As China unleashed live-fire military exercises off the coast of Taiwan, simulating a real “reunification by force” operation in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ceremonial visit to the island this month, the bipartisan fervor for a new cold war with China and Russia took greater hold in Washington.
“Leaders in both parties,” Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reports, “understand that the United States has a duty and an interest in … pushing back against America’s adversaries in both Europe and Asia.” The United States showed that it could take on both China and Russia at the same time, he adds.
The US Senate voted 95-1 to add Sweden and Finland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The US Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act enjoys bipartisan support. And politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties scrambled to give the Pentagon even more money than it asked for.
Cold war is America’s comfort zone. It won the last one. We Americans wear the white hats. It’s democracy against authoritarianism. And we’ve got the biggest and best military. Who could object?
But haunting questions remain. Does a new cold war – taking on Russia and China at once – serve the real security of Americans? Does it further President Joe Biden’s promised “foreign policy for the middle class?” Might most Americans prefer that their country curb its enthusiasm for foreign adventure while focusing on getting its own house in order?
The existential threat to US security now is the extreme weather caused by climate change, which is already costing lives and billions of dollars in destruction from wildfires, floods, plagues and drought. Monkeypox reminds us that the deadliest attacks have come from global pandemics. Throwing money at the Pentagon doesn’t help.
Wouldn’t it be better if Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry’s journeys got as much attention as Pelosi’s Taiwan performance? Addressing climate change and pandemics can’t be done without Chinese and Russian cooperation, yet the Chinese officially terminated talks on these issues in the wake of Pelosi’s visit.
Biden’s foreign-policy team has focused on lining up bases and allies to surround and contain Russia and China. But the Ukraine war has revealed Russia’s military weakness. Meanwhile, sanctions have cut off access to Russian food, fertilizers and minerals vital to countries worldwide and might contribute to a global recession.
China is a true “peer competitor,” as the Pentagon calls it. But its strength is its economy, not its military. It’s the leading trading partner for countries across the globe, from Latin America to Africa to Asia.
When Pelosi stopped in South Korea after her visit to Taiwan, President Yoon Suk-yeol did not receive her. Yoon, we learned, was on a “staycation,” attending a play. The snub by a loyal ally, home to nearly 30,000 US troops, is surely a reflection of the fact that China is South Korea’s leading trading partner.
The United States would be well advised to focus – as China does – on developing the new technologies that will define the markets of the future, rather than spending more than $1 trillion on items such as a new generation of nuclear weapons that can never be used.
The revived Cold Warriors assert that the US deployment of forces around China and Russia is defensive. But as Harvard Professor Stephen Walt notes in Foreign Policy, this ignores the “security dilemma”: What one country considers innocent measures to increase its security, another might see as threatening.
US administrations kept asserting Ukraine’s “right” to join NATO as security against the threat posed by Russia. Russia saw the possible basing of NATO forces and US missiles in Ukraine as a threat. Biden’s comment that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” echoed by US politicians, and the history of US support for regime change around the world, weren’t exactly reassuring.
Though Washington formally accepts that Taiwan is a province of China, it arms the island and deploys more forces to the Pacific. Pelosi described her visit as an “unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.” Beijing views this as an attack on its national sovereignty, a violation of America’s official position, and as a provocation designed to spur independence movements in Taiwan.
The Cold Warriors assume that most of the world stands with the US. True, America’s NATO allies rallied against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, but two-thirds of the world’s population, according to The Economist, lives in countries that refuse to sanction Russia.
Much of the developing world is skeptical or worse about US claims regarding democracy or the rules-based order. This makes sanctions less effective – China’s purchases of Russian oil and gas, for example, have increased by 72% since the Ukraine invasion. It also reflects the growing strength of Chinese “soft power” and the declining currency of US military force.
Great powers decline largely because of internal weakness and the failure to adjust to new realities. In an era of dangerous partisan enmity, the reflexive bipartisan embrace of a new cold war is a striking contrast.
But the old habits don’t address the new challenges. This is hardly the way to build a vibrant American democracy.
Follow Katrina vanden Heuvel on Twitter @KatrinaNation.