The Red Pen
Does the West ultimately bear the responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine? Political scientist John Mearsheimer argues in a recent op-ed in The Economist that while Vladimir Putin started the war, it was NATO's "reckless" expansion that provoked Russia to attack. In this episode of The Red Pen — where we do our best to keep op-eds honest — Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analysts Graeme Thompson and Zachary Witlin review Mearsheimer's points and show that nothing the West did, or didn't do, caused Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
Our topic today is who to blame for Russia's bloody and relentless attack on Ukraine, a war that has now entered six plus weeks and it's showing really no signs of resolution. And I've maintained that it's President Vladimir Putin alone who bears the responsibility for this invasion, that he is a war criminal, and he has single handedly damaged Russia's place in the world with these actions. But there are some who feel that the West, in particular the United States and NATO allies, who have provoked this situation and who bear the blame. And one of them is American political scientist, John Mearsheimer, whose ideas have generated quite a bit of conversation over the past few weeks. And I want to focus on a piece he recently wrote for the Economist titled “Why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis.” And the title alone merits bringing out the Red Pen.
So first, Mearsheimer argues that the West and especially America deserve blame for Russia's invasion of Ukraine because Moscow feared Kyiv was poised to join NATO. He further claims that Western support for Ukraine after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas with military assistance, training, and weapons shipments amounted to de facto Ukrainian membership of NATO and led directly to the current war.
I think this is a strawman argument. We shouldn't take Russia's claim that Ukraine was integrating with NATO at face value. It is true that nominally NATO had an open-door policy, but no one seriously thought that Ukraine was or is about to join NATO. And the support that NATO did provide after Russia had already sponsored a war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 as Mearsheimer notes, included things like advice and handheld weaponry and supplies like radios. A de facto NATO member would've received actual NATO troops to defend their country.
I accept that the West failed to anticipate Russia's reaction to NATO's eastward expansion and that miscalculation absolutely enhanced Russia's threat perception in their backyard. But to me, the principal West mistake was not about expanding NATO and embracing the East Europeans. No, the mistake in the 90’s was not creating a Marshall Plan for Russia, that is making Russia's prosperity and partnership and cooperation a top priority for the Western world. So, Russia's future wasn't just about how they lost the Cold War and that feeling of humiliation and that failure more than anything else, I would argue, laid the groundwork for the structural tensions that eventually led to this war. But to be clear, nothing the West did or didn't do caused Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Putin chose to do this and the responsibility for the war is his and his alone.
Now next Mearsheimer writes, "Bringing Ukraine closer to the EU and making it a pro-American democracy were part of a US plan to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia's border."
Now, wait a second. Ukrainians actually have agency. They want a democracy that's closer to the EU and they're grateful for Western help. Putin is paranoid about the example of a successful democratic Ukraine and the threat it would pose to his own increasingly autocratic regime. It was the Ukrainian people that voted for NATO and EU membership to be national goals. Neither of those choices were in any way forced upon them by the United States and its allies. In fact, I'll go further, the West was and still is reluctant to accept Ukraine into these institutions. Ukrainians haven't been dragged into NATO or the EU, the Americans and Europeans were and are actually putting up roadblocks. Ukrainians desire to draw closer to the West was not engineered by American strategists, it was a response to Russia's own threats on which Putin has acted. Ultimately, Putin created the very pro-Western Ukraine that he wanted to avoid.
Mearsheimer also dismisses the idea that Putin covets Ukraine for historical or ideological reasons. For Russian leaders, he writes, “what happens in Ukraine has little to do with their Imperial ambitions being thwarted. It's about dealing with what they regard as a direct threat to Russia's future.”
But Putin has consistently claimed that Ukraine is not a legitimate country and the Ukrainians are really Russians at heart. This is about more than just territorial security and Putin obviously has ambitions that are rooted in a nostalgic imperial nationalism. Now is that the only factor that drives his actions? Of course it isn't, but why would you dismiss it in the face of Putin's own repeated statements to that end?
And finally, and here, I want to give him credit, Mearsheimer concludes that the West may be able to prevent a Russian victory in Ukraine, but the country will be gravely damaged alongside lasting damage to the Russian economy and the threat of nuclear escalation.
And I have no argument with any of that. The cost of this war will be enormous for Ukraine and for Russia. Six weeks after Moscow launched this invasion and in the wake of the latest evidence of Russian war crimes, you can expect a ratcheting up of Western sanctions and an increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin. Ukrainians are fighting a war of survival, and we are still very firmly in an environment of escalation. That's ugly and it's going to do enormous damage to both nations, to Ukraine and to Russia. And it's going to have a rippling impact globally, but no, the West did not cause Putin's horrible choice to wage this war of aggression.
So, there you have it. That's your Red Pen. Stay tuned to GZERO for more news and analysis about the war in Ukraine. I am Ian Bremmer, see you again real soon.
Should the world be focusing more on adaptation as an answer to the climate crisis? In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Danish author Bjorn Lomborg argues that countries - and the media - are panicking over climate change instead of concentrating on tactics like levees and floodwalls. Ian Bremmer takes out the Red Pen to explain why these solutions are not enough to protect the planet.
COP26 is in the air (that's the UN Climate Conference still underway in Scotland) so feels like a good time to take our red pen to an op-ed that…isn't very green. It's from the Wall Street Journal and written by Danish author and academic Bjorn Lomborg. The title sums it up: "Climate Change Calls for Adaptation, Not Panic."
A little background on Lomborg: He's a prominent critic of the global consensus on climate change and wrote a book called "False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet." Let's be clear: his views are controversial, but given his platform and this week's focus on climate policy, it's important to address the substance of his claims. So, let's break out the Red Pen!
First, the core of Lomborg's argument is that countries need to spend more time focused on ways to adapt to climate change, instead of trying to change their economies to reduce its effect. He writes, "Adaptation doesn't make the cost of global warming go away entirely, but it does reduce it dramatically."
Nobody disagrees that adaptation is important (anymore—lots of people did when COP started 27 years ago, because they thought it was tantamount of surrender).
But it's not a comprehensive solution. Take rising temperature, for example. If the air gets too hot, why can't we just use more air conditioning? Well, air conditioning requires more energy, and more energy consumption leads to more emissions. Cleaner and more efficient air conditioning requires technology, industry, finance, and policy. That's a microcosm of the real conversations in Glasgow. This stuff is complicated. It's not just about a single solution.
Next, Lomborg suggests that farmers can adapt by shifting production from one place to another, like corn production in North America, which "has shifted away from the Southeast toward the Upper Midwest, where farmers take advantage of longer growing seasons and less-frequent extreme heat."
Moving agricultural production like this works only in big, relatively empty, and fertile countries like the US and Canada. It does not work in highly populated, smaller countries across South and Southeast Asia or Africa, already suffering from shortages of fresh water and arable land. Adaptation alone will not suffice.
Third, Lomborg blames the media for pushing "unrealistic projections of climate catastrophes, while ignoring adaptation."
The media is an easy target. When it bleeds (or floods, or burns), it leads. (Except at GZERO, of course). And it's true that everyone is talking about how we've missed 1.5 degrees as a target, nobody mentions that the worst case scenarios of 5 and 6 are also now extremely unlikely—because of steps taken to mitigate emissions. But let's be honest: The people who are doing the real work on climate, and the governments and organizations putting lots of dollar signs behind it, are looking at the whole picture, including adaptation. And they've long since concluded that you can't adapt yourself out of climate change.
Lomborg also writes: "When sea levels rise, governments build defenses—like the levees, flood walls and drainage systems that protected New Orleans from much of Hurricane Ida's ferocity this year."
Levees and New Orleans are not usually in the same sentence...in a good way. But setting that aside, building flood walls and drainage systems works regionally, at best. It is no long term defense against rising sea levels, especially in densely populated regions like South and Southeast Asia, where millions of people live on the coasts.
The biggest problem here has been the mass destruction of coastal mangrove forests, which also acted as flood plains. Flood walls and drainage systems won't solve these problems.
Also, you can't build a levee to protect against forest fires, nor will they keep out climate migrants (build the levee sounds even worse than build the wall). And many developing country governments can't afford levees and other adaption at all.
Finally, Lomborg concludes by arguing that "You don't have to portend doom to take climate change seriously. Ignoring the benefits of adaptation may make for better headlines, but it badly misinforms readers."
I agree with this conclusion – we don't need to warn people about a future doom to take climate change seriously. They're seeing it in their lives every single day, whether historically large fires in California or deadly floods in Germany or huge heatwaves in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. You know the other thing they're seeing? In a G-Zero world, no one is in charge, and governments and corporations are all moving in different directions, undermining pathways to a solution. That fact may end up scarier than anything Lomborg accuses the media of scheming up.
There you have it, that's your Red Pen for this week.
In his latest Washington Post op-ed, Marc Thiessen makes strong statements about how and why the Taliban came to take control of Kabul. There have been big mistakes in executing this exit. But "dereliction of duty?" Not in our view. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst explain why in this edition of The Red Pen.
Today we're taking our Red Pen to a recent op-ed from the Washington Post written by Marc Thiessen, a Post columnist, American Enterprise Institute fellow, and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. It's titled, "Greenlighting the Taliban's takeover of Kabul is a national disgrace," and makes some strong statements about how and why the Taliban came to take control of Afghanistan's capital city. I want to unpack some of his arguments for you and explain why we disagree. So, let's get out the Red Pen.
First, Thiessen argues that "all the horrors the world witnessed over the past two weeks…might have been prevented" had the United States opted to take over Kabul, rather than letting the Taliban do so.
Let's remember: "The enemy gets a vote." Thiessen is comparing the real world, with all of its unpredictability, to a counterfactual one where everything goes according to (his) plan. Even if the horrors he cited had been averted, wouldn't others have unfolded? Putting thousands of Americans back on Kabul's streets would have meant putting them in the crosshairs of terrorist groups like ISIS-K. Do we believe these groups wouldn't have targeted Americans in Kabul with suicide bombings, like the recent airport attack, or even engage them in firefights? Biden had to decide between two unpalatable options. He chose the one he believed would put the fewest Americans in harm's way.
Next, Thiessen cites a former American senior general officer to argue that the "US military could definitely have secured the capital"––at least the green zone where Western embassies are located, plus access to the airport.
For starters, Thiessen bases his argument on the views of one "former senior general officer" whose identity we don't know. How widely shared are those views among current military officials? If the 20-year war has taught us anything, it should be some caution before arguing the United States could secure a city of over six million people indefinitely with a few thousand troops. Before leaving office, the Trump administration brought US troop numbers in Afghanistan to just 2,500, a 19-year low. By the end of July 2021, only 650 remained. Taking over Kabul would've required something politically incredibly challenging: a substantial troop surge that would've put more Americans in danger. Thiessen doesn't explicitly call for a surge, but the upshot of his critique is clear enough. There's an argument for a surge (even if politically very unpopular), he should tell us how many additional troops we would have to send in and for how long to hold onto a city the United States had already lost.
Thiessen also calls the Biden administration's decision to "cede" Kabul to the Taliban "a dereliction of duty unlike any we have seen in modern times."
Keep in mind it was Trump, not Biden, who went over the Afghan government's head back in February 2020 to negotiate with the Taliban and agree to remove all US troops from the country. There were US political considerations for doing so, I get it. But from that point, the Taliban's takeover of Kabul had, at that point, become a foregone conclusion
Next point: Thiessen writes that the administration's withdrawal "put the safety of American civilians, service members and Afghan allies in the hands of terrorists" — referring to the Taliban — "rather than the U.S. armed forces" and "led directly to the deaths of 13 Americans in an Islamic State attack on the Kabul airport."
Earlier, though, he almost presents the Taliban as an organization whose word General McKenzie should've trusted: "[T]he Taliban offered to allow the US military to take responsibility for security in Kabul — but we declined." What makes him believe a terrorist organization intent on retaking power would honor a pledge to allow US forces to secure the capital city? Which Taliban is it?
Finally, Thiessen concludes by arguing that Biden's decision to let the Taliban take over Kabul "led directly to the deaths of 13 Americans in an Islamic State attack on the Kabul airport."
Harrowing as the images coming out of Afghanistan are, Biden had decided to not risk even more US lives in the war's twilight. Staying at the airport and trying to hold onto Kabul for a few more weeks would have helped the United States evacuate more Afghan partners, but it would also have risked the lives of thousands of US soldiers.
One thing I think many of us agree on — this has been a sad and embarrassing ending to the 20-year war in Afghanistan. We've left countless Afghan allies behind, despite promising them safe passage. August's events will no doubt cast an added shadow of grief over the coming anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Biden team certainly made mistakes in executing this exit. But "dereliction of duty?" No, not in my view.
While the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been deeply flawed in execution, does this really mark "the end of the American era" as foreign affairs reporter Robin Wright argues in a New Yorker op-ed? Not at all – and in fact, the US will emerge from this crisis not only with important lessons learned but in a position of power. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst explain why in this edition of The Red Pen.
Today we are taking our red pen to a recent column from New Yorker contributor and veteran foreign affairs reporter, Robin Wright, a good friend, very, very smart. It's titled "Does the Great Retreat from Afghanistan Mark the End of the American Era?" And I mean, that's quite an argument. Over the course of the past couple of weeks, I've had quite a bit to say about the story, of course, and all the horrible images that we've seen coming from Afghanistan, and even Qatar in the last 24 hours, the transit. While the withdrawal, from my perspective, was the right decision on balance, there had been huge mistakes and missteps in the execution. That much, I think that many of us agree on, but is this particular moment the end of the United States as the number one global power? No, I don't think so, and that's why we're getting out the red pen on this article. So let's get into it.
First, Robin argues that the United States will be widely perceived by the world today as having lost the war on terrorism, because Afghanistan will, again, almost certainly become a haven for like-minded militants. Well, first of all, we need to break out the US perspective on this because the threat of foreign directed Islamic terrorism against the US Homeland, which is of course the reason the US engaged in the War on Terror has vastly diminished since 9/11. There have been incidents, including the Boston Marathon bombing and the 2015 San Bernardino attack, along with various domestic based attempts by Islamists, but US counter-terrorism capabilities have vastly improved in the two decades since 9/11. In fact, by far, the biggest terrorist threat in the United States today comes from white nationalists. That's a very different red pen to write. I have zero sympathy for the Taliban, and I certainly think that Afghanistan will increasingly become more of a haven again for radical Islamic terror, in part because the Taliban won't be able to control most of their territory. Though, I will say that I don't believe that the Taliban wants to repeat their previous mistake of embracing Al-Qaeda, because that would make them much more of a target for the West. So again, I agree in part with that comment.
Wright calls the withdrawal an epic defeat for US forces at the hands of a ragtag militia with no air power or significant armor or artillery in one of the poorest countries in the world. I want to be clear, the Taliban didn't militarily defeat US forces. US forces haven't been fighting for quite some time there. That's why they weren't US casualties. The United States forces left. Like so many other commentaries that have attended the Taliban's resurgence to power, Robin's piece suggests that the United States lost without specifying what it would mean for Washington to have won. America's choices this year weren't defeat and victory, but a range of bad alternatives that would have each involved very, very painful trade-offs. Biden's options ranged from bad to really horrible, not from acceptable to superb, and Robin acknowledged that in a column she wrote on March 24th, writing that, "Biden has no good choices. Neither does the US military, which has reduced troop levels from 15,000 when the US-Taliban pact was signed a year ago, to around 3,000 today."
Three, next, Wright laminates that, "Afghanistan and Iraq have proved that the United States can neither build nations nor create armies out of scratch," warning that the repercussions of this failure will long endure. Oh, I agree with that, but I would argue that that's a good thing. The realization is that Washington needs to reevaluate its democracy promotion model, and focus on advancing aims of open societies by means other than military force. In other words, working within the confines of reality in other countries, rather than trying to mold the world in America's own image. I mean, beyond enhancing US influence abroad, I also think that kind of a shift would free up a lot of sums of money that we could be spending on the United States, think trillions of dollars of infrastructure, for example.
Wright also argues that America's post-withdrawal standing is "profoundly weakened," and questions "how the United States salvages its reputation or position any time soon." And I am sympathetic to this point, but I think it's overdone. Despite some fiery statements from European officials, leaders from London, to Tokyo, to New Delhi and beyond remain pro-US. Washington's very much blown exit from Afghanistan doesn't mean we won't be able to form a coalition if say, China invades Taiwan. In fact, for all the world's criticism over the last 18 months and the last five years, really, if one begins with Trump's election, which was not popular with American allies, clearly, actual US power vis-à-vis the allies, has increased since the start of the pandemic. America's financial system has only become more important, America's technological prowess has only improved. The US is far stronger now than its G7 allies. And don't get me started on China, which continues to self-inflict wounds by stonewalling on COVID-19 origins, producing poorly performing vaccines, and inflaming tensions with almost everybody; India, Australia, Canada, Europe. So much so with Europe that Brussels has frozen ratification of its own investment accord with Beijing. So, I mean, if the United States has made big mistakes with Afghanistan, I'd argue that China's mistakes over the last year have been even greater. And don't get me started on the demographic challenges. So if you had to pick a country that you wanted to be in today's messy, GZERO world, from a power position, it's clearly the United States, and Afghanistan doesn't change that.
Finally, Robin concludes by writing, "On Sunday as America erased its presence in Afghanistan in a race to get out, I wondered: Was it all for naught? What other consequences will America face from its failed campaign in Afghanistan decades from now? We barely know the answers." Very good question. The Taliban's return to power will be devastating for human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women, children, LGBT people, and ethnic and religious minorities. There's no avoiding that very tragic conclusion. The strategic consequences of US withdrawal are likely to be much more limited, in my view. In fact, President Biden's disdain for open-ended wars suggests that Washington will avoid stumbling into another one soon; I would argue that's a good thing. And drawing down from Afghanistan will also enable the US to focus on the biggest foreign policy challenge. Wright's worst-case scenario, the collapse of US power remains, for now at least, really just the scenario.
So that's your Red Pen for this week, stick with GZERO Media for more analysis of the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, and the upcoming anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack. See you again very soon.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argue that maintaining US military, financial, and political support in Afghanistan could have staved off a Taliban takeover. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to break down why staying in Afghanistan is not a reasonable option.
I'm sure it comes as no surprise that this week we're taking our red pen to an op-ed about Afghanistan and the heartbreaking, and frankly infuriating images we've seen coming from that country as the Taliban took control.
It is impossible to argue that what we're witnessing isn't a disaster and an epically bad ending to America's longest war in history. But there are some robust debates in the foreign policy and defense community about whether or not a continued US military presence after so much blood and treasure were already lost could have ultimately led to a different outcome in the country.
Case in point: A jointly written Wall Street Journal piece by former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The two argue that maintaining US military, financial, and political support for the Afghan government and security forces could have staved off a Taliban takeover and that Biden's actions have made America less safe. We disagree.
Let's get out the Red Pen.
So point one, McMaster and Bowman dismiss characterizations of the American campaign in Afghanistan as a "costly forever war," pointing out that when Biden decided to withdraw, there were no more than 3,500 US troops left in Afghanistan, and not a single American soldier had been killed in combat in over a year.
This is true. It's a very important point. This was not the war the US was fighting when they had 120,000 troops on the ground with NATO, but it was also a war that was being lost. Lots of Afghans were losing their lives, and they, the Afghan defense forces, were losing territory to an emboldened and stronger than ever, since 9/11, Taliban. The existing US presence as it stood was not sustainable, especially when the ceasefire with the Taliban was set to end in May. It was either expand the NATO footprint or leave. I think if you could have made the argument that you could maintain the existing presence and it would be sustainable ongoing, very different discussion we are having here.
Point two, they say that "the idea that the Taliban is concerned about its reputation in New York or Geneva would be laughable if the circumstances weren't so grim."
Certainly, agree on New York and Geneva, Taliban leaders won't cozy up to Washington or Brussels any time soon. But I do want to say, that doesn't mean they aren't concerned about their international image. There's a reason why the Taliban took over the country without inflicting needless bloodshed, why they're giving interviews to CNN and even female Afghan journalists, why they're saying that Afghan women will have the right to work and be educated up to university level, and why they reached a "deconfliction mechanism" with the US to allow American officials and even some Afghans to leave the country safely. Indeed, it matters and it's a major PR win for the Taliban, and I hate to say this cause we don't want that, that the images flowing out of Afghanistan right now are not of Taliban violence, but of America's flight out of the country. I want to be clear, I think there is no reason to trust the Taliban or to think this is not going to be a horrifically brutal regime that does not respect humanitarian rights, that does not respect the rights of women on the ground, but they do care about their international image much more than they did 20 years ago. And that is going to be a challenge for the Americans to manage.
Point three, the authors point out that while Washington pundits said that there was "no military solution" in Afghanistan, the "Taliban seem to have come up with one."
So there was no Americanmilitary solution in Afghanistan: The Americans were never going to dismantle the Taliban fully, just as they couldn't dismantle the Viet Cong fully 50 years ago. And just as the Viet Cong were prepared to wait out the Americans for as long as needed, and defeat inept native forces after Washington withdrew, so was the Taliban. The US needed complete victory, which it couldn't achieve. The Taliban just needed to hold on. And it's also very early to say that the Taliban's victory over the Americans means they are going to be able to hold onto the country, especially given that most of the Afghan budget was US aid, and that's now gone.
Point four, McMaster and Bowman also argue that the unfolding "humanitarian catastrophe" in Afghanistan "emboldens China, Russia and other adversaries eager to proclaim the United States an unreliable partner and a declining power."
In fact, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which borders China, is going to be a headache for Beijing, because they need stability in the broader Middle East to ensure a reliable supply of energy and expand the reach of its Belt and Road initiative. They are not happy that the Americans left. In fact, that's why Chinese diplomats and state media are castigating the US's exit as "hasty and irresponsible". Much better for the Chinese to have the Americans providing some level of stability and paying for it in blood and treasure. And while the Russians certainly are painting the US as unreliable and are happy for more chaos in the region, this is in my view more similar to Ukraine and Georgia, where the United States didn't have strong national interests. And so, as a consequence, ultimately chose not to defend friendly governments when they were invaded. Washington's closest partners know differently. So, I don't believe that Taiwan and Japan are fundamentally changing their calculus of national interests with the United States on the basis of what they've just seen in Kabul. The real problem for American credibility is that the Americans made the decision to leave alone. They didn't in the Afghan policy review, bring the allies that they fought side by side with for 20 years now, into the conversation at all. That's why the Europeans, in particular, are so upset and that's why they are likely to see the Americans, going forward, as more unreliable. It's a process, it's not a decision.
Finally, the authors conclude by suggesting that the United States "should begin the painstaking work of mitigating the humanitarian and security catastrophe" because "jihadist terror in Afghanistan won't stay in Afghanistan."
We all want to mitigate Afghan suffering, but I need to know what exactly is this "work"? Is it sending forces back in? Is it providing money to the same civil society groups the Taliban is about to destroy? Is it covert intervention? These are vague talking points but they are not real policy solutions. Without an additional surge, which is politically impossible, the Afghan government was always going to fall. Following the same playbook that failed over the last 20 years is not a reasonable option.
So, there you have it. That's your Red Pen on this very busy, very upsetting news week. As the situation in Afghanistan unfolds, we'll be sure to bring you ongoing analysis, and we'll also be taking a look at state of the war on terror as we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. You can be sure the Taliban will be doing that on the ground in Kabul.
In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.
Today we are taking our Red Pen, first time we're doing this, through recent op-ed by veteran columnist and best-selling author David Brooks of The New York Times.
The title of the piece is "The American Identity Crisis," and it focuses on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Coming to a theater not so near you real soon. And how it represents a double standard that Brooks believes America is experiencing—protecting liberal and progressive values at home (and many would argue with that point alone by the way) while abandoning allies in Afghanistan and doing little to stop the rise of autocrats elsewhere.
Let's get out the Red Pen.
First, Brooks laments that in, quote, "Iraq and Afghanistan, America lost faith in itself and its global role—like a pitcher who has been shelled and no longer has confidence in his own stuff."
That's right, but I'd argue the roots of this lost confidence go back a lot further. It was after the Vietnam War that Americans seriously began to question their ability to transform the world. And let's also remember the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia back in 1993, reinforced that sentiment: President Bill Clinton was so shell-shocked that he refused to intervene in Rwanda during that country's genocide.
Next, Brooks writes that the "two-decade strategy of taking the fight to the terrorists, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, has meant that global terrorism is no longer seen as a major concern in daily American life."
I'd say it's no longer seen that way because it's no longer a daily concern in terms of actions taken at home. US intelligence and law enforcement officials have spent vast sums over the past 20 years in the United States and on borders to protect the American people. If anything, US interventions abroad have made Americans less safe, not more: Exhibit A, destabilizing Iraq fostered the rise of the Islamic State, which continues to wreak havoc in and beyond the Middle East.
Brooks also writes that there's "a strong possibility" that the US withdraw from Afghanistan "will produce a strategic setback and a humanitarian disaster."
Yes, a humanitarian disaster if the Taliban does take over, and I think that's likely—women and ethnic minorities will suffer. But that was already looking pretty likely—in fact, the Biden policy review expected that the Taliban was likely to take over the course of the Biden administration, absent a troop surge, and nobody thought that that was politically feasible. And a strategic setback for the United States? Well, that's a harder one to argue. I mean, a Taliban-led Afghanistan might be a thorn in Biden's side but it's not going to derail his top foreign policy priority by far, which is managing over surging China. And on that issue, by the way, that's a key reason that Beijing wants the Americans to stay in Afghanistan because the Chinese government knows that they're going to end up supporting the Taliban government while facing blow back from regional warlords in Afghanistan. That doesn't work.
You still with me? I've got a couple more points to go and still have a little red ink. Brooks writes that the United States is competing against countries like China and Russia "in an economic, cultural, intellectual, and political contest all at once—A struggle between the forces of progressive modernity and reaction."
Now, if values are so important to US foreign policy, why is Washington on such good terms with Egypt or Saudi Arabia, whose positions on LGBTQ and women's rights are anything but progressive. Some in the United States do want to advance liberal values the world over, but the US doesn't have either the capacity or the inclination to do so everywhere. Plus, the struggle between the United States and China, and with Russia to a lesser extent, is less about exporting culture than about shaping the global order.
And finally, Brooks says "to fight Trumpian authoritarianism at home, we have to fight the more venomous brands of authoritarianism that thrive around the world. That means staying on the field."
Now the United States should remain an active player in global affairs, I certainly agree with that. But "staying on the field" does not equal military intervention. Should the United States send forces into Myanmar as the country edges closer to becoming a failed state? I mean, how about Haiti, right in American backyard, following the president's assassination in his home. The United States can't afford to use military force whenever something goes wrong all over the world. There are plenty of ways to advance democracy—such as sending humanitarian aid and establishing cultural changes—without becoming the world's sheriff. Given how Afghanistan, Iraq, and other recent US military interventions have turned out, these soft power tools deserve a lot more attention.
So there you have it. That's your Red Pen for today. We'll see you again soon. In the meantime, stay cool in the dog days of summer. Moose told me to let you know that. Be good. Talk to you soon.
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Does the European Union have a better plan for dealing with China than the US does, as Bruno Maçães argues in his latest op-ed for Politico Europe? While there are differences in how the EU and US are approaching Beijing, the EU's plan to separate politics from economics isn't quite working out the the way Maçães describes. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to take the other side.
Today we are taking our Red Pen to a piece from Politico's "Geopolitical Union" column. It's written by former Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs and author Bruno Maçães. Disclaimer for you, Bruno is an exceedingly smart dude, who I happen to really like. I read him all the time. But that doesn't stop us from taking the red pen to this piece.
It is titled, "Surprise! The EU knows how to handle China." That would be a surprise. Bruno argues that the European Union is ahead of the United States in handling its relationship, both political and economic, with the People's Republic.
Obviously, a big goal of President Biden's first major trip abroad, we talked about it a lot here, meeting with the G7, NATO, and European leaders, the EU, was to push for Europe to get onboard with a tougher stance on China. Kind of like they are trying to do with the Quad across the Pacific. And there is a disparity in how the EU and US are approaching Beijing right now, that's clear. But we don't agree with Bruno on the reasons.
So, let's get out the Red Pen.
First, Bruno dismisses the notion that Europeans are "reluctant to get on board with Biden's efforts" because they simply don't want to confront China. Rather, he says, "they have a plan of their own.".
Several European countries have made it pretty clear that they don't want to confront China at all, let alone in the strong way that the United States, whether Trump or Biden, has been. While Brussels is growing increasingly apprehensive of Beijing, agree with that, June's G7, NATO, and US-EU summits all underscored that few of the EU's members are prepared to challenge China comprehensively in any way.
Next, Bruno praises the EU's "plan" for dealing with China, writing that the European Commission and the European External Action Service drafted "a bold [China strategy] that never traveled to national capitals for assent."
But the EU's plan appears to be grounded in a hope that "politics and the economy can be insulated from each other." Unfortunately, as Bruno himself explains, China makes "no separation between market and state." Indeed, it leverages its economic ties for political aims. Remember when China imposed tariffs, started a trade war, on Australian goods after Australia called for an investigation into Covid-19's origins? You can't just unwind the politics versus economics. And it's getting harder to do as China gets more powerful.
Plus, if EU member countries had no say in the plan that Brussels penned, then how can we credibly speak of "the European response" to China? The truth is that there really isn't a coherent response. Hungary, for its part, has become China's closest partner in the bloc, vetoing EU statements that are critical of Beijing. Sweden, on the other hand, continues to hammer China on human rights abuses. Do both really subscribe to the same European-China policy? I'm skeptical on that.
Third point: In explaining the collapse of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), a major potential deal between the EU and China, (they gave their thumbs-up on after Biden was elected, before he became inaugurated, a big to-do in the United States), Bruno cites a Chinese scholar's lament that the EU has the upper hand in dealing with China, giving Beijing little choice but to accept penalties Brussels imposes.
If Beijing really felt that pressure, why did it "put its foot down" and "kill the investment agreement?" We'd argue that China's leadership increasingly actually believes that the West is in irreversible decline, much more significantly than after the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, and that because of China's growing economic heft and technological capacity, which is significantly greater than that of the European countries right now and will continue to be, they don't need to yield to European pressure. The EU may assume that China will come back to the table on European terms, but Beijing probably won't feel much urgency to return.
Finally, Bruno concludes that Brussels "has a clear vision of what the terms of the relationship between the West and China should be: economic integration but on a European not a Chinese model."
But bottom line here is that China doesn't share that vision. Brussels is going to continue to struggle in its relationship with Beijing if it intends to preserve a boundary between politics and economics. And this is a core difference. The back-and-forth battle between the European Parliament and China over sanctions and countersanctions, a tit for tat over punishing China for treatment of the Uyghurs and China firing back by sanctioning European parliamentarians and think tanks, led to a freeze in the ratification of the CAI. The EU can't unilaterally separate politics and economics when dealing with China. For the relationship to operate on these dual tracks, both sides need to accept the boundary. And Beijing doesn't.
Anyway, that's your red pen for today. Have a look at Bruno's piece, see which side you come out on. We'll see you again soon. One thing we can all agree on, the European and China have a great 4th of July weekend. See you soon.