America’s vulnerable global moment

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For over three years, all signs of President Biden’s cognitive decline have been ignored or obscured by his allies and the mainstream media. Even Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report just months ago highlighting Biden’s “poor memory” was dismissed as partisan hackery. Now America faces a leadership crisis at home when it is at a crossroads in a rapidly changing and increasingly volatile world.

Just when its principal adversaries, China and Russia, are more firmly aligned than at any time since the 1950s, and the dangers of an accidental NATO-Russia nuclear war cannot be discounted, the U.S. is looking overextended, with its military resources stretched thin due to its involvement in the wars in Europe and the Middle East.

The crisis in American leadership, and the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has largely tied down the U.S. in Europe, might make Chinese President Xi Jinping believe that China has a window of opportunity to achieve the “historic mission” of forcibly incorporating Taiwan into the mainland Chinese state. Xi recently made his Taiwan goal clearer by declaring that the “essence” of his national rejuvenation drive is “the unification of the motherland.”

Putin, for his part, seems determined to get back at the West for its recent actions against Russia, including seizing Russian money to arm Ukraine.

Despite Putin’s warning of “serious consequences,” Biden has let Ukraine use American-provided weapons to strike deep inside Russia. Biden’s action to take the war inside Russia came after the U.S. followed Britain and France in sending long-range missiles to Ukraine for use far beyond Russian front lines.

Biden’s memory issues, including doing things that he had earlier pledged not to do, may well explain why his risk appetite has grown.

With the flow of sophisticated Western weapons to Ukraine failing to stem Russian advances or force Russia to retreat from the areas it has occupied, Biden has progressively escalated American involvement in the war by embracing ideas that he had earlier said were taboo. For example, he had categorically declared earlier that any Ukrainian attack on Russian territory with U.S.-supplied missiles would go against his mandate to “avoid World War III.”

To launch strikes deep inside Russia with U.S., British or French long-range weapons supplied to Ukraine, satellite reconnaissance data is needed, which Kyiv lacks. So, in effect, the supplier states have control over target selection and transmission of coordinates to Ukraine for striking Russian positions beyond Ukrainian borders.

Biden’s punitive focus on Russia has come at the expense of effectively countering the threat from America’s bigger challenger — China.

China has more than doubled its nuclear-weapons arsenal since 2020. It is also expanding its conventional forces faster than any other country has since World War II.

China already dwarfs Russia in terms of economic output, military spending and other material measures. As Biden acknowledged in his 2022 national security strategy, China is “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”

Yet China has been the main beneficiary of Biden’s efforts to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Unprecedented sanctions, which have included weaponization of international finance, have been a boon for Beijing, turning it into Russia’s banker and expanding international use of the Chinese yuan. Russia now generates much of its international export earnings in the Chinese currency and keeps these proceeds mostly in Chinese banks, in effect giving Beijing a share of the returns.

For China, the longer the U.S. battles political malaise at home and stays distracted by conflicts elsewhere in the world, the better.

In fact, the likely defining moment that formally brings the era of America’s global preeminence to an end would be surprise Chinese aggression aimed at subjugating Taiwan. Such aggression could come sooner than many in Washington expect, given ominous signs that Xi is preparing his country for this war.

China’s recent military drills that encircled Taiwan seemed to be a rehearsal for implementing at least a blockade with the aim of slowly throttling the island democracy. Indeed, this was the third Chinese dress rehearsal in less than two years for an assault on Taiwan, with the latest drills more sophisticated, elaborate and geographically expansive than the previous exercises.

If Xi perceives a strategic opening to move against Taiwan without triggering a full-fledged war with the U.S., he will likely employ military force. Is the U.S. prepared for a Taiwan contingency?

America today is at a vulnerable moment. Political tumult and uncertainty at home could make it even more vulnerable to international geopolitical shocks.

Even if pressure from fellow Democrats and donors compels Biden to drop his bid for a second term, he would stay president for another six months. And he will still be dogged by doubts about his mental acuity and fitness to lead America in an increasingly turbulent and dangerous world. By advertising weakness, such a situation could embolden America’s adversaries to test U.S. resolve.

Much of the democratic world would like the U.S. to remain the preeminent global power. But, with hyper-partisan politics and profound polarization already weighing down American democracy, the U.S. confronts a leadership crisis at a critical juncture — when its adversaries are intent on reshaping the world by ending the era of American primacy.

Unfortunately, at home and abroad, the U.S. has become its own worst enemy. And it seriously risks accelerating its relative decline through strategic overreach under shortsighted leadership.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

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