The South Pacific has once again become a strategic theater for Great Power competition, and the US is falling behind. Still, it is not too late to win the day and cement American primacy in a critical region.
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “South Pacific”? For most, it likely conjures up images of white sandy beaches, lush tropical forests, and incredibly expensive vacations. Others may think of the musical of the same name, or the hard-fought WWII campaign pitting the Americans against the Japanese. For a small number of us, it brings to mind one thing above all else: strategic competition. The region has been a hotbed of imperial rivalry for at least the past 150 years, ebbing and flowing in its importance as various world powers have risen and fallen. Now, its strategic role has returned with a vengeance, as China vies with the United States and its regional allies for local primacy. New developments in the China-US competition over these myriad islands have brought the issue into sharper focus, called to mind important historical parallels, and led to a key question: what should the US do to claim the upper hand in this struggle for power and influence?
The passage of a new military aid package for Ukraine shows that American hegemony can be protected & defended on the cheap.
American hegemony is under its greatest threat since the fall of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. We are faced with an enormous civilizational challenge from China, led by the genocidal, totalitarian Chinese Communist Party. We are dealing with belligerent states like Iran & North Korea which have clear designs on wiping out their neighbors with nuclear weapons. And we are trying to contain the largest invasion of European territory since 1945, where Russia is attempting to reconstitute a Tsarist imperium on the bones of Ukrainian civilians. All of these threats, although facially oriented against other nations, are in reality aimed squarely at the heart of American power: the global system which promotes our prosperity and seeks the freedom of nations & peoples everywhere. The US, along with our allies across the globe, can handle these challenges and win the fight for the 21st century. But we have to get serious about the danger we face and how we choose to handle it. Fortunately, there are some signs that we might be on the right track, at least when it comes to responding to the most pressing current crisis: the war in Ukraine.
To the list of all the genocides of the last hundred plus years – Armenia, the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda – another entry should be added: the genocide of the Chinese Uighurs.
According to legitimate international researchers and tribunals, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is currently committing cultural and physical genocide against the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang province. This population, both ethnically and religiously a minority, has been surveilled by the Chinese government, placed into ‘re-education camps,’ and forcibly sterilized. These deeds fall directly under Article II of the United Nations Convention on Genocide: China is both “causing serious bodily or mental harm” and “imposing measures intended to prevent births” within the Uighur population, “with intent to destroy” it. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government is denying all claims of atrocities. To their credit, many Western governments, including the United States, have properly labeled these abuses as genocide. Now they must act accordingly.
Unlike the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, and more recently in Iraq against the Yazidis, the perpetrator, China, is a nuclear power that cannot be deterred through military intervention. Yet, there are several ways that the United States can impose significant costs on Beijing and make it harder for China to continue committing these crimes against humanity.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine stems not from Soviet nostalgia, but a deeper desire for Russian Imperium. How should the West respond?
As you likely have seen, the predicted invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces has indeed come to pass. It has only been a few days, and the fog of war is still thick on the ground, but the invasion seems to be total and the resistance has been fierce. Russian forces have attacked all across the country, from the coastal cities of Odessa and Mariupol, to the northern areas around Kharkiv and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to the capital of Kyiv itself. Ukraine’s defense has been stronger than many observers – including the Russians – had anticipated, and acts of heroism have been reported widely. The war is moving very quickly, and the facts on the ground may have even changed by the time you read this; as such, this piece is not meant to be an exhaustive update on the military situation in Ukraine – there are far more knowledgeable people than I writing about that. What I can do, however, is explain and correct a key misconception in how many Western pundits and politicians – President Biden included – view Vladimir Putin’s motivations for this attack. They are correct in seeing Putin as driven by historical factors and nostalgia for past glory, but they ascribe that longing to the wrong era. He looks not to the Cold War of the 20th century, but to the Great Power conflict of the 19th. The Russian President does not seek to become the leader of a revived Soviet Union, but a new Tsar. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn’t; understanding this historic rationale and properly contextualizing it can help us better understand Putin’s worldview, learn a great deal about his future ambitions, and determine how best to respond to this unprovoked invasion.
The term ‘useful idiot’ has a long and storied Cold War history, often being used to pejoratively describe Western leftists who amplified and played into Soviet propaganda. Useful idiocy came in many forms, from outright laundering of Soviet lies (see Walter Duranty) to simply falling for the USSR’s disinformation and false narratives. Some in the latter category still exist today and seriously argue that, for instance, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg were not actually spies (apparently they have not seen the Venona Files). Most of these useful idiots were on the political left, but the main thing that their politics had in common was a reflexive anti-American bent. Useful idiocy as a relevant political concept fell out of favor at the same time the Soviet Union did, and most thought it relegated to works of history. Now, just as Great Power conflict has returned with a vengeance, so have the useful idiots.