Defined as a capacity and a record of projecting military force globally, there are today just three “Great Powers” and it is increasingly evident that two of them — China and Russia — are in close alignment with a common purpose of overthrowing the global ascendency of the United States. Sadly, America’s mishandling of its relations with Russia has made this outcome much more likely.
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have sought to maintain a tolerable, albeit hardly cordial, relationship with Russia. In this century, both George W. Bush (“I looked in Putin’s eyes and saw his soul”) and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Will this infrastructure deal pass? The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Senators, White House to meet on potential infrastructure deal Earthquake: Black candidates rack up city wins MORE (“After my election I have more flexibility”) sought to maintain respectful relations with the Russian president while avoiding needless provocations that might cause Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinAdministration says it can work with Russia on key Syrian crossing point Why aren’t Americans voting? US ambassador to Russia is back at his post MORE to conclude that his country’s strategic and economic interests were better served in the East than in the West.
This approach, however, ended abruptly when Russia suddenly became a centerpiece of savage U.S. partisan politics during the 2016 presidential election and continuing throughout Donald TrumpDonald Trump‘QAnon shaman’ set to take competency exam in Colorado federal prison Trump hits Biden, Democrats in post-presidential return to rally stage Watchdog found EPA employees kept on payroll by Trump appointees after they were fired: report MORE’s tenure in the White House. As a result, Russia was reassigned the role of the “main enemy” of American liberty and U.S. politicians were compelled to demonstrate that they would be “tougher on Russia” than their opponents.
China, for some years, viewed Russian-American tensions as a golden opportunity to advance their own anti-U.S. agenda by entering an ever-closer relationship with their fellow authoritarian in Moscow via such means as huge energy deals, coordinated strategy in international organizations, and increasingly frequent joint military exercises across the world.
While the Russia-China axis strengthened over time, America’s principal alliance system — NATO — became increasingly weaker. In a March survey that included the leading NATO member states, the European Council on Foreign Relations found that by large majorities the peoples of these countries believe the U.S. political system is “broken,” that China soon will supplant America as the world’s most powerful nation, and most alarmingly, that their countries should remain neutral in any conflict between the U.S. and China or Russia.
Needless to say, the leaders of these countries never would say such impolitic things in public, but in a crisis, it is inconceivable that they would defy the very people who elect them. It is thus apparent that, with the end of the Cold War, the NATO alliance lost its main reason for existing and, over the past 30 years, lost its focus, coherence and eventually its willingness to risk actual military combat with a hostile superpower.
What this means is that the Western democracies have become a loosely-bonded confederation that is “all talk and no action,” much as described by Walter Russell Mead in a recent Wall Street Journal column. “The harsh reality,” Mead asserts, “is that the U.S. and its allies are losing ground to their adversaries, and the balance of power is moving sharply against us.” Declaring that the West has forgotten what it means to win, while becoming quite good at losing, he cites a litany of defeats ranging from Nord Stream 2, to China’s crackdowns on Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, to Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Ukraine — all of which occurred without any serious Allied response — and concludes that “autocracy is on the march at the fastest rate since the 1930s, and unless [President] Biden starts scoring some concrete wins, our adversaries progress will accelerate.”
To gain some historical perspective on our current dilemmas, it is perhaps useful to recall an earlier time — the late 1960s — when, as now, the country was being torn apart by a long losing foreign war (Vietnam), domestic political polarization, racial strife, assassinations, and a bitterly divisive presidential election. At a critical inflection point in this earlier time of troubles, President Nixon addressed the country, decrying then-raging fratricidal battles and warning that if “the United States of America acts like a pitiful helpless giant, then the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
Today we are passing through what, in an even earlier time of peril, Winston Churchill called “The Gathering Storm.” With the advantage of hindsight, we can see how well, or ill, free people met the challenges of their time. But the future is hidden from us and, while we can know how high are the stakes, we cannot assess the degree of will and fortitude that we shall bring to the challenges history now presses upon us.
William Moloney is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.