Discover more from Letters from an American
September 13, 2023
Russian president Vladimir Putin met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un today in Russia’s far east. His need to turn to North Korea’s isolated leader is a dramatic fall for Putin, who just four years ago was hobnobbing with then-president Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Now, thanks to his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin, too, is isolated, charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and under an arrest warrant.
It is no wonder that shortly before he met with Kim, Putin said of Trump’s 2024 presidential run: “We surely hear that Mr. Trump says he will resolve all burning issues within several days, including the Ukrainian crisis. We cannot help but feel happy about it.” Trump has said he will end the war in a day if he’s reelected, and has called for withholding funds to Ukraine until the Department of Justice and the FBI investigate President Joe Biden.
At the meeting, Putin and Kim vowed to strengthen the ties between the two countries, and Kim expressed total support for Putin as Russia’s isolation grows, calling their stance a “fight against imperialism” and saying at a state dinner that he is “certain that the Russian people and its military will emerge victorious in the fight to punish the evil forces that ambitiously pursues hegemony and expansion.”
And yet it is Russia that is attacking other nations, including the U.S.: on September 7 the U.S. Department of Justice indicted 11 Russian men for their participation in cyberattacks against governments, businesses, and major hospital chains around the world. The U.S. Treasury Department and the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency say the hackers are associated with Russian intelligence services.
Russia is looking for artillery munitions from North Korea to continue its war against Ukraine; North Korea wants ballistic missile technology from Russia to develop its space and satellite program. Kim cannot get that technology elsewhere because of sanctions intended to keep him from developing nuclear weapons. Sergey Radchenko, a senior professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who studies Russian and Chinese national security, concluded that we might be seeing an alliance between North Korea and Russia that, among other things, is likely to increase North Korea’s assertiveness.
That Putin feels the need to cozy up to Kim indicates the war is not going as he would like. Indeed, last night Ukraine hit the main base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, in occupied Crimea, destroying two vessels and the port infrastructure. The Ukrainian military claimed responsibility for the strike, underlining its growing strength in Russian-occupied areas..
In a major speech today at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained the place at which the United States finds itself in both foreign and domestic affairs. He told the audience that the end of the Cold War, a period of competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, along with their respective allies, ushered in “the promise of an inexorable march toward greater peace and stability, international cooperation, economic interdependence, political liberalization, human rights.” That postwar period did, indeed, lift more than a billion people from poverty, eliminate deadly diseases, and usher in a period of historically low conflicts between nations, despite challenges such as the 2008 global financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and regional conflicts like those in Rwanda and Iraq.
“But,” Blinken said, “what we’re experiencing now is more than a test of the post–Cold War order. It’s the end of it.”
The relative geopolitical stability of the post–World War II years has given way to the rise of authoritarian powers, he said. Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is the most immediate threat to “the international order enshrined in the UN charter and its core principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence for nations, and universal indivisible human rights for individuals.” But the People’s Republic of China “poses the most significant long-term challenge,” he said, “because it not only aspires to reshape the international order, it increasingly has the economic, the diplomatic, the military, the technological power to do just that.”
As partners, “Beijing and Moscow are working together to make the world safe for autocracy,” Blinken warned.
As the competition between the two systems ramps up, many countries are hedging their bets, while the influence of nonstate actors—international corporations, public service nongovernmental organizations, international terrorists, transnational criminal organizations—is growing. At the same time, the sheer scale of global problems like climate change and mass migration is making cooperation across borders more difficult.
The international economic order of the past several decades is flawed in ways that have caused people to lose faith in it, Blinken explained. Technology and globalization have hollowed out entire industries and weakened workers, while laws protected property. Inequality grew dramatically between 1980 and 2020, with the richest 0.1% accumulating the same wealth as the poorest 50%. “The longer these disparities persist,” Blinken pointed out, “the more distrust and disillusionment they fuel in people who feel the system is not giving them a fair shake. And the more they exacerbate other drivers of political polarization, amplified by algorithms that reinforce our biases rather than allowing the best ideas to rise to the top.”
Democracies are under threat, Blinken said. “Challenged from the inside by elected leaders who exploit resentments and stoke fears; erode independent judiciaries and the media; enrich cronies; crack down on civil society and political opposition. And challenged from the outside, by autocrats who spread disinformation, who weaponize corruption, who meddle in elections.”
The post–Cold War order is over, Blinken said. “One era is ending, a new one is beginning, and the decisions that we make now will shape the future for decades to come.”
The U.S. is in a position of strength from which it seeks to reinforce a rules-based international order in which “goods, ideas, and individuals can flow freely and lawfully across land, sea, sky, and cyberspace, where technology is used to empower people—not to divide, surveil, and repress them,” where the global economy is defined by fair competition and widespread prosperity, and where “international law and the core principles of the UN Charter are upheld, and where universal human rights are respected.” Such a world would serve humanity’s interests, as well as our own, Blinken said; its principles are universal.
“[O]ur competitors have a fundamentally different vision,” he said. “They see a world defined by a single imperative: regime preservation and enrichment. A world where authoritarians are free to control, coerce, and crush their people, their neighbors, and anyone else standing in the way of this all-consuming goal.”
They claim that the norms and values that anchor the rules-based international order are imposed by Western nations, that human rights are up to nations themselves, and that big countries should be allowed to dictate to their smaller neighbors.
“The contrast between these two visions could not be clearer. And the stakes of the competition we face could not be higher—for the world, and for the American people.”
Blinken explained that the Biden administration has deliberately integrated domestic and foreign policy, crafting industrial strategy to rebuild the U.S. and to address the wealth disparities that create deep political resentment, while aligning that domestic strength to foreign policy. That foreign policy has depended on strengthening alliances and partnerships, building regional integration so that regions address their own interests as communities, closing the infrastructure gap between nations, and strengthening international institutions—rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization, working to expand the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and so on.
Blinken said that such investments will lead nations to stand up to “the Beijings and Moscows of the world” when they claim this system serves the West and try to tear it down, and answer back: “No, the system you are trying to change is our system; it serves our interests.” At the same time, such investments will offer new markets for American workers and businesses, more affordable goods for American consumers, more reliable food and energy supplies, more robust health systems to stop deadly disease, more allies to address global challenges.
Looking back from the future, Blinken said, “the right decisions tend to look obvious, the end results almost inevitable. They never are. In real time, it’s a fog.”
“We must put our hand on the rudder of history and chart a path forward, guided by the things that are certain even in uncertain times—our principles, our partners, our vision for where we want to go,” Blinken said, “so that, when the fog lifts, the world that emerges tilts toward freedom, toward peace, toward an international community capable of rising to the challenges of its time.”