Third Culture Queen vol. 16

Superpower Struggle | American Empire, China's Belt and Road, and global hegemony

Hey y’all,

It was a crazy week on many fronts, so I’m highlighting the Iran v Trump play-by-play up top today. Most recent news first:

Happy Reading!

– Kyle (@kgborland)



American Empire

  • Afghanistan war: Taliban tell Trump their 'doors are open' (BBC)

    "They killed thousands of Talibans according to them," he told the BBC's chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet. "But in the meantime, if one [US] soldier has been killed that doesn't mean they should show that reaction because there is no ceasefire from both sides."

    "From our side, our doors are open for negotiations," he added. "So we hope the other side also rethink their decision regarding the negotiation."

    UPDATE: Pakistan PM to urge Trump to restart Afghan peace talks (Reuters)

    UPDATE: US Cuts $100m in Aid to Afghanistan, Citing Corruption (NYT)

    (Related: Al Jazeera)

  • Against Washington’s ‘Great Power’ Obsession (The Atlantic)

    Though Trump’s rhetoric and actions in office have accelerated and exacerbated the fraying of the multilateral system, the crisis of multilateralismhas much deeper roots as the UN and Bretton Woods Institutions approach or embark on their 75th years. Richard Gowan, an expert on the UN, sees three crises in particular: first, a crisis of power in which the shift of power from the U.S. to China has diminished America’s ability to shape the international agenda and drive collective action; second, a crisis of relevance in which antiquated and sometimes sclerotic international institutions struggle to tackle the critical global challenges, from Syria to cybersecurity; and, third, a crisis of legitimacy as frustrated regional powers and nationalist leaders withdraw from multilateral organizations or erode them from within. In this depressing brew, Gowan, who is with the International Crisis Group, sees an opportunity for the EU to become a third pole in geopolitics (along with the U.S. and China) as the practical champion of multilateralism. Considerable thinking has gone into how middle powers from the Americas to Europe to Asia can bolster the so-called rules-based order. The €64,000 question, however, is whether any of this has a prayer without the United States. Almost certainly not.

    As George Kennan warned in his Long Telegram from Moscow in 1946, at the dawn of the Cold War: “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

    Kennan also advised, “We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of the sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in the past.” That America has always stood for and believed in more than itself—and consistently articulated an affirmative, optimistic vision for the world—has been the secret sauce in its global leadership for the past 75 years. What and who will bound and buffer this new competition? An affirmative American vision with robust engagement in international organizations that can provide a diplomatic arena for great power politics to play out nonviolently would certainly help.

  • America has to deal with its ballooning defense budget (The Hill)

    The military establishment has grown too large. With a crude hammer of military power, everything, from eradicating Ebola to building a border wall, looks like a big fat nail. The share of defense spending as part of our discretionary budget, which goes toward protecting our parks, sustaining infrastructure, and investing in science, is a whopping 60 percent. The crisis in runaway defense spending is driven by several factors.

    The Pentagon has a new obsession with “great power” competition, whatever that is, which generates chuckles among political scientists, who have long suspected that the global war on terror was always a detour after 9/11. But there is a real fear that such an all encompassing defense posture will lead to unending commitments, a military required to be everywhere, and a defense budget that will lurch upward over time.

    Related: DoD deletes tweet that joked about blowing up millennials trying to storm Area 51 (Task & Purpose)

  • The Border Is Much Bigger Than You Think (Truthdig)

    Under a multibillion-dollar military aid program known as the Merida Initiative, as that cable made clear, the U.S. was already, in the pre-Donald Trump era, supporting the Mexican government’s border enforcement strategies in significant ways, including enhancing its biometric and other identification systems. Indeed, U.S. help in strengthening Mexico’s southern border already included backscatter X-ray vans and contraband-detection equipment; funds for Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, the Mexican Marines, and the federal police; patrol boats, night-vision and communication equipment, and marine sensors. That country’s interior minister, Miguel Osorio Chong, said, “Who doesn’t have the necessary documents to enter into our territory and enter the United States, we can’t allow them to be in our territory.” It was in its own way a serious admission: Mexico had already functionally been “hired” to protect the U.S. border from 1,000 miles away.

    And this was something U.S. officials had already been pushing for years. As Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary and former Customs and Border Protection (CPB) Commissioner Alan Bersin said in 2012, “The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border.” 

  • DHS Is Finally Going After White Supremacists. (The Atlantic)

    The El Paso shooting figures into a new strategy to counter terrorism and “targeted violence” that the Department of Homeland Security will release today, which The Atlantic obtained and describes here for the first time. The document dwells at length on the threat of white supremacists specifically, which is surprising coming from President Donald Trump’s administration, given that one of its first counterterrorism policies was to try to ban citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. Trump has also pushed for a border wall, which he has said will help keep out terrorists, even though most fatal terrorist attacks in the United States in recent years have been carried out by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The DHS document is an acknowledgment that, nearly 20 years after 9/11, the new terrorist threat comes largely from within—and not as much from jihadists as from the extreme right.

    The department is clearly trying to send a message that it takes the threat of violent white nationalists seriously, and McAleenan said that when leadership lays out its goals, bureaucracies tend to move.

    If DHS get everything it wants, it will have more resources to analyze the changing nature of terrorism in the U.S.; improve information-sharing with local law enforcement; and provide training to communities to prevent or respond to attacks, including through active-shooter drills and security in schools, McAleenan told me. He said the department’s existing resources can be redistributed to better coordinate and focus the sprawling counterterrorism bureaucracy on a wide range of threats, from online radicalization to the movement of weapons of mass destruction. But as with any plan, this one faces obstacles to implementation.

    The fact that many of the recommendations in the document call for further study indicates just how poorly the federal government understands the problem of white-supremacist violence and its scope. Public statistics show that white supremacists now represent the deadliest extremists in the United States—for instance, the Anti-Defamation League has reported that last year, white supremacists perpetrated 39 of 50 domestic extremism-related killings in the United States.

  • Don’t Rule Out War With Iran (Wall Street Journal)

    This misses the broader American strategy. The U.S. isn’t bombing Iran, but neither is it yielding on sanctions. As administration insiders see things, the driving force shaping the confrontation is Iranian impotence rather than American vacillation.

    Mr. Trump’s restraint so far is a sign of America’s wider geopolitical strength. Thanks to American fracking, Iran’s troublemaking in the Gulf hasn’t affected American motorists at the pump. As one insider put it to me, “The Permian Basin saved Tehran.”

    If Tehran continues to escalate its provocations in the Middle East and beyond, it will deepen its international isolation. On Monday, France, Germany and the U.K. blamed Iran for the Saudi attack. Continuing escalation will sooner or later cross a red line that would lead Mr. Trump’s political base to support a strong military response. Alternatively, Iran can return to the negotiating table on terms favorable to the U.S. and agree to both tighten the nuclear accords and limit its regional ambitions.

    It is absolutely true that the Trump administration doesn’t want war with Iran, and not only because wars are politically risky. But that consensus is unstable, and Iran could easily blunder into a kinetic confrontation as it continues to writhe under the sanctions—especially if it internalizes the mistaken belief that Mr. Trump’s patience has no limits.

    Another incident on the scale of the Abqaiq attack might be impossible to ignore. Last Friday Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. This is a political as well as a military measure. Like the troops in Berlin during the Cold War, those American forces will serve as a tripwire. If Iran launches an unprovoked attack against Americans who are conducting a necessary and lawful defensive mission, Washington’s calculus could change in a heartbeat.

  • Google claims to have reached quantum supremacy (Financial Times)

    Researchers at Google may have achieved a major breakthrough toward ushering in the era of quantum computing. In a research paper briefly posted online and then taken down, Google researchers claim to have used quantum computing to perform in three minutes and 20 seconds a calculation that would have taken a supercomputer at least 10,000 years.

    In the paper, Google’s researchers claim to have achieved what has long been the dream of quantum computing enthusiasts: when the technology would make possible calculations previously impossible to solve. “To our knowledge, this experiment marks the first computation that can only be performed on a quantum processor,” the researchers wrote.

    According to Foreign Policy, Quantum computing has huge implications for national security. The technology would likely render contemporary cryptography irrelevant and grant the country that controls it a decisive technological edge over its rivals, including by trivially decrypting any of its adversaries’ communications.

    Related: Secret FBI Subpoenas Scoop Up Personal Data From Companies (NYT)

  • I Run War Games. Too Often, I Am the Only Woman in the Room. (NYT Mag)

    The unspoken gender divide that exists in the war gaming field comes out in funny ways. I know that when people arrive at most of my games, they don’t expect me to stand up and run the game, or to play judge, jury and executioner in deciding combat outcomes. I’m expected to be the note taker or the event coordinator. The number of times I have been asked where coffee is and whether I could fetch it is staggering. I will admit that there is something empowering about being able to command a room and prove my audience wrong. But the thing is, I’m tired of being a rarity. I don’t want to be the only woman in the room running a war game.

    I’ve seen subtle but important differences emerge from games led by women or involving women in the design process. For a game exploring future technology, my male colleagues created a list of military capabilities — the order of battle — that focused heavily on systems that could be used to attack and destroy targets. In contrast, an order of battle created by women included more systems — like reconnaissance platforms — that provided better tools to more quickly alert war fighters of adversary activities and locations. This eye toward inclusivity can also be seen when women run games, as female facilitators are more inclined to encourage different voices to contribute to discussion and in turn gain a greater range of insights into the particular problem at hand. It is not so much that female war gamers approach the critical problems differently or focus a game on “soft” security issues like gender and humanitarian affairs. Rather, they are likely to have different perspectives, based in part on their experiences navigating a man’s world. By not having female game designers, facilitators or players, opportunities to uncover new and innovative strategies are falling by the wayside.

  • 'Nightmare' for global postal system if Trump pulls out, U.N. body says (Reuters)

    The Trump administration says it wants to charge other countries more than UPU rules now permit to have letters and packages delivered in the United States. It has set a deadline of next month for rates to be raised or it will quit.

    “It is really a nightmare scenario,” the UPU’s secretary-general, Bishar Hussein, told a news conference, noting that no country had ever left since the agency was founded nearly 150 years ago. It now has 192 members.

    “If the United States leaves, you’ll get those piles, because somehow every country has to figure out how to send mail to the United States.... A major disruption is on the way if we don’t solve the problem today.”

    Were the United States to quit the UPU, U.S. stamps would no longer be valid abroad, he said. He said he was “very optimistic” that a compromise could be reached.

    The UPU is one of the oldest international organizations, set up in 1874 to ensure that mail could be delivered anywhere on earth. It establishes a system for calculating the fees, known as “terminal dues”, that countries collect from each other to deliver mail that arrives from abroad.

  • Opinions about Beijing are being swayed by geopolitics — and not in a positive way (Ozy)

    Only 26 percent of those surveyed saw China in a positive light, down from 38 percent last year and 44 percent the year before. At its highest point, in 2006, 51 percent of Americans regarded China favorably. As part of the 2019 survey, 60 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China versus 47 percent in 2018 and a low of 29 percent in 2005.

    Meanwhile, in China, opinions about the U.S. have stayed fairly steady. A survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF), From Democracy Promotion to Democracy Attraction, published in May, found that only 17 percent of Chinese people surveyed had an unfavorable view of America, with 57 percent reporting a somewhat or very favorable view. That’s comparable to the 55 percent reported in 2017 in a survey of China’s general public by the Committee of 100, an organization that furthers China-U.S. relations. When asked about the future of China’s system of government, 53 percent of people in the EGF survey said they wanted it to become more like America’s in the next 20 years, as opposed to 17 percent who wanted China to go the other way.

    The key to this disparity may be soft power, noncoercive control that countries use to affect public opinion abroad, often through disseminating their cultural artifacts. “Chinese admiration for America and Americans has a lot to do with the soft power generated by our cultural exports. American movies and music — often pirated — circulate widely within China, and likely contribute a certain amount of goodwill,” says Mark Hannah, a senior fellow at EGF who authored the study on Chinese public opinion. “We also found that one of the biggest determinants of pro-American sentiment in the countries we surveyed was a connection to a diaspora community within the U.S.”

  • The American Working Man Still Isn’t Working (Foreign Affairs)

    Many prime-age men have disappeared from the labor force due to the decline of manufacturing, a sector in which men are overrepresented. The collapse of the housing bubble further reduced the number of job openings, particularly for workers without college degrees. And still more men have left the labor force because of mass incarceration. The United States incarcerates a greater proportion of its population than any other country in the world: two million people in total. Many of those who were previously incarcerated struggle to get work after they leave prison. In a tight economy—characterized by high demand for both goods and workers—employers may be willing to hire ex-offenders. But only up to a point: even in good times, firms often refuse to hire workers with criminal records at the same rate that they hire others, meaning that a tight economy reverses only a fraction of the long-term economic damage caused by high rates of incarceration.

    Prime-age men, like other workers, receive inadequate training and job search assistance. What is more, certain occupations require licenses that differ from state to state. These requirements—combined with land-use restrictions that drive up rents in attractive areas—reduce the mobility of workers and make job transitions far more difficult than they have to be.

  • Senate Again Rejects Trump’s Border Emergency, but Falls Short of a Veto-Proof Majority (New York Times)

    But the 54-to-41 vote, in which 11 Republicans joined Democrats to break with the president over his signature domestic priority, fell short of the margin that would be needed to overcome a presidential veto, ensuring that Mr. Trump would be able to continue to redirect military funding to build a barrier on the southwestern border.

    The tally was nearly identical to the result of a vote in March, when Congress first sought to block the national emergency declaration and a dozen Republicans joined all Democrats present for the vote.

    The list of 127 projects that will be delayed to fund the border wall includes schools in desperate need of repair, new fire stations and health care centers, and in Puerto Rico, projects targeted after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

    Some of the Republicans who supported the measure contended that their votes were meant primarily to protect Congress’s ability to control the power of the purse, rather than as a rejection of Mr. Trump’s border wall.

  • The West is losing the battle for the Arctic (The Hill)

    The Arctic is home to vast fisheries, 30 percent of the world's natural gas and over $1 trillion in rare-earth minerals.

    Former Coast Guard Vice Commandant Peter Neffenger, who spent four years crafting the Arctic strategy at the U.S. Coast Guard and led the 2013 U.S. delegation to the Arctic Council dialogue, recently warned on Altamar Podcast that the United States needs to step up its game. “To win a race, you actually have to be in the race,” he said. “And the U.S., to a large extent, has failed to engage in substantial ways in the Arctic… The U.S. has taken a wait-and-see attitude.”

    Meanwhile, other countries have been more proactive. Russia, the nation with the largest Arctic frontier, has expanded its military forces in the Arctic and has also made significant investments in northern gas and oil infrastructure. China, which designated itself as a “near-Arctic nation,” has set its sights on a northward expansion of the Belt and Road initiative and is eyeing a future Polar Silk Road.

    Engaging in Arctic affairs doesn’t mean launching a 21st century zero-sum, “Scramble for the Arctic.” The possibilities of joint scientific exploration are plentiful. Increasing trade could benefit both continents, with the potential for new shipping lanes that could slash travel time between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.

    Russia and China must not be the only countries visibly present in the Arctic. To prevent unnecessary confrontations and prevent ecological damage, the West needs to ramp up its engagement. As more actors look to the Arctic for economic and geopolitical advantages, a plan to ensure equal opportunity for environmental protection, mineral and resources extraction, and freedom of navigation and trade routes among all nations is crucial.

    RELATED: Global Climate Action’s Biggest Obstacle Is US Foreign Policy (Truthout)

  • White House Bars Iranian Officials From US as Diplomatic Efforts Falter (NYT)

    A similar travel ban was issued against members of President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela, which the Trump administration is trying to oust.

    The new economic sanctions were announced by Mr. Pompeo at a conference sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group that Tehran this week said it was considering declaring a terrorist organization.

    Mr. Pompeo said the sanctions would punish six Chinese companies and five business executives for defying American financial restrictions that aim to stop Iran from exporting oil. The targeted businesses are an oil company and five shipping companies, two of which are subsidiaries of a large state-owned conglomerate, China COSCO Shipping. But the parent company is not a target.

    China has been the biggest foreign buyer of Iran’s oil, a crucial Iranian export. Last year, roughly 6 percent of China’s oil imports came from Iran. But in the past two months, Chinese state-owned companies have begun importing more oil from Saudi Arabia under tightening pressure from the Trump administration.

    New York Times investigation found that at least six Iranian tankers unloaded at Chinese ports during a two-month period after the United States on May 2 ended purchase waivers for Iranian oil granted to China and seven other governments.

    In July, the State Department announced its first set of Iran-related sanctions against a Chinese oil company. But the United States has avoided sanctioning Chinese banks or Sinopec, a much larger state-owned company that is also a big importer of Iranian oil. Sanctions on those institutions would have far-reaching effects in global finance and business.

    (Related: Foreign Policy)

  • Why Russia’s War Against Ukraine Matters to America (Daily Signal)

    Since 2014, Russia has used Ukraine as a testing ground for both its modern conventional and hybrid warfare doctrines, providing a case study for the new kinds of security threats the U.S. and its Western allies can anticipate from so-called near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China. 

    For that reason, U.S. military aid to Ukraine is not a one-way street. In fact, as U.S. armed forces prepare for a new era of threats and great power competition, they stand to learn a lot from Ukraine’s military. 

    “It’s a great primer for us to see how Russia is fighting in Ukraine,” U.S. Army Col. Lawrence Ferguson, 10th Special Forces Group commander, told me during an exercise in Poland last year.

    “We’ve got a good picture of how they’re going to fight,” Ferguson said. “It’s a standard application of force from the USSR, with modern technology.”

    That tenuous status quo has sent shockwaves across Eastern Europe, spurring many countries to prepare for a bigger war. Consequently, the entire military balance of power in Eastern Europe has been upheaved since Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014.

    Today, the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are among the most rapidly militarizing countries on earth, based on defense spending increases. And Poland has dramatically increased its military spending, too.

    The war in Ukraine isn’t just the front line against Russian military aggression. It’s also the front line to defend the spirit and the promise of democracy. Ukrainian soldiers—like Daniel—are fighting our next war so we don’t have to.

  • U.S. expels two Cuban diplomats at the U.N. suspected of spying (Miami Herald)

    “The United States requires the imminent departure of two members of Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations for abusing their privileges of residence,” the State Department said in a statement. “This is due to their attempts to conduct influence operations against the United States.”

    Though the State Department didn’t provide details, the phrase “influence operations” usually refers to gathering intelligence and recruiting sources for purposes of espionage. Cuba’s U.N. mission has widely been regarded as a key intelligence-gathering operation for the island’s government.

    The administration also restricted the movements of the rest of the members of the Cuban mission to the U.N. to the island of Manhattan.

    UPDATE: US sanctions Cuba's Castro for support of Venezuela's Maduro (AJ)

China’s Belt and Road

  • China pledges $400bn to Iran’s energy, transport and manufacturing (GCR)

    The plan envisages $400bn of investment unfolding over a 25-year period, but this may be “front loaded” into the next five years.

    The agreement was update during a visit by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif to his Chinese counterpart Wang Li at the end of August. A source connected to Iran’s petroleum ministry told Petroleum Economist that $280bn will be allocated to Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemicals sectors and $120bn invested in upgrading Iran’s transport and manufacturing infrastructure

    In return for making the capital available, Chinese companies will be given first refusal on oil and gas projects. For its part, Iran is hoping to improve its diplomatic and economic position, and to restart a number of energy project that were stalled by the re-imposition of US sanctions last year, such as the giant South Pars gas field.

    Related: A Crackdown on Islam Is Spreading Across China (NYT)

    Related: China Is Becoming a Major Player in the Middle East (Brink)

  • China Wants the World to Stay Silent on Muslim Camps. It’s Succeeding. (NYT)

    Some governments tiptoe around China for economic reasons. When New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, visited Beijing shortly after the massacre of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, she said she had discussed Xinjiang privately with China’s president Xi Jinping. She didn’t do much more. New Zealand sells much of its main exports, such as milk, meat and wine, to China.

    Last year, China helped Turkey secure a $3.6 billion loan for energy and transportation. Since then, the Turkish economy has further faltered. And during Mr. Erdogan’s visit to Beijing in July, Mr. Xi praised him for supporting what he called China’s core interests, including Xinjiang.

    “Many, many governments are looking the other way and self-censoring on the issue of Xinjiang,” said Daniel R. Russel, the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “Beijing is notoriously prickly about its self-declared ‘core interests,’ and few countries are willing to put the economic benefits of good relations with China at risk — let alone find themselves on the receiving end of Chinese retaliation.”

  • How dominant are Chinese companies globally? (China Power)

    One way of measuring the growth of Chinese companies is through the Fortune Global 500, an annual ranking of the world’s top 500 companies by revenue. In 2008, only 29 Chinese companies made it onto the list. These companies had a combined revenue of $1.1 trillion, which accounted for just five percent of the revenue generated by the world’s 500 largest companies. By comparison, 119 Chinese companies with a combined revenue of $7.9 trillion appeared on the list in 2019 – representing nearly a quarter of the $32.7 trillion in revenue generated by all 500 companies.

    The emergence of more Chinese firms on the Global 500 has pushed other companies off the list. In 2008, Japan was home to 12.8 percent of the world’s top 500 companies, but this number dropped to 10.4 percent in 2019. The US has consistently produced the most companies on the Global 500, but its share dropped from 30.6 percent in 2008 to 24.2 percent in 2019. US companies maintain a notable margin in terms of revenue, with the total amount pushing $9.5 trillion dollars – 28.7 percent of the revenue generated by the top 500 firms.

  • Taiwan’s Defense Strategy Doesn’t Make Military Sense (Foreign Affairs)

    China’s navy has, in the words of one U.S. defense analyst, “metamorphosized from a coastal-defense force composed of largely obsolescent Soviet-era technologies into a modern naval service” with its own carrier wings, guided missile destroyers, and amphibious transport capacity needed to storm enemy beaches. For the first time since the 1950s, China’s threats to invade Taiwan are frighteningly credible. The countdown to 2049 is ticking.

    Still, a Chinese assault on Taiwan would be incredibly risky. It would require the largest amphibious invasion in human history, and because of the island’s unforgiving geography, the Taiwanese would only need to defend a few select beachheads. Modern military technology favors the defender, who can use cheap precision munitions to destroy an aggressor’s more expensive amphibious assault ships, capital ships, and aircraft.

    In light of these advantages, a broad consensus has emerged among U.S. defense analysts who have visited the island: Taiwan can successfully deter a Chinese invasion—but only if it radically retools its military. In practical terms, this means a navy composed of missile patrol boats, mine-laying ships, small semi-submersibles, and underwater drones; an air defense component reliant on mobile surface-to-air missile batteries; ground forces armed to the teeth with aerial drones, land mines, and antiship and antiarmor guided missiles; a reserve force and civilian population fluent in guerilla tactics; and an industrial policy focused on breakthroughs in missile and drone tech.  

    This sort of “anti-access” military would not be able to defend Taiwanese territorial claims in the South China Sea or clear the sky of Chinese fighters. But in the event of a Chinese invasion, it would be able prolong the fighting long enough for Taiwan’s allies to intervene. More important, it might deter China from launching an invasion in the first place.  

    In the eyes of many U.S. defense analysts, Taiwanese leaders face what should be an easy choice: They can ensure their nation’s survival through the mass production or procurement of low-cost, low-profile armaments. Or they can continue to waste their resources on what the analysts Colin Carroll and Rebecca Friedman Lissner have called “‘prestige’ capabilities ... with no tangible benefit in deterrence or war.” 

    The question is: Why don’t the Taiwanese see things the same way?