May 2, 2024

America’s National Security Future is Looking Dismal

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The post-World War II situation is replete with bipartisan examples of failed national security decisions:  John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961; Lyndon B. Johnson’s Americanization of the Vietnam War; Richard Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia in 1970; Ronald Regan’s stationing of Marines in Lebanon and Iran-Contra; George W. Bush’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Global War on Terror, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq; Barack Obama’s regime change policy in Libya; Donald Trump’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear accord and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty; Joe Biden’s complicity in Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza.  Currently, Biden’s pursuit of dual containment of Russia and China is doomed to fail, and the United States will be dealing with the detritus of that policy.

Many of these failures were brought about by so-called “thinking in time” as decision-makers drew on past experience of their own or others to justify the use of force or coercive diplomacy.    Dwight D. Eisenhower’s successes in regime change in Iran and Guatemala led to Kennedy’s decision to invade Cuba.  One of the worst examples of “thinking in time” is the notion that the policy of “containment” worked against the Soviet Union, that it led to the collapse of the regime and the nation itself, and that it therefore will work against China.  The deputy national security adviser and senior Sinologist in the Trump administration, Matt Pottinger, wrote in this month’s Foreign Affairs that an “effective” containment policy against China will lead to “regime change.” This is an absurd notion.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the decade of the 1980s saw an extremely weak and virtually irrelevant regime in Moscow that played no international role in terms of economics, politics, and diplomacy.  Conversely, China is a global leader in manufacturing, trade, and renewable energy, and its budget for science and technology increases annually as the U.S. S&T budget declines.  China outpaces the entire global community in transportation, the production of electric vehicles, and clean energy technology.  China is a leader in STEM education, graduating 3.5 million STEM students annually.  Last year, the United States graduated 820,000 STEM students.

Like Donald Trump, President Biden pursues a Cold War strategy vis-a-vis China, but the nations of Asia—with the exception of Japan—do not want to be part of a Cold War between Washington and Beijing.  Both administrations have made life difficult for Chinese scientists and engineers in the United States; as a result of this “Red Scare,” many Chinese technicians are returning to China.  The Trump administration walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; as a result the United States left Asian markets to China, particularly in the construction field.

On his trip to China last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that “If China doesn’t address this issue [supply of military aid to Russia for its war against Ukraine}, we will.”  It isn’t clear what Blinken is threatening, but his aggressive comments point to increased aid to Ukraine in order to strike Russia itself or increased tariffs and sanctions against China for its aid deliveries.  Instead of emphasizing those key areas that demand greater Sino-American communication such as talks on AI; greater military-to-military dialogue, environmental issues, and greater cultural exchanges, Biden has chosen to threaten China over “cheap imports;” greater military cooperation with Japan and the Philippines; and “massive” tariff increases. Biden and Blinken appear to agree with Pottinger that it isn’t enough to “manage” relations with China; we need victory in our relations with China.

The Biden administration is engaged in wishful thinking in regard to relations with Russia as well.  It appears to believe that the Soviet system could not survive the death of Josef Stalin, and that the Russian system will not survive the loss of Vladimir Putin.  There is no sign that President Vladimir Putin is about to be toppled, but Biden can’t stop swinging at him as in his State of the Union address.  Biden argues that all of Europe “is at risk” from Russia, but it’s the possible return of Trump to the White House that has Europe discombobulated, not only Vladimir Putin.

On their domestic front, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping occupy secure positions while democracy in America is being threatened.  More than 75 percent of Russians turned out for the presidential election in March, and more than 85 percent of them, who had little choice, voted for Putin to remain in office. Meanwhile, bitter partisanship hampers policymaking in the United States, and the Republican Party is compromised by a “cult of personality” in the name of Donald Trump.  The direction and composition of the Supreme Court is particularly worrisome.   As a result of the domestic and international turmoil, Biden’s chances of remaining in office after the November election have worsened.

The greatest uncertainty in the near term is the worsening nuclear uncertainty.  U.S. relations with both Russia and China have worsened, and the nuclear competition has worsened as well.  The Bush and Trump administrations have abrogated nearly all of the key arms control treaties, and the Biden administration has demonstrated no interest in reviving any of them.  The size and quality of the nuclear arsenals in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow are growing without limitations: the United States is engaged in a $1.5 trillion makeover of its nuclear arsenal; China may triple its nuclear warheads by the end of the decade; and Russia has resorted to nuclear threats to deter greater Western involvement in Ukraine.

Cold Warriors in the United States, such as Pottinger, are already lobbying for the doubling of our nuclear forces to compensate for worsened U.S. relations with both Beijing and Moscow.  Last year, Russia withdrew from the inspection regime of the only remaining disarmament treaty, the START agreement.  The expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal coincided with the emergence of Xi Jinping’s leadership in 2012. The thought of Donald Trump inheriting this scenario and becoming the sole legal authority to order the use of nuclear weapons after January 25, 2025 couldn’t be more frightening.

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