As Russian tanks and commandos invaded Ukraine last month, the UN Security Council held an emergency session. Vladimir Putin had just set the United Nations Charter ablaze, and there was nothing the ambassadors gathered in Turtle Bay could do about it.
Presiding over this impotent pageant was Russia’s envoy, Vassily Nebenzia. He looked alternately bored and bemused as the diplomats on the Security Council pleaded with him to stop a war that they had gathered to prevent. Nebenzia insisted that Russia’s maneuvers were defensive and limited to the Donbas region even as events in Ukraine discredited him in real time.
All of it was too much for Ukrainian ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya. As his Russian rival gazed at his phone, Kyslytsya pleaded with him to call Russia’s foreign minister and stop the invasion. But the Ukrainian’s most profound question was not for the Russian ambassador, but for the United Nations itself. Why should Russia retain the Soviet Union’s permanent seat and veto on the Security Council more than 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union? And what did it say about the UN that an arsonist was chairing a meeting of the fire department?
This is the kind of question America and her allies need to study in the weeks ahead. Whatever the outcome of the war for Ukraine, we are living in a different world now. In the new world, Putin’s Russia is not a part of the community of nations. It is a threat to the community of nations. Consequently, the international system created after World War II must be revised. The free world is again engaged in a cold war with a country whose capital is Moscow.
None of this should have come as a surprise, though it clearly has for many people. Putin has probed the West’s resolve for nearly 20 years. He launched wars of aggression against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014. But there was always a fig leaf to mask the obscenity of Putin’s acts when it came to international law. In 2014, Putin did not acknowledge that Russian military forces had entered Ukraine. Instead, he used “little green men,” soldiers and mercenaries without uniforms or insignia, to annex Crimea. In Georgia in 2008, he baited Tbilisi to strike first at separatists his spies had supported.
His other predations have also featured plausible deniability. Putin has launched cyberattacks on pipelines and banks. He has ordered assassinations of political foes abroad. His regime has flooded social media with conspiracy theories and lies. His hackers have interfered in Western elections.
But now Putin is not bothering to hide his hand. Annexing Crimea and recognizing the independence of separatist states in Donetsk and Luhansk were not enough. He was determined to swallow all of Ukraine in plain sight for the world to see, betting that the world would do nothing to stop him.
Putin miscalculated. Ukraine’s government didn’t collapse in the first days of the war. President Volodymyr Zelensky did not flee Kiev. Instead, he filmed cellphone videos of himself and his cabinet promising to keep fighting. And despite its dependence on Russia’s natural gas, Europe unleashed unprecedented economic warfare on Moscow, barring some Russian banks from the SWIFT financial-messaging system, banning Russian flights in European airspace, and freezing the assets of the Russian billionaires who have enjoyed comfortable lives in London, Paris, and Rome for more than two decades. President Joe Biden has also unleashed sanctions on Russia and promised that Putin would now be treated like a pariah.
Even Putin’s erstwhile allies have been shocked by his brazen aggression. Hungary’s Viktor Orban condemned Putin’s war. Germany has now committed to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, a revolutionary change. It has also suspended construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Even historically neutral Switzerland, a country that hid Nazi gold in World War II, agreed to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs. The International Olympics Committee voted to ban Russia from international competition. And Russian citizens, at great personal risk, took to the streets in protest.
This was a hinge moment. The response to Putin’s war has been the equivalent of an economic and diplomatic blockade, forcing Russia into the arms of a dangerous neighbor, China. The prosperous countries where Russia’s most talented citizens would rather live are now closed off
As I write, the blockade is reactive. It is aimed at coercing Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. This is what President Joe Biden had in mind when he mused, just as the war was breaking out, that the new sanctions might force Putin to reevaluate his choices “in a month.” But they also should be the first steps in a break with the autocratic world.
Such a break will require a commitment to isolate Russia in the near term, and, over time, China, from the international system and global economy; deter future aggression with a credible threat of military force; and nurture freedom movements in the autocratic world with a long-term goal of democratic change. It requires a combination of strategic separation, national resilience, and international solidarity.
This is the strategy to accomplish it.
Since Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon opened relations with China a half century ago, American strategists have tried to play China against Russia. At a moment when Putin himself is broadcasting wild theories about Russian history and threatening to use nuclear weapons, there is a temptation to continue this approach. Since China might now have reason to also fear Putin, we could isolate Russia by reaching out to China—or so the theory goes.
It won’t work.
China and Russia have already started aligning. In January, both countries, along with Iran, held their third joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean. Before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Putin met with Xi Jinping and released a joint statement declaring that the partnership between their two countries knew no limits. A few days after Germany suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Russia’s Gazprom consortium announced a new contract to build a pipeline to China. We can expect China to offer Russia loans to keep its economy afloat. China may even make good on its threat to build an alternative to the SWIFT financial-messaging system.
This cooperation is happening not because America has missed diplomatic openings. Rather it is because China and Russia share a common interest in thwarting the U.S.-led international order. Neither country wants to live in a world where the sovereignty of weaker and smaller nations is inviolable. Neither country wants to play by common rules of trade, banking, and international finance. Neither country wants to respect the freedom of its citizens. And both countries need an enemy to justify their autocratic rule.
For now, the priority must be stopping Russia. But the West must prepare to make a break with China as well.
Since the end of the Cold War, American and Western strategy has sought to tame China and Russia through inclusion in the international system. If we could entice China and Russia, so the theory went, to cooperate when it came to threats to the global commons and induce them to join international institutions such as the World Trade Organization, both nations would be obliged to play by the same rules that restrain democracies. And if over time the West traded with Russia and China to make their countries more prosperous, then a middle class would emerge demanding more freedoms at home.
This strategy has failed. Chinese and Russian elites grew fabulously wealthy and used their wealth to corrupt Western democracies. America and Europe grew dependent on Chinese manufacturing and investment and on Russian energy and natural resources. All the while, both countries have eroded the international institutions the West had hoped would constrain them.
Consider what has happened to Interpol, the organization that is supposed to share real-time information on criminals between federal police. In 2018, China disappeared the president of the organization, a Chinese national named Meng Hongwei, on a visit back home. He only emerged in public two years later for a politicized trial where he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for alleged corruption. So did China lose its seat on Interpol, after effecting such regime change? Of course not. To this day, China, Russia, and other dictatorships continue to abuse Interpol’s system for alerting the world about criminal fugitives, issuing so called “red notices” for their political opponents, all the while harboring hackers, arms dealers, and other thugs.
Another example of how selective engagement with China and Russia failed is the deal the Obama administration struck in 2013 to rid Syria of chemical weapons. Here, the Russians played an important role. After Barack Obama threatened military strikes against Syria’s regime to punish its use of chemical munitions, the Russians brokered a deal for Syria to give them up. But there was a hitch. Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad got to keep some of them and indeed would use them again and again. It would be nice to believe that Assad had fooled America and Russia back in 2013. But when Assad began gassing his people again, Russia had already sent its air force into Syria to fight on Assad’s side. Not surprisingly, Russia has used its veto at the UN Security Council to shield its Syrian client.
A new strategy should seek to limit diplomatic engagement with China and Russia, but not to entirely cut it off. All three countries should remain engaged in nuclear arms control. The hotlines and transparency measures the Soviet Union and America created in the 20th century show that it’s possible to wage a cold war and still reduce the risk of nuclear war. Democracies should also keep their embassies open to monitor the stirrings of freedom movements inside Russia and China.
But the days of seeking Russian and Chinese support for UN Security Council resolutions about Iran’s nuclear program, to name one example, should be over. Russia and China see such cooperation as leverage over the West. It’s troubling that the Biden administration is still seeking to finish an Iran nuclear deal brokered by Russia. It sends the message that Putin’s regime is not really the pariah Joe Biden now says it is and should be.
Along these same lines, America should conduct an audit of all international organizations to determine where it is possible to expel Russian and Chinese diplomats or whether there is a need to create new institutions to replace them.
This has happened before. After the Third Reich took control of Interpol’s predecessor in 1938, several allied countries began to withdraw their membership. Interpol was not reconstituted until after World War II. Following that model, the State Department should declare a new policy toward the UN Security Council. It’s time to stop pretending that it is a font of international law when a country like Russia remains a veto-wielding permanent member. With that in mind, Western diplomats should explore the prospect of demoting Russia’s status on the grounds that there was no General Assembly vote for Russia to join the UN after the collapse of the Soviet Union. If that doesn’t work, America and its allies should issue an ultimatum: It’s us or Russia. If the UN cannot or will not demote Russia’s status, then the West should undertake to build an alternative to the United Nations that excludes Russia and eventually China.
A successor to the UN would have many long-term advantages for the free world. It could introduce clarifying standards for states to enjoy a kind of first-class global citizenship. Countries that launch aggressive wars, violate nonproliferation agreements, or extinguish internal political opposition would be ejected. Their seats would go to free governments in exile. So Belarus, for example, would be represented by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the school teacher who won her country’s 2020 election.
DEPENDENCY ON THEIR
We need to separate ourselves from Russia and China economically, to the extent possible. This has already begun to happen with Russia and to a degree with China. But the free world must do more. This means removing restrictions on fracking and fossil-fuel exploration in the U.S. and Europe and revitalizing the nuclear-power industry on both sides of the Atlantic. French president Emanuel Macron has already started this process. Germany should follow his lead. Europe and America should also support Israel’s natural-gas pipeline to the continent. None of this should preclude efforts to find sources of alternative green energy. But until wind and solar can power nation-states, the West has to focus on freeing itself from Russian energy by producing its own.
Economic separation also demands a strategy to address China’s and Russia’s control of the global market for rare earth minerals and metals. Those materials are needed for everything from the production of car batteries to guided missiles. Today, to take one example, China alone could disrupt America’s aircraft industry if it decided to stop selling neodymium and praseodymium to the West. And so the allies need to form a consortium to create a secure supply chain of these materials that bypasses China and Russia. It should form part of a broader campaign, already underway for the past few years, that frees the supply lines for critical industries such as military, computer technology, aircraft, and auto sectors from dependence on China.
Finally, a policy of economic separation should also take on China’s campaign to build digital and physical infrastructure in the Third World by offering a better deal. America and its allies are already behind in this game, but they are not out of it. For instance, the U.S. and European allies should subsidize Western telecom companies so that they are in a position to provide emerging markets an alternative to China’s cheap 5G cell towers produced by Huawei.
FOCUS ON DETERRENCE
Energy independence and new supply chains are two crucial elements when it comes to protecting the free world’s economies from China and Russia. But the West also has to prepare for the prospect of military confrontation. Here, the goal should be both deterrence and resilience.
This means, first, that America should prepare for the possibility that China and Russia will launch European and Pacific wars at the same time. The Pentagon must revive long-standing American doctrine that was ended in 2014—the doctrine that says we must be ready to fight and win two wars at once. That would require a significant buildup of forces to Cold War levels, along with committing at least 5 percent of GDP to defense spending (it’s currently about 3.75 percent). Along these lines, NATO allies should authorize a permanent presence in states that border Russia. A similar strategy should be pursued against China. Now would be a good time to knit together the mutual-defense agreements that the U.S. already has with Australia, South Korea, and Japan and renew a military alliance in the Pacific. Over time, the alliance should expand to include the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
A new military strategy should also prepare for the unconventional threats that China and Russia pose to America. For instance, China has, in the past decade, developed anti-satellite missiles capable of blinding America in time of war. In response, the Pentagon should build up the capability to rapidly relaunch communications satellites in such an event.
The new military mobilization should also provide anti-ballistic-missile defenses to major cities in America, Europe, and the Pacific. Ronald Reagan’s pursuit of missile defense terrified the Soviets. A commitment to deploy these systems should remind the Kremlin that it stands to lose much more than the West in the horrific event of a nuclear exchange.
The U.S. government has over the past decade bolstered the defense of the computer networks that control everything from the electrical grid to the U.S. banking system, or what is known as critical infrastructure. Comparatively little has been done to prepare for the chance that hackers will succeed in disabling them. Doing so requires the revival of the Cold War concept of civil defense. Every American city, town, and county should designate officials to take charge in the event of a cyber-created natural disaster, from blackouts, floods, or the contamination of the water supply. In addition, the federal government should begin to build more redundancy into electrical grids, gas pipelines, and water reservoirs, with a plan to restore infrastructure that could be disabled through cyber war. We established some of these emergency procedures after 9/11 and could adapt them.
The most potent advantage the West has over autocracies is that the free world is a magnet for genius fleeing tyranny. This human capital has been an engine of American ingenuity and creativity since its founding. In this respect, it is not enough to quarantine Russia and China. America should also welcome their dissidents, artists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, poets, and scientists—and offer them a better life in the United States rather than sending them home to use our knowhow to their native advantage. Over time, this brain drain will weaken China’s and Russia’s ability to keep pace with Western innovation.
There is an opportunity for creative statecraft. To wit: The children of Chinese and Russian elites should be barred from U.S. universities. But the children of Chinese and Russian dissidents should be given scholarships. Immigrants to the free world are also an important window into the tyrannies they have fled. At moments when tyrants teeter and demonstrations fill the streets, the U.S. government should consult with the Americans who know these countries best. It’s important in this respect to distinguish between solidarity and regime change. The goal is to support democratic movements as they arise, not to direct them. But the long-term strategy should be to align with Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Venezuelan, Cuban, and North Korean movements that demand citizens’ rights as free peoples.
America also should strengthen Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia to meet the demands of the 21st century. This would entail building on existing programs to help dissidents and activists shield their electronic communications from their regime’s secret police and pursue satellite technology to provide uncensored Internet in Russia, China, and other despotic countries. This is especially urgent in Russia, where Putin has banned most Western social media.
This approach should also be adopted by Silicon Valley, which should be actively discouraged from serving as tyranny’s cat’s-paw. In 2021, Google and Apple both removed an app from their online stores in Russia that had been developed by the organization of dissident politician Alexei Navalny. This should never happen again. Russia seeks to erase Navalny from its Internet. American tech companies should make it a priority to amplify his organization online in Russia.
Finally, solidarity programs—modeled on the heroic work that Jewish Americans did to help free refusenik Jews during the Cold War—should be adopted by American civil society. Newspaper editors should partner with what is left of a free press in China and Russia. Lawyers and scientists should do the same with their counterparts. This would raise the costs of extinguishing freedom for the Chinese and Russian regimes.
Some may dismiss a solidarity strategy as a form of hopeless idealism. And it’s true that in the past decade dictators have proven more resilient than democracy movements. But this calculation discounts a lesson of history. Tyrants will always view the example of free peoples determining their own destiny as an existential threat, lest their own citizens demand those freedoms for themselves. America’s leaders should never forget this and understand that alliances with tyrants are temporary, but the bonds with free peoples endure.
Zelensky’s bravery in the face of overwhelming odds has proved a reminder that great peril can produce great leaders. America is in desperate need of such leadership today. Our country has been mired in self-doubt. We have forgotten who we are. The nationalist right and the socialist left don’t agree on much, but they both regard America’s recent wars as moral abominations and the country’s economic realities as marks of an irredeemable corruption. Who are we to judge or intervene, when we have tortured prisoners and droned wedding parties? Who are we to promote equality when we have income inequality?
It’s time for both parties to soundly reject this myopic politics. American global leadership is the only way that weaker democracies can survive. It is the only chance for long-term peace. And for all the ugly chapters in American history, our enemies have done and are doing and will do worse. We remain a beacon of hope for all people who struggle for freedom, whether we know it or not.
Rejecting the recent myopia and division requires some faith in the American people as well. The campaign against “disinformation”—much of it based in the idea that stupid Americans were wildly susceptible to Russian manipulation—has resulted in pointless censorship. We should not make that mistake again. Consider that all of Russia’s propaganda and bribery in Europe, aimed at weakening the continent’s resolve during a war like this, has failed miserably. Putin’s menace and Zelensky’s heroism galvanized Europeans and their leaders to impose unprecedented sanctions on Russia and reinvestment in their militaries in record time. There is no need to ban Russian state propaganda from the Internet. Moscow’s lies are self-discrediting.
This moment should also stir the Republican Party to take a hard look at its future. Donald Trump is too enamored with strong men to carry on America’s tradition of fighting tyranny. He views their amorality as a new kind of realism. Republicans have every reason to look higher.
And so, too, does Joe Biden. He is the leader of the free world—but he seems be more concerned about his position as the leader of a domestic political party whose elites have spent the past two years embracing the idea that America was born in evil and is awash in racist sin even now. He has greeted the challenge from Putin with resolve, but he has also defaulted to a strangely passive notion that Putin will fail in his goals because “freedom” will somehow triumph over “tyranny.” That’s not how it works. Tyranny must be resisted and boxed in as a precondition for freedom’s eventual victory. It will not happen on its own. It never does, and it never will.
If Biden cannot find a way to greet this moment by saying unambiguously that we are the good guys, that our cause is just, and that we are engaged in a titanic struggle with evil regimes that believe that the only way they can rise is if we fall, history will dub him a dominated weakling.
We must prepare for the long struggle ahead. The world has changed. We must change along with it.
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