The Biden administration’s executive order regarding climate change as a domestic and foreign policy crisis is long overdue. The order is remarkable for its scope and ambition. It requires each agency of the federal government to stop compartmentalizing climate change as a secondary issue separate from its primary mission.
By treating climate change as both a multi-generational and multi-dimensional problem, it is analogous to the famous NSC-68 of 1950, which transformed the U.S. strategy for confronting the Soviet Union by embracing rearmament and the development of thermonuclear weapons. Unfortunately, American strategists have not kept pace during the current climate emergency.
Biden’s executive order doesn’t mention “great power competition” with Russia or China, a concept that the national security establishment in Washington has been obsessed with waging. Its absence may inadvertently foster a belief that climate change is a distraction from “real” national security issues, and that the Department of Defense, for instance, can be satisfied with bolstering its Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Capabilities while hardening its worldwide infrastructure against extreme weather events. In fact, a sustained, genuine focus on mitigating or even reversing climate change will enhance the United States’ ability to triumph in any potential competition with China and Russia.
Any government policy that encourages investments in renewable energy, trains a workforce for new and demanding industrial tasks, rebuilds the U.S. national grid, and transforms its housing stock to ensure greater efficiency will also offer dividends for the United States’ dilapidated defense industrial base. As of now, the latter suffers from a lack of investment and skilled labor and cannot replace its major weapons systems in a timely fashion. One thing the Pentagon does not lack is money, some of which might be channeled to finding carbon-neutral alternatives to jet fuel. This would save the civilian aeronautical industry, much as the government supported it during the lean years after World War I.
The Pentagon must also reconsider its strategic priorities in a world where fossil fuels are no longer the basis of one’s economy. The locus of American strategy since the 1970s, the Middle East, will only matter as a vast solar energy farm. Meanwhile, other regions such as Latin America and East Asia become important because of their proven deposits of rare earth metals vital for lithium batteries, solar cells, and microchips.
The United States does have rare earth metals, but only government assistance and regulation will convince mine owners to operate in an environmentally sound fashion. Of course, the United States could avoid depending on vulnerable imports by simply recycling lithium batteries, an industry that does not yet exist, but which may prove essential for the battery-powered automobile fleets envisioned by both President Biden and General Motors.
Most importantly, the threat of climate change requires the United States to reconsider its relationships with both its allies and its adversaries. The Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy is laudable for its recognition of the value of U.S. alliances, but how does it serve U.S. interests to allow China to pose as the leader of the global campaign against climate change? Doing so may put intolerable pressure on the United States’ European allies to reconsider their relationships with Washington.
What of U.S. adversaries? Moscow appears to believe that Russia can benefit from climate change, but it is unclear how Russia will adapt to the problems of climate migration from its neighbors to the south and east. Today, Russia and China have essentially entered into a “marriage of convenience” to counter the United States, but climate change may do more than any U.S. actions to break up that marriage of convenience as migrants occupy the underpopulated Russian Far East.
China is a different story. At the moment, U.S. strategy toward China is divided between two schools of thought — what we call the early and later Cold War mindsets. The former assumes a zero-sum, existential struggle for global domination between a liberal, democratic, and capitalist bloc led by the United States and a China that is recreating Sino-centric world order with other nations reduced the status of tributaries. This was foundational assumption of the Trump administration’s approach to China.
The latter model of “peaceful co-existence” is analogous to the period of détente during the Cold War, and it is the path embraced by liberal circles in official Washington. It is likened to a cold peace in which each nation and its allies collaborate in areas of joint interest, including climate change, without sacrificing their core, geopolitical interests. The problems with this ostensibly reasonable approach are myriad. How does one reconcile the universalist claims of the United States with China’s regional, sphere-of-influence perspective, most notably in the South China Sea? Furthermore, what if tackling climate change is the core national security objective of both sides? Wouldn’t that force the United States to reassess its priorities? Are conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, supporting democracy activists in Hong Kong, and combatting Chinese intellectual-property theft all of equal importance to confronting an existential threat?
Accordingly, the best model for U.S. strategy toward China is one of collective security. Under this model, the United States and China recognize that they are rivals rather than adversaries, and that the notion of conflict between them is as ridiculous as that of war between the United States and Europe or Japan after 1945. Make no mistake, collective security makes for strange bedfellows. Just as the United States had to work with Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany, it must cooperate with an expansionist Communist China to combat a mutual threat.
In a world of collective security, the United States and China would need to reassess what constitutes a genuine core interest while recognizing that they waste time bickering over issues that divert them from the real problems at hand. Even a world that manages to keep the increase average global temperatures to less than 2⁰ C will still have to cope with much unnecessary death and destruction. China and United States’ mutual dependence will therefore only grow as temperatures rise.
Unlike the fight against nuclear proliferation, which required nations to forgo certain actions, dealing with climate change also requires the active participation of every major nation — there can be no free-riding. China must stop its construction of coal-fired plants within China or other nations, but — as the “workshop of the world” it must cooperate with the United States and Europe to mass produce the technologies necessary for a global green economy even as the United States revitalizes its moribund domestic manufacturing capabilities.
U.S. strategists must recognize that climate change requires the United States to reorganize both its domestic and foreign policies. This does not entail unilateral disarmament or allowing China to run the world. Instead, the Biden administration’s efforts implicitly recognize two pieces of wisdom. First, we should fear our own mistakes more than the schemes of our rivals. Second, only a fool fights in a burning house, especially when that house is planet Earth.
The opinions they have expressed are their own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.
Anand Toprani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College specializing in diplomatic and military history, energy geopolitics, and political economy. He is a graduate of Cornell, Oxford, and Georgetown , and has held fellowships at Yale and Harvard. He is the author of Oil and the Great Powers: Britain and Germany, 1914-1945 (2019), which received the 2020 Richard W. Leopold Prize from the Organization of American Historians, and has published articles in a number of scholarly and popular periodicals, from the Journal of Military History to War on the Rocks. He previously served as an historian at the U.S. Department of State, an intelligence officer at U.S. Central Command, and a visiting professor at Brown University. He is also a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Michael A. Dennis is an associate professor in the Strategy & Policy Department at the US Naval War College. He is completing a book manuscript, under contract with the MIT Press, on science and the military in the early Cold War.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.