The N.Y. Times’ Bret Stephens fails Geopolitics 101

Bret Stephens recently took to the pages of the New York Times to summarize the war in Ukraine:

“The Russians are running out of precision guided weapons. The Ukrainians are running out of Soviet-era munitions. The world is running out of patience for the war. The Biden administration is running out of ideas for how to wage it. And the Chinese are watching.”

Apparently, this is what passes for deep geopolitical thought at the Times. Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan are turning over in their graves.

Bret Stephens in 2015

Someone at the editorial page desk at the Times should ask Stephens a few questions. First, who exactly is “the world” that is running out of patience for the war? Stephens does not identify this entity he calls “the world” because he can’t -- in the context of international politics it does not exist. Stephens inhabits an intellectual universe, however, that pays obeisance to the “world community” or the “global community” or “mankind,” which usually translates into the small class of elites that write for the Times, Foreign Affairs, the Economist, the Financial Times and similar highbrow journals. 

Second, what is the Biden administration doing “waging” war in Ukraine? What vital U.S. national security interest is at stake there? Stephens in the article admits what is patently obvious -- Russia poses no serious challenge to NATO. Unlike during the Cold War, we do not have to fear Russian tanks sweeping across the north European plain on their way to the English Channel. So why should we wage war in Ukraine? Stephens’ answer is: Taiwan.

Stephens writes that Ukraine must do more than “slow down the Russian army,” it needs to “break its spine as quickly as possible.” And that means, according to Stephens, that Biden needs to emulate Richard Nixon’s massive, urgent airlift of supplies to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that enabled the Israelis to stave off defeat and go on the offensive against Egypt and Syria. Stephens also advocates challenging Russia’s maritime blockade of Odesa “by escorting cargo ships to and from the port” and seizing $300 billion in Russian central bank assets held overseas “to fund Ukraine’s military and reconstruction needs” -- in other words, seize Russian money and use it to help Ukraine wage war against Russian soldiers. Stephens admits that these moves would entail “risks”, but he believes that the risks are worth taking because if we don’t help Ukraine against Russia, China will attack Taiwan. And if we succeed in Ukraine, China will not attack Taiwan. “The war in Ukraine,” Stephens writes, “is either a prelude or a finale.”

So, in Bret Stephens’s geopolitical worldview, the next “domino” to fall after Ukraine would be Taiwan. “If the war ends with Putin comfortably in power and Russia in possession of a fifth of Ukraine,” Stephens counsels, “then Beijing will draw the lesson that aggression works. And we will have a fight over Taiwan -- with its overwhelming human and economic toll -- much sooner than we think.”

That is how Bret Stephens’s “world” views the war in Ukraine. He and the other globalist elites that inhabit that “world” are willing for the U.S. to take “risks” -- risks, mind you, that will be borne not by Stephens and his crowd, but rather by the sons and daughters of middle-class America who make up the bulk of our fighting forces -- because “the world” is “running out of patience” with this war.

Throughout history, the independence of Ukraine has never been considered a vital national security interest of the United States. Indeed, American foreign policy practitioners and theorists have always consigned it to Russia’s sphere of influence due to historical and geographical factors.

Stephens’ argument that Russian control of the eastern provinces of Ukraine would result in China attacking Taiwan is reminiscent of all of those brilliant minds in Washington -- the “best and the brightest” -- who told us that the consequences of the loss of South Vietnam to the communists would be “incalculable to the free world,” leading to the communization of all of Indochina, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and increasing the threat to Australia and New Zealand. And while parts of Indochina did indeed fall to communist forces -- some, like those in Cambodia, later fought a war against Vietnam -- Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand did not become fallen dominoes in the Cold War. Some 58,000 American soldiers, sailors, and airmen lost their lives, and many more were wounded, in fighting a war that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations told us was vital to U.S. national security interests.

Now, Bret Stephens and other American war hawks want to risk war with Russia in Ukraine to save Taiwan because “China is watching.” What China is watching, however, is a Biden administration that cannot make up its mind whether to recognize Taiwan as an independent country and adopt a policy of “strategic clarity” in defense of the island or to continue the policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan would likely say: “If your goal is to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and to defeat such an invasion if it occurs, arm, support and defend Taiwan, not Ukraine. China is watching what we are doing -- and not doing -- in the South China Sea, not in Eastern Europe. We should focus, as Clausewitz said, on the “center of gravity,” which is Taiwan, not Ukraine.

China should be watching U.S. military aid and supplies pouring into Taiwan; a significantly enhanced U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea; visits by high-ranking U.S. defense and foreign policy officials to Taiwan; diplomatic solidarity among the U.S., Japan, and other regional allies; and the use by U.S. officials of quiet diplomacy to make it unmistakably clear to China’s leaders that the U.S. and its regional allies will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack or invasion. That is Geopolitics 101-- and Bret Stephens gets an “F.”

Photo credit: Grant Wickes CC BY 2.0 license

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