U.S. isn't prepared for Russia, China challenges of 2023

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Supporters and members of the Ukraine community hold flags representing Ukraine, the United States and the Ukrainian Armed Forces during a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Saturday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Supporters and members of the Ukraine community hold flags representing Ukraine, the United States and the Ukrainian Armed Forces during a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Saturday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

Thomas Hobbes asserted that without government, life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

But, ironically, even with government, similar terms still might apply today. That is sadly true in America. About three-quarters of Americans see the country headed in the wrong direction. And an equal proportion report they are "dissatisfied" with their lives.


This bleakness is reflected in how numerous foreign capitals view America. With the war in Ukraine, NATO and other European allies are, for the moment, in agreement in reversing Russian aggression. However, that same favorability and support are far from global. In terms of populations, a significant majority tends to side with Russia and China over the West.

Anecdotal analysis is telling. South Africa's navy is exercising with Russia's and China's off its coasts. North African states from Algeria to Egypt are buying Russian oil, despite the boycotts and sanctions. And history also counts.


Perhaps the Vietnam War has been forgotten. However, U.S. interventions into Iraq twice, Afghanistan, Libya and even Ukraine, along with European colonialism, have not. Too often America is seen as arrogant, aloof and unwilling to listen.

These criticisms beyond America's borders are reflected in the unprecedented political, social, cultural, ideological and economic divisions from within. Virtually every issue is deeply politicized between Democrats and Republicans. Last weekend, one of the Department of Energy labs released a report that concluded the COVID-19 virus likely came from China's biological research facility in Wuhan.

The origins of COVID-19 have two possible sources. The first is from nature and an animal to human zoonotic transmission. The second is a man-made virus created in a laboratory, such as in Wuhan, that could be part of a biological warfare program. Initially, many disregarded the conspiracy theory because far more Chinese people succumbed to COVID-19 than in any other country.

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Less advertised was that the Energy Department report expressed "low confidence" in the source as being from a laboratory. The White House has no firm conclusion as to the origins of COVID-19, as U.S. intelligence remains divided. However, the political divisions have magnified the intensity and passion on both sides of the debate.


For the moment, the question of whether the United States is at a transformational inflection point, or what has been called a hinge of history, is interesting. Such points after World War II were 1947 and the partition of India into Pakistan; 1948 and the establishment of Israel; 1949 and the formation of NATO; 1972 and Nixon's trip to China; 1989 and 1991 that led to the end of the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union; and the al-Qaida attacks of 2001.

One could argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin's incursions into Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine last year are also critical dates.

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The reason that 2023 could be one such inflection point is that for the first time in its history, the United States faces both a nuclear armed economic superpower and a nuclear armed energy-rich adversary that launched the first major war in Europe since 1945.

If this assessment is correct, U.S. strategy has not anticipated these conditions and does not fit this new paradigm. And much as nuclear and thermonuclear weapons forever changed strategy because in war there could be no winners, only losers eviscerated under huge mushroom-shaped clouds, this dual challenge from China and Russia could have equally profound consequences.


But where are these matters being addressed? And part of any assessment, are the traditional definitions of containment, deterrence and defense still applicable, or does each need revision for this era? For over a decade, neither China nor Russia has been contained or deterred. China has made its military one of the largest and most modern on Earth; fortified tiny islands in its contiguous seas; and strengthened its rhetoric on returning Taiwan to China.

The same freedom of action applies to Russia. Russia has intervened in Syria and Moldova, as well as Ukraine. It has threatened the use of nuclear weapons. And it has suspended New START. So what can be done?

In many ways, the United States seems to have lost its way at home and abroad. But administrations generally have greater flexibility regarding foreign and defense than domestic policy. With less than two years remaining in office, a major strategic review is unlikely to be undertaken by this White House. Yet that is what is needed now.

That returns to a common refrain of who will listen and who will lead?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Ukrainian demonstrators rally in Kyiv on February 12, 2022 to show unity amid U.S. warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. Photo by Oleksandr Khomenko/UPI | License Photo

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