Eyeing the Uncertainty Ahead

On the weekend of February 9-10, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal devoted her column to whether President Trump and his team will be ready for their first crisis. She indicated that it was “almost a miracle” that no crisis had occurred during Mr. Trump’s first two years, and added, “He’ll face one eventually, and there’s good reason to worry the administration will be unprepared.” She listed as possibilities Russian aggression against Europe, Chinese aggression against Taiwan, a coordinated cyber attack on the U.S. power grid, a bombing of Iran missile sites, or “an accidental launch somewhere.”

I generally think highly of Ms. Noonan. After considering her comments, I constructed a post in which I agreed that it was highly likely that the Trump Administration will face a crisis during the next two years, and that one could have little confidence that the Administration will be ready when it occurs. At that point, however, I indicated that I had somewhat less concern than she did about the possibility of a crisis being provoked by Russia or China. I contended that although these adversaries almost certainly initially relished the American domestic instability wrought by Mr. Trump, they themselves might now have concerns about the President’s erratic behavior as he is increasingly besieged at home – and how he might lash out if confronted. I suggested that both nations might well be warily eyeing the President as one would a capricious 8-year-old holding a loaded gun.

I thought it was sound. I liked it. I’m glad I didn’t publish it. I’ve realized that unfortunately, what I had been planning to submit was very possibly wrong with regard to Russia, and perhaps with regard to China as well.

Although in the last two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has psychologically cemented his Crimean annexation, made Russia a Middle East military power broker through relations with Iran and Syria, reestablished ties with China, established significant relationships with purported U. S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and watched as Mr. Trump has sown shards of doubt within the NATO alliance, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations recently pointed out that Mr. Putin has a track record of pushing ahead where he sees opportunity. Dr. Haass pointed not only to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 — at a time that President Obama’s influence was waning — but also Russia’s aggressive actions vis a vis NATO partner Georgia in August 2008 to “protect” two separatist Georgian regions – a point at which President G.W. Bush lacked the practical ability to intercede. Since almost any future President of either party will take a firmer stand against Russian aggression than Mr. Putin can reasonably expect from Mr. Trump, the risk to even those NATO nations within what Russia perceives as its region of influence, such as Estonia and Latvia, may increase significantly if Mr. Putin perceives that Mr. Trump is likely to be removed from office or lose his reelection bid.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his intent to fulfill the “China Dream” – to make China the world’s preeminent power. He is seeking to make China the world’s largest economy, improve its military might, and have it ingratiate itself across the globe through infrastructure projects and benign (from a power politics perspective) alliances such as Climate Change. However, China’s economy has faltered during the last two years, it faces dangerous credit and demographic crises, and Mr. Xi is facing some party disgruntlement. China still needs a significant U.S. interaction to foster its own economic growth. Although its interests over the next two years seemingly lie in catering to Mr. Trump rather than antagonizing him … Taiwan has got to look mighty tempting. American commitment to Taiwan is the only thing standing between the island and a mainland takeover. Its independence is the pebble in Mr. Xi’s shoe. Henry Kissinger wrote in World Order that a senior Chinese diplomat once told him that the Korean War was the only strategic mistake Mao Zedong ever made, because the resulting American commitment to Taiwan “delayed Chinese unification by a century.” (Seventy years have now passed since the Communist takeover in China.) The Washington Post reported this week that Mr. Xi “is growing impatient with Taiwan.” It is not inconceivable that Mr. Xi might conclude that President Trump’s clear distaste for international entanglements combined with Mr. Trump’s domestic difficulties provides Mr. Xi the best opportunity to “unify” China as Mr. Xi will have during his presidency.

We are entering what are arguably the most perilous times our nation has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Hopefully, we will not necessarily become so preoccupied with maintaining the foundations of our system during the remainder of the Trump presidency that our capability to safeguard world order is materially compromised; there’s no other nation on earth with the means or the will to do it. Whether alt-conservatives or avid progressives realize it (and at times, I doubt that either group does), Americans have as much to lose as the rest of humankind if we abandon our global guardianship role to any greater extent than we have already.

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