We’ll need something like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the U.S. and Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war in order to get peoples’ heads screwed on straight, says Michael Brenner in an interview with SCF’s Finian Cunningham.
In a stark assessment of U.S. international policy and that of its allies, Professor Michael Brenner says there is an abject failure of political leadership and strategic thinking. This is clearly seen with regard to Washington’s persistent antagonism of China and its inability to conduct meaningful dialogue and diplomacy with Beijing for resolving major issues. That is also the case with regard to Europe’s frigid attitude towards Moscow. Such crass conduct of international relations is not only self-defeating for the United States and its Western allies, it is creating the dangerous conditions for fatal miscalculation leading to war. Brenner contends that the world might have to face the brink of destruction before some level of sanity prevails in Washington and other Western capitals. It is lamentable that the lack of strategic thinking and political leadership in the United States is driving the rest of the world to the abyss.
Michael Brenner is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, DC). Previously, he held teaching and research appointments at Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Brookings Institution, University of California – San Diego, and was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the National Defense University. He has authored several books on international politics including Toward a More Independent Europe.
QUESTION: U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly said he does not want a Cold War with China. Yet Biden has made provocative moves to antagonize Beijing, for example, his vocal support for militarily defending Taiwan against alleged aggression from the Chinese mainland. Is this deliberate “strategic ambiguity” or plain incoherence in U.S. policy towards China?
MICHAEL BRENNER: Any ascription of a coherent strategic design to the Biden administration is misplaced. There clearly isn’t any. Second key point: Biden’s control over his national security team is tenuous. For example, the day after telling China’s President Xi Jinping on the phone that he doesn’t want a “fight” with China, senior U.S. officials were meeting with Taiwan officials in Geneva to discuss the opening of a “representative” office in Washington – in violation of the 1972 accords that formed the basis of the One China Policy established in 1979 under then President Carter. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman et al. are unanimous in their view of China as a lethal threat to American dominance and they believe that a confrontational approach is the only logical response. There is no minority view inside or outside the Biden administration. Only Biden’s domestic advisers are skeptical on strictly political grounds – war or near-war is an electoral loser.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that the U.S. is lurching towards an all-out war with China?
MICHAEL BRENNER: That is not the intent. The danger is miscalculation. Washington thinks that it can bluff the People’s Republic of China; they’re wrong. Look at Hong Kong. Washington thinks only in terms of coercion because that is the only thing they are capable of – and because winner-take-all is the only strategic concept they are mentally capable of understanding. There is not a diplomatic statesman anywhere in the Biden administration. It is the Pentagon that is cautious because all their war games tell them that the U.S. would lose in a conventional war with China.
QUESTION: Washington blames China for the deterioration in international relations, accusing Beijing of malign expansion and of domineering Asian neighbors. Are there any grounds to substantiate these American claims? Or is it blatant U.S. hypocrisy and scaremongering?
MICHAEL BRENNER: The record is clear – the balance of responsibility for deteriorating relations lies with the U.S. The only exception perhaps is over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea where Beijing has built controversial military aircraft landing facilities. Washington’s rhetoric is relentlessly hostile to the point of insulting; and we are shredding any remaining bilateral agreement over Taiwan – the PRC’s Red Line.
QUESTION: The new military pact between the U.S., Britain and Australia known as AUKUS took international media by surprise, seemingly announced out of the blue last month. You have expressed doubts about its strategic capability, describing it as a “slapdash” arrangement. Should China or Russia be worried about this new AUKUS pact in terms of their security?
MICHAEL BRENNER: I suspect that only their military people are taking it seriously; and in practical terms, the U.S. naval base in Perth, western Australia, won’t be operational for another 25 years or so. The U.S. would like to see it as a key base where submarines armed with nuclear weapons could harbor. The Australian electorate probably has other ideas. Otherwise, it is another political gesture to achieve two ends: place an immovable obstacle in the way of cordial Sino-Australian relations, and tighten the United States’ grip on Canberra’s foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region.
QUESTION: All three AUKUS members stand to lose economically if relations with China slump further. The economies of the U.S., Britain and Australia rely heavily on China’s vast markets, so what accounts for the self-defeating antagonism of their governments towards Beijing? Could they be so stupidly shortsighted?
MICHAEL BRENNER: Yes – just as the Europeans are in regard to Russia. There is not a strategic mind in a position of authority anywhere in the West. The United Kingdom is run by a bunch of buffoons who live in a “Jewel in the Crown” mental world. While Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is just posturing. He will be brought up short when the economic losses inevitably hit Australia’s population. Against that, however, the big news is in Japan where Fumio Kishida, the new prime minister, has shifted the country’s attitude towards the PRC by at least 90 degrees. In a breakthrough cordial exchange with China’s President Xi last week both leaders reportedly agreed to pursue “constructive and stable relations” based on increased dialogue.
QUESTION: Do you see the U.S. eventually coming to accept the emergence of a multipolar world and desisting from its hegemonic ambitions? What needs to happen in U.S. politics for that to happen?
MICHAEL BRENNER: In the short to middle-term: No. There is neither the mind nor the political leadership. I fear that we’ll need something like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the U.S. and Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war in order to get peoples’ heads screwed on straight. At both the elite and popular level, it is only fear of war that, on a purely pragmatic basis, will break the comatose intellectual/political state that the United States is in.