First, a quick disclosure: As someone extremely fond of the young people in my family, I am deeply concerned about the effect of all social media apps on the lives and psyches of tweens and teens. Not just TikTok, but all of them…
So now, on to TikTok and the outrageous spectacle of the hearing the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee held yesterday into alleged harms that it accused the Chinese-owned company of inflicting on Americans. And no, the spectacle there lay not just in the stunning ignorance some committee members displayed about the basics of the technology they were allegedly investigating… It lay even more in the sad parade of unthinking, anti-China prejudice that they modeled and amplified in their remarks.
Few of these elected representatives showed any interest in actually listening to, or learning from, the answers that TikTok’s ever-patient (and by the way, Singaporean) CEO, Shou Zi Chew, gave to their often baffling questions. The reps were too busy grandstanding for the cameras and for the national audiences that they assumed would just love to see them strut on the big Sinophobic stage that this five-hour hearing afforded them. (Big kudos to NY Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who was the only member of Congress prepared to stick up for TikTok and to question the anti-China nature of the hearings.)
Within the broader “blob” of today’s Washington political elite, anti-China agitation is now, all too often, a quite bipartisan affair. But why? I don’t necessarily expect every member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to be conversant with the writings of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Bernard Brodie, Henry Kissinger, or other great strategic thinkers. But I would hope that the relevant leaders of our national-security apparatus might have given serious thought to such matters… especially in the age of possible nuclear annihilation that we’ve been living in for 78 years now.
The history of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War can be seen as a litany of forceful regime-change projects undertaken in other countries around the world, with the force used being sometimes military, sometimes economic, sometimes both. Among these projects, the invasion of Iraq launched twenty years ago, on March 19, 2023, stands out for several reasons. These include the scale of the military operations involved, the level of the destruction inflicted on Iraq, and the jaw-dropping effrontery of the decision Pres. George W. Bush had taken to launch the war without any authorization from the United Nations.
Throughout the post-Cold War era, government officials and members of the (often fawningly compliant) U.S. punditocracy have cloaked most of Washington’s regime-change projects in some form of “humanitarian” or “international law” justification. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in their initial inception, different. The main driver of the decision to invade Afghanistan was angry revenge for the attacks of 9/11. The excuse used for invading Iraq was the (quite unsubstantiated) allegation that Pres. Saddam Hussein was manufacturing chemical or biological weapons. In both those cases, though, the original “reason” for the invasion was soon adorned with all kinds of other gauzy, feel-good justifications, usually lumped together under the rubric of “nation-building.” In the case of Iraq, after Pres. Hussein was removed by force of U.S. arms, his ruling Baath Party would be speedily disbanded and a democracy would magically be planted in Iraq featuring a new Constitution; a court system capable of conducting war-crimes trials; a decentralized political system; a flourishing free-market economy; and even—as many of the invasion’s most ardent proponents hoped—peace with Israel. The template that many of the war’s planners seemed to be using for their post-war planning was that of the Allied occupations of Germany or Japan in 1945.
As we know, almost none of those oft-touted goals were achieved—or, when they were, they proved of little or no value to Iraq’s people. Iraq did, at a formal level, get a new Constitution; but the version adopted foisted onto the country a “muhasasa” system of divvying up the top posts along sectarian lines, such as had already, for many decades prior, proven deeply dysfunctional in Lebanon. Iraq did get some political decentralization (as foisted onto it by numerous DC politicians including then-Senator Joe Biden, who had earlier voted enthusiastically for the invasion itself.) But Iraq’s decentralization did not prevent the intrusion into its political sphere of numerous powerful militias or, in 2014, the explosive arrival of the completely new and disruptive political force IS, the Islamic State.
Today, Iraq is a country broken in many, many ways. More than 600,000 Iraqis died as a result of an invasion and occupation that also cost U.S. taxpayers $2 trillion. And the U.S. military is still deployed today in large parts of the country (and in neighboring parts of Syria), in areas to which it rushed to after the eruption of IS, and where it has still stayed.
In 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a completely unauthorized use of force and therefore in violation of international law. But no serious attempt was ever made at the United Nations (or within U.S. domestic politics) to hold the Bush administration accountable for that violation.
Washington “got away with it” in 2003. Pres. Bush and his top officials invaded Iraq because they could. And they got away with their aggression completely unpunished.
Eight years later, in March 2011, the Obama administration was a little more careful when it worked with NATO to use military force to effect regime change in Libya. It pushed the British and French militaries to take the lead and it expended a little energy to get a force-permitting resolution at the Security Council. But when it did get one (Resolution 1973, authorizing creation of a no-fly zone around Benghazi), it immediately worked with the NATO allies to exceed the terms of that resolution and to chase Pres. Muammar Qadhafi and his government to a cruel and deadly finish.
Libya’s shattered society still feels the disastrous effects of that upheaval, today.
Later in 2011, seeing what they had gotten away with in Libya, Pres. Obama, Sec. of State Clinton, and their coterie of regime-changers made a plan to similarly stir up, and then exploit, anti-government demonstrations in Syria. They had the help of key anti-Asad governments in the region, including Türkiye, Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE. But in Syria they could not topple Pres. Asad. Instead, their destabilization campaign left the country locked until today into a debilitating series of interlocking conflicts with no end in sight.
Twelve years after 2011, Libya and Syria are still badly broken countries… And so are Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Venezuela, and numerous other countries that have been the targets of U.S. regime-change projects since the 1990s.
Small wonder that the Sri Lankan commentator on international affairs Indi Samarajiva recently wrote,
If Westerners start talking about ‘liberating’ your country and start waving your flag, fucking run… Flooding a warzone with more weapons, more propaganda, more conflict, all under the guise of ‘helping’. Like they helped Afghanistan, like they helped Iraq, like they helped Vietnam, in truth like they wrecked countless nations for countless years. If a Westerner tries to help you, fucking run. Their arms dealers help themselves and leave your country in ruins.
This truly was “the handshake seen around the world.” Yesterday, China’s top negotiator, Wang Yi, concluded the diplomacy he and his colleagues have pursued for some months now by bringing together top negotiators from Saudi Arabia and Iran (Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban and Ali Shamkhani) to conclude an agreement under which their two countries would resume their long-torn diplomatic relations within two months and start cooperation on a number of other matters.
Top officials from the United States, which has long seen itself as the overseer of all diplomatic matters in the strategically sensitive Persian Gulf and which has been maintaining tight sanctions on Iran for many years now, seemed to be taken by surprise. (One news report had a seemingly befuddled Pres. Joe Biden, on being asked about this diplomatic breakthrough, responding with boilerplate that didn’t even mention the three countries involved, but only “Israel and the Arab neighbours.”)
The photo shows a unanimous vote at the U.N. Security Council in January 2022, affirming that nuclear wars must never be fought
Unless your name is Tom Friedman, I guess you’d agree that the world is not flat. But what shape does our world have today—and what shape of a world do we want to build over the years ahead?
I’m pulling strongly for the kind of multipolar order in which all the world’s children have a decent chance of growing up in an environment with a sustainably livable climate and from which the threat of nuclear ecocide has been removed.
Joe Biden seems to have a different preference. Time after time, and in a rising crescendo this past week, he has loudly been painting the world as dominated by a bipolar fight between what he calls the “rules-based order” and Russian aggression—and one that the “West” (as embodied by NATO) must win… And from the other side of the Ukraine frontline, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has been loudly proclaiming his own, mirror-image version of that view.
There are two big problems with seeing the world as essentially bipolar:
The zero-sum-game aspect of any bipolar view of the world entrenches competitive actions at a time when the already evident effects of climate change (hello!) and the threat of nuclear annihilation demand cooperation, rather than competition.
Our world is already deeply and irreversibly multipolar! Hence, seeing it as bipolar, or acting as if it were, is extremely retrograde and ends up being damaging for all the peoples of the world (and almost certainly counter-productive for any leader who follows such a path.)
We should all be glad that this week, the government of China has published a concept paper for a new “Global Security Initiative” (GSI) that presents a realistic, essentially multipolar description of the nature of global power. And just today, Pres. Xi Jinping has issued a powerful call for a ceasefire and peace talks in Ukraine that is clearly derived from the GSI’s principles.
There’s no word yet on whether anyone in China’s corps of global diplomats has been exploring with Moscow or Washington whether and how a Ukraine ceasefire can be attained, or what role Beijing or others might play in that diplomacy. (If such contacts are being conducted, by any party, we most likely wouldn’t hear about them until they were close to success… For my part, I live in hope.)
Meanwhile, two studies recently published in “the West” underline the degree to which power in the world has already become widely diffused. In this one, “The New Geopolitics”, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs focuses on the economic underpinnings of today’s world. And in this one, “United West, divided from the rest”, three analysts from the European Council on Foreign Relations look at the degree to which the public attitudes in China, India, Türkiye, and Russia already diverge starkly from those in NATO countries.
In today’s essay, I will quickly summarize the key findings of the Sachs and ECFR papers, then offer my own preliminary thoughts on the nature and shape of power in today’s world.