Let’s play Jeopardy! The answer: “All were great empires in the past, and all now have rulers determined to establish great empires in the future.” And the question is: “What are China, Russia and Iran?”
China is ruled by a Communist, Russia by a hyper-nationalist, and Iran by an Islamist. All three seek to restore what they consider their rightful realms, and all see the U.S. as their biggest obstacle. It’s on this basis that they now have a flourishing alliance. No surprise that American diplomats speaking softly and carrying carrots instead of sticks fail to achieve progress with any of them.
Those who proclaim themselves jihadis of various stripes also intend to establish an empire, along with a caliphate, in the image of those that dominated much of the world for more than a thousand years.
By the way, though not an adversary, Turkey, the heartland of the former Ottoman Empire, has become America’s least reliable and most problematic ally since Recep Tayyip Erdogan became its neo-sultan.
Is America an empire? That depends on how you define the term. The U.S. has long led a rules-based, liberal, international order. We hoped and even expected that post-Soviet Russia and post-Maoist China would become stakeholders in this arrangement, preferring compromise to confrontation and tacitly acknowledging that American predominance is the worst form of global organization — except for all the others that have been tried.
Over recent years, however, Moscow and Beijing have made abundantly clear that they intend to replace Washington as leader and chief rule-maker of an increasingly illiberal international order.
Former President Barack Obama believed he could entice Iran’s rulers to join the club in return for dollars, respect and a chance to “share the neighborhood” — the Middle East, that is — with Saudi Arabia. President Biden continues to make them offers they can refuse.
All these once-great empires are now striking back to avenge what they perceive as humiliations and striking out to extend their influence.
Start with Beijing, whose current imperial possessions include Xinjian, a Turkic and Muslim land, and Tibet, which also is religiously, linguistically and culturally distinct from China.
China’s rulers have stripped Hong Kong of autonomy and freedom, despite having signed a treaty pledging not to do that.
Free, democratic and prosperous Taiwan has never been under Chinese Communist rule, but Beijing calls it a “rogue province” that must be brought to heel sooner or later. Escalating military threats have raised fears that it could be sooner.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a neo-imperialist project with a global reach. China’s Communist rulers reportedly intend to establish their first permanent naval presence on the Atlantic Ocean in Equatorial Guinea. They also have a military base in Djibouti overlooking the Bab el-Mandeb, a strategic chokepoint for ships transiting the Suez Canal via the Red Sea.
Let’s move on to Tehran’s empire. It includes Lebanon, a country dominated by Hezbollah, the proxy of Iran’s rulers. Those rulers also deploy the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Syria, instruct Shia militias in Iraq, and support the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which sits on the eastern shores of the Bab el-Mandeb, across from the Chinese military base in Djibouti. Tehran’s interventions in Latin America have included terrorist bombings in Argentina and currently include weapons shipments to Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Iran’s rulers want to bestride the Middle East like a colossus, driving out infidel Americans and their “satanic” influences and toppling Muslim leaders friendly to the U.S., e.g., the Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati royals. The weaker Washington appears, the more we will see Arab pragmatists hedging their bets by attempting to placate what they fear will soon be a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic.
Regarding Israel, Iran’s rulers harbor genocidal intentions. “We will not back off from the annihilation of Israel, even one millimeter,” Brigadier-General Abolfazl Shekarchi, spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, said in a recent interview. “We want to destroy Zionism in the world.”
Turn now to Russia, where I’ve long been convinced, President Vladimir Putin sees himself as a 21st-century czar, committed to rebuilding the Russian empire, which became the Soviet empire even as Soviet leaders declared themselves anti-imperialists.
Belarus, under Alexander Lukashenko, is already a vassal state. Mr. Putin has used military power to gain a foothold in the Middle East, including a Syrian port on the Mediterranean.
Since 2008, he’s occupied 20% of neighboring Georgia. He threatens the Baltic states and foments instability in the Balkan states. He took Crimea away from Ukraine in 2014 and backs separatists in eastern Ukraine. He now has tens of thousands of troops pressing on Ukraine’s borders.
Conventional wisdom holds that Mr. Putin “fears” that Ukraine will join NATO. I disagree. Mr. Putin knows quite well that current NATO members are not prepared “by unanimous agreement” to invite Ukraine to join in the foreseeable future.
More to the point, based not least on a 5,000-word article he published in July — Mr. Putin believes Russians and Ukrainians are “one people — a single whole” that should never have been separated. He places much of the blame on Vladimir Lenin, who, in 1922, established the Soviet Union as a federation of “equal republics,” a move that “planted in our statehood the most dangerous time bomb.”
Before I let you go, one more round of Jeopardy! The answer: “Unquestionable military superiority, a powerful, fast-growing economy and an insurmountable lead in advanced technologies.”
The question: “What must be the highest priority of the American president if he is to deter neo-imperialist adversaries of the U.S. and the West?”
Until and unless the occupant of the White House gets this one right, America’s national security will remain in serious … well, jeopardy.
• Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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