Wednesday, December 8, 2021
It's Wednesday, December 8th, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Story Behind Three Great and Urgent Global Challenges to the U.S. — Russia, China, and Iran
The world is a very dangerous place. Americans often seem to have something of a vacation or a holiday from history, as we think ourselves untroubled by the world around us and fundamentally unthreatened. For the better part of American existence, the United States is not really worried about the invasion by some hostile foreign power. Since the end of World War II, the United States has felt not only secure in terms of our borders, but generally has felt pretty much secure in terms of the total global situation.
Now, of course, there have been challenges to the United States. Most importantly, what was known as the Cold War at the end of World War II, when two basic superpowers were left, the United States and the Soviet Union representing two very different and contradictory, competing worldviews. There were other challenges. There were military actions in Korea and Vietnam and elsewhere across the world. More recently, American military attention has been primarily directed at various conflicts in the Middle East. And when we say more recently, we really mean for the last generation or so.
As we're going to see, that has misled Americans. It has misled Americans in several ways. The reality is that right now we face several simultaneous global challenges. And any one of these, not to say all three of them together, could actually cause a massive disruption, not only in the global scene, but also right here in the United States. Americans often fail to take into consideration the fact that we do live in a world in which disorder is about to break out just about everywhere. And it goes back to a basic understanding that comes from biblical Christianity, and that is that order in any sense is an achievement and disorder in a fallen world is actually the natural state.
Order tends towards disorder, disorder does not tend towards order. Where you find order, you find some kind of authority. You find some kind of explanation for why that order exists. And that's exactly what we're looking at right now, threats to a global order and very important threats when it comes to crisis that could basically change the way that Americans not only see the world, but experience the world and could make changes right here at home and threatening changes at that.
Now, if you're going to think about these three great challenges that are taking place simultaneously, let me just mention three countries. Those countries would be Russia and China and Iran.
Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions Threatens Global Safety — And Poses More Than a Regional Threat
Now, Iran has been very much a part of the American concern, going back to the establishment of the theocracy under Islamic rule there in the end of the 1970s. You're looking at the fact that Iran has declared itself to be the enemy, not only of the United States, but of the West. And increasingly, even as Iran has been a source of destabilization throughout not only the Middle East, but elsewhere.
You also come to understand that the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran is increasingly moving towards a nuclear weapons capability. And that has been a very clear preoccupation and concern of nations in the West, and perhaps even more urgently nations in the region beginning with Israel, but this is not just an Israel issue. It begins with Israel's concern because Iran is actually an existential threat to Israel. Iran wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth, but Iran is also in a very hostile relationship with other Islamic nations, including for example, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
During the years of the Obama administration, the United States led an effort to bring Iran to the table, as they say, to a negotiating table and to threaten economic sanctions and thus to promise the lessening or the allevement of those economic sanctions if Iran would pledge not to move towards the development of weapons-grade uranium, not to mention the creation of nuclear weapons, and would allow international inspections.
Now, the reality is that much of Europe was pressing for that agreement. And Europe, following that European tradition of seeking a piece even when there is no peace, the Europeans along with the Obama administration created an agreement with Iran that just about everyone knew was false on its face. No one really believed that Iran was going to live by the agreement, especially when it came to onsite inspection by international authorities. And during the years of the Trump administration, president Trump, who had routinely dismissed the agreement as being false on its face, he ended the American participation in the agreement.
When he was running for office in the 2020 election, Joe Biden indicated that one of his first issue, a foreign policy action, if he were to be elected president would be to reestablish and to reenter the agreement with Iran, but predictably and anyone who understood the situation could have seen this coming, Iran is no longer willing to go back into even the agreement that it never meant to keep in the first place. Now, the question of how the Biden administration is going to attempt to handle this crisis, well, that's a huge question, and it's a question that has many people around the world worried, the Europeans and our allies there, yes, of course. And they are at least in part to blame for their naivete in terms of dealing with Iran in the first place, but also the neighbors of Iran in the Middle East, there's a great deal of concern, the gravest of concern in Israel.
And as we have said, Iran represents an existential threat to Israel. Israel understands that, and Israel has proved itself more than willing to take unilateral military action if it feels that it must do so for its own national survival. But the fact is that the closer and closer Iran gets to weapons-grade uranium and the possession of a nuclear weapon, the more dangerous the world becomes, not just the situation faced by Israel, America's key ally in the region, but for entire global picture, because should there be a nuclear exchange or even a change in the nuclear equation, that would have ramifications that would affect the United States of America.
History and Geography Always Matter: Understanding Putin’s Ambitions to Recover Russian Glory and the Escalating Conflict in Ukraine
But if you're looking at the big crises we're facing right now, Iran is where we begin the conversation, but the bigger issues right now, perhaps even more urgent are with Russia and China. And those are two very different issues. I mentioned that from the period of the end of the second world war until close to the end of the 20th century, the great international dynamic, the great conflict and worldview competition that so shaped the world was the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union between Western democracy and Soviet totalitarianism. And of course, communism is its official ideology.
And much of the world was simply divided then, not only between those two superpowers, the USSR and the United States, but the satellite nations and the allies of those nations, the United States and Soviet Russia, in such a way that you could look at a map and much of it was red and much of it was blue much like right now we look at electoral maps in the United States, a two superpower picture in the world, a bipolar world, as I said, but that world is no longer bipolar. It is, if anything, non-polar when it comes to understanding exactly where power and authority lies, influence lies in the world picture. But if anything, right now, maybe it's tripo, the United States and Russia and China.
Now, when you look at Russia and China, you're looking at two nations that both see the United States as a potential military adversary, but what's even more important right now, those countries see the United States as a competitive for influence and economic expansion and what can only be described as the expansion of a sphere of influence in the world. Russia and China both see themselves as dominant world cultures that have been temporarily displaced by upstarts, such as the United States of America. But we also have to understand the history is always close to us, often far closer than we think of in terms of our current imagination. And it would be helpful, I think for us to look at the history of China and Russia vis-a-vis the United States in order to understand why when it comes to conflict over Ukraine right now, Russia is moving towards becoming an open adversary of the United States and something that could become a military conflict and in a hurry.
And in China, you have that very historic civilization that defined itself in so many years as imperialistic to its neighbors and absolutely cut off from the rest of the world. But now China is hardly cut off from the rest of the world. With the incredible ambitions of the current communist party leadership, China intends to play the dominant role in the world, economically, culturally, politically, militarily, you name it. And there's a lot for us to consider there. But first let's look at Russia. The hotspot is Ukraine, and Ukraine is right now a separate country from Russia. You have Russia to the east and Ukraine to the west. During the time that the Soviet Union was in existence, Ukraine then known as The Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. Going back to the Russian Empire again, Ukraine was a part of the Russian Empire. Only more recently after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, has Ukraine understood itself and been recognized by most around the world as an independent nation.
The word that is transliterated as Ukraine in the original root Russian language means something like borderland or frontier. The easiest way to understand it is frontier. Frontier to what? Well, frontier between Europe and mother Russia. And that's why Russia has traditionally considered it necessary that Ukraine be under the rule of Russia authorities, whether it's the Russian czar or the leaders of the Soviet Union, or right now the political and military ambitions of Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia.
Now, one of the things we have to understand is the history always matters and geography always matters. Why geography? Well, it is because Russia is extremely exposed when comes to its Western frontier. The Ukraine known as "the frontier" during the time of the Russian Empire. And during the time of the USSR, Ukraine was understood as a necessary buffer against the military ambitions, or at least the threat of military action coming from Europe. And by the way, remember that Russia, whether the Russian Empire, when it came to the invasion by Napoleon in France or when it came to the USSR with the invasion by Hitler and the Nazis, you come to understand that geographically Russia is very exposed to the West and Russia feels that, it feels it deeply.
Basically, just think of it in these terms, there is no big body of water and there is no major range of mountains to even slow down an invading army coming from Europe towards Russia. That's why those invading forces, the Grande Armée of Napoleon, or for that matter, the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany, they were able so quickly to overrun Russian defenses and hit head right towards Moscow. The problem of course, came in those invading armies approach to Moscow itself because they were then so far from the frontier and from the border that they couldn't sustain their own supply lines.
And even as both of those invading armies were eventually repelled, the reality is that Russia always looks to the West and considers the fact that it is nothing but a grand plane all the way you could say in one sense from Moscow until you get not only to Poland, but pass Poland and you go to the heart Europe itself. But there's more to it when it comes to Russia. And right now, understand what the headline news is, right now, Vladimir Putin is amassing Russian forces on the border with Ukraine, and it is threatening. By the very assembling of that kind of massive army, it's estimated that soon after the 1st of the year, Putin and Russia will have 175,000 troops amass there along the Ukrainian border with Russia, the reality is you don't do that unless you intend to invade.
And that's why yesterday president Biden held a very important conversation by phone with Russian president Vladimir Putin. And what's really interesting is that all President Biden basically said was that if Russia were to invade Ukraine, considered an ally of the United States, we would respond with certain economic sanctions and with very uncertain other responses.
Now, as you look at that, just recognize if Vladimir Putin is taking the United States seriously, there is not much seriously to take there. We're going to see that the very same problem is being faced by the Biden administration when it comes to China. But just staying with Russia for a moment, there is more to this than Russia merely wanting to reestablish the frontier to make Ukraine again, a part of mother Russia in order that the Russian ruler has control of that territory. No, there's more than that and it's national pride. It's civilizational pride, because Vladimir Putin has at least come to power, and perhaps more importantly stayed in power because he has promised to the Russian people, a recovery of Russian glory, the glory of the Russian Empire.
You're going to have to have Ukraine back under the basic throne of Moscow if the that's going to be realized. But this also gets back to history. The Rus, that is the people who became the Russians are more from the region of Kyiv or Kiev, understood now as the capital of Ukraine, than from anywhere in what is now considered Russia. The Russian religion in terms of Russian orthodoxy, the Rus themselves, the language, the culture, the civilization, all go back to Kyiv or Kiev, not to Moscow. Moscow is in historical terms, very modern, very artificial compared to Kiev. If you're going to regain Russian glory, you're going to recover it by recovering the ancient capital of Kyiv, Kiev. Without it, Russia is just Russia, a far diminished nation.
So understand what's going on right now. Russian army troops are amassing along the border. And Vladimir Putin has already proved that he will invade Ukraine. After his effort to try to gain control politically of Ukraine failed in 2014, Russia, just militarily annexed Crimea, which was a part of Ukraine and is now a part of Russia. And here's what Vladimir Putin learned back in 2014, he wanted Crimea, he needed that deep port of Sevastopol there on the black sea, and he needed it for the Russian navy, he needed it for Russian honor. So he just took it and he got away with it.
Now, if you're Vladimir Putin, the lesson you learned is that the West is very concerned with protecting Ukraine until it actually has to put up or shut up. It's unclear exactly where this is going, but what is clear is that history is right back into the headlines and that the conflicts of the past, even centuries passed, going back into the first millennium of European and Russian history, those conflicts are back, and now the United States is staring this urgent challenge to directly in the face. The big question is whether President Biden and the Biden administration are up to this challenge. And the statements made by the White House after the conversation yesterday are, we should understand not reassuring.
The Biden Administration Announces It Will Not Send Diplomatic Representatives to 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — What Is That About?
But we've looked at Iran. We've looked at Russia, the other clear and present challenge to the United States we simply can't avoid is coming to us in the headlines now day-by-day, if not, hour-by-hour is China. The big development this week, the Biden administration made the announcement that with the 2022 Winter Olympic Games coming up in Beijing, the United States is sending absolutely no diplomatic representatives. It is a diplomatic snub, and the announcement of it was timed in order to have a diplomatic effect and an effect in world opinion, to say that the United States is so outraged, that's the word that was used by the White House, so outraged about the genocide against the Uyghur people and other human rights abuses in China, including the basic disappearance and a functional sense of a tennis star there in China. The reality is that the Biden administration said no diplomatic presence at all.
Now, is that a withdrawal of the Americans from the 2022 Winter Olympic Games? No, not really, but there's a history here we really need to think about, and it is rich with worldview dimensions. What about the Olympics themselves? How in the world do the Olympics keep showing up again and again in the context of repressive regimes? What does this say about the moral worldview of the international Olympic committee? What does this say about the modern Olympic movement? Because this is not a new problem, not at all.
Just remember the 1932 Berlin Olympic Games, and think Nazi Germany, using those games as a massive propaganda exercise. The Olympics committee did not withdraw the games from Berlin. The Berlin games went forward and it was considered to be a moral debacle, a blight against the Olympic movement. Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler, took advantage of the 1936 games in a way that the Olympic committee said would never be repeated. But then there were repetitions of tragedy and moral outrage when it came to the Olympic games. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan leading to human rights abuses and furthermore, within the Soviet Union already, so many human rights abuses that president Jimmy Carter ordered an American boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games.
Now, who paid the price for that? Well, certainly the price was paid by the Soviet Union that had the diplomatic and Olympic embarrassed of the fact that the United States and its athletes were not there. Why was that such a big deal? Well, because on the international stage, the Olympics were a part of the Cold War and competition in metal counts between the Soviet Union and the United States was a basic institution of the second half of the 20th century.
The Soviet union had intended the 1980 Olympics to be a massive demonstration of its superiority, culturally, politically in every way, over the United States and the West, and they intended it to be represented in the metal count. Soviet athletes did get a large number of medals, but the absence of the Americans meant that all of those achievements were politically and morally discounted, which was the American point, but who else paid the price for that? Well, president Jimmy Carter paid a political price for that because even as he was understood as standing up to the Soviets, given their human rights abuses and the invasion of Afghanistan, he was also understood to have done so without any kind of comprehensive sense of presidential responsibility for managing the situation. And there was a lot of resentment.
And who else paid the price? The American Olympians, the Olympic athletes who had been training for years and who, at least in some cases missed entirely their opportunity for Olympic accomplishment and Olympic glory. It was not considered a great moment for the Olympics, and basically it wasn't considered a great moment for either the United States or the Soviet Union. And that wasn't the end of it, but it takes us to the fact that when you are looking even at recent Olympic games, you're looking at the fact that the winter Olympics held not too many years ago in Russia, were so tainted by controversy related to issues moral, political, cultural, economic, but most importantly, related to drugs and doping, so much so that an incredible number of Russian athletes and even the official Russian Olympic team were at least for a time forbidden from competition in the Olympics.
But then you have the Olympics showing up in Beijing, showing up in China. And just like Adolf Hitler in 1936, the Communist Party in China intends to use the 2022 Winter Olympic Games as a massive propaganda exercise. The American athletes, according to the announcement made by the White House will still be there, but not American diplomats. The Chinese responded through the Chinese Communist Party spokesman with exactly what you would expect outrage, by the way, the first thing he said was that the Americans are now rejecting the invitation they never received, but you get the sense, hurt feelings, very much a part of this situation, but the biggest threat the United States faces from ch China is not how to deal with the question of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, but how to deal with China's increasingly aggressive military posture. And even as Russia keeps looking lustfully at Ukraine, China keeps looking with increasingly open aggression towards Taiwan.
And here again, the big question is, will the United States and its allies do anything? Now, that's not an easy question to answer. We have to say that, regardless of whether there's a conservative or a liberal, a Democratic or a Republican in the White House. This is a very difficult question. It's a difficult question regardless of the administration. But the fact is, that America is increasingly looking vulnerable in the world and we are looking increasingly indecisive in the world when the president of the United States demands a conversation with the president of Russia and threatens to respond to an invasion of a friendly, neutral nation, an independent nation with economic sanctions and ambiguous other stuff. And when the official foreign policy of the United States, when it comes to our defense of Taiwan is what is, and they actually call it this, strategic ambiguity. Well, our adversary forces around the world, those nations that are seeking to take advantage of the retreat of America on the world scene, they see their opportunity because we are helping to define that opportunity.
But I'm going to end by citing an article that was run in The Wall Street Journal just in recent days by Arthur Herman, an historian. And of course, remember that yesterday was the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Arthur Herman concludes his essay with these words, "One of the tragic errors that led to Pearl Harbor was U.S. isolation from other democratic allies. The United Kingdom and France, especially could have been strong partners against the threats posed by advanced military technology being developed in Japan and Germany 80 years after that terrible day, meaning Pearl Harbor Day, let's resolve not to make the same mistake." But that's the problem. Isn't it?
When you look at history, one of the most frustrating questions is why the same mistake is made over and over again. All these issues, remind us in conclusion that we are looking at a great battle for civilizational dominance on the world picture. Will it be the Chinese civilization thousands of years old? Will it be a restoration of mother Russia to its ancient and medieval glory? Will it be the United States of America? What about the resurgent and very aggressive Islamic Republic of Iran? But here's where Christians understand that a civilizational struggle is a worldview struggle. And over the days, months, and weeks ahead, we're going to be looking at how that worldview struggle is playing out in the headlines.
And make no mistake, any one of these crises could change life as we know it in the United States in a hurry. The stakes are that high, so we'll be paying close attention.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.