December 28, 2021
After their December 7 video call, President Biden said Putin got the message “loud and clear” that invading Ukraine (again) would incur a big price.
The actual message: the price would be tolerable.
Economic sanctions? Pah! Putin doesn’t give a turd about that. He’d care about a military bloody nose. But Biden made clear we won’t meet force with force.
Russia casts us as aggressors, pulling Ukraine from its ancient ties. Actually Russia was building a partnership with the West under Yeltsin, but Putin took it elsewhere; and bullied Ukraine into enmity instead of cultivating their historic affinity.
The seven decades after WWII saw a rules-based world order, with the most basic rule being no invasions. Major advanced nations no longer attacked each other. This was huge. Not only curbing war’s death and devastation, but promoting wealth-expanding world trade, driving global prosperity up and poverty down.
The architect and guarantor of this world order was America. Exemplified by treating Japan and Germany not as conquered domains, but building them up as our partners; the Marshall Plan to resuscitate Europe; and so much more. This was a new concept in world annals. And it reflected not just airy altruism, but self-interest, properly understood. Realizing we ourselves were primary beneficiaries, making a world better for us to live in.
Then it began to unravel. Perhaps starting when President Obama declared a red line regarding Syrian chemical weapons use, only to muff it. And in 2014 the system took a big hit when Russia got away with grabbing Crimea. Incurring economic sanctions that were, for Putin, mere annoyances.
Trump, ignorant of our true global interests, shredded them. Telling the world we could no longer be looked to, or trusted. Didn’t even understand what side we’re on. And whatever Biden does to patch things up, it’s clear there’s no longer a U.S. political consensus behind it, our global role now beholden to the whims of bloody-minded voters. Trump or his like could return. Congressional partisanship stymies our global engagement by blocking even many ambassadorial appointments. And Biden’s gestures are contradicted by the Afghanistan fiasco, making America look undependable.
The biggest looming test is Taiwan. Which China insists belongs to it. In fact, Taiwan is effectively an independent (and democratic) nation; and previously, except for 1945–49, was held by Japan, not China. Yet China asserts a right to seize Taiwan by force. And has been methodically assembling the means.
After Russia’s Crimea crime, it may be too late to get this genie back in the bottle. China’s raping Taiwan would be the death-blow for the post-WWII global order. Would America act to defend it? Militarily?
Our commitment to Taiwan was always left fuzzy — “strategic ambiguity” it’s been called. But Biden recently said we would indeed defend Taiwan. Yet China might not be deterred, skeptical that America today is up for such a battle. Taiwan means much more to China than (seemingly) to us. And it’s increasingly doubtful a Chinese invasion could be beaten.
In a recent gabfest, a friend (no dummy) said we’re tired of being the world’s hegemon — let some other country do it now. As if that might be one like Switzerland — not China! Other serious voices echo this. Words like “limits of power,” and “restraint” resonate. There’s a growing feeling that overseas engagement, like in Afghanistan, is doomed to futility. A creeping defeatist fatalism. One foreign policy maven on the PBS Newshour advocated resolving our “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan by announcing we would notdefend it. (An open invitation for China to invade.)
Few Americans seem to grasp the big picture of what’s at stake. The Economisthas said that after the global order’s demise, “Americans themselves may be surprised to discover how much they benefited from it.” We won’t like living in a world built to China’s blueprint.