Looking back just a handful of years the world seemed, to many Democrats and the MSM at least, a powder keg. Trump’s ignoramus remarks about Taiwan coupled with aggressive sanctions threatened war with China. The only question seemed to be whether it would erupt in the Taiwan Strait first or over some lousy lump of rock in the South China Sea, a WWI Archduke’s assassination for the modern age.
Elsewhere in Asia, Trump’s clumsy mano-a-mano with North Korea set the world on edge as rumors had it he was ready to evacuate American dependents from South Korea ahead of imminent hostilities. Then there were the Tweet Wars, with insults such as “Little Rocket Man” and Kim’s “dotard” retort hurled across the Pacific presaging a nuclear exchange, followed by diplomacy that looked like the worst Grindr date ever. There would be no war because Trump would withdraw U.S. forces from the peninsula.
Conflict in the Middle East was one tick from inevitable, with Trump having dumped the Obama-era nuclear accord with Iran, done something or not enough in Syria, and fanned the flames of Islamic aching by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. No one remembers why anymore, but the U.S. was supposedly also at the brink of war in Venezuela, and with NATO weakening, the dogs of war sat on the front stoop in Europe. Trump did at least withdraw most U.S. troops from Somalia. At the end things got really hairy, with both Nancy Pelosi and members of the Joint Chiefs terrified what a desperate Trump might do with nuclear weapons.
So it is no surprise the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists described things as “a global race toward catastrophe” and in 2019 set its famous Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it had ever been to apocalypse, what they called “the new abnormal.” Something was literally going to blow if the pressure were not let off, and the Bulletin offered along with about half of America that the 2020 “leadership change in the United States provided hope that what seemed like a global race toward catastrophe might be halted and — with renewed U.S. engagement — even reversed.” Biden would lead the way.
The Bulletin is no small potatoes. Founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein and the scientists who helped develop the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin created the Doomsday Clock, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey the threat to humanity. The Doomsday Clock is reset by the Bulletin’s board in consultation with 11 Nobel laureates.
So with the warmongering Trump safely stowed away in his lair at Mar-a-Lago, what of the peacemaker, Joseph Biden? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet all he has done is blunder poorly through a growing threat board of nuclear-tinged incidents.
Holy malarkey have things gotten more tense with China. Biden envisions China as an autocratic foe for democracy to wage a global struggle against. “On my watch,” Joe said, “China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim the world was at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” In Biden’s neo-Churchillian view, the U.S. and what the hell, the whole free world he believes he is president of, are in an ultimately nuclear death match with China.
Biden puts his diplomatic gaffes where his oral ones are. Joe broke code and blurted out the U.S. will indeed defend Taiwan, which would involve for nukes. Saber rattling? Yes, please. Even as Chinese president Xi spoke of peaceful reunification during the October political holidays, the U.S., U.K., and Japan conducted joint operations in the China Sea. Meanwhile, Australia ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric subs to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines.
That move enraged China and NATO-ally France. Calling Biden’s actions Trumpian (aïe!) France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. So never mind the likelihood Biden will ever recruit France into any coalition against Chinese power, or China vis-à-vis North Korea. And la-di-da to Candidate Biden’s promises to repair U.S. alliances post-Trump.
That was alongside a new Pacific parley which will see Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. share advanced technologies. The genesis was the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its two newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings both the British and the Australians, nuclearized, into the South China Sea in force as if an arms salesman wrote Biden’s policy. In the background looms research by all sides into hypersonic weapons capable of delivering nukes under existing missile shields.
In the greater MidEast, the less said about the signal sent by America’s cut-and-run exit after 20 years in Afghanistan, many of those alongside NATO allies like Germany and Canada cajoled into participation, the better. The U.S. Embassy, which remains in Jerusalem, remains a sore thumb to many Islamic nations. Unwilling to cut a new Iran deal alongside the Russians and unable to do so without them, Biden changed nothing in the nuclear calculus among the U.S., Israel, and Iran. Two of the three remain nuclear powers and the other sits on the threshold either to suffer another nuclear-trigger happy Israeli brush back pitch or slide into the abyss with a mushroom cloud heralding a new club member. And for fun, Biden redeployed troops to Somalia.
As Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had several options.
A) Biden could have taken the Obama route, declaring Ukraine unimportant strategically to the U.S. and lumping it alongside Donbas, Georgia, and Crimea. Kick in some new sanctions, maybe some arms sales, a lot of “standing with” proclamations.
Or B) Biden could have demanded NATO take its role as defender of free Europe seriously, and supported a NATO-led effort of sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine.
Or C) Waive NATO aside as the generally useless organization it is and implement U.S.-led sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine.
Or chose D) Tie some sort of sloppy success in Ukraine to U.S. prestige, pretend NATO was standing tough, and devote U.S. military resources to everything short of direct combat with Russia.
Instead, Biden went for E) All of the above plus a stated policy of watering the fields of Ukraine with the blood of Russian martyrs as if this was Afghanistan 1980 again. The goal is not just to have Russia leave Ukraine in defeat, it is to attrit them to the last possible man in doing so.
Among the so-many problems of this bleed ’em dry strategy is that it sets the U.S. and Russia on a direct collision course (the U.S. providing targeting data to sink flagships and kill generals in the field is only short of war because a Ukrainian finger was presumably on the trigger not an American one) and provoked the first serious mention of the use of nuclear weapons of the 21st century.
Suddenly what could have faded off as a semi-failed incursion into Ukraine became the first struggle of the New Cold War (Nancy Pelosi said the struggle is about defending “democracy writ large for the world.”) It’s Top Gun III, with everything from Russian pride to Putin’s own regime survival now on the line. And when everything is on the line, you invoke the “everything” weapon, nukes. Putin is a cautious man, but accidents happen and miscalculations with nukes (chemicals, biologicals, heavy cyber, etc…) sting.
While Joe is talking up the bleeding strategy as little more than a common-sense response to Russian aggression (while we’re here with all these U.S. weapons for the Ukrainians we might as well get a piece of the Bear for ourselves, seems only fair), the shift amounts to a significant escalation.
By canning diplomatic efforts in favor of a more violent war, the United States greatly increased the danger of an even larger conflict — the atomic threats out of Moscow. This is risk way out of line with any realistic gain. Earlier U.S. rattling, about a blitzkrieg threatening Poland and beyond, seems near-comical as the Russian offensive bogs down in the mud of eastern Ukraine. What kind of strategy is it when Biden risks all for nothing much? What kind of gamesmanship is it to tell your equally-armed nuclear opponent humiliation is his only way out?
As for the Doomsday Clock, the hope the Bulletin showed on Biden’s election in 2020 was stomped on by Russia, with a major assist from Biden himself. The clock stays set at 100 seconds to midnight, same place Trump left it by not going to war.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.