At Both Ends of Eurasia, the Era of ‘Pax Americana’ Is Coming to an End

There are any number of ways to measure one of the great secular transformations of our time: the decline of the United States’ power relative not only to a rising rival like China, but to the rest of the world generally.

From 1960 to the present, the American share of global economic output has declined from 40 percent to less than a quarter in recent years. And compared even to the fairly recent past, say during the presidency of Barack Obama, the influence and prestige of the American political model has withered under the corrosive effects of Trumpism as well as the political division and paralysis so evident in his wake. The failure to stem the spread of COVID-19, both domestically, where it has infected nearly 50 million people, and worldwide, where the United States was once a much more effective provider of public health goods, has also strongly diminished the country’s global image.

American technology companies still look like global leaders, but when one considers frontier industries, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, there is no assurance their lead can be maintained. One need only look to the skies, where other countries’ space programs, led most impressively by China, are steadily making big new breakthroughs.

Today, though, the United States stands close to the cusp of contests that fall under the oldest category of all: military strength as conventionally measured. Seen in the abstract, no other country’s armed forces can yet compete with the U.S. military’s ability to project force globally. Wars, however, are never fought in the abstract. And at both ends of the Eurasian landmass loom blunt and risky challenges to Washington’s self-appointed role as custodian and enforcer of the international order, as two revisionist powers—one long-standing and the other more recently manifest—appear to be girding themselves to alter the geostrategic status quo through the application of armed pressure on neighboring states. Even if conflict can be averted in the short term, the hints grow daily that force may be employed in the foreseeable future.

One involves the staging by Moscow of 100,000 troops at four points along the arc of its shared border with Ukraine, whose Crimea region was already the site of a brazen and successful Russian land grab using force in 2014—the first case of territorial aggrandizement through military aggression that Europe had seen since World War II. The other, seemingly less urgent, but nonetheless unpredictable and possibly even more dangerous situation involves China’s steady ratcheting up of pressure on Taiwan, whose absorption into the People’s Republic has become a top priority in Beijing under Xi Jinping.

What unites these two situations is Washington’s increasingly evident incapacity in strictly military terms to prevent either Moscow or Beijing from using military might to achieve their aims. The underlying reality that explains why this is true is remarkably similar in both cases. As a so-called standoff power that dominates a continent of its own and is separated by broad oceans from Europe to one side and East Asia to the other, Washington cannot possibly mass the kinds of military means that would be needed to deter a great Eurasian power like Russia or China from launching an offensive aimed at taking control of coveted nearby territory.

What links the situations in Ukraine and Taiwan is Washington’s incapacity in strictly military terms to prevent Moscow or Beijing from using military might to achieve their aims.

This was actually true of the balance of power between Moscow and Washington in Europe throughout the Cold War, as well. If there had ever been a strictly conventional conflict, the Soviet Union, with its 95 divisions in the Russian Far West or based in the territories of its Eastern European clients, plus those of its Warsaw Pact allies, would have easily overwhelmed the U.S.-led NATO forces. What prevented them from trying was the risk that such a bid would have triggered a nuclear war, which neither side wanted, even if the war could be limited to a “tactical” exchange. Another factor that bolstered the American position was the much greater collective economic strength of the United States and its Western European allies than that of the so-called Eastern bloc.

Today, almost literally no one involved in security policy imagines the United States would resort to nuclear weapons to defend Ukraine from a Russian invasion. (This is scarcely more imaginable in the case of a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force.) Many doubt the political will even exists in the United States to do anything more than impose a routine set of sanctions on Russia if Moscow decides to attack Ukraine. Furthermore, and somewhat paradoxically from the perspective of the United States, a harsh sanctions regime imposed on either one of these powers would drive it much further into the embrace of the other.

In a conversation this fall, a recently retired U.S. military general officer who must remain unnamed told me that the conventional military balance in East Asia is fast becoming as tilted in China’s favor as the one in Europe was in favor of the Soviet Union. “China has so many means at its disposal that whatever American forces there are in the region would quickly be neutralized if a conflict were to break out over Taiwan,” he said. “And they are adding to their arsenal and improving it all the time.”

The officer repeated a long-standing American complaint that Taiwan was not doing enough to equip itself to defend against a Chinese attack, especially through the acquisition of so-called asymmetrical systems—meaning a plethora of cheap arms, from drones to sea mines to small, fast boats that can attack and evade larger platforms—instead of the gold-plated weapons systems, such as fighter aircraft, that Taipei has traditionally preferred. These, he said, would be wiped out in the early stages of any conflict. Even more worrisome, the general said, Taiwanese forces don’t even maintain a satisfactory state of readiness in terms of drills, training and ammunition.

It is important to consider the motivations that Moscow and Beijing have for seeking control over these neighboring territories. As Tony Judt wrote in his book, “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine “was home to 18 percent of the population and generated nearly 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product,” despite representing just under 3 percent of its land area. Long treated as an internal colony, with its natural resources exploited and its people kept under close surveillance, Ukraine was responsible for over 40 percent of Soviet agricultural production. Complicating things further was the deeply intertwined history of the two countries, including the biographies of an unusually large number of Soviet leaders. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were Ukrainian-born Russians. Konstantin Chernenko was the son of Ukrainian kulaks. Yuri Andropov rose to power after having been the KGB head in Ukraine.

China’s determination to win control of Taiwan is, more than it lets on, heavily bound up in future ambitions. Control of the surrounding seas would make China’s position in the Western Pacific far more powerful and secure. Integrating Taiwan under China’s rule, it is thought in Beijing, would also strongly bolster the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. One would be wrong, though, to underestimate its historical motivations. As I wrote in my book, “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Explain China’s Push for Global Power,” throughout history, every Chinese dynasty has been judged by the degree to which it at a minimum conserved and at best recovered the maximal geographical extent of the realm. The Chinese Communist Party has never before ruled over Taiwan, and in the sweep of history, mainland China’s overall authority over the island has never been more than brief and tenuous. Beijing nonetheless sees the island very much through this historical prism of the realm.

This leaves the United States, with its fading relative power, facing difficult choices that are only going to grow tougher, and with which the American public is broadly unfamiliar. How much is the country willing to commit in lives and material resources to stopping two countries whose histories are so deeply bound up in empire from pursuing their territorial instincts? The crunch may not come this week in Ukraine, or even next year in Taiwan, but these are problems that will not be put off for long.

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