The recent summit in Camp David between the leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea focused on threats in the Pacific from China and North Korea, indicating that Washington is playing the “Great Game” of geopolitics with gusto. Only by maintaining global leadership can the U.S. ensure its citizens a secure future, high living standards, a strong U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency, low trade tariffs and the maintenance of the post–World War Two global architecture.
However, to be successful, this effort must be bipartisan. While China will remain America’s number one peer competitor, the U.S. faces numerous challenges in Europe and elsewhere. This costs billions of dollars. Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, and Chris Christie get it. Donald Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy, not so much. Ron DeSantis is fudging.
The Sino-U.S. competition is both geo-strategic and economic — global conflicts generally are. A recent executive order banned American investment in Chinese high tech. The White House also announced that the president will sign a security cooperation strategic agreement with Vietnam during his September visit. Meanwhile, Beijing is accelerating its naval expansion in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, building aircraft carriers and naval bases. However, China’s growing economic difficulties may allow the U.S. more leeway on the global chessboard.
On the other hand, Russia is escalating its hostile actions. Putin has deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus, threatening frontline NATO countries like Poland, Latvia and Lithuania — and, of course, neighboring Ukraine. Russia is also getting more active beyond the European theater. The Russian Wagner Group backed elements in Niger that toppled President Mohamed Bazoum and expelled the French forces from this important uranium exporter. Russia is cobbling together on the cheap a belt of states south of the Sahara to use as a base from which to compete with both the West and China.
Latin America is also a field of contest. Last year, Russia and Nicaragua signed a security cooperation agreement that allows for a Russian military presence, while the Russian defense minister brought a large delegation to Havana in June.
China has been similarly active, subtly and systematically. In March, China replaced the U.S. as Saudi Arabia’s closest partner following Biden’s failed 2022 trip to KSA by brokering long-elusive Saudi–Iranian normalization, rapidly inserting itself into an American-constructed security architecture. In May, China capitalized on Russia’s declining leverage in Central Asia through a summit in Xi’an between President Xi Jinping and all the Central Asian leaders, aiming to change trade flows in Eurasia. Now, China is embarking upon a propaganda blitz in Latin America, which has just helped remove Taiwan’s diplomatic ties with the Central American Parliament.
This incomplete list of challenges suggests that the U.S. and our allies, from Australia to Japan in Asia and NATO members in Europe, are facing a global, multi-theater strategic competition involving China and Russia, with allies in Pyongyang and Tehran, and friendly neutrals in Brasilia and Pretoria.
Russia and China are heading up an anti-democratic, anti-liberal crusade, with Moscow recently publishing a compulsory junior high history schoolbook that praises Stalin and quotes Putin justifying aggression against Ukraine.
Russia’s imperialism cannot be viewed separately from the global chessboard. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is advancing slower and with higher casualties than expected, while a massive Russian force is threatening Kharkiv, the second largest Ukrainian city. Ukraine and its allies are facing the need for speed as well as space on the battlefield.
Seen in this context, the recent military appropriations requested by the administration are the minimum that needs to be funded. In Ukraine, the West is facing the greatest threat since WWII, and Putin’s allies are making no secret of their intentions. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Islamist strongman of Chechnya who has sent tens of thousands to fight and die in Ukraine, declared recently that Russia will go beyond Ukraine “to the countries where they burn the Quran” — Denmark and Sweden.
Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s deputy at the National Security Council and the former placeholder president, wrote in a recent bloodcurdling Telegram post that the Ukraine war is “an existential conflict. A war for self-preservation. It’s either them or us. It will take some time. Western powers will change, their elites will get tired and beg for negotiations and freezing the conflict. Any counter-offensive will be exhausted.”
After the Soviet defeat in the Cold War, America and the West enjoyed a 25-year hiatus. Unfortunately, we are now facing a new wave of global strategic competition. The U.S. sent the wrong signals to adversaries by trying to coddle Iran, appease North Korea, and build up China’s economy in the hopes that Communist ideology would soften as growth and prosperity took hold. Washington all but ignored Russia’s aggressions against Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), Syria (2015), and its African adventures.
But Russia is no match for the U.S.-led coalition. Russian GDP is $2.24 trillion — 20 times smaller than that of the U.S. alone and less than that of Italy. The West has a combined GDP of $55.14 trillion, dwarfing Russia’s prospects. Russian currency fell from 74 rubles to the dollar in February 2022 to 100 rubles per dollar this month. Russia is pumping up its economy with wartime Keynesian financing, which will place an inflationary time bomb under its economic foundations.
In this escalating conflict, the U.S. should not allow domestic political squabbles to undermine its foreign policy and strategy or take its eyes off the need to keep peer competitors in check. The isolationist “America First” course was a failed strategy in 1940, and it remains so today. Neither the Trump prosecutions nor the Hunter Biden investigation should be allowed to poison the well of our political discourse, destabilize our domestic politics or hurt our resilience.
The West needs to fund the Ukrainian war effort not only to protect Ukrainian democracy, independence and territorial integrity, but to teach our adversaries that aggression is punished and not rewarded. America and the West can remain secure and prosperous, and freedom can triumph over dictatorship. With our leaders staying focused and our alliances and resources well managed, this is our victory to lose.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., serves as the Managing Director of the Energy, Growth, and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He is the author of “Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis.”
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