The coronavirus has reminded Americans of something that a mature people should not need to be reminded of: Governments do not get to pick their priorities and preoccupations. Forces and events beyond U.S. shores get a vote, and they might test a Biden administration early and gravely.
Russia is ramshackle and declining: In a 2019 survey, 53% of Russians ages 18 to 24 said they wanted to emigrate. Nevertheless, Russia is revising the map of Europe by dismembering its geographically largest nation, Ukraine. In her book “Atomic Spy: The Dark Lives of Klaus Fuchs,” Nancy Thorndike Greenspan notes that when Fuchs, the scientist who spied for Russia, with huge consequences, from within the Manhattan Project, died in East Germany in 1988, no senior Soviet official attended his funeral. But a 35-year-old KGB official stationed in Dresden did: Vladimir Putin’s durable anti-Western grudge pre-dates the events that, a year after the Fuchs funeral, began Russia’s radical diminution.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, convinced that the United States is much diminished, seems impatient not merely to “Finlandize” Taiwan – to make it compliant, as the Soviet Union attempted to make Finland – but to subject the “renegade province” to Beijing’s intensifying totalitarianism. Would a Biden or Trump administration be preferable if, in 2021, China, whose increasing truculence is displayed from the South China Sea to the Himalayan border with India, seized one of Taiwan’s nearby islands?
In Germany, which has the world’s fourth-largest national economy, a survey was released in May on whether the United States or China is Germany’s most important partner: Thirty-seven percent said the United States, 36% said China. The same organization’s September 2019 poll had shown a 27-point U.S. advantage. Among Germans ages 18 to 34, China was preferred in May by 46% to 35%. The organization says the precipitous decline of respect for the United States largely pre-dated the stumbling U.S. response to the pandemic.
In an April poll asking Italians whether they prefer close ties with China or with the United States, China was preferred, 36% to 30%. European shifts toward China have occurred during abundant news reports about China’s concentration camps facilitating cultural genocide against more than 1 million Uighurs. A May survey in Britain showed that only 28% trust the United States to act responsibly in the world, a 13-point decline since January. Consigning U.S. foreign policy to a historically illiterate, uninformed, erratic and impulsive person has consequences.
President Donald Trump, like the coronavirus, has been an accelerant of some trends that preexisted the eruption of him and it into global dynamics. But what the Economist calls Trump’s “toe-curling” obsequiousness toward Xi (the “greatest leader in Chinese history”) has been unhelpful.
Retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who for 13 months was Trump’s national security adviser, worries that “the overoptimism that animated U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s” produced disappointment that has become a “retrenchment syndrome” and recapitulates the “come home, America” impulse during the nation’s Vietnam agony. He recalls historian C. Vann Woodward’s 1960 observation that then-new technologies – e.g., jet aircraft, and ballistic missiles, including those carried by nuclear submarines – ended America’s “era of free security.” Six decades on, with U.S. prestige and influence at its post-1945 nadir, security is neither free nor secure.
Robert D. Kaplan of Eurasia Group observes: “Undeniably, our post-Cold War presidents have been dramatically inferior to our Cold War presidents” – Harry Truman through George H.W. Bush – “in terms of thinking strategically about foreign affairs.” Today, during hysterias incubated on campuses, Kaplan warns:
“One should never forget these lines from Solzhenitsyn: ‘Idolized children despise their parents, and when they get a bit older they bully their countrymen.’ ... Chinese are educated in national pride; increasingly the opposite of what goes on in our own schools and universities.”
A nation that nurtures elites that are at best ambivalent about their nation will not have sufficient confidence to inspire, or deserve, the confidence of other nations. Victoria Nuland, former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, recalls George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram,” in which he said that in opposing the then-emerging Soviet threat “much depends on [the] health and vigor of our own society.” Nuland adds, “The first order of business is to restore the unity and confidence of U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia.”
Voters’ principal consideration this year should be which presidential candidate is most apt to accomplish Nuland’s recommendations. Although life is full of close calls, this is not one.