off against each other to its economic advantage.

Just as Trump’s posture toward Europe could swing a wrecking ball through the NATO alliance in a second term, so his mix of economic nationalism and strategic myopia could destabilize the array of alliances along the Pacific littoral, toppling that second of Brzezinski’s three pillars for American global power.

That “Assertive Single Entity” in Central Asia

And when it comes to that third pillar of U.S. global power –- preventing any “assertive single entity” from controlling the “middle space” of Eurasia — President Trump failed woefully (as, in fact, had his predecessors). After announcing China’s trillion-dollar Belt & Road Initiative in 2013, President Xi has spent billions building a steel grid of roads, rails, and pipelines that crisscross the middle space of that vast Eurasian landmass, an enormous new infrastructure that has led to a chain of alliances stretching across central Asia.

The power of China’s position was manifested in 2021 when Beijing helped push the U.S. military out of Afghanistan in a deft geopolitical squeeze-play. More recently, Beijing also brokered a breathtaking diplomatic entente between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, stunning Washington and many Western diplomats.

Trump’s Middle East policy during his first term in office was focused solely on backing Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cancelling a nuclear agreement with Iran, seconding his marginalization of the Palestinians, and promoting Arab recognition of Israel. Since the Hamas terrorist attack of October 7th and Netanyahu’s devastating assault on Gaza’s civilian population, President Biden’s reaction was skewed in an almost Trumpian fashion toward Israel, with a consequent loss of influence in the wider region. And count on one thing: an incoming Trump administration would only compound the damage.

In short, Beijing is already toppling the third pillar of American global power in that critical “middle space” of Eurasia. In a second Trump term, an unchecked Chinese diplomatic and economic juggernaut could arguably grind that pillar into rubble.

Africa in the “World Island”

In fact, however, no matter what Brzezinski might have thought, there are other pillars of world power beyond Eurasia — above all, Africa. Indeed, Sir Halford Mackinder, the author of the global geopolitical analysis that deeply influenced the former national security adviser, argued over a century ago that the locus of global power lay in a tri-continental combination of Europe, Asia, and Africa that he dubbed “the world island.”

In the age of high imperialism, Europe found Africa a fertile field for colonial exploitation and, during the Cold War, Washington added to that continent’s suffering by making it a superpower surrogate battleground. But Beijing grasped the human potential of Africa and, in the 1970s, began building lasting economic alliances with its emerging nations. By 2015, its trade with Africa had climbed to $222 billion, three times America’s. Its investments there were then projected to reach a trillion dollars by 2025.

Recognizing the strategic threat, President Barack Obama convened a 2014 summit with 51 African leaders at the White House. Trump, however, dismissed the entire continent, during a 2018 Oval Office meeting, as so many “shithole countries.” The Trump administration tried to repair the damage by sending First Lady Melania off on a solo trip to Africa, but her bizarre colonial outfits and ill-timed administration cuts in foreign aid to the continent only added to the damage.

In addition to a storehouse of natural resources, Africa’s chief asset is its growing pool of human talent. Africa’s median age is 19 (compared to 38 for both China and the U.S.), meaning that, by 2050, that continent will be home to a full one-third of the world’s young. Given his fraught record with the region, Trump’s second term would likely do little more than hand the whole continent to China on a gold-plated platter.

South of the Border

Even in Latin America, the situation has been changing in a complex fashion. As a region informally incorporated into the American imperium for more than a century and suffering all the slights of an asymmetric alliance, its increasingly nationalist leaders welcomed China’s interest in this century. By 2017, in fact, Chinese trade with Latin America had hit a substantial $244 billion, making it — yes! — the region’s largest trading partner. Simultaneously, Beijing’s loans to Caribbean countries had reached a hefty $62 billion by the end of the Trump administration.

Except for drug interdiction and economic sanctions against leftist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, the Trump White House generally ignored Latin America, doing nothing to slow China’s commercial juggernaut. Although the Biden administration made some diplomatic gestures toward the region, China’s trade rose relentlessly to $450 billion by 2022.

Reflecting a bipartisan indifference in this century, a reelected President Trump would likely do little to check China’s growing commercial hegemony over Latin America. And the region would undoubtedly welcome such indifference, since the alternative — along with draconian moves at the U.S.-Mexican border — might involve plans to fire missiles at or send troops to knock out drug labs in Mexico. The backlash to such unilateral intervention amid panic over immigration could cripple U.S. relations with the region for decades to come.

Fading American Hegemony

In the world that a second Trump term might face in 2025, American global power will probably be far less imposing than it was when he came into office in 2016. The problem won’t be that this time around he’s already appointing advisers determined to let Trump be Trump or, as the New York Times put it recently, who are “forging plans for an even more extreme agenda than his first term.” By every significant metric — economic, diplomatic, and even military — U.S. power has been on a downward slide for at least a decade. In the more unipolar world of 2016, Trump’s impulsive, individualized version of diplomacy was often deeply damaging, but on at least a small number of occasions modestly successful. In the more multipolar world he would have to manage nearly a decade later, his version of a unilateral approach could prove deeply disastrous.

After taking his second oath of office in January of 2025, President Trump’s “thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal,” might indeed fulfill the prediction I made some 15 years ago: “The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence.”


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The Other Imperialism: Russia’s Mercenaries Abroad Thu, 19 Oct 2023 04:02:54 +0000 ( ) – One of modern history’s major empires is falling apart right now, right before our eyes. Yet precious few in the media have reported on this extraordinary event, much less offered any analysis of its implications for the fast-changing shape of global power.

Over the past 60 years, France has used every possible diplomatic device, overt and covert, fair and foul, to incorporate some 14 African nations into a neocolonial imperium called “Françafrique” — a vast region covering a quarter of Africa and stretching for nearly 3,000 miles from Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Chad in the continent’s center.

While the rest of that continent frequently suffered from wars, coups, and chronic instability, Françafrique long enjoyed comparative peace. By dispatching paratroopers from its many African bases (or secret agents for the occasional assassination), Paris provided a rough version of stability — even if at the price of endemic corruption, entrenched autocratic rule, and deep economic exploitation. Recently, however, a rising nationalist consciousness in many of those relatively new countries has begun chafing against that European land’s repeated transgressions of their sovereignty. As French colonial and post-colonial dominance over this vast region moved ever deeper into its second century, unease bordering on open hostility against that country’s presence began to build.

In less than a year, in fact, the sudden withdrawal of French troops from individual African nations has turned into a full-blown retreat from much of the region. As terrorists affiliated with ISIS first became active in 2014, France deployed some 5,000 elite troops for Operation Barkhane in collaboration with six nations of Africa’s arid Sahel region, the strip of territory extending across the continent, largely south of the Sahara Desert.

Yet just last December, French troops left the Central African Republic after Paris decided that the local government there was “complicit in an anti-French campaign allegedly steered by Russia.” In February, Burkino Faso’s new military government simply expelled French forces and hailed its new “strategic partnership” with Russia. And in August, following back-to-back coups in Mali, that country’s ruling junta grew resentful of the 2,400 French troops stationed there and forced them to withdraw into neighboring Niger, which became the new main base for their operations in the Sahel region. Then, last month, French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to announce that he was pulling his troops and his ambassador out of Niger as well. After seizing power in July, that country’s new military junta had demanded just such a French departure and, to drive the point home, closed its airspace to France. “Imperialist and neocolonialist forces are no longer welcome on our national territory,” the junta announced.

Amid such geopolitical upheaval, a most unlikely man from Moscow appeared on the spot in 2017. His name — now all too well known — was Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder and commander of a notorious mercenary army, the Wagner Group. As the French retreated slowly and exceedingly reluctantly from their post-colonial imperium, Wagner began moving in, becoming Moscow’s surrogate in an ongoing great-power contest for influence and control in Africa.

By the time in late 2022 that France’s failing nine-year effort to secure the Sahel was drawing down, Wagner’s forces were already operating secret gold mines in Sudan, running the largest gold mine in the Central African Republic with projected revenues of $100 million annually, and had earned $200 million since 2021 providing security for Mali, a land roiled by Islamist rebels. In March, Washington warned Chad’s president that Wagner mercenaries were plotting to assassinate him and were also preparing Chadian rebels to attack from their bases in the Central African Republic. After the July coup in Niger, cheering crowds were seen waving (as well as wearing) Russian flags. And as 1,500 French troops and that country’s ambassador were being withdrawn, Niger’s new military leaders promptly contacted Wagner for support, expanding Russia’s sphere of influence in the French imperium it was fast supplanting.

The strategic implications of this shift, should it continue, are potentially profound. As the NATO alliance moved ever closer to Russia’s sensitive western border in the 1990s, Moscow reacted early in this century (prior to the invasion of 2022) with repeated interventions in Ukraine, launched special operations to secure its allies in Central Asia, and, above all, engaged in a little understood geopolitical flanking maneuver across two continents.

The thrust of that move started in 2015 when Moscow leapfrogged over the NATO barrier of Turkey to open a massive air base at Latakia in northern Syria. Soon, Russian planes had reduced rebel-held cities like Aleppo to rubble. In 2021, leapfrogging again, this time over the close American ally Israel, Russia began supplying Egypt with two dozen of its advanced Sukhoi-35 jet fighters so its airmen could compete with Israelis flying advanced American F-35 fighter planes, which Washington refused to supply to Cairo. Completing Moscow’s southern push in the region, Russian President Vladimir Putin began building upon their shared interests as oil exporters to try to befriend Saudi Arabia’s functional leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, becoming so close by late last year that Western observers began to express concern about the possible loss of a key ally.

The final geopolitical pivot in Russia’s recent maneuvering proved particularly controversial and so initially remained significantly covert: the Wagner Group was used to extend Russia’s influence country by country, deal by dirty deal, across the Sahel. Should this process continue successfully into the near future, Moscow will have flanked Europe (and so the U.S. as well) by forming a geopolitical arc of influence sweeping south through the Middle East and extending west across the whole of the Sahel that stretches from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

For this maneuver to succeed, however, the end of French neocolonialism proved crucial. To appreciate the historical significance of the impending fall of Paris’s post-colonial empire, it’s important to understand something of its tangled history — otherwise it would be hard to grasp the full import of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s extraordinary role as the man on the spot in extending Russia’s influence into Africa for the first time since the Cold War.

The Hidden History of Françafrique

As the bitter, bloody French colonial war in Algeria was winding down to defeat in 1960, President de Gaulle realized that the age of empire was ending and used his enormous prestige to grant independence to 14 West African nations. Yet his move was far from altruistic. As part of his vision of France as an independent global power, he began working to create a post-colonial sphere of influence by subsuming the new nations into an exclusive French zone called Françafrique.  

While de Gaulle’s visionary rhetoric inspired an independent foreign policy, his “man of the shadows,” presidential adviser Jacques Foccart, built a full-scale covert apparatus for a post-colonial imperium that became the dark underside of the grand Gaullist state. During his service under Gaullist governments from 1960 to 1997, the shadowy Foccart used the state’s clandestine agency, Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage, to maintain a deft, delicate synergy between metropolitan power in France and covert control of Francophone Africa. As head of de Gaulle’s political party and architect of its secret services, he would become the key link between the French executive and Françafrique’s African leaders, whom he personally selected, befriended, and defended with covert action.   

At the moment of independence in 1960, Foccart bound all of those former colonies (except Guinea) to Paris by defense agreements that granted France military bases and the right of armed intervention in each country. In the process, he also developed treaties meant to secure strategic materials (cobalt, copper, oil, and uranium) from those countries, as well as a common currency pegged to the French franc that would ensure control of their economies.   

Under this postcolonial iteration of informal empire, French troops shuttled in and out of West Africa, conducting more than 40 military interventions between 1960 and 2002, while maintaining a permanent presence at a half-dozen military bases on the continent. Although the rest of Africa suffered 188 coup attempts from 1956 to 2001, the readiness of the French military to quash any such effort provided Françafrique with what political scientist Crawford Young called an “effective inoculation against conspiracies” and so minimized and even controlled coups. Despite vivid personality cults, systemic corruption, and state terror, French complicity in all of the above assured its African allies of an extraordinary political longevity — exemplified by Omar Bongo who ruled Gabon for more than four decades.

With its lucrative oil concessions and its full integration into Foccart’s network, the exemplary state in Françafrique was undoubtedly Gabon — an unbearably poor country of 500,000 people that was surprisingly rich in natural resources. Three years after independence in 1960, as the country’s president lay dying of cancer in a Paris hospital, Foccart picked Omar Bongo, a veteran of French intelligence with no political base, as the ailing president’s running mate in the next election. That ticket then captured 99.5% of the vote, assuring that Bongo, though still just 31 years old, would succeed the president at his death six months later.   

As Gabon’s political opposition revived in 1971, Foccart’s office dispatched the infamous mercenary Bob Denard as a “technical adviser” to President Bongo. Not surprisingly, when an influential opposition leader arrived home one night from the movies, an assassin stepped from the shadows and killed him, also wounding his wife and child. His body was never recovered.

During the long years of his rule, French officials enabled Bongo’s graft, making him a principal shareholder in that country’s lucrative Elf-Total oil company and facilitating illicit payments to him — estimated at $111 million a year — that were only exposed at the 2003 corruption trial of the company’s chief executive.   

When he died in 2009 after a rule of 42 years, London’s Telegraph reported that he had looted revenues from the nation’s 2.5 billion barrel oil reserve to “become one of the world’s richest men,” while elevating “corruption to a method of government.” His son Ali-Ben Bongo succeeded him as president, inheriting, along with his siblings, 39 luxury properties in France worth $190 million and a country with a third of its population living on two dollars a day.

The son continued many of his father’s policies, including ruthlessly rigging the 2016 election by enforcing a 99% turnout in key districts. In August, however, after one too many rigged elections and amid an eruption of coups across the region that marked the fading of France’s post-colonial power, Ali Bongo was finally toppled by a military coup, ending a dynasty that had lasted nearly six decades.

Advent of Moscow’s Africa Man

To challenge that French post-colonial imperium built by cunning, corruption, and covert skullduggery, Moscow needed an operative who could match Jacques Foccart’s legendary mastery of the dirty business of empire, measure for measure. And it found him in the person of Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of those quixotic, improbable adventurers who, over the past two centuries, have served as the vanguards of new forms of empire.   

Who was that extraordinary individual whose personal initiative shook up the world order in Africa, establishing a Russian mercenary troop presence and ties to governments in at least seven African countries? Emerging from Soviet prisons after a 10-year term for a teenage mugging spree, Prigozhin rose, through Vladimir Putin’s patronage, from a hot-dog vendor on the streets of St. Petersburg to a millionaire caterer for Russian schools and troops.

In 2014, his Wagner group of mercenaries first appeared as the shadowy “little green men” during the Russian seizure of Crimea and then moved on to Syria where they engaged in a war of atrocities. Between conflicts, his troll army fired off disinformation barrages meant to influence the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. As French influence in the Sahel was challenged by terrorist groups, Prigozhin inserted his Wagner mercenaries into the fissures being opened by the ending of Paris’ post-colonial empire and turned those cracks into gaping holes.

When in 2022, as the first year of the Ukraine war was ending with Russian troops suffering demoralizing defeats at Kharkiv and Kherson, Prigozhin expanded his Wagner Syrian and African franchises to Ukraine, fielding some 50,000 convicts as troops for Putin’s military, a force that took heavy casualties while winning the battle for the devastated Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Instead of celebrating his victory, Progozhin was growing ever more dissatisfied with Russia’s military chiefs.

“These are Wagner lads who died today,” he shouted on camera while pointing at a pile of corpses. “Those bastards who don’t give us ammunition, we will fucking eat their guts in fucking hell!” Within weeks his war of words had escalated into open conflict in Russia itself. In late June, Wagner’s troops were suddenly on the road to Moscow — smashing through barriers, shooting down Russian aircraft, and raising doubts about Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.  

Flailing desperately to survive after defying Putin and halting the advance of his troops on Moscow, Prigozhin returned to Africa, landing in his private jet at Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic where his Wagner Group has gold mines and a security contract. After a private meeting with that country’s president on August 18th, he flew on to Mali and drove out into the desert where he produced what would turn out to be his last video ever. Holding an assault rifle, he proclaimed: “The Wagner PMC [private military company] makes Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa more free.” Five days later, his private jet crashed on a flight from Moscow, killing Prigozhin and everyone else on board.

Even though Prigozhin was undoubtedly assassinated (like so many of Putin’s critics), his extraordinary relationship with Africa highlights an overlooked aspect of modern empires in what still passes for the post-imperial age. Despite the oft-cited role of military power in creating and maintaining them, individuals have often emerged from the covert realm to play surprisingly significant parts in the making of the post-modern version of empire.

Instead of the gentlemen adventurers of the British imperial age, our modern analogues are usually, like Prigozhin, covert operatives, often from anything but gentlemanly backgrounds. And count on one thing: as the struggle to shape and control northern Africa continues through what will undoubtedly be countless new chapters, Prigozhin will not be the last of those extraordinary secret agents, those men on the spot, who leave their fingerprints on the crime scenes of world history.


Peace for Ukraine Courtesy of China? Another Step in Beijing’s Rise to Global Power Wed, 14 Jun 2023 04:02:21 +0000 ( ) – All wars do end, usually thanks to a negotiated peace agreement. Consider that a fundamental historical fact, even if it seems to have been forgotten in Brussels, Moscow, and above all, Washington, D.C.

In recent months, among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s followers, there has been much talk of a “forever war” in Ukraine dragging on for years, if not decades. “For us,” Putin told a group of factory workers recently, “this is not a geopolitical task, but a task of the survival of Russian statehood, creating conditions for the future development of the country and our children.”

Visiting Kyiv last February, President Joseph Biden assured Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, “You remind us that freedom is priceless; it’s worth fighting for, for as long as it takes. And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes.” A few weeks later, the European Council affirmed “its resolute condemnation of Russia’s actions and unwavering support for Ukraine and its people.” 

With all the major players already committed to fighting a forever war, how could peace possibly come about? With the U.N. compromised by Russia’s seat on the Security Council and the G-7 powers united in condemning “Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine,” the most likely dealmaker when it comes to ending this forever war may prove to be President Xi Jinping of China.

In the West, Xi’s self-styled role as a peacemaker in Ukraine has been widely mocked. In February, on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, China’s call for negotiations as the “only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis” sparked a barbed reply from U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan who claimed the war “could end tomorrow if Russia stopped attacking Ukraine.”

When Xi visited Moscow in March, the statement Chinese officials released claiming that he hoped to “play a constructive role in promoting talks” prompted considerable Western criticism. “I don’t think China can serve as a fulcrum on which any Ukraine peace process could move,” insisted Ryan Hass, a former American diplomat assigned to China. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, pointed out that “China has taken sides” in the conflict by backing Russia and so could hardly become a peacemaker. Even when Xi made a personal call to Zelensky promising to dispatch an envoy to promote negotiations “with all parties,” critics dismissed that overture as so much damage control for China’s increasingly troubled trade relations with Europe.

The Symbolism of Peace Conferences

Still, think about it for a moment. Who else could bring the key parties to the table and potentially make them honor their signatures on a peace treaty? Putin has, of course, already violated U.N. accords by invading a sovereign state, while rupturing his economic entente with Europe and trashing past agreements with Washington to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. And yet the Russian president relies on China’s support, economically and otherwise, which makes Xi the only leader who might be able to bring him to the bargaining table and ensure that he honors any agreement he signs. That sobering reality should raise serious questions about how any future Beijing-inspired peace conference might happen and what it would mean for the current world order.    

For more than 200 years, peace conferences have not only resolved conflicts but regularly signaled the arrival at stage center of a new world power. In 1815, amid the whirling waltzes in Vienna’s palaces that accompanied negotiations ending the Napoleonic wars, Britain emerged for its century-long reign as the globe’s greatest power. Similarly, the 1885 Berlin Conference that carved up the continent of Africa for colonial rule heralded Germany’s rise as Britain’s first serious rival. The somber deliberations in Versailles’s grand Hall of Mirrors that officially ended World War I in 1919 marked America’s debut on the world stage. Similarly, the 1945 peace conference at San Francisco that established the U.N. (just as World War II was about to end) affirmed the ascent of U.S. global hegemony.

Imagine the impact if, sooner or later, envoys from Kyiv and Moscow convene in Beijing beneath the gaze of President Xi and find the elusive meeting point between Russia’s aspirations and Ukraine’s survival. One thing would be guaranteed: after years of disruptions in the global energy, fertilizer, and grain markets, marked by punishing inflation and spreading hunger, all eyes from five continents would indeed turn toward Beijing.

After all, with the war disrupting grain and fertilizer shipments via the Black Sea, world hunger doubled to an estimated 345 million people in 2023, while basic food insecurity now afflicts 828 million inhabitants of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Should such negotiations ever prove fruitful, a televised signing ceremony, hosted by President Xi and watched by countless millions globally, would crown China’s rapid 20-year ascent to world power.

Forget Ukraine for a moment and concentrate on China’s economic rise under communist rule, which has been little short of extraordinary. At the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China was an economic lightweight. Its massive population, 20% of the world’s total, was producing just 4% of global economic output. So weak was China that its leader Mao Zedong had to wait two weeks amid a Moscow winter for an audience with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin just to plead for the industrial technology that would help rebuild an economy devastated by 12 years of war and revolution. In the decade following its admission to the World Trade Organization in 2002, however, China quickly became the workshop of the world, accumulating an unprecedented $4 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves.

Instead of simply swimming in a hoard of cash like Scrooge McDuck in his Money Bin, in 2013 President Xi announced a trillion-dollar development scheme called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its aim was to build a massive infrastructure across the Eurasian landmass and Africa, thereby improving the lives of humanity’s forgotten millions, while making Beijing the focal point of Eurasia’s economic development. Today, China is not only an industrial powerhouse that produces 18% of the global gross domestic product, or GDP (compared to 12% for the U.S.), but also the world’s chief creditor. It provides capital for infrastructure and industrial projects to 148 nations, while offering some hope to the quarter of humanity still subsisting on less than four dollars a day.

Testifying to that economic prowess, for the past six months, world leaders have ignored Washington’s pleas to form a united front against China. Instead, remarkable numbers of them, including Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, and Brazil’s Lula da Silva, have been turning up in Beijing to pay court to President Xi. In April, even French President and U.S. ally Emmanuel Macron visited the Chinese capital where he proclaimed a “global strategic partnership with China” and urged other countries to become less reliant on the “extraterritoriality of the U.S. dollar.”

Then, in a diplomatic coup that stunned Washington, China took a key step toward healing the dangerous sectarian rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia by hosting a meeting of their foreign ministers in Beijing. As the Saudis’ chief oil customer and Iran’s largest creditor, Beijing had the commercial clout to bring them to the bargaining table. China’s top diplomat Wang Yi then hailed the restored diplomatic relations as part of his country’s “constructive role in facilitating the proper settlement of hot-spot issues around the world.”

Geopolitics as a Source of Change

Underlying the sudden display of Chinese diplomatic clout is a recent shift in that essential realm called “geopolitics” that’s driving a fundamental realignment in global power. Around 1900, at the high tide of the British Empire, an English geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, started the modern study of geopolitics by publishing a highly influential article arguing that the construction of the 5,000-mile-long Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok was the beginning of a merger of Europe and Asia. That unified land mass, he said, would soon become the epicenter of global power.

In 1997, in his book The Grand Chess Board, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski updated MacKinder, arguing that “geopolitics has moved from the regional to the global dimension, with preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent serving as the central basis for global primacy.” In words particularly apt for our present world, he added: “America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.”

More than a quarter-century later, imagine geopolitics as a deep substrate shaping far more superficial political events, even if it’s only noticeable in certain moments, much the way the incessant grinding of the planet’s tectonic plates only becomes visible when volcanic eruptions break through the earth’s surface. For centuries, if not millennia, Europe was separated from Asia by endless deserts and sprawling grasslands. The empty center of that vast land mass was crossed only by an occasional string of camels travelling the ancient Silk Road.

Now, thanks to its trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure — rails, roads, pipelines, and ports — China is fundamentally changing that geopolitical substrate through a more than metaphoric merger of continents. If President Xi’s grand design succeeds, Beijing will forge a unified market stretching 6,000 miles from the North Sea to the South China Sea, eventually encompassing 70% of all humanity, and effectively fusing Europe and Asia into a single economic continent: Eurasia.

Despite the Biden administration’s fervid attempts to create an anti-Chinese coalition, recent diplomatic eruptions are shaping a new world order that isn’t at all what Washington has in mind. With the economic creation of a true Eurasian sphere seemingly underway, from that Iran-Saudi entente to Macron’s visit to Beijing, we may be seeing the first signs of the changing face of international politics. The question is: Could a Chinese-engineered peace in Ukraine be next in line?  

Pressures on China for Peace

Such growing geopolitical power is giving China both the motivation and potentially even the means to negotiate an end to the fighting in Ukraine. First, the means: as Russia’s chief customer for its commodity exports, and Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the war, China can use commercial pressure to bring both parties to the bargaining table — much as it did for Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Next, the motivation: while Moscow and Kyiv might each exude confidence in ultimate victory in their forever war, Beijing has reason to grow impatient with the economic disruptions radiating out across the Black Sea to roil a delicately balanced global economy. According to the World Bank, almost half of humanity (47%) is now surviving on seven dollars a day, and most of them live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where China has made massive, long-term developmental loans to 148 countries under its Belt and Road Initiative.

With 70% of its lands and their rich black soils devoted to agriculture, Ukraine has, for decades, produced bumper crops of wheat, barley, soybeans, and sunflower oil that made it “the breadbasket of the world,” providing the globe’s hungry millions with reliable shipments of affordable commodities. Right after the Russian invasion, however, world prices for grains and vegetable oils shot up by 60%. Despite stabilization efforts, including the U.N.’s Black Sea Grain Initiative to allow exports through the war zone, prices for such essentials remain all too high. And they threaten to go higher still with further disruption of global supply chains or more war damage like the recent rupture of a crucial Ukrainian irrigation dam that’s turning more than a million acres of prime farmland into “desert.”

As costs for imports of fertilizer, grain, and other foodstuffs have soared since the Russian invasion, the Council on Foreign Relations reports that “a climbing number of low-income BRI countries have struggled to repay loans associated with the initiative, spurring a wave of debt crises.” In the Horn of Africa, for example, the sixth year of a crippling drought has pushed an estimated 23 million people into a “hunger crisis,” forcing the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya to balance costly food imports with the repayment of Chinese loans for the creation of critical infrastructure like factories, railroads, and renewable energy. With such loans surpassing 20% of gross domestic product (GDP) in nations like Ghana, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Zambia, while China itself holds outstanding credits equivalent to 25% of its GDP, Beijing is far more invested in global economic peace and stability than any other major power.

Beyond Western Fantasies of Victory

At present, Beijing might seem alone among major nations in its concern about the strain the Ukraine war is placing on a world economy poised between starvation and survival. But within the coming six months, Western opinion will likely start to shift as its inflated expectations for Ukrainian victory in its long-awaited “spring counteroffensive” meet the reality of Russia’s return to trench warfare.

After the stunning success of Ukraine’s offensives late last year near Kharkiv and Kherson, the West dropped its reticence about provoking Putin and began shipping billions of dollars of sophisticated equipment — first, HIMARS and Hawk missiles, then Leopard and Abrams battle tanks, and, by the end of this year, advanced F-16 jet fighters. By the war’s first anniversary last February, the West had already provided Kyiv with $115 billion in aid and expectations of success rose with each new arms shipment. Adding to that anticipation, Moscow’s own “winter offensive” with its desperate suicide attacks on the city of Bakhmut suggested, as Foreign Affairs  put it, that “the Russian military demonstrated… it was no longer capable of large-scale combat operations.”

But defense is another matter. While Moscow was wasting some 20,000 lives on suicide assaults on Bakhmut, its specialized tractors were cutting a formidable network of trenches and tank traps along a 600-mile front designed to stall any Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukraine’s troops will probably achieve some breakthroughs when that offensive finally begins, but are unlikely to push Russia back from all its post-invasion gains. Remember that Russia’s army of 1.3 million is three times larger than Ukraine’s which has also suffered many casualties. In March, the commander of Ukraine’s 46th Air Assault brigade told the Washington Post that a year of combat had left 100 dead and 400 wounded in his 500-man unit and that they were being replaced by raw recruits, some of whom fled at the very sound of rifle fire. To counter the few dozen “symbolic” Leopard tanks the West is sending, Russia has thousands of older-model tanks in reserve. Despite U.S. and European sanctions, Russia’s economy has actually continued to grow, while Ukraine’s, which was only about a tenth the size of Russia’s, has shrunk by 30%. Facts like these mean just one thing is likely: stalemate.

Beijing as Peacemaker

By next December, if Ukraine’s counteroffensive has indeed stalled, its people face another cold, dark winter of drone attacks, while Russia’s rising casualties and lack of results might by then begin to challenge Putin’s hold on power. In other words, both combatants might feel far more compelled to sit down in Beijing for peace talks. With the threat of future disruptions damaging its delicate global position, Beijing will likely deploy its full economic power to press the parties for a settlement. By trading territory, while agreeing with China on reconstruction aid, and some further strictures on Ukraine’s future NATO membership, both sides might feel they had won enough concessions to sign an agreement.

Not only would China then gain enormous prestige for brokering such a peace deal, but it might win a preferential position in the reconstruction bonanza that would follow by offering aid to rebuild both a ravaged Ukraine and a damaged Russia. In a recent report, the World Bank estimates that it could take $411 billion over a decade to rebuild a devastated Ukraine through infrastructure contracts of the very kind Chinese construction companies are so ready to undertake. To sweeten such deals, Ukraine could also allow China to build massive factories to supply Europe’s soaring demand for renewable energy and electric vehicles. Apart from the profits involved, such Chinese-Ukrainian joint ventures would ramp up production at a time when that country is likely to gain duty-free access to the European market.

In the post-war moment, with the possibility that Ukraine will be an increasingly strong economic ally at the edge of Europe, Russia still a reliable supplier of cut-rate commodities, and the European market ever more open to its state corporations, China is likely to emerge from that disastrous conflict — to use Brzezinski’s well-chosen words — with its “preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent” consolidated and its “basis for global primacy” significantly strengthened.

Does the Rise of China in Eurasia mean the Fall of the United States as the Global Power? Fri, 28 Apr 2023 04:02:57 +0000 ( – From the ashes of a world war that killed 80 million people and reduced great cities to smoking rubble, America rose like a Titan of Greek legend, unharmed and armed with extraordinary military and economic power, to govern the globe. During four years of combat against the Axis leaders in Berlin and Tokyo that raged across the planet, America’s wartime commanders — George Marshall in Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower in Europe, and Chester Nimitz in the Pacific — knew that their main strategic objective was to gain control over the vast Eurasian landmass. Whether you’re talking about desert warfare in North Africa, the D-Day landing at Normandy, bloody battles on the Burma-India border, or the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific, the Allied strategy in World War II involved constricting the reach of the Axis powers globally and then wresting that very continent from their grasp.

That past, though seemingly distant, is still shaping the world we live in. Those legendary generals and admirals are, of course, long gone, but the geopolitics they practiced at such a cost still has profound implications. For just as Washington encircled Eurasia to win a great war and global hegemony, so Beijing is now involved in a far less militarized reprise of that reach for global power.

And to be blunt, these days, China’s gain is America’s loss. Every step Beijing takes to consolidate its control over Eurasia simultaneously weakens Washington’s presence on that strategic continent and so erodes its once formidable global power.

A Cold War Strategy

After four embattled years imbibing lessons about geopolitics with their morning coffee and bourbon nightcaps, America’s wartime generation of generals and admirals understood, intuitively, how to respond to the future alliance of the two great communist powers in Moscow and Beijing.

In 1948, following his move from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State George Marshall launched the $13 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild a war-torn Western Europe, laying the economic foundations for the formation of the NATO alliance just a year later. After a similar move from the wartime Allied headquarters in London to the White House in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped complete a chain of military bastions along Eurasia’s Pacific littoral by signing a series of mutual-security pacts — with South Korea in 1953, Taiwan in 1954, and Japan in 1960. For the next 70 years, that island chain would serve as the strategic hinge on Washington’s global power, critical for both the defense of North America and dominance over Eurasia.

After fighting to conquer much of that vast continent during World War II, America’s postwar leaders certainly knew how to defend their gains. For more than 40 years, their unrelenting efforts to dominate Eurasia assured Washington of an upper hand and, in the end, victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. To constrain the communist powers inside that continent, the U.S. ringed its 6,000 miles with 800 military bases, thousands of jet fighters, and three massive naval armadas — the 6th Fleet in the Atlantic, the 7th Fleet in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, and, somewhat later, the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf.

Thanks to diplomat George Kennan, that strategy gained the name “containment” and, with it, Washington could, in effect, sit back and wait while the Sino-Soviet bloc imploded through diplomatic blunder and military misadventure. After the Beijing-Moscow split of 1962 and China’s subsequent collapse into the chaos of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the Soviet Union tried repeatedly, if unsuccessfully, to break out of its geopolitical isolation — in the Congo, Cuba, Laos, Egypt, Ethiopia, Angola, and Afghanistan. In the last and most disastrous of those interventions, which Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to term “the bleeding wound,” the Red Army deployed 110,000 soldiers for nine years of brutal Afghan combat, hemorrhaging money and manpower in ways that would contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In that heady moment of seeming victory as the sole superpower left on planet Earth, a younger generation of Washington foreign-policy leaders, trained not on battlefields but in think tanks, took little more than a decade to let that unprecedented global power start to slip away. Toward the close of the Cold War era in 1989, Francis Fukuyama, an academic working in the State Department’s policy planning unit, won instant fame among Washington insiders with his seductive phrase “the end of history.” He argued that America’s liberal world order would soon sweep up all of humanity on an endless tide of capitalist democracy. As he put it in a much-cited essay: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident… in the total exhaustion of viable systemic alternatives to Western liberalism… seen also in the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture.”

The Invisible Power of Geopolitics

Amid such triumphalist rhetoric, Zbigniew Brzezinski, another academic sobered by more worldly experience, reflected on what he had learned about geopolitics during the Cold War as an adviser to two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski offered the first serious American study of geopolitics in more than half a century. In the process, he warned that the depth of U.S. global hegemony, even at this peak of unipolar power, was inherently “shallow.”

For the United States and, he added, every major power of the past 500 years, Eurasia, home to 75% of the world’s population and productivity, was always “the chief geopolitical prize.” To perpetuate its “preponderance on the Eurasian continent” and so preserve its global power, Washington would, he warned, have to counter three threats: “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along the Pacific littoral; ejection from its “perch on the western periphery” of the continent provided by NATO; and finally, the formation of “an assertive single entity” in the sprawling center of Eurasia.

Arguing for Eurasia’s continued post-Cold War centrality, Brzezinski drew heavily on the work of a long-forgotten British academic, Sir Halford Mackinder. In a 1904 essay that sparked the modern study of geopolitics, Mackinder observed that, for the past 500 years, European imperial powers had dominated Eurasia from the sea, but the construction of trans-continental railroads was shifting the locus of control to its vast interior “heartland.” In 1919, in the wake of World War I, he also argued that Eurasia, along with Africa, formed a massive “world island” and offered this bold geopolitical formula: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.” Clearly, Mackinder was about 100 years premature in his predictions.

But today, by combining Mackinder’s geopolitical theory with Brzezinski’s gloss on global politics, it’s possible to discern, in the confusion of this moment, some potential long-term trends. Imagine Mackinder-style geopolitics as a deep substrate that shapes more ephemeral political events, much the way the slow grinding of the planet’s tectonic plates becomes visible when volcanic eruptions break through the earth’s surface. Now, let’s try to imagine what all this means in terms of international geopolitics today.

China’s Geopolitical Gambit

In the decades since the Cold War’s close, China’s increasing control over Eurasia clearly represents a fundamental change in that continent’s geopolitics. Convinced that Beijing would play the global game by U.S. rules, Washington’s foreign policy establishment made a major strategic miscalculation in 2001 by admitting it to the World Trade Organization (WTO). “Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community,” confessed 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.” In little more than a decade after it joined the WTO, Beijing’s annual exports to the U.S. grew nearly five-fold and its foreign currency reserves soared from just $200 billion to an unprecedented $4 trillion by 2013.

In 2013, drawing on those vast cash reserves, China’s new president, Xi Jinping, launched a trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative to transform Eurasia into a unified market. As a steel grid of rails and petroleum pipelines began crisscrossing the continent, China ringed the tri-continental world island with a chain of 40 commercial ports — from Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, around Africa’s coast, to Europe from Piraeus, Greece, to Hamburg, Germany. In launching what soon became history’s largest development project, 10 times the size of the Marshall Plan, Xi is consolidating Beijing’s geopolitical dominance over Eurasia, while fulfilling Brzezinski’s fear of the rise of “an assertive single entity” in Central Asia.

Unlike the U.S., China hasn’t spent significant effort establishing military bases. While Washington still maintains some 750 of them in 80 nations, Beijing has just one military base in Djibouti on the east African coast, a signals intercept post on Myanmar’s Coco Islands in the Bay of Bengal, a compact installation in eastern Tajikistan, and half a dozen small outposts in the South China Sea.

Moreover, while Beijing was focused on building Eurasian infrastructure, Washington was fighting two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in a strategically inept bid to dominate the Middle East and its oil reserves (just as the world was beginning to transition away from petroleum to renewable energy). In contrast, Beijing has concentrated on the slow, stealthy accretion of investments and influence across Eurasia from the South China Sea to the North Sea. By changing the continent’s underlying geopolitics through this commercial integration, it’s winning a level of control not seen in the last thousand years, while unleashing powerful forces for political change.

Tectonic Shifts Shake U.S. Power

After a decade of Beijing’s relentless economic expansion across Eurasia, the tectonic shifts in that continent’s geopolitical substrate have begun to manifest themselves in a series of diplomatic eruptions, each erasing another aspect of U.S. influence. Four of the more recent ones might seem, at first glance, unrelated but are all driven by the relentless force of geopolitical change.

First came the sudden, unexpected collapse of the U.S. position in Afghanistan, forcing Washington to end its 20-year occupation in August 2021 with a humiliating withdrawal. In a slow, stealthy geopolitical squeeze play, Beijing had signed massive development deals with all the surrounding Central Asian nations, leaving American troops isolated there. To provide critical air support for its infantry, U.S. jet fighters were often forced to fly 2,000 miles from their nearest base in the Persian Gulf — an unsustainable long-term situation and unsafe for troops on the ground. As the U.S.-trained Afghan Army collapsed and Taliban guerrillas drove into Kabul atop captured Humvees, the chaotic U.S. retreat in defeat became unavoidable.

Just six months later in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin massed an armada of armored vehicles loaded with 200,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. If Putin is to be believed, his “special military operation” was to be a bid to undermine NATO’s influence and weaken the Western alliance — one of Brzezinski’s conditions for the U.S. eviction from Eurasia.

But first Putin visited Beijing to court President Xi’s support, a seemingly tall order given China’s decades of lucrative trade with the United States, worth a mind-boggling $500 billion in 2021. Yet Putin scored a joint declaration that the two nations’ relations were “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era” and a denunciation of “the further expansion of NATO.”

As it happened, Putin did so at a perilous price. Instead of attacking Ukraine in frozen February when his tanks could have maneuvered off-road on their way to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, he had to wait out Beijing’s Winter Olympics. So, Russian troops invaded instead in muddy March, leaving his armored vehicles stuck in a 40-mile traffic jam on a single highway where the Ukrainians readily destroyed more than 1,000 tanks. Facing diplomatic isolation and European trade embargos as his defeated invasion degenerated into a set of vengeful massacres, Moscow shifted much of its exports to China. That quickly raised bilateral trade by 30% to an all-time high, while reducing Russia to but another piece on Beijing’s geopolitical chessboard.

Then, just last month, Washington found itself diplomatically marginalized by an utterly unexpected resolution of the sectarian divide that had long defined the politics of the Middle East. After signing a $400-billion infrastructure deal with Iran and making Saudi Arabia its top oil supplier, Beijing was well positioned to broker a major diplomatic rapprochement between those bitter regional rivals, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Within weeks, the foreign ministers of the two nations sealed the deal with a deeply symbolic voyage to Beijing — a bittersweet reminder of the days not long ago when Arab diplomats paid court in Washington.

Finally, the Biden administration was stunned this month when Europe’s preeminent leader, Emmanuel Macron of France, visited Beijing for a series of intimate tête-à-tête chats with China’s President Xi. At the close of that extraordinary journey, which won French companies billions in lucrative contracts, Macron announced “a global strategic partnership with China” and promised he would not “take our cue from the U.S. agenda” over Taiwan. A spokesman for the Élysée Palace quickly released a pro forma clarification that “the United States is our ally, with shared values.” Even so, Macron’s Beijing declaration reflected both his own long-term vision of the European Union as an independent strategic player and that bloc’s ever-closer economic ties to China

The Future of Geopolitical Power

Projecting such political trends a decade into the future, Taiwan’s fate would seem, at best, uncertain. Instead of the “shock and awe” of aerial bombardments, Washington’s default mode of diplomatic discourse in this century, Beijing prefers stealthy, sedulous geopolitical pressure. In building its island bases in the South China Sea, for example, it inched forward incrementally — first dredging, then building structures, next runways, and finally emplacing anti-aircraft missiles — in the process avoiding any confrontation over its functional capture of an entire sea.

Lest we forget, Beijing has built its formidable economic-political-military power in little more than a decade. If its strength continues to increase inside Eurasia’s geopolitical substrate at even a fraction of that head-spinning pace for another decade, it may be able to execute a deft geopolitical squeeze-play on Taiwan like the one that drove the U.S. out of Afghanistan. Whether from a customs embargo, incessant naval patrols, or some other form of pressure, Taiwan might just fall quietly into Beijing’s grasp.

Should such a geopolitical gambit prevail, the U.S. strategic frontier along the Pacific littoral would be broken, possibly pushing its Navy back to a “second island chain” from Japan to Guam — the last of Brzezinski’s criteria for the true waning of U.S. global power. In that event, Washington’s leaders could once again find themselves sitting on the proverbial diplomatic and economic sidelines, wondering how it all happened.


At the Brink of War in the Pacific? The Nightmare of Great Power Rivalry Over Taiwan Fri, 03 Mar 2023 05:02:31 +0000 ( ) – While the world has been distracted, even amused, by the diplomatic tussle around China’s recent high-altitude balloon flights across North America, there are signs that Beijing and Washington are preparing for something so much more serious: armed conflict over Taiwan. Reviewing recent developments in the Asia-Pacific region raises a tried-and-true historical lesson that bears repeating at this dangerous moment in history: when nations prepare for war, they are far more likely to go to war.

In The Guns of August, her magisterial account of another conflict nobody wanted, Barbara Tuchman attributed the start of World War I in 1914 to French and German plans already in place. “Appalled upon the brink,” she wrote, “the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away, but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.” In a similar fashion, Beijing and Washington have been making military, diplomatic, and semi-secretive moves that could drag us into a calamitous conflict that, once again, nobody wants.

At the apex of power, national leaders in Beijing and Washington have staked out starkly contrasting positions on Taiwan’s future. For nearly a year now, President Joe Biden has been trying to resolve the underlying ambiguity in previous U.S. policy toward that island by stating repeatedly that he would indeed defend it from any mainland attack. In May of last year, in response to a reporter’s question about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, he said, “Yes,” the U.S. would intervene militarily. He then added: “We agree with the One China policy. We signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there, but the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is [just not] appropriate.”

As Biden acknowledged, by extending diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979, Washington had indeed accepted China’s future sovereignty over Taiwan. For the next 40 years, presidents from both parties made public statements opposing Taiwan’s independence. In effect, they conceded that the island was a Chinese province and its fate a domestic matter (even if they opposed the People’s Republic doing anything about it in the immediate future).

Nonetheless, Biden has persisted in his aggressive rhetoric. He told CBS News last September, for instance, that he would indeed send U.S. troops to defend Taiwan “if, in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.” Then, in a significant break with longstanding U.S. policy, he added: “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence… That’s their decision.”

Within weeks, at a Communist Party Congress, Chinese President Xi Jinping responded with a strong personal commitment to the unification of Taiwan — by force if necessary. “We insist on striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification,” he said, “but we will never promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures.”

After a long burst of applause from the 2,000 party officials massed in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, he then invoked the inevitability of Marxian dialectical forces that would insure the victory he was promising. “The historical wheels of national reunification and national rejuvenation are rolling forward,” he said, “and the complete reunification of the motherland must be achieved.”

As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt once reminded us, a sense of historical inevitability is a dangerous ideological trigger that can plunge authoritarian states like China into otherwise unthinkable wars or unimaginable mass slaughter.

War Preparations Move Down the Chain of Command

Not surprisingly, the forceful statements of Biden and Xi have been working their way down the chain of command in both countries. In January, a four-star U.S. Air Force general, Mike Minihan, sent a formal memo to his massive Air Mobility Command of 500 aircraft and 50,000 troops, ordering them to ramp up their training for war with China. “My gut tells me,” he concluded, that “we will fight in 2025.” Instead of repudiating the general’s statement, a Pentagon spokesman simply added, “The National Defense Strategy makes clear that China is the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense.”

Nor is General Minihan even the first senior officer to have made such foreboding statements. As early as March 2021, the head of the Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, warned Congress that China was planning to invade the island by 2027: “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions… And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”

Unlike their American opposites, China’s service chiefs have been publicly silent on the subject, but their aircraft have been eloquent indeed. After President Biden signed a defense appropriation bill last December with $10 billion in military aid for Taiwan, an unprecedented armada of 71 Chinese aircraft and many more military drones swarmed that island’s air defenses in a single 24-hour period.

As such tit-for-tat escalation only increases, Washington has matched China’s aggression with major diplomatic and military initiatives. Indeed, the assistant defense secretary for the Indo-Pacific, Ely Ratner, has promised, ominously enough, that “2023 is likely to stand as the most transformative year in U.S. force posture in the region in a generation.”

During a recent tour of Asian allies, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin claimed some significant strategic gains. On a stopover in Seoul, he and his South Korean counterpart announced that the U.S. would deploy aircraft carriers and additional jets for expanded live-fire exercises — a distinctly escalatory move after the curtailment of such joint operations during the Trump years.

Moving on to Manila, Austin revealed that the Philippines had just granted U.S. troops access to four more military bases, several facing Taiwan across a narrow strait. These were needed, he said, because “the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims” in the South China Sea.

China’s Foreign Ministry seemed stung by the news. After a successful diplomatic courtship of the previous Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, that had checked U.S. influence while accepting the Chinese occupation of islands in Philippine waters, Beijing could now do little more than condemn Washington’s access to those bases for “endangering regional peace and stability.” Although some Filipino nationalists objected that an American presence might invite a nuclear attack, according to reliable polling, 84% of Filipinos felt that their country should cooperate with the United States to defend their territorial waters from China.

Both of those announcements were dividends from months of diplomacy and down payments on major military deployments to come. The annual U.S. “defense” bill for 2023 is funding the construction of military installations across the Pacific. And even as Japan is doubling its defense budget, in part to protect its southern Islands from China, U.S. Marines in Okinawa plan to trade their tanks and heavy artillery for agile drones and shoulder-fired missiles as they form “littoral regiments” capable of rapid deployment to the smallest of islands in the region.

Secret Strategies

In contrast to those public statements, semi-secret strategies on both sides of the Pacific have generally escaped much notice. If the U.S. military commitment to Taiwan remains at least somewhat ambiguous, this country’s economic dependence on that island’s computer-chip production is almost absolute. As the epicenter of a global supply chain, Taiwan manufactures 90% of the world’s advanced chips and 65% of all semiconductors. (In comparison, China’s share of chips is 5% and the U.S. slice only 10%.) As the world’s top producer of the most critical component in everything from consumer cell phones to military missiles, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is the leading innovator, supplying Apple and other U.S. tech firms.

Now, American officials are moving to change that. Having overseen the breaking of ground for a $12 billion TSMC chip-production factory in Phoenix in 2020, only two years later, Arizona’s governor announced that “TSMC has completed construction of its main facility.” Last August, just before President Biden signed the $52 billion CHIPS and Science Act, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo insisted that “our dependence on Taiwan for chips is untenable and unsafe.”

Only three months later, TSMC reached for a large slice of those federal funds by investing $28 billion in a second Phoenix factory that, when opened in 2026, will produce what the New York Times has called “more advanced — though not the most advanced — chip-making technology.” At a ceremony featuring President Biden last December, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook proclaimed, “This is an incredibly significant moment.”

That might be true, but the focus on Phoenix obscured equally significant chip factory projects being put in place by Samsung in Texas, Intel in Ohio, and Micron Technology in New York. Add it all up and the U.S. is already about halfway to the “minimum of three years and a $350 billion investment… to replace the Taiwanese [chip] foundries,” according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

In other words, if Beijing did decide to invade Taiwan after 2026, TSMC’s intellectual capital, in the form of its top computer scientists, would undoubtedly be on outbound flights for Phoenix, leaving little more than a few concrete shells and some sabotaged equipment behind. The global supply chain for silicon chips involving Dutch machines (for extreme ultraviolet lithography), American designs, and Taiwanese production would probably continue without much of a hitch in the United States, Japan, and Europe, leaving the People’s Republic of China with little more than its minimalist 5% of the world’s $570 billion semiconductor industry.

China’s secret calculus over an invasion of Taiwan is undoubtedly more complex. In mid-February at Munich, Secretary of State Antony Blinken charged that Beijing was considering giving Moscow “lethal support” for its war in Ukraine, adding that “we’ve made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for… our relationship.”

But China is faced with a far more difficult choice than Blinken’s blithe rhetoric suggests. From its impressive arsenal, Beijing could readily supply Moscow with enough of its Hong Niao cruise missiles to destroy most of Ukraine’s armored vehicles (with plenty left over to demolish Kyiv’s faltering electrical infrastructure).

Bleeding NATO in that way would, however, pay limited dividends for any possible future Chinese plans vis-a-vis Taiwan. In contrast, the types of ground-warfare armaments Washington and its allies continue to pour into Ukraine would do little to strain the U.S. naval capacity in the Western Pacific.

Moreover, the diplomatic and economic price Beijing would pay for a significant involvement in the Ukraine War might well prove prohibitive. As the world’s largest consumer of imported cheap oil and wheat, which Russia exports in abundance, China needs a humbled Putin, desperate for markets and compliant with its designs for greater dominion over Eurasia. A triumphant Putin, bending the will of timorous states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia while negotiating ever-tougher deals for his exports, is hardly in Beijing’s interest.

Ignoring the existential threat Putin’s war poses for the European Union would also cost Beijing decades of diplomacy and billions in infrastructure funds already invested to knit all of Eurasia, from the North Sea to the South China Sea, into an integrated economy. In addition, siding with a distinctly secondary power that has blatantly violated the core principle of the international order — which bars the acquisition of territory by armed conquest — is hardly likely to advance Beijing’s sustained bid for global leadership.

Vladimir Putin might indeed try to equate China’s claim to a breakaway province in Taiwan with his own bid for former Soviet territory in Ukraine, but the analogy is anathema to Beijing. “Taiwan is not Ukraine,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced last year, the day before Putin invaded Ukraine. “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact.”

The Costs of War

With both Beijing and Washington contemplating a possible future war over Taiwan, it’s important (especially in light of Ukraine) to consider the likely costs of such a conflict. In November 2021, the venerable Reuters News Agency compiled a series of credible scenarios for a China-U.S. war over Taiwan. If the United States decided to fight for the island, said Reuters, “there is no guarantee it would defeat an increasingly powerful PLA [People’s Liberation Army].”

In its least violent scenario, Reuters speculated that Beijing could use its navy to impose a “customs quarantine” around Taiwan, while announcing an Air Defense Identification Zone over the island and warning the world not to violate its sovereignty. Then, to tighten the noose, it could move to a full blockade, laying mines at major ports and cutting underwater cables. Should Washington decide to intervene, its submarines would undoubtedly sink numerous PLA warships, while its surface vessels could launch aircraft and missiles as well. But China’s powerful air-defense system would undoubtedly fire thousands of its own missiles, inflicting “heavy losses” on the U.S. Navy. Rather than attempting a difficult amphibious invasion, Beijing might complete this staged escalation with saturation missile attacks on Taiwan’s cities until its leaders capitulated.

In the Reuters scenario for all-out war, Beijing decides “to mount the biggest and most complex amphibious and airborne landing ever attempted,” seeking to “overwhelm the island before the United States and its allies can respond.” To hold off a U.S. counterattack, the PLA might fire missiles at American bases in Japan and Guam. While Taiwan launched jets and missiles to deter the invasion fleet, U.S. carrier battle groups would steam toward the island and, “within hours, a major war [would be] raging in East Asia.”

In August 2022, the Brookings Institution released more precise estimates of likely losses from various scenarios in such a war. Although China’s “recent and dramatic military modernizations have sharply reduced America’s ability to defend the island,” the complexities of such a clash, wrote the Brookings analyst, make “the outcome… inherently unknowable.” Only one thing would be certain: the losses on both sides (including in Taiwan itself) would be devastating.

In Brookings’ first scenario involving “a maritime fight centered on submarines,” Beijing would impose a blockade and Washington would respond with naval convoys to sustain the island. If the United States were to knock out Beijing’s communications, the U.S. Navy would lose just 12 warships, while sinking all 60 of China’s subs. If, by contrast, China maintained its communications, it could possibly sink 100 vessels, mostly U.S. warships, while losing only 29 subs.  

In Brookings’ second scenario for “a broader subregional war,” both sides would use jets and missiles in a struggle that would engulf southeastern China, Taiwan, and U.S. bases in Japan, Okinawa, and Guam. If China’s attacks proved successful, it might destroy 40 to 80 U.S. and Taiwanese warships at a cost of some 400 Chinese aircraft. If the U.S. got the upper hand, it could destroy “much of China’s military in southeastern China,” while shooting down more than 400 PLA aircraft, even as it suffered heavy losses of its own jets.

By focusing largely on military losses, which are chilling enough, both studies grossly underestimate the real costs and potential devastation to Taiwan and much of East Asia. My own instinct tells me that, should China impose a customs blockade on the island, Washington would blink hard at the thought of losing hundreds of aircraft and dozens of warships, including an aircraft carrier or two, and retreat to its longstanding policy of regarding Taiwan as China’s territory. If the U.S. did challenge that customs interdiction zone, however, it would have to attack the Chinese blockade and might, in the eyes of much of the world, become the aggressor — a real disincentive from Washington’s point of view.

Should China launch an all-out invasion, however, Taiwan would likely succumb within a few days once its air force of just 470 combat aircraft was overwhelmed by the PLA’s 2,900 jet fighters, 2,100 supersonic missiles, and its massive navy, now the world’s largest. Reflecting China’s clear strategic advantage of simple proximity to Taiwan, the island’s occupation might well be a fait accompli before the U.S. Navy ships could arrive from Japan and Hawaii in sufficient numbers to challenge the massive Chinese armada.

If Beijing and Washington somehow let the pull of policy and planning drag them into such an ever-widening war, however, the damage could still prove incalculable — with cities devastated, untold thousands dead, and the global economy, with its epicenter in Asia, left in ruins. Let us only hope that today’s leaders in both Washington and Beijing prove more restrained than did their counterparts in Berlin and Paris in August 1914 when plans for victory unleashed a war that would leave 20 million dead in its wake.

Via )

Could the United States return to a Good Neighbor Policy in the Americas? Can it afford not to? Thu, 12 Jan 2023 05:02:38 +0000 ( ) – A few recent headlines reveal the painfully inhumane, dangerously volatile state of U.S. relations with its own home region, the continent of North America. A record-breaking 2.76 million border crossings from Mexico filled homeless shelters to the bursting point in cities nationwide in 2022. This year, the possible cessation of Covid restrictions could allow tens of thousands more migrants, now huddling in the cold of northern Mexico, to surge across the border, as some are already able to do. Most of those refugees are Central Americans, fleeing cities ravaged by gang warfare and farms devastated by climate change. The inept U.S. response to such a disturbing world ranges from the Biden administration’s nervously biding its time without a plan in sight to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s cutting an ugly scar through a pristine national forest by building a four-mile border “wall” out of rusted shipping containers (which he now has to dismantle).

Meanwhile, miserable millions in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince are struggling to survive in the world’s worst slums, ravaged by recent earthquakes and roiled by endemic gang violence. While the U.N. Security Council debated launching an international military intervention to address what its secretary-general called “an absolutely nightmarish situation,” the U.S. expelled another 26,000 Haitian asylum seekers without hearings in 2022. The harshness of that was caught in September 2021 when Border Patrol horsemen used “unnecessary force” to herd Haitians back across the Rio Grande. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Washington’s recent economic sanctions on communist Cuba — imposed by Trump and maintained by Biden — have sparked the flight to the U.S. of 250,000 refugees last year, more than 2% of the island’s population.

Farther south, after years of U.S.-led economic blockades and at least one Washington-sponsored coup, Venezuela has hemorrhaged 6.8 million of its citizens in what the U.N. called “the largest refugee and migrant crisis worldwide.” In 2018, only 100 Venezuelans crossed the southern U.S. border. In 2022, that number was an unprecedented 188,000. And keep in mind that all of this is likely to seem but a trickle in the years to come when, as the World Bank warned recently, a human flood may head north as the devastation of climate change uproots as many as four million people annually from Mexico and Central America.

The Fundamentals of Geopolitical Change

As bad as this might seem, there are some faint signs that, however fitfully, the U.S. could at least be moving toward a more positive relationship with its home continent of North America — which includes Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the island nations of the Caribbean. And it can’t happen soon enough since, within a decade, the growth of a multipolar world will slowly replace Washington’s dreams of global hegemony with multinational alliances like the European Union or rising regional powers like Brazil, India, Nigeria, and Turkey.

At the broadest level, geopolitical change is eroding the capacity of any would-be hegemon, China included, to dominate much of the globe the way Washington did for the past 75 years. As the U.S. share of the global economy declined from a whopping 50% in 1950 to just 13% in 2021, its world leadership followed a similar downward trajectory, a process not unlike what Great Britain experienced in the decades before World War I. This relative economic and imperial decline is now undercutting Washington’s long-sought goal of maintaining its dominance over Eurasia, the epicenter of global power. It did so for decades via a tripartite geopolitical strategy — controlling the continent’s western end thanks to NATO and its east via a vast chain of military bases along the Pacific littoral, while working assiduously to block either China or Russia from achieving any sort of full-scale dominance in Central Asia.

Dream on, as they say. In this century, with its disastrous wars, Washington has already lost much of its influence in both the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, as once-close allies (Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) go their own ways. Meanwhile, China has gained significant control over Central Asia, while its recent ad-hoc alliance with an ever-more-battered Russia only fortifies its growing geopolitical power on the Eurasian continent.

Although the Ukraine war has momentarily strengthened the NATO alliance, the unilateral U.S. retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, ending a disastrous 20-year war, forced European leaders for the first time in half a century to consider what life and NATO might be like on a changing planet. They are only now beginning to imagine what taking charge of their own defense would mean perhaps a decade from now, with most U.S. military forces withdrawn from Europe. For the first time in memory, in other words, we could truly find ourselves on another planet.

At Eurasia’s eastern end, Beijing and Washington seem to be squaring off ominously for an armed showdown over Taiwan that — as laid out in a six-phase scenario by the Reuters news service — would likely destroy that island’s cities, disrupt world trade, and devastate much of East Asia. Given Beijing’s strategic advantage of simple proximity to that island and the likelihood of heavy U.S. naval losses in such a conflict, Washington would, in the end, probably blink and retreat from the “first island chain” (Japan-Taiwan-Philippines) to a “second island chain” (Japan-Guam-Palau) or even a “third island chain” (Alaska-Hawaii-New Zealand).

Even without such a disastrous future conflict, which could of course go nuclear, Washington’s position in Eurasia is already beginning to fade. Elsewhere in the world, its influence in South America has fallen strikingly since the Cold War of the last century, while China, capitalizing on a now half-century-old alliance with independent states in Africa, has become the leading power on that continent.

The Rise of Regional Powers

Amid Washington’s fading global hegemony, its most lasting legacy, the liberal international order, has indeed fostered economic growth strengthening a set of regional powers known as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or, more recently, the “13 new emerging economies” (including Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa). Their rise is likely to prevent either Washington or Beijing from exercising anything akin to the kind of global dominion of the imperial age or the Cold War era that followed. Instead, regional associations like the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union are likely to grow ever stronger.

With its own global power fading fast, the United States will undoubtedly become a far more regional power. While some Washington insiders might see this trend as at best a retreat or at worst a defeat, it’s actually an opportunity to fundamentally reconsider relations with our home region, North America.

The current U.S. posture toward this continent is a twisted knot of contradictions, the bitter legacy of a fraught history. For more than a century, there has been a striking duality in Washington’s relations with its home region, marked by amity in the north and ambiguity or even hostility to the south, particularly Central America and the Caribbean. After breaking Britain’s decades of informal imperial rule over the whole of Latin America at the dawn of the twentieth century, Washington tried to control its southern neighbors with repeated military interventions — taking Puerto Rico in 1898 and seizing the Panama Canal Zone in 1903, while sending Marines to occupy Caribbean countries like Haiti for decades at a time.

In a bold attempt to change its imperial posture, President Franklin Roosevelt adopted a “good neighbor policy” in the 1930s, briefly abjuring armed occupations. Building on that goodwill, in 1947 Washington forged a mutual defense pact, the Rio Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, with some two-dozen countries in this hemisphere, including Mexico, most of Central America, and all of South America. The Cold War, however, soon brought a surge of controversial CIA interventions — the toppling of Guatemala’s democratic reformist government in 1954, the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961, the occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965, and a series bloody covert wars in Central America during the 1980s.

Even now, the social trauma from those secret wars, marked by massacres and U.S.-financed death squads, is evident in criminal gangs like MS-13 whose 60,000 estimated members now terrorize the northern tier of Central America, forcing many thousands of their victims to flee for the relative safety of the U.S. border. Instead of a collaborative effort to address an increasingly horrific regional brew of endemic violence and climate change, Washington has reacted ever more repressively, while mobilizing border patrols in a futile effort to seal off its southern frontier, as if it had no role in, or responsibility for, the fate of its neighbors.

To the north, by contrast, Canada provides a model for regional collaboration. After tense relations throughout the nineteenth century marked by several abortive U.S. invasions of Canada, Washington, starting in 1903, negotiated its boundary disputes with Ottawa. Those arbitrations became a model for modern international relations, while winning Secretary of State Elihu Root a Nobel Peace Prize. To cap off that process, in 1909 the two countries established the International Joint Commission, which has, for 110 years, amicably settled some 50 disputes, a few of which could otherwise have become quite serious.

As allies in World War I and World War II, the two nations have also developed a military alliance that has only deepened over the decades. Not only was Canada a co-founder of NATO in 1949, but at the height of the Cold War the countries merged their continental defenses by forming the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). As a fully binational command, with senior officers from both air forces, NORAD has become the strongest American alliance, charged with the aerial and, since 2006, maritime defense of the entire North American continent. Building on such resilient military ties, in 1994, the two nations joined Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which, though modified slightly under President Trump, has sustained close commercial ties among those three countries for the past 30 years.

Beyond NAFTA and NORAD

As a legacy of its troubled hemispheric history, however, U.S. relations with the rest of North America are a tangle of contradictions that only complicate painfully persistent problems. Yet there are now obvious solutions, using this country’s relationships with Canada and the European Union as models, that could begin to transcend the ever more unnerving irrationality of armed borders, asymmetric power, and punitive policies towards poorer southern neighbors.

In the wake of World War II and 1,000 years of almost endless warfare that made Europe the world’s most bloodstained continent, visionary new leaders moved step by step toward forming a regional confederation that would replace conflict with cooperation. That European Union (EU), in turn, would create unprecedented levels of productivity and prosperity (until, at least, Britain withdrew from the EU and, in more recent times, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine). Although all of the 27 member states retain their full sovereignty, the EU executive commission and parliament have, since the Lisbon Pact was signed in 2007, taken charge of common concerns for their 500 million citizens, including environmental policy, economic development, human rights, border security, and migration within the union.

To resolve its growing problems, the whole of North America – including Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean countries — could clearly benefit from a parallel union among its 23 sovereign states and their 590 million people. In many ways, the task should be easier than Europe’s. While the EU has 13 “official languages,” a North American Union would need only three — English, French, and Spanish — fewer than tiny Switzerland.

As in Europe once upon a time, the primary barrier to North American integration is the economic inequality between north and south. Since its introduction in 1994, NAFTA has fundamentally reshaped North American economic relations, increasing cross-border investment and tripling regional trade among Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. And here’s one surprising post-NAFTA development: between 1994 and 2007, undocumented Mexican migration to the United States only grew; since 2008, however, there has been a reverse flow “as more Mexican-born immigrants began leaving the United States than arriving.”

Hoping to imitate this success, in 2000 Congress approved the U.S.-Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership and, five years later, adopted the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). But special interests hobbled CAFTA from the outset, maximizing the negatives and muting the positives of such a multilateral accord, while its Caribbean counterpart has had, at best, little impact.

The Search for Solutions

With examples of both successful and failed agreements in this hemisphere, improved NAFTA-like pacts with the Caribbean and Central America could be negotiated. Given a genuine investment program aimed at more equitable economic integration, Washington could conceivably reduce, however gradually, the glaring economic inequality between the U.S. and Canada and their southern neighbors.

With such economic fundamentals in place, those countries could then move toward European Union-style shared governance, so as to better navigate the growing climate crisis and its threat of demographic disaster. Through genuine regional collaboration, as well as a redefinition of “defense” (as in Defense Department) as greater protection from onrushing natural disasters, Washington could become the epicenter of a multinational union.

As its population continues to age, with seniors expected to outnumber those under 18 by 2034, the United States will, in fact, have a pressing need for new migrant flows from the labor-rich nations of Central America and the Caribbean — as the Biden White House suggested in its June 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration. And as climate change brings raging tropical storms to the Caribbean and devastating drought to Central America’s northern triangle, Canada and the U.S. will be able to mobilize their legions of skilled scientists to search for environmental solutions that will allow rural populations to shelter more safely in place.

Finally, the massive U.S. defense budget, still dedicated to Washington’s dying dreams of global dominance (and the corporate weapons makers that go with it), could be redirected toward a new kind of regional defense. Its focus would be coping with a continent-wide eruption of climate-related disasters, including ever more intense droughts, floods, fires, storms, and the displaced populations that will go with them.

Managing such common concerns equitably (and effectively) will mean developing limited areas of shared sovereignty on the model of the European Union. To create a successor to the long-moribund Organization of American States (OAS), Ottawa and Washington could lead North America’s 23 sovereign nations in forming a permanent secretariat, akin to the European Commission.

Balancing national sovereignty with regional solidarity, such an empowered transnational body might then exercise executive authority over areas appropriate for shared governance, including civil defense, environmental disaster, economic growth, and labor flows. And should such a union prove effective, it could be expanded, much as the EU has been, until it incorporates the entire Western Hemisphere, supplanting or revitalizing the now comatose OAS.

By taking the necessary steps beyond CAFTA, NAFTA, and NORAD, Washington could help lead its North American neighbors, roiled by the ravages of climate change, toward a more perfect union. In the process, this entire hemisphere would ultimately become a far safer haven for its share of humanity in the troubled decades to come.


The New Cold War Heats Up Asia: China and the U.S. Face an Unprecedented Crisis Mon, 17 Oct 2022 04:04:31 +0000 ( ) – 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


What Difference Does a War Make? The Geopolitics of the New Cold War Wed, 22 Jun 2022 04:02:09 +0000 ( ) – 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