BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
At the start of the novel coronavirus outbreak, I warned readers that we were entering into a “new paradigm” which would look like “Normal Life + COVID-19 Season.” This new paradigm would, at its best, have similarities to our pre-COVID-19 lives but with greater limitations and restrictions. With it would come harder economic realities (at least for a time) and a greater sense of our own mortality. Beyond that, though, there would be entirely new challenges of the sort that the 1945 world order hasn’t really seen in a serious way.
While nation-states have been with us since the Treaty of Westphalia was signed during the Thirty Years’ War, since the First World War, the nation-state has been besieged by the forces of globalism, open borders, “free” trade, etc. And as the world’s countries went global, they increasingly abandoned their own sovereignty. During the Cold War, this behavior was necessary to combat the scourge of global Communism. After the Cold War suddenly ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of American hegemony, Washington kept things on autopilot. We spoke of nations and upholding the American national interest, but we acted multilaterally and globally. Globalization during this time was easy and its benefits–especially to our political and economic elites–were felt almost immediately.
Today, however, as “the rest” have basically caught up with the West (at least where it matters), the idea that we can in any way maintain our globalist ethos is absurd. The COVID-19 pandemic from China is the most obvious and recent example of how badly of an idea it is for the United States to keep itself open to the rest of the world. Thinking about these things uncritically at this time makes the United States critically weak when national strength is absolutely needed.
Since America closed for business, millions of Americans have gone into the unemployment line. Many small and medium-sized businesses have shut down and most analysts believe that upwards of 40 percent of those shuttered businesses will not reopen. Meanwhile, the housing market–the symbol of the American Dream–outwardly appears to be standing strong but, in fact, is likely about to face a severe crash in the next few weeks (as the unemployment numbers tick up; as people are unable to pay their bills; and as their sources of income dry up never to be seen again).
Then there is the fact that upwards of 1,000 Americans are dying a day from the COVID-19 disease. And the added problem of opening the economy up before there is an actual cure for the COVID-19 disease or, at the very least, a reliable treatment protocol, the United States will be facing an even longer, harder economic downturn. Also, the US military–deployed around the world–is falling victim to the COVID-19 outbreak at staggering levels. All of this means that the United States’ capacity for self-defense and survival in an increasingly competitive international environment is at-risk.
Given this, America’s rivals have taken several actions in recent weeks meant to test American resolve. First, even though China has likely been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, Beijing engaged Taiwan with an increasing level of hostility as countless Chinese Air Force sorties were conducted which violated Taiwanese airspace. Next, China oversaw the largest naval exercise in the South China Sea–all at a time when the US Navy was struggling to maintain its deterrence in the region, as the USS Theodore Roosevelt was stricken with COVID-19 and basically became a wasting asset awaiting relief from (presumably) the USS Harry S. Truman which is currently deployed to the Persian Gulf. China also started a despicable propaganda war to besmirch the United States all while its agents launched vicious cyberattacks upon the Western institutions charged with studying the disease and developing vaccines to the COVID-19 outbreak. When it was discovered that Gilead’s HIV treatment had a positive impact on treating some COVID-19 patients a Chinese company then ripped off the drug and patented it.
Similarly, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq murdered American and British soldiers there prompting a massive American blitz from the air against suspected Iranian targets in Iraq. The war continues on slow-boil, with Iran becoming increasingly belligerent–especially as COVID-19 ripples through its society, destabilizing it, and as it infects the leadership of Iran. I believe it to be only a matter of time before Iran goes too far out of desperation prompting a military response directly against Iran from the United States and its allies. The COVID-19 outbreak is speeding that up.
A week ago, Venezuela’s navy launched an unprovoked attack on a Portuguese-flagged, German-owned cruise liner that Caracas claimed was carrying American commandos on it. This is unproven. In the process of attempting to force the civilian cruise liner into Venezuelan waters where the Venezuelan navy could have, presumably, held the crew for ransom, the hapless Venezuelan warship ended up sinking itself and the civilian vessel limped away to a friendly port in the Caribbean. Around this time, also the Trump Administration announced that it was stepping up “anti-drug running” operations in Latin America.
In fact, I believe, this was a move directed against Venezuela, which was clearly chafing under American sanctions and looking to exploit American distraction. Thankfully, the White House was able to respond by surging forces into the region–and thankfully Venezuela is not so big of a threat that a minor increase of US forces in the USSOUTHCOM area of operation wasn’t too caustic. This also occurred after Russia’s leading energy firm, Rosneft, dumped most of its holdings in Venezuela’s energy sector (although Russian military forces operating under the banner of the Wagner Group remain firmly in place in Venezuela).
At the same time, however, Moscow is acting boldly to harm American interests. Last year, they declined to go along with a Chinese proposal for all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to begin trading bilaterally with each other using their national currencies as opposed to the dollar. At the time, the United States was riding high geopolitically and economically. Although, last month, the Russians pushed for the SCO to agree in principle on the proposal from November.
The United States had been laid low from the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when Russia was, as far as we can tell, relatively unharmed by the disease (or, at least they were proceeding as though the COVID-19 outbreak in Russia meant nothing for their foreign policy). This move is a huge blow for the United States. Not only are China and Russia members of the SCO, but so too is India. Turkey and Iran are also observing members of the SCO.
Starting last month, the Russians engaged in a brutal oil price war with Saudi Arabia. Many (myself included) believed that if the price war went on until the Fall, Russia would win that conflict. Yet, recently it appears as though that the Russian and Saudi governments have agreed to an amenable price in principle. Of course, as I wrote at the start of the price war, the real reason for the price war was to destroy American shale–an industry that was paradoxically one of America’s greatest strengths but had been made extremely weak due to excessive debt. Whatever next happens with the Saudi and Russian oil price war, American shale has been dealt a major blow. In fact, the tentative “deal” between the two oil producing powers will likely keep oil prices globally relatively low, meaning that American shale will be seriously damaged in the long-term.
Lastly, Russia has sent nuclear-capable bombers to penetrate Alaskan airspace. US Air Force elements intercepted the Russian planes. The Russians are testing us. I believe that aside from China, the Russians are the most direct threat to the United States in the short term because they believe the Americans will not act to defend what Washington has traditionally viewed as its interests.
As I have written since 2015, Washington must engage in a deep reassessment of its Russia policy and determine if it is willing to let Russia enhance its own strategic position relative to the United States in key domains. If not, we need to be far better prepared for war than we presently are. In coming months and years, I’d expect the Russians to act more aggressively and boldly–particularly in Eastern Europe–as the Americans are increasingly distracted by other rivals globally.
At some point, the longer that America is laid low by the novel coronavirus, the Russians will decide they have no choice but to attempt to fundamentally reorder the political system in Europe to their liking. They are just trying to see how much pressure they can apply before a distracted and weak America takes notice.
North Korea has also decided that now is the time to pop off a new round of missiles, thereby increasing the threat it poses to the United States. I suspect that simply getting a photo-op with Kim Jong-un will be insufficient. If Trump wants to avoid a shooting war with North Korea (unlikely at this point), his administration will actually have to engage in real diplomacy which many are understandably opposed to. In fact, given who is involved with his foreign policy, I’d expect to see even greater levels of tensions between the two countries as time progresses–especially now that North Korea likely has the weapon systems it needs to proclaim a fully functional nuclear weapons arsenal. Time will tell, though.
Speaking of Turkey, despite being a NATO member, Ankara has stepped up its military incursions into the airspace of neighboring Greece, heightening tension significantly between the two powers. While this has occurred, Turkey has been caught redhanded trying to smuggle in boatloads of refugees from war-torn Syria into Greece, all in an attempt to fulfill its threat to the European Union that it would flood the continent with more refugees unless NATO and the EU explicitly supported the Turkish military’s moves in Syria. At the same time, Turkey has deployed naval forces around Cyprus while also using northern Cyprus as a shooting off point with which to threaten Israel’s claim on natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and to complicate Egyptian designs on postwar Libya.
All of this as the United States and its allies endure a costly pandemic that has completely shutdown their economies and rendered their populations weak, afraid, and unwilling to concern themselves with the international problems pressing against the West. The next 18 months are going to be even more difficult for the country if we continue limping on in the fashion we’ve been and if our enemies decide that now is the time to press their advantages. Under those conditions, the United States would be as the little dutch boy with his finger in the dyke; fruitlessly plugging the leaks as the water pours from many more fissures in the dam all around him.
The Trump Administration must seriously rethink US foreign policy across-the-board and recognize that time is not on its side as our rivals prepare to conduct a series of unconventional attacks upon the country in its hour of weakness.