Boris Johnson’s fate awaits Joe Biden

On the face of it, President Biden and outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could not seem to be more different. The Oxford-educated Johnson, a former star journalist, has made a living due to his felicity with the English language, long an enemy of the syntax-mangling Biden. Whereas Biden is famously tribal and family-oriented — perhaps to his detriment in the case of his scandal-plagued son, Hunter — Johnson’s life has amounted to a series of romantic adventures. The American president, a lifelong politician, worked his way up the greasy pole of U.S. politics glacially, but Johnson shot to the top of the British political firmament like a supernova, only to crash just as spectacularly.

No, on the surface, it’s hard to think of two major Western leaders with such disparate biographies.

But this is to miss the dangerous commonalities between the two men regarding policy. The problems and dangers confronting their countries are frighteningly similar. For this structural, underlying reason, it is likely that Biden will be shown the door in two years’ time, just as Johnson was unedifyingly ousted this past week.

The policy similarities between the United States and the United Kingdom are striking. First, the two governments’ central banks — the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England — have both utterly lost the plot, printing more money than they ought to, setting free the beast of inflation. With double-digit inflation likely to occur in both countries soon, the consequent cost-of-living crisis that is brewing will be the bane of people’s lives, serving as a misery tax on the lower and middle classes. In both cases, given the banks’ independence, neither Biden nor Johnson, who remains as interim prime minister, could do much except haplessly cheerlead about their economies from the sidelines — even as everyone knows the governing establishments have ineptly driven the two economies into a ditch.

Second, compounding the first error, Biden and Johnson have chosen to increase government spending like a pair of drunken sailors. In Johnson’s case, ignoring the glorious fiscal record of Margaret Thatcher, he has championed ever-higher spending, while increasing the U.K.’s tax burden to levels not seen since the Labour governments of Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s. Biden, in the damning verdict of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, has fiscally poured gasoline on a roaring fire, passing “emergency” spending bills totaling trillions of dollars as the U.S. economy bounced back from the pandemic. As such, this marked increase in federal spending was bound to spur inflation. If the Fed and the Bank of England are complicit in reigniting inflation, Biden and Johnson have served as willing accomplices.

Third, neither leader has used his mandate to increase productivity in his country by deregulating the economy. Given the policy gift of “Getting Brexit Done,” Johnson did not use his newfound policy freedom to make the U.K. a more competitive, deregulated country, able to better the regulatory practices of the next-door, sclerotic European Union. Instead, bored by economics, Johnson chose to swan around international conferences, far more interested in what was happening to Ukrainians than to his own hard-pressed people. Likewise, Biden often has seemed more worried about Kyiv than Kansas City. A captive of the far left of his Democratic Party, Biden has done his level best to increase U.S. government regulation, certainly never seeing a lighter touch as an answer to the brewing economic storm that confronts him. 

Fourth, both leaders have seemed clueless in grappling with the global energy crisis brought to a head by the Russo-Ukrainian war. In Biden’s case, he has nonsensically spurned the great gift of the U.S. shale revolution, wherein through a technical revolution (fracking), in terms of natural gas and oil, America had dramatically morphed from global energy mendicant to energy superpower. Instead, Biden has throttled the Keystone pipeline with Canada and forbidden the drilling for energy on federal land. Such energy self-harm has had obvious deleterious consequences, but the president has blamed energy companies for his basic misunderstanding of economics and the energy market.

Johnson, blithely thinking that the U.K.’s limited direct dependence on Russian energy would shield his country from the coming energy crisis, forgot to factor in the basic fact that the energy market is global in nature and that if prices in nearby Europe were to stratospherically rise (as they have), energy prices in Britain inevitably would follow. While Biden’s energy policy has made things immeasurably worse for America, Johnson’s non-policy has put his country behind the energy eight ball.

There is a final, gratifying, political commonality between the two. As happened in the stagflation-ridden 1970s — when President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister James Callaghan were swept from power for failing to deal with these very same problems — it is overwhelmingly likely that both Johnson and Biden will soon find themselves out the door. Because of their failure to come to grips with the problems of their people, both will end up on the ash heap of history.

This post was originally published in The Hill.

A realistic approach may help master the crisis in Ukraine

At present, the only great power combination that can really threaten America’s global position in our new age is an ironclad alliance between revisionist powers China and Russia. And, for all their shared antipathy to the U.S., and for all that they strategically tilt toward one another, Beijing and Moscow are not there yet.

Russian resentment at taking a back seat to China does not fit comfortably with President Vladimir Putin’s Great Russian nationalism. On the other hand, China’s desire to economically — and eventually, militarily — challenge Russia for dominance in Central Asia does not make the two easy bedfellows. At the highest level, all American foreign policy must be about not throwing its two rivals into each other’s arms.

Of the two, China — the only possible peer superpower competitor — is the greater threat. Given that Russia is an uneasy part of Western civilization, it also makes it a better long-term option to pry away from the dangerous, putative Sino-Russian alliance. Even the outspoken Russia critic, former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell, recently said that “it is too bad we cannot have closer relations with Russia, because it could be a strategic partner with us against China.” This is why it is overwhelmingly in America’s interests, if it can be managed, to avoid open conflict with Russia over the Ukraine crisis.  

But how does this long-term geostrategic reality mesh with the immediate crisis in Ukraine? To be clear, the harsh, recent U.S.-Russia negotiations had an old, Cold War vibe. However, there are important differences between now and then. The current conflicts with the Kremlin are about Russia’s real or imagined security phobias and idiosyncrasies, not a fight over competing global ideologies. This is a new great power struggle, but not an ideological battle. As such, theoretically, the chasm between the two could be bridged.

Second, present weaknesses in the Western alliance are only spurring on Putin, even before Russia strikes. De facto neutralist Germany took unplugging the Kremlin from the global SWIFT banking system off the table, and the new governing coalition of Olaf Scholz is hedging on Germany’s earlier commitment not to allow the massive Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany to come online in the case of Russian invasion.

President Biden, in his news conference last week, suggested that a limited invasion might trigger only limited sanctions. Such weakness is no way to make fraught negotiations work. 

Instead, Washington and all the NATO allies must make it clear to Moscow that no effective “win-win” negotiations can be undertaken with the Russian military threat imminent. Any significant U.S. step toward Russia under current circumstances would be interpreted as just another sign of weakness by the Biden administration.

Instead, allowing that a cooling-off period can be managed, negotiations should be held with the clear intention to strengthen America’s geopolitical posture, while proposing to Russia a fair deal.

Some of Russia’s concerns can be acknowledged, in terms of verbal understandings, if not treaty obligations. George Friedman put it explicitly: “Russia has been invaded in the 17th century by the Swedes, in the 19th century by the French and in the 20th century twice by the Germans. In each case, they won the war or survived it by strategic depth.” 

Obviously, Ukraine is the number one priority for Russia, as far as a goal to reinstate some of the strategic depth lost with the fall of the USSR. They fear that another sudden outburst of aggression will — as it has done time and again — come from Europe, and they will have to defend themselves on frontlines dangerously close to Moscow. This is particularly relevant in our era of hypersonic missiles.

But the U.S. should make clear to the Kremlin that Russia’s neighbors also have an understandable historical dread of Russian aggression. Such trepidations may be alleviated by the further expansion of NATO to their territory, if they so wish, and when all other NATO members agree — which (crucially) so far, they do not. We must remind Putin that no NATO expansion to the East has happened since 2009 because of Germany’s and France’s fervent opposition, and that this is unlikely to change. While the U.S. cannot give in on the theory of further NATO expansion, reality can be directly conveyed to the Russian delegation. In practice, politically there is absolutely no appetite in the alliance for expansion to Russia’s borders, nor will it occur in the near term.

Leading European NATO powers (Germany, France and Italy) openly oppose further NATO expansion. This is not only because of the energy crisis and the German dependence on Russian gas but also because of their long-term interest in developing Russian markets and natural resources. The last thing any of these states wishes to do is to take a stick to the Russian beehive.

Putin’s preference, in time-honored Russian fashion, is to secure the country’s western borders. Negotiations on a renewed European security system could offer Russia enough strategically and tie Moscow’s hands for many years while the intricacies of a compact are developed, greatly reducing the dangerous incentive for it to form a military-political alliance with China.

The Russian proverb says that “a bad peace is better than a good war” — especially if the war can escalate in an age of nuclear weapons. Instead, a realistic approach could allow us time to find solutions acceptable to both sides, including agreements on limitations of strategic weapons deployment in Eastern Europe, military maneuvers, and offensive arms sales to Russian neighbors.

Quiet, realistic understandings, short of flashy treaties that are impossible to pass in the U.S. Congress, may be possible regarding NATO’s Eastern borderlands. Given the geostrategic stakes in play, thinking creatively is worth the effort.

This post was originally published in The Hill.