U.S. foreign policy has set the country on a course destined to lead to a world of rivalry, strife and conflict into the foreseeable future. Washington has declared “war” on China, on Russia, on whomever partners with them.
That “war” is comprehensive — diplomatic, financial, commercial, technological, cultural, ideological. It implicitly fuses a presumed great power rivalry for dominance with a clash of civilizations: the U.S.-led West against the civilizational states of China, Russia and potentially India.
Direct military action is not explicitly included but armed clashes are not absolutely precluded. They can occur via proxies as in Ukraine. They can be sparked by Washington’s dedication to bolster Taiwan as an independent country.
A series of formal defense reviews confirm statements by the most senior U.S. officials and military commanders that such a conflict is likely within the decade. Plans for warfighting are well advanced. This feckless approach implicitly casts the Chinese foe as a modern-day Imperial Japan despite the catastrophic risks intrinsic to a war between nuclear powers.
The extremity of Washington’s overreaching, militarized strategy intended to solidify and extend its global dominance is evinced by the latest pronouncement of required war-fighting capabilities.
Recommendations just promulgated by the congressional bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission include developing and fielding “homeland integrated air and missile defenses that can deter and defeat coercive attacks by Russia and China, and determine the capabilities needed to stay ahead of the North Korean threat.”
They were endorsed by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in his post-retirement interview where he proposed adding up to $1 trillion to the current defense budget in order to create the requisite capabilities.
President Joe Biden, in his weekend interview on 60 Minutes, reiterated the dominating outlook with buoyant optimism:
“We’re the United States of America, for God’s sake!; the most powerful nation in the history of the world.”
This is the same country whose war-fighting record since 1975 is one win, two draws and four losses — or five losses if we include Ukraine. (That tabulation excludes Granada which was a sort of scrimmage). Moreover, the U.S. stock of 155mm artillery ammunition is totally exhausted – as is that of its allies.
Biden at the Department of Defense in February 2021. (DoD, Lisa Ferdinando)
This historic strategic judgment is heavily freighted with the gravest implications for the security and well-being of the United States — and will shape global affairs in the 21st century.
Yet, it has been made in the total absence of serious debate in the country-at-large, in Congress, within the foreign policy community, in the media and — most astonishing — at the highest levels of the government as well.
The last lapse is evinced by the superficiality of the statements issued by Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Milley and their associates.
We have heard nothing in the way of a sober, rigorous explication of why and how China or Russian poses so manifest a threat as to dictate committing ourselves to an all-out confrontation.
Nor do we hear mention of alternative strategies, their pluses and minuses, nor are there candid expositions of the costs that will be incurred in their implementation. Most certainly, silence reigns as to what happens if this audacious, all-or-nothing strategy fails — in whole or in part.
The stunning rise of China along with the reemergence of Russia as a formidable power are developments apparent to attentive observers for quite some time.
For Russia, the landmark dates can be identified.
Valdimir Putin delivers the Munich speech, 2007. (Kremlin)
The first was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. There, he made clear his rejection of the Western script that relegated Russia to a subordinate position in a world system organized according to principles and interests defined largely by the United States.
Whether fashioned as neo-liberal globalization or, practically speaking, American hegemony, it was unacceptable. Instead, Putin set forth the twin concepts of multipolarity and multilateralism. While emphasizing the sovereign status and legitimate interest of all states, his vision did not foresee conflict or implacable rivalry. Rather, it was envisaged demarcating international dealings as a collective enterprise that aimed at mutual gain based on mutual respect for each other’s identity and core interests.
Washington, though, interpreted it otherwise. In their minds, Putin had thrown a monkey wrench into the project of fashioning a globalized world overseen by the United States and its partners.
President George W. Bush’s administration made the judgment that an irksome Russia should be fenced-in and its influence curbed. That objective animated the campaign to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, the sponsorship of the doomed Georgian attack on disputed South Ossetia, on the attempt to block the building of a new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany and on setting strict terms for commercial exchanges.
It culminated in the 2014 Maidan coup in Kiev and the bolstering of Ukraine as a power that could keep Russia in its place. The rest of that story we know.
Then, the image of Putin as a diabolical Machiavellian who works relentlessly to cripple the U.S. was given a thick layer of varnish by the Russiagate charade — a scheme concocted by presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton and her allies in order to explain how she could lose an election against somebody who started the fall campaign with a personal unfavorable poll rating of 67 percent.
The Chinese Challenge
Purple Light Pavilion in Beijing, 2013. (State Department, Flickr, Alison Anzalone)
The confrontation with China is not marked by equally clear events or decision points. Designation of China as the challenger to the U.S. position as global supremo crystallized more gradually.
It was the Middle Kingdom’s growing strength in every dimension of national power and capacity that stirred first anxiety and then fear. This challenging rival had become a threat to the foundational belief in U.S. exceptionalism and superiority. Hence, an existential threat in the truest sense.
(“This town ain’t big enough for both of us!” is a familiar line to Americans for the way it punctuates showdowns in hundreds of Westerns. Now it has spilled into foreign policy as a neat summation of Washington’s attitude toward Beijing. Instead, how about inviting the other guy for a drink at the Long Branch and a long talk? Dutch treat.)
The string of disputes over this or that issue were symptoms rather than the cause of the antagonism mixed with dread that has led the U.S. to treat China as a mortal foe. When we look at the chronology of events, it becomes evident that the U.S. bill of indictment does not come close to justifying that conclusion.
The fashionable — now official — view is that it’s all China’s fault.
President Xi Jinping & Co supposedly spurned the opportunity to join the outward-looking community of liberal nations; they have grown increasingly repressive at home — thereby, disqualifying themselves from partnership with the democracies; they have been aggressive in pushing their territorial claims in the South China Sea; they have not composed their differences with neighbors, most importantly Japan; and they have deviated from the Western (i.e. American line) toward Iran while mediating a modus vivendi with Saudi Arabia.
Closer to home, China is accused of operating extensive spying networks in the United States designed to purloin valuable high technology; of systematically manipulating commercial dealings to their advantage; and they are extending their cultural influence in a porous American society.
In this bill of indictment no reference is made to dubious actions by the United States. Washington’s record as a global citizen is less than impeccable. Specifically in reference to China, it is Washington that made what are by far the most provocative moves.
Let’s recall the jailing of Huawei’s CFO in Vancouver at the Trump White House’s insistence on specious grounds (violation of Washington’s own illegal sanctions campaign against Iran) in order to thwart the company’s success in becoming a dominant player in the IT field. Former President Donald Trump himself admitted as much in stating that the United States might refrain from pursuing her prosecution were China ready to concede to his demands in the bilateral trade negotiations.
Nancy Pelosi, left, visiting Taiwan’s legislature in August 2022 while she was serving as House speaker. (Legislative Yuan, Wikimedia Commons)
The ultimate provocation has been the series of steps in regard to Taiwan that signaled clearly Washington’s intention to prevent its integration into the PRC. Thereby, it crossed the most indelible of red lines — one that the United States itself had helped draw and had observed for half a century. It is tantamount to an Old Europe aristocrat slapping another in the face with his gloves in public. An unmistakable invitation to a duel that precludes negotiation, mediation or compromise.
Not Just a Rival
The United States finds it far easier to deal with manifest enemies, e.g. the U.S.S.R., than sharing the international stage with countries that match it in strength whatever degree of threat it poses to American national security.
The latter is far harder for Americans to handle — emotionally, intellectually, diplomatically.
Hence, the growing tendency to characterize China as not just a rival for global influence but as a menace. That results in a caricature of China’s ambitions and a downplaying of prospects for fostering a working relationship among rough equals.
An enormous amount of energy is being put into this delusional enterprise. The target is America itself. The project is a bizarre form of conversion therapy designed to substitute a confected version of reality for the irksome real thing.
Stunning evidence of this self-administered treatment is available on a routine basis in the pages of The New York Times. Every day we are treated to two or three long stories about what’s wrong with China, its trials and tribulations. No occurrence is too recondite or distant to be exempt from being used in an exaggerated diagnosis of social or political illness. The extremes to which the editors go in this re-education program is pathological.
The threat China presents is to an exalted self-image more than to any tangible interests. At its root, the problem is psychological.
By time that the Biden administration arrived in office, the scene had been set for the declaration of war and the taking of concrete steps in that direction. But it’s odd that such a momentous commitment should be made by such a lackluster team of individuals with a diminished, distracted president as its nominal head. That can be attributed to two factors.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon on March 1, 2001. (DoD photo by R. D. Ward)
First is the dogmatic worldview of the principals. Their outlook represents an absorption of Paul Wolfowitz’s notorious memo of 1992 laying out a manifold strategy for consolidating and extending U.S. world dominance in perpetuity.
Second is the neocon passion to shape other countries in the U.S. image. That blend was laced with a dash of old-fashioned Wilsonian idealism along with a drizzle of humanitarianism from the Responsibility to Protect movement (R2P).
[Related: Chris Hedges: R2P Caused Libya’s Nightmare]
This potent brew had become orthodoxy for nearly all of the U.S. foreign policy community. In addition, a rudimentary version has gained the adherence of the political class and has shaped the thinking of Congress to whatever extent its members do any thinking about external relations beyond habitual resort to convenient hackneyed slogans.
Alternative No. 1
Objectively speaking, alternatives did exist.
The first we might call inertial ad-hocism. Its features would have been the continued segmentation of the country’s external dealings into more-or-less discrete packets — geographical and functional.
The Middle East’s two sub-categories: Israel and the Gulf; the desultory “War On Terror” wherever; the aggressive promotion of neo-liberal globalization featuring the ensconcing of a heteroclite corporate/technocratic/political elite as guides and overseers; bilateral relations with new economic powers like India and Brazil to bring them into the neo-liberal orbit; business-as-usual with the rest of the Global South.
As for China and Russia, one would be treated as a formidable rival and the other as an overreaching nuisance to be stymied in places in Syria and Central Asia. Concrete steps to counteract the Chinese commercial and technological challenge would have been taken either unilaterally or in hard-nosed direct bargaining. Support for Taiwan would have increased but stopped short of ruffling Beijing’s feathers by calling into question the One-China Principle.
Xi and Putin during the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow in 2019. (Kremlin)
The foundational premise of this approach is that an ever-deepening neo-liberal system would pull China into its field as a politico-economic centrifugal magnet. Hence, by an incremental process a potential challenge to American-Western hegemony would be gradually neutralized, avoiding a direct confrontation.
Russia, for its part, could be treated more roughly: the post-2014 sanctions tightened, its approaches in Syria and on other matters rebuffed and the quiet build-up of Ukraine continued. This, in essence, was the tack taken by former President Barack Obama and Trump.
Today’s uniform assumption that a momentous battle with the Chinese is written in the stars, the culmination of a zero-sum rivalry for global dominance, is of relatively recent vintage.
Not so long ago, the consensus was that the most sensible strategy composed two elements.
The first was peaceful engagement emphasizing economic interdependence leading to China’s participation in a more-or-less orderly world system whose rules-of-the-road might have to undergo some modification but where power politics was restrained and contained.
(Regarding the restructuring of existing international organizations, the IMF stands out. Since its post-war founding, the United States has held veto power over any or all of its actions. It adamantly refuses to relinquish it despite the drastic shifts in the constellation of global financial and monetary power. Hence, the IMF serves as a de facto subsidiary of the State Department. This state of affairs soon will prove absolutely unacceptable to China and the BRICs.)
July 30, 2023, BRICS Map key: Blue = Members; Light Blue = Joining on Jan. 2, 2024; Orange = Applicants; Yellow = Expressed interest in joining; Gray = No relationship with BRICS. (MathSquare, Wikimedia Commons, Dmitry Averin is author of original source image; CC BY-SA 4.0)
The second was a measure of military balancing to remove any temptation as might exist in Beijing for empire-building while reassuring neighbors. The open question focused on exactly where and how the balance should be struck.
That was the prevailing perspective until roughly the second Obama administration. These days, that approach has lost its place in the mainstream of foreign policy discourse. There is no fixed day or event, though, that marks the abrupt and sharp change of course.
This disjointed incremental line of approach has its advantages despite its leaning toward conflict. Paramount is that it avoids locking the United States into a position of implacable hostility vis a vis China. There is no embedded logic propelling us toward armed conflict. It implicitly leaves open the possibility of U.S. thinking moving in a more positive direction.
Whatever the odds of such an evolution occurring, and on the arrival in the White House of a president with the bold vision of a true statesman, such a development would not be excluded as it is by the current mobilization for generational “war.”
Alternative No. 2
There is another, radical alternative grounded on the belief that it is feasible to fashion a long-term strategy of nurturing ties of cooperation with Russia and China. Taking some form of partnership, it would be grounded on a mutual commitment to the maintenance of political stability and fashioning mechanisms for conflict avoidance. This is by no means as far fetched as first glance might suggest — in concept.
The idea of a great power concert comes to mind. However, we should envisage an arrangement quite different from the historic Concert of Europe that emerged at the Conference of Vienna in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
One, the objective would not be a buttressing of the status quo by the dual strategy of refraining from armed conflict among the underwriting states and suppressing revolutionary movements that could endanger existing monarchies. Its attendant features were the concentration of custodial power in the Big 5 co-managers of the system; the stifling of political reform across Europe; and the disregard of forces appearing outside their purview.
By contrast, a contemporary partnership among the major powers would presume a responsibility for taking the lead in designing a global system based on the mutually reinforcing tenets of openness, sovereign equality and the promotion of policies that deliver plus-sum outcomes.
Rather than rule by a directorate, international affairs would be structured by international institutions modified in terms of philosophy, multilateral decision-making and a measure of devolution that empowers regional bodies. There would be an established pattern of consultation among those governments whose economic weight and military capacity quite naturally should be expected to play an informal role in performing system maintenance functions and facilitating the involvement of other states. Legitimacy would be established through conduct and performance.
The drastic fall in respect for U.S. world leadership will facilitate that process — as the BRICs’ successes already demonstrate.
The crucial starting point for such a project is a meeting of the minds among Washington, Beijing and Moscow — accompanied by dialogue with New Delhi, Brasilia et al.
There is reason to believe that conditions, objectively speaking, have been conducive to an undertaking of this order for several years. However, it was never recognized in the West, much less seriously considered — an historic opportunity lost.
“The threat China presents is to an exalted self-image more than to any tangible interests. At its root, the problem is psychological.”
The most significant sufficient factor is the temper of Chinese and Russian leadership. Xi and Putin are rare leaders. They are sober, rational, intelligent, very well informed and capable of broad vision.
(China’s traditional goal always has been to exact deference from other countries while bolstering their own strength — not to impose an imperium on them. Much less do they share the American impulse to arrange the affairs of the entire world according to a universalization of their own unique civilization. Therein lies an opportunity to avoid a “war of transition.”
However, there is no American leader on the horizon who recognizes this overarching reality and who seems prepared to grasp the opportunity to “bend the arc of history.” Obama briefly toyed with the idea — before relapsing into the stale rhetoric of American exceptionalism: “We’re number One — you better believe it. Nobody else is even close!”)
While dedicated to securing their national interests, above all the well-being of their peoples, neither Xi nor Putin harbor imperial ambitions. And both have long tenures as heads of state. They have the political capital to invest in a project of this magnitude and prospective. Washington, unfortunately, has not had leaders of similar character and talents.
As for U.S. allies, no counsel of restraint can be expected from that quarter. Those loyal vassals have moved from being craven irrelevancies to active, if junior, partners in crime.
An Odious Spectacle
Biden and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18. (U.S. Embassy in Israel)
It is stomach-churning to observe the leaders of Europe lining up for slap-on-the-back meetings with Bibi Netanyahu in Tel Aviv while he inflicts atrocities on Gazans. Barely a word of concern for 2 million civilians, just the hurried dispatch of more weapons diverted from the Ukrainian killing fields. This odious spectacle was eclipsed by Biden’s disgraceful performance this week in Jerusalem.
Summit meetings by Bush, Obama, Trump or Biden always have concentrated on either small-bore issues or instruction on what their opposite number should be doing so as to conform to the U.S. view of the world. Both are wastes of precious time insofar as the imperative to foster a long-term, common global perspective is concerned.
The sensible approach to inaugurate a serious dialogue might be a president with statesmanlike qualities who sits down alone with Putin and Xi for an open-ended session and asks such questions as: “What do you want, President Putin/President XI? How do you see the world 20 years from now and your country’s place in it?”
Would they be prepared to expound an articulate response? Putin certainly would. That is exactly what he has been proposing since 2007 — on numerous occasions vocally or in his writings. Instead, he was stonewalled, and — since 2014 — treated as a menacing pariah to be defamed and personally insulted.
Here is Barack Obama’s take:
“The Russian President is a ‘physically unremarkable’ man, likened to ‘the tough, street-smart ward bosses who used to run the Chicago machine.”
This comment from Obama’s first volume of his published memoirs, The Promised Land, says more about his own inflated yet vulnerable ego than Putin’s character.
In fact, it was the Chicago machine along with money and encouragement from the Pritzker network that made Obama what he became.
Contrast: when Bismarck met Disraeli at the 1878 Berlin Conference — going so far as to invite him, a Jew, home twice for meals — he did not nag the British prime minister about trade restrictions on German exports of textiles and metallurgical goods or the systematic British abuse of tea plantation workers in Assam.
Nor did he comment on the man’s physique. Bismarck was a serious statesman, unlike the people in whose custody we place the security and well-being of our nations.
Putin and Obama meeting in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico, June 18, 2012. (White House, Pete Souza)
The upshot is that Putin and Xi seem puzzled by feckless Western counterparts who disregard the elementary precepts of diplomacy. That should be a concern as well — except by those who intend to conduct the U.S. “war” in a linear manner that pays little attention to the thinking of other parties.
The vitriol that is thrown at Putin with such vehemence by his Western counterparts is something of a puzzle. It is manifestly disproportionate to anything that he has done or said by any reasonable measure — even if one distorts the underlying story of Ukraine.
Obama’s condescension suggests an answer. At its core, their attitude reflects envy. Envy in the sense that he is subconsciously recognized as clearly superior in attributes of intelligence, knowledge of contemporary issues and history, articulateness, political savvy and – most certainly – diplomatic skill.
Try to imagine any U.S. leader emulating Putin’s performance in holding three-hour open Q & A sessions with citizens of all stripes — responding directly, in detail, coherently and with good grace. Biden? Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? German Chancellor Olaf Scholz? British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak? French President Emmanual Macron? Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission? Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallis?
Even Obama, from whom we’d get canned sermons cast in high-minded language that distills into very little. That’s why the West’s political class assiduously avoids paying attention to Putin’s speeches and press conferences — out of sight, out of mind.
Act in reference to the make-believe cartoon instead of the real man.
The Ukraine Era
Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Feb. 20 during the U.S. president’s unannounced visit to Kiev. (White House/Adam Schultz)
These days, in the Ukraine era, the rigid Washington consensus is that Vladimir Putin is the quintessential brutal dictator — power mad, ruthless and with only a tenuous grip on reality.
Indeed, it has become commonplace to equate him with Hitler — as done by such leading lights of the U.S. power elite as Hillary Clinton and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi along with “opinion makers” galore. Even 203 noble Nobels lend their collective brains and celebrity credentials to an “open letter” whose second sentence pairs Russia’s attack on Ukraine with Hitler’s assault on Poland in September 1939.
Sadly, the idea that those who make those decisions should bother to know what they are talking about is widely deemed as radical if not subversive.
In regard to Putin, there is absolutely no excuse for such painful ignorance. He has presented his views on how Russia visualizes its place in the world, relations with the West and the contours/rules of a desired international system more comprehensively, historically informed and coherently than has any national leader I know of. Shouted declarations “we’re No. 1 and always will be – you better believe it” (Obama) are not his style.
The point is that you may be troubled by his conclusions, question his sincerity, suspect hidden strands of thought, or denounce certain actions. However, doing so has no credibility unless one has engaged the man based on what is available — not on cartoon caricatures. So, too, should we recognize that Russia is not a one-man show, that it behooves us to consider the more complex reality that is Russian governance and politics.
President Xi of China has escaped the personal vilification thrown at Putin — so far. But Washington has made no greater effort to engage him in the sort of discourse about the future shape of Sino-American relations and the world system for which they are destined to be primary joint custodians.
Xi in Moscow in 2019, at a gala marking the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and China. (Kremlin)
Xi is more elusive than Putin. He is far less forthright, more guarded and embodies a political culture very different from that of the United States or Europe. Still, he is no dogmatic ideologue or power-mad imperialist. Cultural differences too easily can become an excuse for avoiding the study, the pondering and the exercise in strategic imagination that is called for.
Shaping the World Structure
The approach outlined above is worth the effort – and low costs that it entails. For it is the understandings among the three leaders (and their senior colleagues) that are of the utmost importance.
That is to say, agreed understandings as to how they view the shape and structure of world affairs, where their interests clash or converge, and how to meet the dual challenge of 1) handling those points of friction that may arise, and 2) working together to perform ‘system maintenance’ functions in both the economic and security realms.
At the moment, there is no chance that American leaders can muster the gumption, or have the vision, to set out on this course. Neither Biden and his team, nor their Republican rivals are up to it.
In truth, American leaders are psychologically and intellectually not capable of thinking seriously about the terms for sharing power with China, with Russia or with anybody else – and developing mechanisms for doing so over different timeframes.
Washington is too preoccupied with parsing the naval balance in East Asia to reflect on broad strategies. Its leaders are too complacent about the deep faults in our economic structures, and too wasteful in dissipating trillions on chimerical ventures aimed at exorcising a mythical enemy to position ourselves for a diplomatic undertaking of the sort that a self-centered America never before has faced.
A drive to revalidate its presumed virtue and singularity now impels what the U.S. does in the world. Hence, the calculated stress placed on slogans like “democracy versus autocracy.” That is a neat metaphor for the uneasy position in which Uncle Sam finds himself these days, proudly pronouncing enduring greatness from every lectern and altar in the land, pledging to uphold a standing as global No. 1 forever and ever.
But the U.S. is also constantly bumping its head against an unaccommodating reality. Instead of downsizing the monumental juggernaut or applying itself to a delicate raising of the arch, it makes repeated attempts to fit through in a vain effort to bend the world to fit its mythology. Invocation of the Concussion Protocol is in order — but nobody wants to admit that sobering truth.
This is close to a condition that approximates what the psychologists call “dissociation.” It is marked by an inability to see and to accept actualities as they are for deep-seated emotional reasons.
The tension generated for a nation so constituted when encountering objective reality does not force heightened self-awareness or a change in behavior if the dominant feature of that reality is the attitudes and expressed opinions of others who share the underlying delusions.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. email@example.com