A World at the Edge
What Planet Will Our Children and Grandchildren Inherit?
Let me start with my friend and the boat. Admittedly, they might not seem to have anything to do with each other. The boat, a guided-missile destroyer named the USS Curtis Wilbur, reportedly passed through the Straits of Taiwan and into the South China Sea, skirting the Paracel Islands that China has claimed as its own. It represented yet another Biden-era challenge to the planet's rising power from its falling one. My friend was thousands of miles away on the West Coast of the United States, well vaccinated and going nowhere in Covid-stricken but improving America.
As it happens, she's slightly younger than me, but still getting up there, and we were chatting on the phone about our world, about the all-too-early first wildfire near Los Angeles, the intensifying mega-drought across the West and Southwest, the increasing nightmare of hurricane season in the Atlantic and so on. We were talking about the way in which we humans - and we Americans in particular (though you could toss in the Chinese without a blink) - have been wreaking fossil-fuelized havoc on this planet and what was to come.
And oh yes, we were talking about our own deaths, also to come at some unknown future moment but one not as far away as either of us might wish. My friend then said to me abashedly, "I sometimes think it's lucky I won't be here to see what's going to happen to the world." And even as she began stumbling all over herself apologizing for saying such a thing, I understood exactly what she meant. I had had the very same thought and sense of shame and horror at even thinking it - at even thinking I would, in some strange sense, get off easy and leave a world from hell to my children and grandchildren.
Nothing, in fact, could make me sadder.
And you know what's the worst thing? Whether I'm thinking about that "destroyer" in the Strait of Taiwan or the destruction of planet Earth, one thing is clear enough: it wouldn't have to be this way.
China on the Brain
Now, let's focus on the Curtis Wilbur for a moment. And in case you hadn't noticed, Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team have China on the brain. No surprise there, though, only history. Don't you remember how, when Biden was still vice president, President Obama announced that, in foreign and especially military policy, the U.S. was planning a "pivot to Asia"? His administration was, in other words, planning on leaving this country's war-on-terror disasters in the Greater Middle East behind (not that he would actually prove capable of doing so) and refocusing on this planet's true rising power. Donald Trump would prove similarly eager to dump America's Greater Middle Eastern wars (though he, too, failed to do so) and refocus on Beijing - tariffs first, but warships not far behind. Now, as they withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Biden team finds itself deep in its own version of a pivot-to-Asia strategy, with their collective foreign-policy brain remarkably focused on challenging China (at least until Israel briefly got in the way).
Think of it as a kind of pandemic of anxiety, a fear that, without a major refocus, the U.S. might indeed be heading for the imperial scrapheap of history. In a sense, this may prove to be the true Achilles heel of the Biden era. Or put another way, the president's foreign-policy crew seems, at some visceral level, to fear deeply for the America they've known and valued so, the one that was expected to loom invincibly over the rest of the planet once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991; the imperial power our politicians (until Donald Trump) had long hailed as the greatest, most "exceptional" nation on the planet; the one with "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known" (Barack Obama), aka "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world" (George W. Bush).
We're talking, of course, about the same great power that, after almost 20 years of disastrous wars, drone strikes, and counterterror operations across vast stretches of the planet, looks like it is sinking fast, a country whose political parties can no longer agree on anything that matters. In such a context, let's consider, for a moment, that flu-like China obsession, the one that leaves Washington's politicians and military leaders with strikingly high temperatures and an irrational urge to send American warships into distant waters near the coast of China, while regularly upping the ante, militarily and politically.
In that context, here's an obsessional fact of our moment: these days, it seems as if President Biden can hardly appear anywhere or talk to anyone without mentioning China or that sinking country he now heads and that sinking feeling he has about it. He did it the other week in an interview with David Brooks when, with an obvious on-the-page shudder, he told the New York Times columnist, "We're kind of at a place where the rest of the world is beginning to look to China." Brrr" it's cold in here (or maybe too hot to handle?) in an increasingly chaotic, still partly Trumpian, deeply divided Washington, and in a country where, from suppressing the vote to suppressing the teaching of history to encouraging the carrying of unlicensed weapons, democracy is looking ill indeed.
Oh, and that very same week when the president talked to Brooks, he went to the Coast Guard Academy to address its graduating class and promptly began discussing - yes! - that crucial, central subject for Washingtonians these days, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. ("When nations try to game the system or tip the rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance. That's why we are so adamant that these areas of the world that are the arteries of trade and shipping remain peaceful - whether that's the South China Sea, the Arabian Gulf, and, increasingly, the Arctic.") You didn't know, did you, that a guided-missile destroyer, not to speak of aircraft carrier battle groups, and other naval vessels had been anointed with the job of keeping "freedom of navigation" alive halfway across the planet or that the U.S. Coast Guard simply guards our coastlines.
These days, it should really be called the Coasts Guard. After all, you can find its members "guarding" coasts ranging from Iran's in the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. Evidently, even the coast of the island of Taiwan, which, since 1949, China has always claimed as its own and where a subtle dance between Beijing and Washington has long played out, has become just another coast for guarding in nothing less than a new "partnership." ("Our new agreement for the Coast Guard to partner with Taiwan," said the president, "will help ensure that we're positioned to better respond to shared threats in the region and to conduct coordinated humanitarian and environmental missions.") Consider that a clear challenge to the globe's rising power in what's become ever more of a showdown at the naval equivalent of the O.K. Corral, part of an emerging new cold war between the two countries.
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