Almost unnoticed in an admittedly busy news cycle, Mike Pompeo has been doing his best to inflame already existing tensions with the People’s Republic of China. While his boss uses ‘Kung Flu’ as a loathsome campaign punchline, his Secretary of State is more concerned with egging on what is looking more and more like a new Cold War.
In a July 23rd speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, instead of taking the opportunity to call for a new era of international cooperation to deal with the ongoing pandemic and other longer term issues like climate change, Pompeo demonstrated why rightwing politicians rarely make good diplomats.
“The truth is that our policies – and those of other free nations – resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that were feeding it,” Pompeo said, twisting history, “We opened our arms to Chinese citizens, only to see the Chinese Communist Party exploit our free and open society. China sent propagandists into our press conferences, our research centers, our high-schools, our colleges, and even into our PTA meetings.”
These words draw from the McCarthy era playbook that is never far from the minds of neo-conservatives like Pompeo, who see a red (or Muslim) menace around every corner. At this point in time, such rhetoric also puts Chinese and other Asian Americans at risk in their everyday lives, especially as conservative media on both sides of the Atlantic are blaming the country for the pandemic rather than looking at the missteps of their own leaders in confronting it.
If we’ve learned anything from this international crisis, it’s that global supply chains, made reliant on the countries with the lowest wages, can work for a country like the United States (if not its working people) so long as there’s no national emergency. When disaster did strike, to take just one example, PPE for hospitals, the novel coronavirus showed just how dangerous relying on far away places for such necessities can be, exposing the weakness of the neoliberal economic model championed by conservatives and liberal centrists alike for decades.
Even without today’s terrifying backdrop, it’s worrying that the American right and its allies in other countries are so willing to provoke Beijing, a still growing power that has a great deal of leverage over both the global and the United States’ economy.
As Slate columnist Fred Kaplan recently wrote in regards to the latter, “It’s not a good idea for America’s top diplomat to hurl existential threats against a nation that holds $1 trillion of our debt and serves as the prime—in some cases, the sole—source of so many consumer goods, including medical products.”
It’s important to understand that the politics of the People’s Republic of China, similar to those of nearby rival Vietnam, owe at least as much to a nationalist as to a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ struggle to throw off the centuries long yoke of colonialism. We see this nationalism at work in the Chinese government’s attempts to recreate a bygone era by controlling and colonizing rather than allowing the people of Tibet and Xinjiang the right to determine their own futures.
Nationalism is also a major factor driving the tensions in the South China Sea, where China’s policy of claiming and building on what amount to piles of rocks to stake claims to this vast body of water is certainly bold. At the same time, vast numbers of American navy ships and carriers involved in provocative exercises there so far from home might also play a role in Beijing’s behavior.
There are many troubling developments in the People’s Republic that need to be followed by those who craft western foreign policy, not least of which is President Xi’s recent assumption of the role of president for life. However, the underlying economic issues, as much the result of the greed of multinational corporations as China’s authoritarian leadership, can’t be threatened away, something the Trump Administration should have learned after engaging in a trade war that is likely to hurt American farmers, among others, for many years to come.
Given license by the current president’s bombastic style, the hawks in his administration, past and present, haven’t been happy just taking the risk of creating a cold conflict with what is now the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power, they’ve also quietly joined the effort to continue the mostly bipartisan animosity towards the Russian Federation.
While I believe Donald Trump admires a leader like Vladimir Putin for his autocratic style, there’s no denying that his administration has been at least as tough on the country as any of his predecessors since at least the 1990s.
Brutal sanctions, some to protect North America’s shale and tar sands industries from competition with Russian natural gas in Europe, have been accompanied by dangerous withdrawals from international treaties, including breaking from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) in 2019, an agreement that banned such weapons with a range between 300 and 3400 miles.
The landmark 1987 treaty significantly decreased the chances of a rash decision on either side or an accident that could have reduced Europe, and likely much of the world, into a heap of ashes, so of course, Pompeo and his hawkish allies in the administration trashed it.
Other sanctions punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea, long considered a vital strategic territory by the country because it allows access to the Black Sea. This has been presented in the western press in a wholly one-sided way, omitting the fact that large majorities in the area, given to Ukraine by Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev in 1954, voted to rejoin the country in 3 referendums including the most recent one in March of 2014 after the Maiden revolution in Ukraine.
What should be a priority, protecting minority populations with legitimate fears and grievances in Crimea like the Tatars, isn’t even a part of the discussion.
In a move that is almost sure to heighten tensions between Russia and its neighbor, on June 12th, Ukraine was made an Enhanced Opportunities Partner by the Trump administration. This is NATO membership in all but name for a country whose corrupt, oligarchic and all too often fascist adjacent government could create a bigger conflict on its own at some point in the future.
Another story that received endless coverage were claims of Russian hackers accessing American, Canadian and British research into possible vaccines or treatments for the novel coronavirus.
Unfortunately, mainstream reporters never seemed to land on the most shocking aspect of the story: that this information isn’t being widely shared during a global pandemic when cooperation is the only ethical way forward. Instead, those making these claims, which the Kremlin denies, give away their true motivation, profit, by saying these are attacks on, “valuable intellectual property”.
Although it will be interesting to see how a Democratic administration might approach China, regardless of the result of the November elections, it appears the party’s leaders are going to continue to up the ante with the Russian Federation. Diplomacy would probably be more effective than continuing to push the country, which is mainly a petro-state and a shell of its pre-1989 self, into the open arms of Beijing.
Insisting on punishing the country for the mistakes of the Clinton campaign in 2016 only makes it harder to address the issues progressives care about in the Russian Federation like LGBTQ rights.
While Putin is always given credit for every Russian victory in terms of geopolitics, the better to portray him as some kind of evil mastermind, this overarching narrative misses the fact that the country’s bureaucracy seems to be in the hands of at least semi-competent people rather than a mixture of campaign donors, politicians and careerists. An easy point of comparison with Secretary Pompeo is his equivalent in Russia, Sergey Lavrov, a seasoned diplomat respected by allies and adversaries alike throughout the world.
If there was ever a time to embrace the kind of international cooperation the left has always called for, it’s during a global pandemic. Instead, the same voices who called for the failed interventions in Iraq and Libya that turned into ongoing humanitarian disasters are calling for confrontation with two major nuclear powers.
We have watched this administration battle its own scientists during this health crisis, but I’m sure that most Americans are grateful that expert voices are there to push back against the politicization of the pandemic and update the public on measures they can take to protect themselves and others as medical science catches up to the disease. If only there were such voices of reason left in the country’s mostly bipartisan foreign policy establishment.