Looking back just a few years, the world seemed to be a powder keg. Trump’s remarks about Taiwan and his imposition of aggressive sanctions threatened war with China. The only question at the time seemed to be whether war would erupt in the Taiwan Strait or over some lousy lump of rock in the South China Sea, an archduke’s assassination for our time.
Elsewhere in Asia, Trump’s clumsy mano-a-mano with North Korea set the world on edge. Rumors had it Trump was ready to evacuate American dependents from South Korea. Then came the Tweet Wars, in which insults like “Little Rocket Man” and “dotard” were traded across the Pacific, sparking fears of nuclear war. There would be no war, thankfully, as Trump contemplated withdrawing U.S. forces from the peninsula.
Things looked dire in the Middle East, too. Conflict seemed all but inevitable; Trump had dumped the Obama-era nuclear accord with Iran, done something (or not enough) in Syria, and fanned the flames of Islamic rage by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
That wasn’t all. No one today remembers why, but the U.S. was supposedly also on the brink of war with 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, though, things got really hairy, with both Nancy Pelosi and members of the Joint Chiefs terrified of what a desperate Trump might do with nuclear weapons. In the midst of that chaos, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistswarned of “a global race toward catastrophe” and in 2019 set its famous Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it had ever set the clock to apocalypse.
In the Bulletin‘s telling, something was literally going to blow if no one let off the pressure. It claimed 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.” Apparently, Joe Biden would lead the way.
So with the warmongering Trump safely stowed away in his lair at Mar-a-Lago, what of the peacemaker Biden? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet since taking office, he has committed blunder after blunder, wading into potential conflicts with nuclear-armed powers.
Things have gotten mighty tense with China. Biden apparently envisions China as an autocratic foe against which the forces of democracy can wage a global struggle. “On my watch,” Biden 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 the whole free world are in a nuclear death match with China.
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 submarines, deciding instead to buy U.S. nuclear-powered subs.
That enraged China and NATO-ally France. Calling Biden’s actions Trumpian (aïe!), France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. So forget about the possibility of Biden ever recruiting France into a coalition against Chinese power, or China against North Korea. And la-di-da to Candidate Biden’s promises to repair U.S. alliances post-Trump.
That occurred alongside a new Pacific parley, with Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. planning to share advanced technologies. The conference formed as a result of the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, apparently in hopes that a war with China will sustain military budgets for decades to come. A side deal with Britain to station its two newest aircraftcarriersin Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings both the nuclear-armed Brits and the Australians into the South China Sea. It is as if an arms salesman wrote Biden’s policy. In the background of this conference looms research, performed by all sides, into hypersonic weapons capable of delivering nukes under existing missile shields.
In the greater Middle East, America’s cut-and-run exit after 20 years in Afghanistan left the region in tatters. The U.S. embassy in Jerusalem remains a sore thumb for many Islamic nations. Unwilling to cut a new Iran deal with the participation of the Russians and unable to do so without them, Biden has not changed the nuclear calculus between the U.S., Israel, and Iran. Two of those three remain nuclear powers, and the other sits on the threshold either to suffer another brushback from the Israelis or slide into the abyss. And for fun, Biden redeployed troops to Somalia.
Then there’s Russia. After Putin invaded Ukraine, Biden had several options.
He 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.
Biden could have demanded NATO take its role as defender of free Europe seriously, and supported a NATO-led effort to impose sanctions and send military assistance to Ukraine.
Another option would have been to waive NATO aside as the generally useless organization that it is and implement U.S.-led sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine.
He could, finally, have tied success in Ukraine to U.S. prestige, pretended NATO was standing tough, and devoted U.S. military resources to everything short of direct combat with Russia.
What did Biden choose? All of the above, plus a stated policy of watering the fields of Ukraine with the blood of Russian martyrs as if it was 1980 in Afghanistan again. The goal is not just to have Russia leave Ukraine in defeat, but to attrit them to the last possible man in doing so.
Among the many problems of this bleed-’em-dry strategy is that it sets the U.S. and Russia on a direct collision course; the only reason the U.S.’s provision of targeting data to sink flagships and kill generals in the field didn’t spark a war is because a Ukrainian finger was presumably on the trigger, not an American one. This strategy has provoked the first serious mention of the use of nuclear weapons of the 21st century.
Suddenly, what could have faded into the distance 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 regime’s survival 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 sting.
By canning diplomatic efforts in favor of a more violent war, the United States greatly increased the danger of sparking an even larger conflict: the atomic threats from Moscow. The risk way outweighs any realistic reward. 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 that humiliation is his only way out?
As for the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin‘s hope for peace upon the election of Joe Biden was crushed by Russia, with a major assist from Biden himself. The clock stays set at 100 seconds to midnight—the 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.