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Beyond The Pandemic: American Strategic Survival In A Time Of Plague

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Science, by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual, is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation….The latter is not possible without the former.”-Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, Man and Crisis (1958)

 America and the world face a relentless common enemy. Very conspicuously, the recalcitrant  Corona virus threatens to dwarf all other pertinent existential hazards. At the same time, the sheer magnitude of this biological peril does not in any way diminish other long-term security perils. Accordingly, both principal species of hazard –  disease and war – must now be dealt with scientifically, simultaneously and with a view to understanding all plausible interactions between them.

This deliberate view includes any expressly synergistic interactions. Here, by definition , the “whole” of any particular interaction would exceed the  sum of its calculably separate “parts.”[1]

Prima facie, this will not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted or for those more well-versed as public impresarios than as disciplined thinkers.[2]

How to begin? The most glaringly long-term and seriously underlying hazard is easy to identify. This structural enemy is a continuously anarchic system of world politics, one based upon the fragile foundations of a perpetually belligerent nationalism. Ironically, it is precisely this “all against all” global system that remains dear to the ceremony-centered heart of US President Donald J Trump.

To proceed, there are certain indispensable antecedent questions. Most importantly, one must immediately inquire: How did we ever get to such a frightful and unpromising situation? This is a core historical question that should no longer be side-stepped or avoided.

In order to answer these questions capably, history deserves an evident pride of place.  Our bloodied planet’s corrosive and continuously unsuccessful pattern of global strategic interaction began in the seventeenth century, in 1648, immediately after the Thirty Years War and the war-terminating Peace of Westphalia. Consequently, this pattern is often referred to by international relations scholars as “Westphalian world politics” or as “Westphalian international relations.”[3] Either way, these two terms represent a formal academic synonym for “balance of power.”

There is more.  Since the start of the Nuclear Age in 1945, this time-dishonored world system has been described more particularly as a “balance of terror.” [4] In part, this is because in a world with proliferating nuclear weapons, strategic emphases must shift meaningfully from war management to war avoidance. Accordingly, among other considerations, scholars and planners must now look more comprehensively at the specialized mechanisms of deterrence than at more traditional elements of defense.[5] By definition, this shift in focus will be paralleled by an increase in complexity.

For analytic reasons, both deterrence and defense designate a global pattern for influencing behavior that values national military power over any plausible forms of international cooperation. Among other liabilities, such hierarchic or preferential designations are inherently ill-fated, continuously degrading and prospectively irrational.[6] Even before the creation of the modern state system in 1648 – indeed, from time immemorial –  world politics have been rooted in some more-or-less bitter species of Realpoliitk[7] or power politics.[8]

Always, sooner or later, they have exploded into catastrophic violence.

Still, though these traditionally rancorous patterns of thinking have always proven shortsighted and transient, they remain popularly accepted as “realistic.”  It follows, among many other things, that present-day major world powers would be well-advised to (1) acknowledge the unchanging limitations of a persistently fragile global threat system,[9] and (2) begin to identify more promising and substantially more durable patterns of cooperative international interaction.[10] In purely analytic terms, no such advice could even be questionable or problematic.

More specifically today, this self-evidently sound advice is especially pertinent to US President Donald J Trump and still-functioning American foreign policy makers. What might first have still seemed promising to calculating strategists in our ongoing “state of nature”[11] is apt to prove futile and counter-productive for America’s longer-term survival prospects.  On this sobering point, prima facie, there can be little credible doubt.[12]

 There is more. The United States, in the fashion of every other state, is part of a larger world system.  But this vastly more comprehensive system has steadily diminishing chances for achieving any sustainable success within a dissembling  pattern of foolishly competitive sovereignties. What then, our national decision-makers must promptly inquire, is the point of upholding such an insidious system? Is there any conceivably defensible argument on behalf of maintaining some hypothetical  “military edge” in a system that is by its nature destined to fail?[13]

To answer such a starkly fundamental question, it may  be useful to consider the insights of poets and playwrights and not just “professionals.” “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” asks Samuel Beckett philosophically in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?” This is plainly a serious question, not just about life in general, but also about world political and strategic structures in particular.[14]

 Again,  history must be consulted as a primary and tangible clarifier.  Realpolitik or balance of power world politics has never succeeded for longer than certain palpably brief and dreadfully uncertain historical intervals.[15] In the future, from time to time, this intrinsically unsteady foundation could be exacerbated by multiple systemic failures, sometimes mutually reinforcing or “synergistic,” sometimes even involving weapons of mass destruction. Most portentous, in this particular regard, would be nuclear weapons.[16]

By definition, therefore, a failure of nuclear Realpolitik could be not “only” catastrophic, but also potentially sui generis, if judged in the full or cumulative scope of its decipherable declensions.

Immediately, all states that depend upon some form or other of nuclear deterrence must prepare to think more self-consciously and imaginatively about alternative systems of world politics; that is, about creating viable configurations that are more strategically war-averse and cooperation-centered. While any hint of interest in complex patterns of expanding global integration, or what Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls “planetization,” will sound unacceptably utopian or foolishly fanciful to “realists,” the opposite is actually true. Now, after so many years of “everyone for himself,” it is more realistic to acknowledge candidly that our zero-sum ethos in world politics is endlessly degrading, and also incapable of conferring any credible survival reassurances.

“The visionary,” alerts the Italian film director Federico Fellini, “is the only realist.”

Again and again – and at some point, irretrievably – “Westphalian” world systemic failures could become tangibly dire and potentially irreversible. In the final analysis, it will not help to merely tinker tentatively at the ragged edges of our historically violent world order. At that decisive turning point, simply continuing to forge ad hoc agreements between refractory states or (as “hybridized” actors) between these combative states and surrogate or sub-state organizations would be futile.

In the longer term, the only sort of realism that can make any sense for America and other leading states in world politics is a posture that points meaningfully toward a “higher” awareness of global “oneness,” and (however incrementally) toward far greater world system interdependence.[17]

In its fully optimized expression, such an indispensable awareness – a literal opposite of US President Donald Trump’s refractory “America First” – would display what the ancients had called a cosmopolitan or “world city” perspective. For the moment, the insightful prophets of any more collaborative world civilization must remain “on the fringe,” few and far between,[18] but this probable absence is not because of any intrinsic lack of need or any witting forfeiture. Rather, it reflects a progressively imperiled species’ wretchedly stubborn unwillingness to take itself seriously –  that is, to finally recognize that the only sort of loyalty that can rescue all states from oblivion must embrace a redirected commitment (both individual and national) to all humankind.

At its heart, various complex nuances notwithstanding, this is not a bewilderingly complicated idea. To wit, it is hardly a medical or biological secret that those basic factors and behaviors common to all human beings outnumber those that very unnaturally differentiate one from another. Unless the leaders of major states on Planet Earth can finally understand that the survival of any one state must inevitably be contingent upon the survival of all, true strategic security will continue to elude every nation.

This includes even (or especially) the “most powerful” states. After all, incontestably, the most persuasive forms of power on planet earth are not guns, battleships or missiles. Instead, they are conveniently believable promises of “life everlasting” or personal immortality. In essence, when one finally uncovers what is most utterly important to the vast majority of human beings, it is a presumptively credible power over death[19]. Significantly, individuals all over the world often see the dynamics of belligerent nationalism (e.g., “America First”) as a path to their own personal immortality.[20]

Why else, in essentially all international conflict, does each side seek so desperately and conspicuously to align itself with God? Always, the loudest claim of all is deliberate and incomparably reassuring: “Fear not,” the citizens are counseled, “God is on our side.”

The bottom line? The most immediate security tasks in the global state of nature will sometimes still need to remain narrowly or even collaboratively self-centered. Quickly, however, leaders of  all pertinent countries must also learn to understand that our planet represents a recognizably organic whole, a fragile but variously intersecting “unity,” a species of “oneness” that exhibits certain  already diminishing options for viable war avoidance.[21]

To seize rapidly disappearing residual opportunities for long-term survival, our leaders must finally learn to build upon the critical foundational insights of Francis Bacon, Galileo and Isaac Newton,[22] and also on the more contemporary observation of Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never ending process of creating one world and one humanity.”[23]

Whenever we speak of civilization we must also speak of law. Jurisprudentially, no particular national leadership has any special or primary obligations in this regard, nor could it reasonably afford to build its own immediate security policies upon any vaguely distant hopes. Nonetheless, the United States remains a key part of the community of nations, and must continually do whatever it can to detach an already wavering state of nations from the unsteady state of nature.

Any such willful detachment should be expressed as part of a much wider vision for a durable and justice-centered world politics. Over the longer term, Washington will have to do its own significant part to preserve the global system as a whole. “America Together,” not “America First,” must become our rational national mantra. However impractical  this may sound at first, nothing could possibly be more fanciful than continuing indefinitely on a repeatedly discredited course.

US President Donald Trump’s hastily assembled “insights” to the contrary, endlessly corrosive kinds of global anarchy can never be in America’s best interests.

Never.

For the moment, at least, there is no need for detailing further analytic or intellectual particulars – there are, of course, bound to be a great many –  but only for outlining a more recognizable and dedicated awareness of this genuinely basic civilizational obligation.[24]

In The Plague, Albert Camus instructs: “At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric….It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words – to silence.” As long as the states in world politics continue to operate as determinedly grim archeologists of ruins still-in-the-making, that is, as permanent prisoners of massively corrupted scientific and analytic thought, they will be unable to stop the next series of catastrophic wars, and the next series of deadly disease outbreaks.

Until now, the traditional expectations of Realpolitik have seemed fundamentally sensible and correct. Accordingly, there have appeared no seemingly plausible reasons for expressing pent up regrets about “everyone for himself.”.  Nevertheless, from the essential standpoint of longer-term options and security prospects, world leaders must soon open up their security imaginations to more openly visionary ways of understanding – ways clearly not yet  their own.

Merely continuing with the defiling extremities of Hobbesian anarchy in world politics is a prescription not for realism, but for recurrent war, disease epidemics and utterly wholesale despair.[25]

There is one last and still critically important point. Though the Covid-19 plague represents a singularly catastrophic event for us all, there could be at least one identifiable “silver lining.” This is the still-conceivable prospect of transforming grievous catastrophe into an eleventh-hour opportunity for expanded global cooperation. In  essence, because this disease threat is so prominently indifferent to religion, race, ethnicity and national boundaries, it could actually provide a unique incentive for major world powers to cooperate purposefully against “Westphalian” world politics.

Though the precise likelihood of any such dynamically reciprocal cooperation will be impossible to determine, it is by no means inconceivable.[26] Recalling seminal Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, the necessary scientific expectations will have to include not just variously astute hypotheses and “observations,” but also certain extraordinary leaps of “imagination.” This can be done, but only by capable thinkers and analysts, not by the public purveyors of utterly barren “insights,” tiresome clichés or palpably empty witticisms.


[1] See, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School:  https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/ In this article, however, the subject is Israeli national security, not US national security.

[2] To accomplish this indispensable task, one would first need to think in terms of a dynamic and continuous feedback loop; to wit, one wherein the investigator systematically considers the various ways in which the anarchic structures of world politics can impact control of the pandemic and, reciprocally, how the affected pandemic could then impact these “Westphalian” or “everyone for himself”/”state of nature” global structures. In principle, at least, there should be no necessarily final or conclusive end to this dynamic cycle. Rather, each successive impact would be more-or-less transient and temporary, setting the stage for the very next round of reciprocal  changes, and so on.

[3] In essence, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) concluded the Thirty Years War and created the still-existing state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the “Peace of Westphalia.”

[4] The idea of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is merely a variant – has never been more than a facile metaphor. It has never had anything to do with ascertaining equilibrium. As such, balance is always more-or-less a matter of individual subjective perceptions\. Adversarial states can never be sufficiently confident that identifiable strategic circumstances are actually “balanced” in their favor. In consequence, each side must perpetually fear that it will be left behind, creating ever wider and cascading patterns of both insecurity and disequilibrium.

[5] See, for example, by this author and General (USA/ret.) Barry McCaffrey:  https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf

[6] The American planner or strategist could benefit here from Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s instructive remark about German philosopher Hegel: “Hegel made famous his aphorism that all the rational is real, and all the real is rational; but there are many of us who, unconvinced by Hegel, continue to believe that the real, the really real, is irrational – that reason builds upon irrationalities.”

[7] An earlier book by this author deals with these issues from an expressly American point of view. See: Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington Books, 1984).

[8] For the political philosophy origins of such core assumptions, see especially classic comment of Thrasymachus in Bk. 1, Sec. 338 of Plato, The Republic: “Right is the interest of the stronger.”

[9] In his seventeenth-century classic of political philosophy, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes points out interestingly that while the anarchic “state of nature” has likely never existed between individual human beings, it nonetheless defines the usual structures of world politics, patterns within which nations coexist in “the state and posture of gladiators….” This “posture,” expands Hobbes, is a condition of “war.”

[10] In this connection, noted Sigmund Freud: “Wars will only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgment upon all shall be handed over. There are clearly two separate requirements involved in this: the creation of a supreme agency and its endowment with the necessary power. One without the other would be useless.” (See: Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, cited in Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis, University of Denver, Monograph Series in World Affairs, Vol. 10 (1973-73), p, 27.)

[11] Thomas Hobbes described this fearful condition of “nature” at Chapter 13 of Leviathan: “But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another; yet, in all times, Kings and Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes….”  Also, as the same chapter: “So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary….”

[12] An additional question now comes to mind, one posed originally by Honore de Balzac about the “human comedy” in general, not politics in particular: “Who is to decide which is the grimmer sight: withered hearts or empty skulls?”

[13] “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign,” reminds Thomas Hobbes in Chapter XXI of LEVIATHAN,  “is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.”

[14] These legal structures include the classic American commitment to a “Higher Law.”  Under international law, this idea, drawn originally from the ancient Greeks and ancient Hebrews – is contained, inter alia, within the principle of jus cogens or peremptory norms. In the language of pertinent Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969: “A peremptory norm of general international law….is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole, as a norm from which no derogation is permitted, and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.”

[15] Back at Princeton in the late 1960s, I spent two full years in the University library, reading everything available about such historical patterns. The result was published in my early book The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973) and somewhat later, in Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975).

[16] For informed assessments of the probable consequences of nuclear war fighting, by this author, see, for example:  Louis René Beres, SURVIVING AMID CHAOS: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016/2018); Louis René Beres,  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres,  MIMICKING SISYPHUS: AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U S FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984);  and Louis René Beres, ed.,  SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[17] Long ago, we may learn from ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “”You are a citizen of the universe.” A broader idea of “oneness” followed the death of Alexander in 322 BCE, and with it came a coinciding doctrine of “universality.” By the Middle Ages, this political and social doctrine had fused with the notion of a respublica Christiana, a worldwide Christian commonwealth, and Thomas, John of Salisbury and Dante were looking at Europe as a single and unified Christian community. Below the level of God and his heavenly host, all the realm of humanity was to be considered as one. This is because all the world had been created for the same single and incontestable purpose; that is, to provide  background for the necessary drama of human salvation. Only in its relationship to the universe itself was the world correctly considered as a part rather than a whole. Said Dante in De Monarchia: “The whole human race is a whole with reference to certain parts, and, with reference to another whole, it is a part. For it is a whole with reference to particular kingdoms and nations, as we have shown; and it is a part with reference to the whole universe, which is evident without argument.” Today, of course, the idea of human oneness can be fully justified and explained in more purely secular terms of understanding.

[18] The best studies of such modern world order “prophets” are still W. Warren Wagar, The City of Man (1963) and W. Warren Wagar, Building the City of Man (1971).

[19] “I  believe,” says Oswald Spengler in his still magisterial The Decline of the West (1918), “is the one great word against metaphysical fear.”

[20] In the nineteenth century, in his posthumously published lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred and sacrilizing end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[21] Because war and genocide are not mutually exclusive, either strategically or jurisprudentially, taking proper systemic steps toward war avoidance would plausibly also reduce the likelihood of egregious “crimes against humanity.”

[22] Regarding science in such matters, Niccolo Machiavelli had joined Aristotle’s plan for a  more scientific study of politics generally with various core assumptions about geopolitics or Realpolitik. His best known conclusion, in this particular suggestion, focuses on the eternally stark dilemma of practicing goodness in a world that is generally evil. “A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything, must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”  See: The Prince, Chapter XV. Although this argument is largely unassailable, there is also a corresponding need to disavow “naive realism,” and to recognize that, in the longer term, the only outcome of “eye for an eye” conceptions in world politics will be universal blindness.

[23] We may think also of the corresponding Talmudic observation: “The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.”

[24] Interestingly, international law, which is an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, already assumes a reciprocally common general obligation to supply benefits to one another, and to avoid war at all costs. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not even subject to question. It can be found already in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[25] This brings to mind the closing query of Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Aeschylus: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatreds, the destruction”?

[26] “In a dark time,” says The American poet Theodore Roethke hopefully, “the eye begins to see.”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Air Balloon and U.S.-China Relations

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Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/US Navy

The story of the Chinese Automatic Drifting Balloon (ADB) violating the U.S. airspace in late January–early February 2023 will be a symbolic marker for a new phase of deterioration in the US-China relations.

The relations were rapidly eroding throughout 2022 and early 2023. In some aspects, U.S.-China relations in 2022 evoked obvious associations with U.S.-Russian relations in 2021. While trying to engage in cooperation with Beijing on certain issues (particularly on Ukraine), Washington simultaneously kept imposing increasingly painful sanctions against the country.

Among important steps recently taken in this direction, there have been restrictions on supplies of advanced microchips and equipment for their production to China, effective since October 2022, as well as the pressure exerted on Japan and the Netherlands (key manufacturers of equipment for the microelectronics industry) to join these restrictions. Licenses to supply virtually any components and equipment to China’s Huawei have been terminated, and a significant number of sanctions were imposed on smaller Chinese companies and individuals.

Most of the Chinese measures have been defensive and involved steps to ensure the security of production chains and the national economy. In the meantime, Beijing is also discussing measures to limit certain items of Chinese exports, with potential thermonuclear consequences. Semi-finished products, raw materials and equipment for the production of solar panels can be affected—given China’s monopoly on a number of products, this could be a shock for the renewable energy industry in the West.

The visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August 2022 played a disastrous role in the military and political situation in East Asia. That trip, despite repeated warnings from Beijing, triggered a period of rapid increase in Chinese military activity around Taiwan, which still continues.

Chinese activities include numerous live-fire exercises in the waters around the island, large groups of combat aircraft and drones flying along the island’s perimeter, and systematic violations of the median line in the Taiwan Strait by PRC ships and aircraft. For its part, the U.S. is increasing military aid to Taiwan, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine.

The November 2022 meeting of Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden in Bali was similar in content to the Geneva summit of Biden and Vladimir Putin in June 2021. We saw similar attempts to achieve at least partial stabilization of relations, establishing rules of the game, unblocking channels for political communication by creating joint working groups, and the same predictable failure. So far, we can only hope that the final outcome of these efforts will not be so disastrous as the one between Moscow and Washington.

The U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit was canceled due to the balloon incident, while it was supposed to restore the ruined channels of dialogue. The U.S.-Chinese relation is still lagging far behind the U.S.-Russian relationship in matters of mutual alerting, preventing dangerous incidents, and maintaining emergency channels of communication, where relevant experience has continuously been accumulated since the 1960s. Given the rapid progress of China’s transformation into a new nuclear superpower, conservation of this situation could be dangerous.

Nothing more was expected from Blinken’s visit – no U-turn in relations, no strategic deals, including those concerning Beijing’s positions on the Ukrainian issue. Now, the visit has been postponed indefinitely and the dialogue has been suspended amid the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Pacific.

The circumstances of the very incident with the Chinese ADB over the United States allow us to take a fresh look at the behavior of China’s leadership in the heating confrontation with the United States. According to U.S. military statements, the ADB shot down on February 4, 2023 was the fourth Chinese apparatus to violate U.S. airspace. The previous three ADBs that visited the U.S. during Donald Trump’s tenure were not detected by U.S. airspace controls in time, and the Americans became aware of their existence belatedly via intelligence channels.

If this is true, China is deliberately and systematically doing what the USSR never afforded during the entire Cold War—flying reconnaissance aircraft directly over U.S. territory. For its part, the U.S. used ADBs on a large scale for flights over the USSR and the PRC in the 1950s and 1980s, and the explanation of their purpose was exactly the same as that used by the Chinese now: border violations due to navigation error or malfunction, meteorological research, observations of airstreams, etc.

China’s contemporary political culture attaches great importance to careful observance of the principle of reciprocity, avoiding situations that could be interpreted as Beijing’s recognition of its unequal position vis-à-vis any major power. This is partly due to the severe historical trauma of the “century of humiliation” in 1840–1945, a time of foreign domination over China.

The current use of the ADB over the United States is by no means a retaliation against historical grievances. Rather, it is a response to some U.S. actions within its “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea, where U.S. ships and aircraft deliberately violate 12-mile territorial water zones around a number of Chinese-controlled islands. The Americans justify their behavior by saying that these Chinese islands are artificial and do not create rights to territorial waters.

Surely, China believes that the Americans are violating the integrity of its national territorial. From China’s perspective, the U.S., as a power external to the region, should not interfere in any of its territorial disputes with the countries of Southeast Asia. Besides, the high activity of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft along China’s borders—and sometimes over disputed water bodies—has long been a matter of Chinese concern.

From China’s perspective, the use of ADB over U.S. territory may well look like an appropriate response to the U.S. actions. Chinese leaders may have seen this action as a necessary step to confirm China’s status as a great power equal to the United States, even if only a limited number of people knew about these operations for the time being.

The political motivation behind the use of the ADB can also be discerned in the Chinese response to the incident. In a normal situation, if the balloon lost control and inadvertently entered (or risked entering) U.S. airspace, the owner would have contacted the Americans, provided the necessary data and information, and tried to avoid a fallout.

China, for its part, responded to the incident only twelve hours after Pentagon’s statement to that effect. There was a dry statement from the PRC about the loss of control of the weather balloon due to force majeure, for which “regret” was expressed.

Shortly thereafter, China declared that it would not tolerate “hype and speculation” about the balloon and accused the United States of indiscriminate and excessive use of force after it was shot down, threatening some “consequences.”

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to assess this as anything other than China’s deliberate humiliation of the United States as well as demonstration of its own strength and confidence. The Chinese consciously chose this course of action in the run-up to Blinken’s visit—now, as the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, the U.S. is more interested in dialogue than the PRC.

The Americans had to choose between continuing the dialogue in a poorer bargaining position after the humiliation they had endured and abandoning the dialogue altogether. The reaction of American public opinion predetermined the choice for the latter. However, this decision was apparently not easy to make.

The visit has not been canceled, but postponed, and the U.S. will probably look for opportunities to carry out negotiations in the not-too-distant future while saving face. Alongside with Blinken’s visit, there were plans for an even more important visit to China, to be paid by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. On February 9, 2023, Yellen announced that she was still planning a trip to China, although it was not yet possible to give a date.

The incident has shown that the Americans are not overly prepared for a tough confrontation with a comparable superpower as soon as it stops playing at giveaway with them. As it turned out, the few previous Chinese ADBs had not been detected at all, and the last one was shot down only after it had crossed the entire U.S. territory, flying over, among other things, an intercontinental ballistic missile base.

There is nothing surprising or particularly embarrassing about it: the ADB is an extremely difficult aerial target because of its low radar visibility, extremely low speed, and a very high flight altitude. The Soviet Union has been practicing its tactics against ADB for decades. The ability to counter such targets was taken into account in the design of some Soviet air defense interceptors. These include, for example, the MiG-31 still in service in Russia, which has the highest maximum flight altitude among modern fighters and is equipped to fight balloons with a GSh-23-6 cannon.

In the United States, reconnaissance ADBs did not show up during the Cold War, simply because the Soviet Union lacked the necessary technical capabilities in the early decades of the confrontation, and the late-Soviet gerontocracy was later afraid to respond in kind to violations of its airspace. Now, the Americans faced a more active opponent and have yet to learn many new skills.

The traditional U.S. propensity to make up for real-world failures with media victories was not very convincing either. Covering the incident, U.S. propaganda followed two lines. They claimed that, first, the Chinese balloon could not have caused any serious damage to the U.S. compared to China’s existing reconnaissance satellites, and second, that the vehicle was not shot down so as not to pose a threat to civilians on the ground.

The second claim is patently absurd: a significant part of the Chinese ADB route passed over deserted or sparsely populated areas, where the risk of harm to civilians was equal to zero. As for the former, the ADB surely remains a valuable reconnaissance tool that can significantly supplement satellite data. For its part, the U.S. has made extensive use of balloons in the operations against Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reconnaissance satellite operates at altitudes of hundreds of kilometers above the ground, while the balloon does so in the altitude range of 20–30 km. This gives it additional capabilities to conduct electronic reconnaissance and detailed ground surveys. The ADB is capable of monitoring atmospheric chemistry and making other measurements useful for the reconnaissance of nuclear-weapons-related targets. Finally, the balloon is capable of remaining over the same territory for long periods of time, tracking the situation there dynamically, and its flight time over an area is not predictable, unlike that of satellites.

Was the incident with the balloon an intentional attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit from the very beginning? Hardly. If the Chinese had flown around the U.S. three times in the Trump presidency with their ADBs and got away with it, it would make sense to continue this successful practice. When the “balloon case” became public, the Chinese might have chosen an escalatory course of action based on their view of the situation. It is likely that Beijing concluded that it would not lose with any possible U.S. reaction to the incident, and this is probably true.

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Can Lula walk the tightrope between Washington and Beijing?

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Image source: lula.com.br

As Brazil’s New President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) prepares to visit China later this month, maintaining neutrality would be difficult as the winds of change enwrap  Beijing.

Brazil is Back

President Lula’s coming to power has marked a decisive shift in Brazilian foreign policy. With the Pink Tide resurging in South America, the new President has clearly spelled out his foreign policy aims: restoring Brazil’s neutrality and importance in international affairs at par with both the West and East after nearly 4 years of impasse under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, who had adopted a Sinophobic, pro-Trump foreign policy.

Brasilia’s 39th President, who previously presided over the office between 2003-2010, will have a lot to talk about as he visits his nation’s largest trading partner that imported $89.4 billion in 2022 mostly in soy and iron ore which added a surplus of $28.7 billion to Brazil’s coffers. Boosting the economic partnership with China will be a priority for Lula, who intends to integrate South America into a closely held economic unit. Another important item on the agenda includes the appointment of former President Dilma Rousseff as the new BRICS Bank president.

Lula and the West

Lula had rattled swords with Washington on several occasions during his previous tenure such as alleging the United States for reducing South America to its “backyard” by intervening in its internal politics as well as by opposing the Iraq War. Even though he recognises the importance of maintaining good relations with the superpower up North; several of Lula’s moves including sending a delegation to Maduro-led Venezuela, refusing to sign a UN Human Rights resolution condemning human rights violations in Nicaragua, allowing Iranian warships to dock at Rio de Janeiro, maintaining an ambiguous approach on the Russia-Ukraine War and refusing to send arms to Kyiv, dubbing the ‘Balloongate’ incident a bilateral issue  between the US and China and defining  the Taiwan issue as Beijing’s internal matter, have deeply irked the West.

While tensions remain, Lula’s focus on combating climate change and call for saving the Amazon have earned a thumbs up from the Biden administration as the former’s election to power comes as a breath of fresh air after his staunch “Trump of the Tropics”  predecessor adopted a not-so-friendly approach towards Biden’s entry in the White House. Lula understands Washington’s support is required and hence it was a top spot on his foreign visits list. Lula and Biden held talks amidst a cordial ambience and vowed to reboot bilateral ties by promising to protect democracy and combating climate change.

Winds of Change in Beijing

However, winds of change in the East have dispersed the clouds of ambiguity and China now stands more vocal, more critical and more confident in dealing with the United States.

The recent session of the National People’s Congress, which won Xi Jinping a never-seen-before third term as the President, saw him voicing his criticism against “Washington-led attempts” to “contain, encircle and suppress” China which pose ” serious challenges to its development” (“以美国为首的西方国家对我实施了全方位的遏制、围堵、打压,给我国发展带来前所未有的严峻挑战。”). Sino-US relations have been in the trough since President Trump’s tenure with the recent point of clash being the ‘Balloon incident’ which made Anthony Blinken call off his visit to Beijing.

Xi recently unveiled his new 24 Character Foreign Policy which, Dr. Hemant Adlakha believes, marks “China’s new foreign policy mantra in the ‘New Era’ ” acting as its “ideological map to attain national rejuvenation by 2049”. The characters “沉着冷静;保持定力;稳中求进;积极作为;团结一致;敢于斗争 ” which translate as “Be calm; Keep determined; Seek progress and stability; Be proactive and go for achievements; Unite under the Communist Party; Dare to fight” are set to replace Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy  focussed on never seeking leadership and assuming a low profile.

China’s confidence is further boosted by its successful attempt to broker peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been staunch rivals for the past many years. With the handshake that brought the Sunni Arab Kingdom and the Shiite Persian theocracy together, Beijing has garnered accolades from nations across the region and is all set to play a greater international role by not just pulling American allies such as Riyadh to its side but also through actively putting forth its plans to end wars with Xi all set to pay Putin a visit over the Russia-Ukraine War before he meets Lula at Beijing. Lula too eagerly anticipates what Beijing has to say as he told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “it is time for China to get its hands dirty”.

Neutrality no more?

If the state of Sino-US relations does not improve, things would get hard for many leaders like Lula who seek to balance between the two superpowers. Lula knows  neutrality is his best bet but money matters– as his former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim noted “Our surplus with China—and I’m talking just about our surplus—is bigger than all of our exports to the United States. It is impossible not to have good relations with China.” Isolating  China, with which Brazil has had a long strategic partnership since the 1990s, at the expense of moving closer to the US might come hard on the purse and exacerbate the many economic challenges he faces. Nor can Washington be isolated– not just because of the economic necessities but also in the face of challenges from far-right forces that both Lula and Biden face.

Lula realises the risks of placing all his eggs in one basket but would he be left with the choice to divide them equally into both? The issue is bound to get stickier but if he successfully manages to escape the quagmire of the unfolding great power rivalry, Lula will set a precedent for not just South America but nations across the globe. The only viable solution would be to strengthen regional alliances in Latin America and boost partnerships with  developing nations like India while using the collective strength to push Beijing and Washington to come together.

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The Malvinas feud as a Global Constant

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Image source: buenosairesherald.com

As an event gets bigger, it’s more likely that interesting things will happen behind the scenes, that is, in unplanned activities.

The seventh meeting of G20 foreign ministers in India in 2023 confirms this. Bilateral meetings between Qing-Jaishankar, the Blinken-Lavrov dispute, and the meeting between Santiago Cafiero and James Cleverly, during which the former notified the latter of the end of the Foradori-Duncan agreement.

On March 2, 2023, by rescinding the Foradori-Duncan agreement, the Argentine government de facto reopened one of the most important territorial disputes in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps the most important, and did so in the most theatrical way possible: at the G20, the main North-South dialogue platform.

What was the purpose of the Foradori-Duncan agreement?

The idea behind the agreement was for the Argentine government to renounce its claims and any serious discussion regarding the territorial dispute over the sovereignty of the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands and the adjacent territories in the South Atlantic. Instead, the Argentine government would adopt a position of claiming “light sovereignty” in order to obtain benefits, mainly economic ones, through joint exploitation of the natural resources of the islands and adjacent territories in the South Atlantic with the United Kingdom (UK), as well as through British investments in the country.

In practice, this agreement implied the Argentine government’s resignation to discuss sovereign rights over the Falkland Islands and their adjacent territories in the South Atlantic. It can be inferred that this was a disguised surrender clause by the government of Mauricio Macri to continue with Argentina’s sovereign claim over the Malvinas Islands.

The purpose of the Foradori-Duncan agreement was in line with the foreign policy stance of the Macri administration (2015-2019), which had a marked pro-Western (and more Atlanticist) position than previous governments (Kirchnerism 2003-2015).

This geopolitical code (if we can speak of the existence of a “Macrista geopolitical code” coming from the geopolitical code of the traditional Argentine ruling class) consisted of a series of agreements (tacit and official) of Argentine resignation and subordination to traditional Western powers (of which the Foradori-Duncan agreement was one of its greatest exponents) which aimed –in theory– to obtain greater economic benefits and a renewal of the country’s public image in the supposed “international community.”

These types of foreign policy positions would be a constant of the Macri government. Even the Argentine scholar Juan Gabriel Tokatlian has conceptualized such a stance as “Concessive Peripheral Unilateralism” to define the foreign policy of the Macri government [1].

In practice, these ideas and plans, were shown to be totally ineffective and unproductive. Argentina practically did not receive economic benefits from such positions, nor did its public image have a significant and positive international projection. And the Foradori-Duncan agreement is the most scandalous example of this reality.

Why did the Argentine government of Alberto Fernández decide to end such an agreement?

The first explanation is the internal conformation and political identity of the government of Alberto Fernández, which logically demanded a change in the previous government’s (Macri) stance on the Malvinas agreements, his predecessor and opponent. But this inference raises another question: Why were such measures not taken before? The answers to this question are only conjectures.

Since the end of the Malvinas War (1982) until today, except for the years of the Menem governments (1989-1999), Argentina’s bilateral relationship with Great Britain has always been marked by a strong “Malvinense” [2] component on the agenda of their interaction, which has often led to high-pitched disputes between both parties. The “agenda” of the Malvinas cause was a constant trend of the Kirchnerist governments (2003-2015), such claims were made, denouncing British illegal occupation of the Falkland Islands on numerous occasions in various international forums, bilateral meetings, and multilateral forums.

But as mentioned earlier, the Macri government would have a diametrically opposed position to its Kirchnerist predecessors regarding the Malvinas question. However, the reality of the country and its foreign policy changed again when Argentina “presented” a new government in 2019, with Alberto Fernández as the head of the presidency.

The government of A. Fernández has an eclectic political character [3], as a result of a coalition between several political sectors, so the foreign policy of his government also reflects the heterogeneous internal conformation of the government coalition sectors.

In such conformation, sectors such as Kirchnerism, as well as more orthodox Peronist sectors, are present, both of which have traditionally had a more                       “Post-Western” stance, aiming to “rewrite the Argentine geopolitical code” and the vectors of Argentine foreign policy, projecting an alternative foreign policy, in first place towards their own region: South America, Ibero-America, the Caribbean, and in more modern times, especially towards the Global South, the BRICS, and Asia. In such guidelines, the action of rescinding the Foradori-Duncan agreement was logical. But logic also makes us wonder, why were such measures not taken before? Such questions enter the realm of speculation.

Another analysis could be given in an electoral key reading, this year 2023, presidential elections will be held in Argentina, and Alberto Fernández has expressed on several occasions through words and gestures [4], that he is willing and interested in being re-elected as the head of the Argentine executive branch.

Facing a public image tarnished by the covid-19 pandemic, and mainly a negative macroeconomic situation, the electoral nature of this foreign policy measure cannot be ruled out: the Malvinas cause is a cause that mobilizes emotions in Argentine society and remains a deep wound to national pride, and is a valid rhetorical and practical tool to antagonize the Argentine opposition (liberals and conservatives), which has never had (and perhaps never will have) a firm geopolitical stance nor interest in the Malvinas question.

Also, the reading of tensions within the coalition of the current Argentine government can’t be ruled out, in this last aspect, this measure could be read as a gesture of balance from the “Albertismo” towards Kirchnerism, a sector of the government in which many leaders believe that the sector identified with the president has geopolitically leaned too much towards Washington and the West since the 2022 debt agreement with the IMF and the war in Ukraine.

Argentina informed the British of its decision during the G20 foreign ministers’ summit, which was dominated by the BRICS. Is it a coincidence that such a measure was taken at one of the most representative events of the Global South?

it clearly cannot be considered a coincidence.

The symbolic weight of such an action, in such a context, must be clearly considered. The G20 has a dual character as the main forum in which traditional (Western) powers dialogue but also reflects their tensions and antagonisms with emerging powers and peoples, including those of the so-called Global South.

With tensions between former metropolis countries and former colonies that make up the G20, and which are now emerging in material capabilities, a post-colonial and decolonial reading cannot be ruled out, and therefore a strong message from Argentina to the world’s emerging powers and the Global South.

Did China have any influence on the finalization of the pact?

No, there is no such “Chinese hand” that has driven such a measure by the Argentine government. These are paranoid arguments with a stubborn anti-Chinese bias that also ignores Argentina’s own reality. To put it plainly, if we use common sense, the decision was not elaborated nor driven from Beijing.

As mentioned earlier, the issue of the Malvinas is a deeply rooted national cause in Argentine society, and a constant in the foreign policy of Kirchnerism, which today is part of the coalition that compose the current Argentine government, which with such measures such as revoking the Foradori-Duncan agreement seeks to                “retake the ownership of the Malvinas and South Atlantic issue in its agenda,” marking a clear differentiated stance from the current political opposition (Juntos por el Cambio) that made such a pact in the previous presidential term.

The decision was not elaborated nor driven by Beijing, and in any case, recent and clear positions of support for Argentina’s sovereign claim in the Malvinas Islands by powers such as China [5] and Russia [6] were considered within the decision-making process to take such measures. Therefore, the positions of Beijing and Moscow influenced, but did not condition or generate, Buenos Aires’ decision.

The future of the Malvinas Question

It’s very difficult to envision a future scenario for such a specific and complex issue, especially in the long term. But a prospective scenario can be envisioned in the short term, which is basically and probably that the situation will not change significantly under current conditions. Unless the world is altered by seismic events.

It’s highly unlikely that we will see a dialoguing UK government in the short and medium term that is willing to negotiate the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. And it is similarly unlikely to see a future Argentine government, especially if it has the characteristics of a Peronist, Kirchnerist, or progressive government, openly giving up its claims to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.

Such a proposition would surely change if there were a liberal-oriented government in Argentina, such as Mauricio Macri’s.

The problem with the current Argentine government, as well as future ones, regarding the Malvinas dispute, is that the country does not have, and will not have in the short and medium term, the set of soft and hard capabilities (economic, diplomatic, military, ideological influence) to press and force the UK hard enough to revise its traditional stance on the occupation of the islands. At least until the current balance of power and the position of emerging powers, such as China, would consolidate even further in the world order.

But in any case, such changes and opportunities will depend on the international context and the agency of third parties, which are independent variables for the positions that future Argentine governments may take.

Most experts in international relations and geopolitics agree that the territorial dispute over the Falkland-Malvinas Islands between Britain and Argentina will not have an easy or predictable resolution in the short term.

Some experts point out that the strategic geographical position of the Malvinas Islands and the presence of significant natural resources in the area, such as fishing and hydrocarbons, make the dispute even more complicated.

Moreover, many experts believe that Britain’s position has been strengthened in recent years thanks to the exploitation of the area’s natural resources and the lack of a clear strategy on the part of Argentina to resolve the dispute.

A hypothetical Chinese presence in the region, through the southern Argentine city of Ushuaia, through the construction of a logistics hub, has added an intervening element that makes it even more complex to envision a prospective scenario [7].

However, some experts believe that the issue of the territorial dispute over the Falkland Islands, Argentina’s position is legitimate, which has won it great support and sympathy among peoples and emerging powers, most of them with a colonial past [8].

References

[1] Tokatlian, J. G. (2018, 2 de febrero). Relaciones con EEUU: ¿nueva etapa? (Relations with the US: a new phase?) Clarín.
https://www.clarin.com/opinion/relaciones-ee-uu-nueva-etapa_0_rka7ze-UM.html

[2] Porto, J. M. (26/03/2022). Despite diplomatic ups and downs, the Malvinas claim became a state policy. Telam. https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202203/587606-diplomacia-soberania-argentina-islas-malvinas.html

[3] In its composition as a coalition, including important elements of what might be called “Centre-Right” sectors that have Western – especially Washington – affinities.

[4] Its relevant to remember that on 22 February Alberto Fernandez led a public act in situ celebrating 119 years of Argentine presence in Antarctica. “Alberto Fernández visits Antarctica“. Sputnik. (23/02/2023). https://sputniknews.lat/20230223/alberto-fernandez-visita-la-antartida-1136141105.html

[5] Joint Statement between the Argentine Republic and the People’s Republic of China on Deepening the Argentina-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. (06/02/2023). https://cancilleria.gob.ar/es/actualidad/noticias/declaracion-conjunta-entre-la-republica-argentina-y-la-republica-popular-china

China’s support for the Malvinas deepens a relationship with many agreements. Telam. (03/07/2021). https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202107/560027-apoyo-china-malvinas-cada-vez-mas-explicito-profundiza-relacion-muchos-acuerdos.html    

[6] United Russia leader Medvedev celebrates Argentina’s termination of Foradori-Duncan agreement. Sputnik. (2023, March 6). https://sputniknews.lat/20230306/el-lider-de-rusia-unida-celebra-que-argentina-haya-terminado-el-acuerdo-foradori-duncan-1136503626.html   

Putin defended Argentina’s sovereignty over Malvinas and took aim at Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher. Política Argentina. (2022, May 30). https://www.politicargentina.com/notas/202206/44954-putin-defendio-la-soberania-argentina-sobre-malvinas-y-le-tiro-a-boris-johnson-con-margaret-thatcher.html

[7] The details of the Ushuaia Logistics Hub to supply Antarctica. El Cronista. (24/12/2021).
https://www.cronista.com/economia-politica/exclusivo-los-detalles-del-polo-logistico-de-ushuaia-para-abastecer-a-la-antartida/  

An Antarctic logistics hub: official plan opens the door to strategic partners. El Cronista. (11/10/2021).
https://www.cronista.com/economia-politica/un-polo-logistico-para-la-antartida-el-plan-oficial-que-abre-la-puerta-a-socios-estrategicos/       

[8] The Group of 77+China gave strong backing to Argentina’s position on the Malvinas Islands question. Telam. (2022, November 12). https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202011/534875-el-g77china-dio-un-fuerte-respaldo-a-la-posicion-argentina-en-la-cuestion-malvinas.html

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