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American Strategy Pivots to Realism in a Post-Ukraine World Order

Analysis - 22 September 2022

Russia's invasion of Ukraine exposed cracks in the international order that were already emerging. We asked Mary Kissel, Former Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, to share her thoughts about the future of the liberal world order, the rise of China and the US strategy going forward in a world where democratic norms are increasingly threatened by rogue regimes. This is our latest segment of Ukraine Shifting the World Order.

What impact did the Ukrainian war have on the Sino-US relationship? 

Two broader issues are inherent to this question; first, the splintering of the world back into blocs - the free world versus a certain set of unfree, authoritarian regimes, and second, the cooperation between these rogue regimes. In the post-Cold War era, the latter was originally observed in George W. Bush's Axis of Evil speech, for which he was roundly ridiculed. Nevertheless, what he pointed out actually turned out to be true. There are nations with which we cannot negotiate - nations that do not share our strategic goals and want to dominate us - and these nations cooperate with one another to prosecute their agendas.

The United States hadn't awakened to the threat posed by Communist China until the Trump administration. For forty years, Democrat and Republican presidents alike encouraged cooperation with Beijing, thinking more integration with the West would foster economic prosperity and ultimately political liberalism inside China, for the Chinese people. We failed to understand the inherent nature of the Communist regime, which views us as an enemy and uses capitalism as a tool to enrich CCP elites and maintain their grip on power. 

Chinese and Russian aggression has lent new urgency to the development of a more realistic approach to US foreign and defense policy.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine served as a wake-up call in the US. The issue was no longer just the threat from China, but from Russia too - a nation with which Presidents Trump and Biden alike tried to form a working relationship. Even a few years ago, no one could have imagined a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that the US and the free world simultaneously faced a threat from these regimes. They are, by the way, no longer hiding their condominium. Earlier this year, Putin and Xi declared a "no-limits" partnership. The nature of these regimes is crystal clear.

Beyond the political recognition of these threats in Washington, Chinese and Russian aggression has lent new urgency to the development of a more realistic approach to US foreign and defense policy, writ large. It gives new urgency to a set of actions, like arming Taiwan in a more expeditious way, and embracing the island in an even tighter economic partnership. The Biden Administration’s announcements of trade talks between Washington and Taipei is a solid, laudable development. But will that, plus ad hoc arms sales and U.S. Navy transits through the Straits be significant enough to deter the threat from communist China? I doubt it.

Was Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan a response to the war in Ukraine?

Congressional visits to Taipei occur on a regular basis. The last one took place in the spring of 2022 and triggered no special reaction from Beijing. Mrs. Pelosi's visit was emphatically not a provocation to China. General Secretary Xi simply saw the visit as an opportunity to expand Beijing’s influence over the island. 

The Speaker's trip was certainly an excellent reminder of the urgency to arm Taiwan. It was also convenient for her, politically speaking. She has been rightly criticized domestically for the Democrat Party’s gross mishandling of the US economy. By going to Taiwan, she transmogrified into a symbol of free nations and Western values and received praise from Republicans. She’s a savvy political operator.

Taiwan is still limited in its capacities: the island has not received much support in the Pacific region, and Nancy Pelosi's visit was not really backed up. She was received rather coldly in Japan and South Korea. 

It is important to step back and look at the trip in a broader context. The trajectory of Chinese aggression has been very clear over the past several decades. China's hostility increases when Beijing is not deterred. During the Obama Administration, for instance, the US "led from behind," preferring to devolve power to multilateral institutions and appease regimes like Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. We did nothing as North Korea developed nuclear weapons, and we pulled troops out of Iraq, which gave rise to ISIS. So China illegally built and militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea in the Obama era, knowing that the US would likely not exact any consequences for this provocative and illegal behavior. 

The Trump administration worked hard to restore US deterrence. We bombed militants in Afghanistan, imposed the maximum pressure campaign on the Islamic Republic of Iran, defeated ISIS with a multinational coalition in Iraq and Syria, and took action against Russia when Putin used chemical weapons and violated international law. We also armed Ukraine with offensive weapons, something the prior administration refused to do. All of this signaled to Putin that invading another nation under America's watch would have serious consequences. With Trump's deterrence firmly in place, Xi did not dare engage in the sort of provocative actions that he undertook during the Obama years, and Putin did not invade another country, as he had done under the prior three US presidents. 

With President Biden's new, softer approach, Xi once again feels there is an opening. This is not only a US problem. The Japanese and our other friends in Asia are worried too. When Xi ordered missile launches after Mrs. Pelosi’s trip to Taipei, one of them landed in Japanese waters. Remember that the US may not be treaty-bound to defend Taiwan, but we do have such a pact with Japan. 

With President Biden's new, softer approach, Xi once again feels there is an opening.

To be fair, the Biden administration has taken significant, laudable steps to bolster our alliances in the Asia Pacific, especially when it comes to extending the quadrilateral alliance "Quad" between India, Japan, the US and Australia and the creation of "AUKUS," a military agreement between the US, UK and Australia (to the French dismay, unfortunately). These alliances, which are in their infancy, could eventually serve as an effective counterweight to Beijing’s aggressive posture. 

China is supporting the Russian narrative on the war in Ukraine, but it does not explicitly support the aggression and remains cautious not to circumvent American sanctions. 

Look at China’s actions, not its words. Communist propaganda regarding Ukraine must always be taken with a massive grain of salt. Russia has been selling an enormous amount of energy to Beijing; its crude oil imports from Russia soared 55% from a year earlier to a record level in May, displacing Saudi Arabia as the top supplier. This is a key aspect of its cooperation with Moscow. 

This partnership concerns Iran too - a nation that just joined the China- and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Tehran also sells energy to China and is now supplying Russia with weapons. China may claim not to support the war in Ukraine but if it actually meant what it said, Beijing would be cooperating with Western nations to exact consequences on Putin. China would also pull their corporations out of Russia. None of these actions have been taken. China is carefully watching the West’s response to Moscow rhetorically, economically, militarily and monitoring our capacity and will to respond with force. 

What lessons is China going to draw from this experiment? 

First, sanctions have not led to a collapse of the Russian economy. The West is clearly not serious about using that tool as a weapon against Putin. Russia is a small economy compared to communist China. Xi might think, what could possibly be the risk for Beijing if it was to embark on a similar scenario in Taiwan? Would we cut off the world's second-largest economy? 

Second, as a Western alliance, we have not provided the military supplies the Ukrainians need to win the war. We have that capability, in spades, and it does not necessarily involve sending troops to Ukraine. And yet we've allowed the war to drag on. The only conclusion one can draw is that the Western alliance believes - but won’t say - that a Ukrainian victory might be a provocation to Putin. If one wants to avoid the expense and human cost of war, ending it quickly and dissuading Putin from further bloody adventurism should be the overriding goal. 

If one wants to avoid the expense and human cost of war, ending it quickly and dissuading Putin from further bloody adventurism should be the overriding goal. 

Here's another question to consider: Even if Taipei were armed to the teeth, would they display the same willingness as Ukrainians to fight? Seeing the West allow the war in Ukraine to drag on, would Beijing expect the Japanese, Australians or Americans to sacrifice blood and treasure for Taiwan? This period is the most dangerous of the post-cold war era, since the fall of the Soviet Union. Therefore, you exclude that China could have actually drawn the opposite lesson, in other words, that the West is not as weak and decadent as we thought.

I do. I think China has concluded the West is weak. That being said, several nations have indeed been awakened to the threat that Putin poses, which is a very positive development. In many respects, alongside the US, the UK has provided materiel and trainers, and even sent their former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who traveled several times to Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron also personally visited Kyiv, to his great credit. But is all of this enough to win the war? The answer is simple: As long as Putin fights on, it is not. As the economic pain becomes more intense and winter approaches, particularly in continental Europe, will the advanced leading democracies of the continent have the political spine to stand up to Putin and continue this fight? If we don’t, Communist China may very reasonably conclude that the West is a paper tiger.

In terms of general realignments, how has the war shifted the equilibrium of powers in Europe and Pacific Asia?

The transatlantic relationship has been strengthened by the war. This bond between Europe and the US was already evolving before President Biden took office. The nations of Europe were awakening to the threat communist China was posing, for instance, as evidenced for instance by the decision by many to ban Huawei from their 5G networks. The EU approached the Trump administration to initiate a dialogue regarding the strategy to counter Beijing's many malign activities. Putin’s aggression has only strengthened that renewed cooperation. European countries are now taking steps to diversify energy supplies and coordinate with Washington on military strategy. Sweden and Finland joining NATO is an excellent development. 

In the Asia-Pacific however, the picture is much more complicated. Terrorism no longer represents the greatest existential threat to our existence. Putin’s war has definitely turned that page. This new age is divided between the "good bloc" on the one hand (that is to say, the nations aligned on Western values, the NATO allies, et al), and the "bad bloc" (rogue regimes like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran). However, many countries are forming a third block, the so-called "neutral nations" in which the war to come will be waged. India is a striking example of the kind of difficulty posed by those "in-between regimes." New Delhi is strongly engaged in the Quad, but Prime Minister Modi also attended the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan - and India is also buying cheap energy from Russia, as well as weapons. So on which team is India playing?

The US should make clear to New Delhi that there will be consequences if it does not firmly rally to the free world’s cause. Unfortunately, President Biden remains uncomfortable with confronting his allies when they act in ways that do not benefit our collective interest. Some Biden administration officials disagree with this posture and could actually be considered more aligned with the Trump administration's approach, like Kurt Campbell, the coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, who is more of a realist.

The US should make clear to New Delhi that there will be consequences if it does not firmly rally to the free world’s cause. 

But ultimately, the President sets the priorities for American foreign policy, and Biden has made it very clear that his preference is not to engage in foreign policy if he doesn't have to; his instinct is to appease and draw down US forces if he can, as he did in Afghanistan. He is therefore doing the minimum amount possible in Ukraine and he won’t pressure nations like India to get on board with the Western alliance. 

In this framework, how do you assess the "Global South" and the "swing states" among the countries it includes? 

I'm a little uncomfortable with this phrase. The term "Global South" assumes a consistency of political systems, culture and economic organization that does not exist. Indeed, many countries in the southern hemisphere are not necessarily aligned with either one of the "blocs". 

Nations like the US still lack a clear strategy to confront not just a communist China but also a revanchist Russia.

Given the unique era we are entering and the awareness around it, nations like the US still lack a clear strategy to confront not just a communist China but also a revanchist Russia. In the past, it took decades for US policymakers to understand fully the threat the Soviet Union posed to our way of life and how to counter it. Washington's foreign policy swung from deterrence in the 1970s to military build-up in the 1980s, with heated debates about the wisdom of those policies. Those debates are healthy, and will likely emerge again as we grapple with what to do about Beijing and Moscow's actions. 

We lack a definite approach on how to deal with nations like Brazil or India, too. US policymakers have limited resources, and it is exceptionally challenging for them to focus on these relationships when a war is raging on the European continent, Xi is provoking his neighbors, and at home, inflation is raging and the U.S. economy is slowing.

Washington is facing a strategic dilemma concerning the two centers around which the "new world order" orbits: Europe on the one hand and the Asia-Pacific on the other. Would it be more efficient for the US to reduce the number of military assets in Europe to strengthen its position in the Indo-Pacific? Is it contrary to the nature of the US leadership to have global interests?

The Trump administration engaged in a review of where US military assets were positioned. We had a proposal, for instance, to reduce troop levels in Germany and move a portion of those men and women further East to Poland, to deter Putin's aggression. However, the US media characterized that effort as a complete withdrawal of Germany, and an abdication of our commitment to defend our European allies, which it was not. But that shows you the inherent resistance to repositioning troops and to broader strategic change. 

It is crucial to look in a dispassionate way at how both our military and diplomatic assets are deployed. Paradoxically, the US has a huge presence in Italy but is almost absent in Moldova, which could be the next target of Vladimir Putin's aggression. Washington also has a minimal presence in the Pacific island chains - Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia - although China has aggressively courted these important nations. 

It is urgent, prudent and necessary for the US and for our European allies to make these assessments and coordinate on how to deploy these resources strategically. The way the French military has taken on the fight against terror in places like Africa has been very impressive, for instance - and eases the burden on us to engage in these fights. Paris's forward-leaning stance perfectly embodies how we may cooperate to confront threats we face, not just from Russia and China, but from asymmetric actors and lesser powers like Iran.

We finally need to be more creative in the way we cooperate and embrace flexible arrangements. There is great room for us to expand our security umbrella and share the burdens among ourselves, especially as we confront what is an extremely complex and deadly threat to our way of life via the strongmen in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran. We live in very dangerous times.
 
 
 

Copyright: MANDEL NGAN / AFP

 

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