That Great Sucking Sound

“The West needs to adopt a 21st Century strategy to address the economic, political and military fallout from the Ukrainian War.– The Lonely Realist

That great sucking sound you’ve been hearing is America being drawn back into the international arena. Should American leadership again falter, China has every intention of filling the vacuum. A fragile post-Ukrainian War world can ill afford an unfocused America that continues to be distracted by domestic squabbles. Russia’s invasion has made it clear – even to Vladimir Putin’s American apologists – that America’s failure to re-occupy the global leadership role has made America weaker and global frictions more dangerous. Without American leadership, America’s enemies – the Axis of the Sanctioned – will be encouraged to continue filling voids through aggression and expansion.

TLR in its September 13, 2020 commentary “When is a Nation ‘At War?’” warned that Russia’s (and China’s and others’) provocations against the post-WWII global order were intended to probe the defensive integrity of America. TLR asked “How would an anti-war, isolationist U.S. respond to armed European hostilities?” It took only 17 months for America to be forced to answer that question. America’s retreat from international engagement had led to an inevitable Russian invasion of Ukraine. That was only one of several foreseeable outcomes of President Obama’s and President Trump’s global disengagement. Xi Jinping made China’s growth-and-hegemonic ambitions clear to both Administrations and yet suffered largely toothless consequences. Iran continued to expand its influence despite American sanctions, hoarding fissionable materials and exporting Shiite terrorism. Syria remains a Russian/Iranian success story because America decided to sideline itself. And North Korea, a Chinese client state, continues to thumb its nose at America while aggressively building nuclear weapons and missile systems. America’s practice over the past decade of speaking loudly and carrying a little stick has led to the expected outcomes. That isolationist, non-interventionist, “America First” foreign policy has incentivized aggression and fed a justifiable belief in American weakness.

Has that now changed? The evidence is perilously thin. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sucked America out of its isolationist vacuum, causing America to work with its NATO allies to take action against Russia. So far, however, that’s been the limit of aggressive American foreign policy activity. The Biden Administration has not yet adopted a cohesive strategy. No plan has been articulated for rebuilding or re-establishing international order once Russia is forced out of Ukraine. Comprehensive plans comparable to the ones adopted after WWII are necessary. No plan, of course, can undo the two decades of American retreat that encouraged Russia and China to cement ties. China now will benefit from supporting Russia. China and Russia consequently must be part of a far-reaching, economic, political and military strategy, a challenging task. America also cannot undo China’s control of the South and East China Seas. It cannot prevent China from invading Taiwan … or, ultimately, absorbing it (a subject previously discussed here). There are numerous other examples of global fragility that must be addressed in building a new world order. Instability will persist and will not be confined to Eastern Europe and East Asia.

America’s strong, measured response to Russia’s Ukrainian invasion has sent a useful message: America no longer will retreat is in retreat from international engagement. That message will not change the perception of American decline unless it is followed-up by action that encompasses a consistent global leadership role and a willingness to project American military power. Today’s Axis of Autocrats – Putin, Xi, Kim, Assad, Khamenei, Maduro, Diaz-Canel, etc. – have learned from their 20th Century predecessors that appeasement is the easiest path to success. Having acceded to any number of Munich Moments over the past two decades, the West finally drew the line with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. America and its allies previously had turned a blind eye to Putin’s devastation of Chechnya, then Georgia, then Crimea, and then Syria, to Xi’s crushing of dissent in Xinxiang, Tibet and Hong Kong and China’s third-world debt trap strategy and mercantilist Belt and Road Initiative, to President Trump’s vacuous threat of “fire and fury” against Kim Jong Un, to President Obama’s invisible line in the sand in Syria, and to America’s failure to prevent Iran from refining fissionable materials and exporting terrorism to Lebanon, then Gaza, then Yemen, and now Africa. To America’s discredit, the Biden Administration’s current efforts to resuscitate the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” with Iran may be another Munich Moment, one in which America is acting unilaterally, sidelining Middle East allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel. Significantly, the Ukraine War has increased the perceived value of nuclear weaponry – can there be any doubt that it is Russia’s nuclear arsenal that has deterred NATO from imposing a no-fly zone? Moreover, Putin would never have invaded if Ukraine had retained the nuclear arsenal it gave up in 1994. The JCPOA would explicitly sanction Iran’s nuclear ambitions and, with it, global nuclear proliferation. Nuclear-armed North Korea has understood this for some time. The list of nuclear wannabees now will grow … unless, that is, America co-opts a global plan that controls the spread of nuclear weapons. To do so, Ukraine makes it clear that it must start with JCPOA.

Putin sooner or later will be forced out of Ukraine. How will the world adapt to a weakened, humiliated Russia? If its only friend is China – a country in need of precisely the commodities that Russia possesses in abundance –, Russia will be vassalized, which is not in America’s, the EU’s or the international community’s interest. A comprehensive post-Ukrainian War plan is needed.

How should the Ukrainian refugee crisis in Europe be managed? America evidenced genius in 1945 when it built the post-WWII world order. Pax Americana endured for more than 70 years. It included NATO, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and a model for democratic constitutionalism successfully adopted by defeated Japan. Those structures need to be modernized and deployed for the 21st Century.

Geopolitics today pits America against China in Cold War II. Each is vying for the support of existing and potential allies.* The giant sucking sound in Ukraine brought America out of its foreign policy isolation … for the time being. History teaches that geopolitical vacuums inspire aggressors. They lead to instability. Should America falter in its global leadership role, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and their cohorts will fill the vacuum.

Although America retains its alliances with Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., those alliances have frayed. They need care and feeding, which requires Congressional consensus and support. America has strong enemies with which it must co-exist and, if a new global order is to emerge, find common ground. It must walk the fine line between pandering to tyrants (how should America treat leaders-for-life like MBZ of Saudi Arabia, Modi of India, Erdogan of Turkey, and Orban of Hungary?) and triggering open warfare. It cannot do so shackled by partisan infighting. That great sucking sound has brought America back onto the international stage. The hope is that its meaning will not be ignored by America’s domestic partisans.**

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* An in-depth analysis of Western and Axis of the Sanctioned alliances can be found in Ray Dalio’s “The Past Is Prologue: The Changing World Order; How the Sides Are Lining Up.”

** On March 17, the House of Representatives voted 424 to 8 to permit America to raise tariffs against Russia and Belarus. The 8 votes against the measure came from Republican Representatives Andy Biggs (AZ), Dan Bishop (NC), Lauren Boebert (CO), Matt Gaetz (FL), Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA), Glenn Grothman (WI), Thomas Massie (KY), and Chip Roy (TX). Certain U.S. lawmakers have openly supported Russia. For example, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has claimed that NATO is supporting Nazis in Ukraine and Russian TV is replaying Representative Madison Cawthorn’s remarks calling President Zelensky a “thug.”

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