Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

20 September 2021

It’s China, not Russia (or Afghanistan)!

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

Among many things that right-wing propagandists like Tucker Carlson are good at is distraction. Remember Benghazi, Libya? Remember how much time and money the bloviators spent on inflating the significance of a terror attack on our diplomatic station there that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other people? The years-long, ultimately unproductive congressional investigations cost nearly $7 million.

Based on the amount of time and money allotted, you would have thought that poor, broken Libya was the key to world history. Yet it’s a primitive, tribal backwater of no strategic importance to the US. Even its oil and gas are—to the extent of any interest in the West—Italian and French interests, not our own.

Today you can see another GOP feint coming a mile away. The right-wing pols and talking heads are going to bang the drum on our awkward exit from Afghanistan and on Russia’s effective annexation of Crimea, which is now a fait accompli. They are going to try to keep the focus on our inability to “contain” Russia, its butchery to keep Assad in power in Syria, its support for the crude dictator Lukashenko in Belarus, and its attempt to destabilize Ukraine if Russia can’t have it for itself.

All these things are true and real. But none of them is a serious strategic threat to the US’ future, let alone our entire species’. China presents both.

Today’s China is the only nation that seriously challenges us for global leadership. China has less than 18% of the world’s population but accounts for 28.7 % of global manufacturing. It is seeking or nearing global supremacy in such vital fields as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. China alone has placed a lander on the Moon’s Dark Side. Meanwhile, Russia has an economy the size of Italy’s.

China’s claim of hegemony in the South China Sea threatens global commerce and the security and prosperity of Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and South Korea—all our allies or neutral countries. Russia threatens global shipping, if at all, only in the Black Sea.

As for Afghanistan and its threat of Islamist terrorism, they are mostly Russia’s and China’s problems now. Russia has been fighting its Islamic neighbors to the South for at least two centuries. China keeps over a million Islamic Uighurs in concentration camps and persecutes many who are not incarcerated. Meanwhile the US observes freedom of religion, has mosques in every major city, and has female Muslims in Congress who wear hijabs. Guess which major powers are most likely to be the next focus of Islamist terrorism.

Yes, Joe Biden and his crew botched our exit from Afghanistan a bit. But getting out was not just the right thing to do: it was essential. China, the Number One greenhouse gas polluter (despite a late start), is the greatest current threat to our species’ comfort and survival.

With Xi Jinping having declared himself China’s latest emperor, with surveillance cameras on every street corner in China’s major cities, and with so many Uighurs in detention or forced labor, China is also the world’s greatest threat to human rights and Enlightenment values. Russia’s gulags, while still in operation, are now limited mostly to Putin’s domestic political rivals, such as Aleksei Navalny.

Right now, China is making clever and attractive commercial overtures toward Europe, Africa and the rest of Asia, seeking to split the “West” apart. As the successor to over five thousand years of clever and competent diplomacy, China is a master of this trade. (Even our own Henry Kissinger, on his first trip to “open” China for Nixon, reportedly advised his crew never to lie to the Chinese. His reason: they were—and are—supremely well-informed and competent in diplomacy and able to recognize a lie instantly.)

As for Russia itself, I have some relevant experience. I have spent over fifty years, on and off, studying the Russian language, literature and culture. In 1993, at the height of Russia’s openness to the West, I took a Fulbright Fellowship teaching intellectual property and antitrust law at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (“MGIMO” in the Russian acronym). That’s the same school that educated Vladimir Putin, albeit long before my time there.

Five and a half years ago, I wrote an essay about Russia’s national character and place in the world, entitled “Five Essential Truths about Russia.” Nothing decisive has changed since then. Russia is still an historically battered and consequently paranoid nation, stuck in a tsarist model of government (with Putin the latest tsar in a Potemkin “democracy”), slowly and painfully making its way toward modernity and nationally shared prosperity. Its leadership (including Putin), arose out of the ashes of World War II and the closet of Russian Communism; it has eyes ever fixed on Russia’s much-invaded borders and its “near-abroad.”

As Russia’s own clone of Tucker Carlson said on air, Russia has the power to reduce the US to radioactive ash. But the power to destroy is not what our species needs most now. If we do nothing at all, global warming will warp or destroy much of our global civilization all by itself. It will also produce a global flood of climate refugees that will make the current flow here from Africa, Central America and Haiti seem like a mere dribble.

China has the power both to create and to destroy. For several centuries in the early Middle Ages, it was undisputedly (at least in retrospect) the globe’s most advanced civilization. China is now teetering on a precipice dividing modern, technocratic state capitalism from a return to China’s imperial past, with advanced technology now capable of making China the most totalitarian dictatorship in human history. China, not Britain, could well be the realization of George Orwell’s darkest fantasies. And as the world’s largest polluter, China also holds the key to decelerating global warming.

Yet China’s future hangs in the balance. According to the New York Times, it may be turning inward again and withdrawing from the West, as it de-emphasizes instruction in English and training in foreign universities. Yet at the same time, China seeks to dominate global commerce, trade, science and technology, all of which are quintessentially cooperative.

Much of our species’ future will depend on how China’s current cultural schizophrenia resolves itself. And because the US is the only nation on Earth remotely comparable with China in size, wealth, power, and scope of influence, our policy toward China will be crucial. In comparison, what happens in and to Russia will be an afterthought, a footnote in history—unless, of course, some misguided Russian or American pushes The Button, in which case our species’ future will simply cease. And as for Afghanistan, it’s Russia’s and China’s problem now.

So as you watch President Biden’s leadership of American foreign policy, keep your eyes on China. It’s not everything that matters now, but in foreign affairs it’s pretty close.

Biden’s recent whiplashing pivot, along with Britain, to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines was diplomatically awkward. Yet it was a good first step toward containing China’s inappropriate nationalistic designs on the open seas, in bald contradiction to treaties that China itself has signed.

But containing China’s rare expansionism is only an important first step. We must learn to work with China to contain our entire species’ pollution and growing self-immolation. And we must learn to cooperate commercially, for the good of our entire species, without compromising or jeopardizing the world’s erratic progress toward human rights.

These are complex, delicate and difficult tasks. They will be by far the most important foreign-policy tests of the US for the next several decades. They alone should be how Biden’s foreign policy rightly should be judged. And we progressives should begin practicing, right now, how to keep voters’ eyes on the ball and off of distractions.

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