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The Advocate: Not so suddenly, the world became more dangerous

By Jay Williams, Jr.

Not so suddenly, our world became more dangerous. Yet our leaders are surprised and unprepared. How can that be?

There was a moment in time, historically speaking, when the United States was the world’s only superpower. Foreign challenges arose, but most were ignored. More recently, those challenges have gained momentum, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine merely the latest and most outrageous.

In 2014, President Barack Obama labeled Russia a “regional power,” but since then, Vladimir Putin has vastly rebuilt Russia’s military forces and those forces have demonstrated their capacity to effectively engage worldwide by land, sea and air.

In doing so, Mr. Putin has developed a strategy and a plan to reconstitute the old Soviet Union. He is audacious, determined and ruthless. In his Fatherland Day speech last week, Putin rewrote Ukrainian history and publicly humiliated his intelligence officer, demonstrating that Putin is little bothered by public opinion.

The world has changed, but the leaders of the U.S. and most of Europe seem to believe it’s still 1999. As Europe recedes from the world stage and devolves into a history theme park, its leaders have deluded themselves into believing that their continent is so sophisticated and intellectually elevated that armed conflict there is passé. More than one commentator stated that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the first European armed conflict in 70 years. That’s rubbish, of course.

Europe and NATO got complacent

Wall Street Journal columnist William Galston wrote that the leaders of the West have failed to grasp that the post-Cold War era is at an end. “Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who rarely misses an opportunity to be wrong, recently said that ‘in the new era we’re entering in Europe, we’re going to have to do more with less.’ That’s a dangerous fantasy,” Galston asserts. “It will take more to do more.”

Galston noted that Europe’s leading economy, Germany, spends just 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Rather than increase its defense budget or send weapons to Ukraine in the wake of the Russian offensive, the Germans sent 5,000 helmets. Called out and embarrassed, they apologized but did little more.

French President Emmanuel Macron has advocated for an independent European defense force, thus dismissing NATO as an instrument of Anglo-American foreign policy. Recently, he tried to extend French influence by conducting a five-hour-long pre-war diplomatic meeting with Putin. Putin was unmoved by the entreaty. Or maybe he was moved.

These are not new problems. Russia has been meddling in the world, largely unchallenged, for years. In 2014, soon after the Ukrainians deposed a Russia-imposed puppet president, Russian soldiers, masked and wearing uniforms without insignia, took over the parliament of Crimea and later the entire peninsula. Worldwide handwringing and condemnation followed, but the takeover of Crimea went unopposed.

The Obama administration, committed to ridding Syria of its dictator, invited Russia to increase its presence there to assist in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Russia agreed, but more to save dictator Bashar al-Assad and shore up its own hegemony. Six years later, Assad remains; Russia successfully diminished the American-led international order and became the dominant power in the region. Very few recognized that success.

After a spate of crippling cyberattacks against America last June, President Joe Biden gave Putin a list of 16 infrastructure “entities” that he asked to be “off-limits” to Putin’s cybersecurity attacks. Biden’s list begged the question of whether everything else was OK to attack. Putin, for his part, simply denied involvement.

Then came the U.S.’s disastrous and chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan last September. It was bewildering that any country, much less a putative superpower, would evacuate the military before it evacuated its citizens. Putin noticed. By November, satellite imagery showed a build-up of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border. During a two-hour telephone conversation on Dec. 7, a date already significant, President Biden mentioned to President Putin that he would put sanctions on Russia if Kremlin forces entered Ukraine.

Last month, as Ukraine was surrounded by Russian tanks, troops, planes, helicopters, ships and missiles, Biden finally imposed limited sanctions. Putin’s beliefs were confirmed: The West was not serious. Putin did what he’d planned to do: invade.

Fourteen minutes late for his press conference the day Putin unleashed his forces, President Biden rattled off a new list of “profound” sanctions. For weeks critics have been pleading for harsh sanctions to deter any invasion; that may have worked, but we’ll never know.

After the invasion began last Thursday, Biden was asked, “Will these sanctions work”? His answer: “Ask me again in a month.” Ukraine doesn’t have a month. It may not have a week.

How we got caught flatfooted

Prior to the attack, Nile Gardiner, a British conservative commentator and a director at the Heritage Foundation wrote, “The impending war in Ukraine has exposed not just the impotence and shameful appeasement mindset of Europe’s ruling elites in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. It has also sharply illustrated the tragic decline of American leadership on the world stage.”

Gardiner asserts that “Biden’s foreign policy has been predictable and distinctly lacking in bite.” Although Donald Trump espoused isolationist views, Russia found out to its cost, Gardiner wrote, “that he was prepared to use military force against Russian interests in Syria,” and Trump “actively campaigned against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline running to Germany.” But in the early days of his presidency, Biden endorsed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline without asking for or getting any concessions or assurances from Putin in return.

Victor Davis Hanson, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and military historian, is clear about why we are in this crisis: “Pumping lots of oil and lowering the world price of it makes Putin worry about insolvency rather than invasion. When the U.S. appeases Putin and is wracked by internal dissension and social turmoil, Putin pounces.”

Hanson also highlighted Biden’s conflicting rhetoric about Putin — calling him a “bully” and a “killer” on one hand, and on the other asking for Putin’s help with cybersecurity and to pump more oil after the U.S. slashed its own output. “When a U.S. president talks trash and yet proves anemic, Putin loses his cool at such empty bombast and turns aggressive,” Hanson said.

President Biden not only underestimated Vladimir Putin; he misunderstood the reasons voters rejected President Trump. They rejected his personality, not necessarily his policies. President Biden should act now to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline and allow new drilling leases on federal lands. This would reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian oil, weaken Russia financially, bolster the U.S. economy and reduce inflation. The world’s oil supply is vulnerable, and wind and solar are not enough.

President Obama’s former defense secretary, Robert Gates, wrote that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue for the past four decades.” That was then.

Now, after Afghanistan and Ukraine, the U.S. can’t absorb another failure. America is becoming an understudy on the world stage. Biden must enact full sanctions on Russia and reverse his domestic energy policies immediately. Our safety and security depend on it.

The same day that Russia invaded Ukraine, nine Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense zone. Ukraine may not be strategic, but Taiwan is. Are we prepared?

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.


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