Walking the Crumbling Firmament

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September 21, 2021 10:39 a.m.

There was a time in the life of this site when its focus was at least as much foreign and national security policy as domestic and electoral politics. But that hasn’t been the case for well over a decade. Indeed, when it came time to build out a staff for TPM beyond just me in the 2005-07 era we never saw either topic as part of our core purview. The one exception to this was when Spencer Ackerman worked for TPM (virtually everyone worked for TPM at one point or another). But we hired Spencer in a sense in spite of his foreign policy/national security focus. He’s just so good and I had an opportunity to bring him on so I did. The fact that his core focus wasn’t really our core focus … well, we just decided we’d make it work and we largely did. (Definitely check out his just-released, years-in-the-making new book.)

In any case, foreign policy and national security policy isn’t our thing and it’s not going to become our thing. But just in the last few weeks I’ve had the sense – foreboding as much as anything – that it’s moving back to the center of our national life. Maybe it won’t be in terms of focus for the average American but it probably should be.

One of the privileges of being American is the ability to ignore things going on in the rest of the world. If you’re into it … well, the world is your oyster, since the US is involved and dominant almost everywhere. But if you’re not … well, you can just ignore it. This was one of the great shocks to the system of the 9/11 attacks – a rude awakening that things happening in far off parts of the globe can affect us directly and brutally.

Of course any sense that the United States was or could be isolated was never really true. Or it hasn’t been true in more than a century. The US fought a global war that revolutionized the state and society. Then it hyper-funded a Cold War which again dramatically transformed the country. Along the way, we had various minor wars and two fairly substantial ones in East Asia and another in the Persian Gulf. But if you didn’t get drafted – and that hasn’t happened in almost half a century – you could still just live apart from it or at least appear to and feel as though you were. Yes, your life in the US was deeply involved with things happening across the world. But you didn’t have to experience it that way.

But all of a sudden it feels like history is reaching out and grabbing us again.

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I’m mainly talking about this French nuclear submarines controversy, what I referred to over the weekend as a sign of a crumbling firmament. But let me step back a bit before discussing that directly.

For years in DC there’s been a vocal China Hawk community. One thing people forget is that before 9/11 turned everything on its ear, the Bush administration’s biggest thing seemed to be going toe to toe with China. There was also a big push to support Taiwan in a more aggressive and adventurous foreign policy. There were a lot of people in DC pushing for a Taiwanese declaration of independence from China or at least making it possible for Taiwan to do that.

In isolation that makes perfect sense. Taiwan is in practice its own country – separate traditions, culture, political culture from China. Twenty years ago the political dominance of the Kuomintang exile class was on its legs. The problem is that the PRC sees Taiwan as definitely, absolutely part of China. The US has a strong though intentionally ambiguous commitment to preventing Beijing from unilaterally upsetting the status quo across the Taiwan Straits. But why would we screw around with the status quo which basically works? Or why would we encourage or allow Taiwan to do so with the protection of our defense commitment? This was one of my big focuses when I first got to DC in 1999.

And here’s where I get to something that feels very relevant today. For decades the geopolitical status quo in littoral East Asia is that the US is the dominant military power right up to the Chinese coastline. That’s changed to a degree over the last two decades and especially over the last few years with China’s military and naval build up. But that’s still basically the status quo and one the US very much wants to maintain.

But go back twenty years and even then I had this thought: is it really plausible that China, with its vast economy and very understandable and historically-rooted pretensions to being the natural great power of East Asia will permanently be okay with the US Navy being the unrivaled military power starting on its coastline? That just seemed very unrealistic. It did then and even more so today. Given China’s economic might, which can be translated into military power, looking forward to some kind of natural rebalancing in the region seemed like a more realistic longterm policy than trying to keep China penned up permanently in what the Chinese view understandably as a kind of national humiliation.

As I wrote a few weeks ago when talking about things I learned from the conflagrations of 2001-2003, contrary to much wisdom, most cans you actually do want to kick down the road. Many problems have no good solution. So unless they absolutely positively must be solved or addressed it’s often better to kick them down the road. Time can always open up new possibilities or solutions.

In any case, that’s how this all seemed to me twenty years ago. But it was all kind of theoretical because China’s military capacity remained very limited, especially its navy. But this has all changed pretty dramatically in just the last few years.

China is in the midst of a big military build up, one it has the economic heft to pull off. President Xi Jinping has spoken much more openly and aggressively about the military conquest of Taiwan. Xi has also changed the situation within China. He has removed the system of presidential term limits and post-Mao rule by consensus to enable him to remain in power for life. Along the way he has positioned China as the globe’s preeminent model of state-capitalist autocracy. It’s not a view I agree with – I don’t think. But it’s certainly not hard to look at the contemporary world and think that in terms of economic growth, national power and planning that the Chinese system just works better than the one we have in the US.

This is what that submarine deal is about. Maybe Australian PM Scott Morrison made this dramatic move in part with the election calendar in mind. Maybe France’s reaction has been so over the top because French President Macron has his own election coming up. Maybe the Biden administration didn’t think clearly enough about the domestic policy situations in these two countries. But these are all momentary frictions and contingencies. The important reality is that Australia feels increasingly threatened by China’s aggressive military and economic posture in the region and wants great power defenders and its own ability to punch back. It finds a United States, which has its own core interests in East Asia and sees those increasingly threatened by the same Chinese assertiveness. The two countries find themselves each having something the other feels it needs … a lot. It’s a logical match for the way each country is seeing its interests.

The fact that France is offended or that the US could have handled it better isn’t the real issue. What is important is that all players see that the US now sees its most important interests in East Asia. Europe comes second on the US priority list. Does that matter? Do we really need NATO as much as we did during the Cold War? Let’s stick a pin in that question for a different post. Suffice it to say it’s a major shift. And as much as the US may say focus in one place doesn’t mean less focus on another, at some level it obviously does. If nothing else, the US seems to have decided that offending the French was a price worth paying to make this deal with Australia.

In case it isn’t obvious China isn’t yet another minor power we could topple or dominate if we decided we really wanted to. It’s got all the big weapons. It has a strategic nuclear arsenal – comparatively small but certainly big enough.

You can add into this mix that the globe is in the midst of a contest between liberal democracy and autocracy. If we believe in liberal democracy, the US needs to be banding together with the countries that believe similarly. There’s also the process of “decoupling” the US and the Chinese economies, a process in the offing for some time and pushed forward for various reasons by the Pandemic.

For the purposes of this post I’m not trying to get into whose fault this is, who’s the aggressor, whether the US needs to dominate the commercial sea lanes in East Asia. For now I’m just trying to highlight the fact the US both have ambitions in the region which they are deeply invested in and they are increasingly in conflict with each other. That’s very ominous. That could affect you and me in very direct ways. And it’s hard to see how that will stop being the case for many years or decades into the future.

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