Once again, our preoccupation with domestic concerns—the pandemic, an uneven economic recovery, threats to our democracy, teaching about race in our schools, another mass shooting—have driven our focus inward. These issues are very real and need to be addressed; the question of whether our governing system is up to the task warrants debate. But as we ponder the limitations of our ability to accomplish our domestic agenda, we can lose sight of looming international dynamics that could profoundly impact us all.
President Biden’s zoom summit with Vladimir Putin is refreshing. It seems to have been a serious “adult” conversation, unlike his predecessor’s much ballyhooed meetings with world leaders. But it takes place against a backdrop of Russian troops amassing on the Ukrainian border, with the potential of provoking conflict in Eastern Europe and beyond.
History is an excellent teacher. Those who think this improbable should recall that within the past decade Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. It is the only time a sovereign country has been invaded in Europe since the end of World War II.
Meanwhile, half a world away, the Chinese are saber rattling in the South China Sea, using provocative military exercises in a thinly disguised threat against Taiwan. While Taiwan is a flawed democracy, compared to oppressive measures and human rights abuses in China, it is a beacon of freedom. It may boast a robust economy and strong defenses, but it is no match for the mainland. History again provides a lesson: Hong Kong has already demonstrated the Xi regime’s violent response to independent thinking.
The US’s threatened diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is a symbolic reprisal for China’s belligerence. But what happens next? Can we be provoked into a military reaction? What are safeguards against escalation? How do we effectively support freedom-loving people in Taiwan or Hong Kong or among Chinese Uyghurs without putting our own people at risk of reprisal from autocrats interested only in perpetuating and expanding their own power?
David Leonhardt argues in the New York Times that a weakened US emboldens our adversaries. He says, referring to Russia and China, “In each, an authoritarian power is making noises about invading a small nearby democracy, and the U.S. has issued stern warnings against any such action. The two authoritarian powers — Russia and China — may ultimately choose to stand down, at least temporarily. But their increasing aggression is a sign of their willingness to defy what their leaders see as a weakened U.S.”
He attributes this perception of a weakened US to our political polarization and the venom in our internal debates. He raises the question about whether a nation so afflicted by division could effectively unite behind a President in a time of international crisis. More broadly, how do we respond to flagrant abuses of power in a host of arenas on the international stage? Surely, no one wants military intervention, but economic sanctions seem to do little to dissuade adversarial autocrats in Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and even in Afghanistan, where half the population face starvation. How do we confront the Taliban?
This simmering international stew leads us to wonder what can happen to our relations with adversaries should they decide that the risk of conflict with the US, once unthinkable–and an thereby an effective deterrent to conflict–still holds true.
Be attentive. In this country, we have always assumed this balance of power tilts in our direction, allowing us to go about our lives without much concern for geopolitical realities in the rest of the world. This reality may no longer prevail, And, especially in a day of globalization and warp-speed communications that necessitate rapid-fire responses, it is more important than ever that our leaders carve out the time for thoughtful planning and forward-thinking, long-term decision-making.