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The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Washington’s involvement in the Russo–Ukrainian war is encouraging new and hostile combinations of powers.

Credit: tuna salmon

Last week, North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un visited Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was serious, in contrast to their perfunctory summit four years ago. This time Moscow was the suitor, seeking artillery shells, missiles, and perhaps more for its war against Ukraine.

American commentators chortled at the once grand Russian state’s supplications to such an isolated and impoverished regime. Yet whatever embarrassment Putin may feel is undoubtedly minor compared to the potential benefits for his government. Russia already outproduces Ukraine, Europe, and the U.S. in critical materiel, and is seeking to increase its edge, possibly to prepare another offensive.


In contrast, Ukraine’s allies are, if not quite useless, then significant disappointments. General Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s highest ranking soldier, complained that Kiev’s artillery forces “have been outshot tenfold at times because of limited resources.” It seems the U.S. has been unable to keep up with Ukraine’s demand. Europe has done no better. Oops!

Indeed, European military efforts barely qualify as pathetic. Germany’s once celebrated Zeitenwende has turned into a bust, as the Scholz government has retreated from its lofty goals. Even worse, the British government, despite its Churchillian rhetoric, has moved backwards on defense outlays as a share of GDP and announced cutbacks in its ground forces since it is protected by water and ships—and by the United States, of course. European officials prefer to leave the latter factor unstated, and Washington continues to play the patsy, especially under President Joe Biden. Rather than laugh at Moscow, Washington should ask why its allies are so much less prepared for war than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Putin’s turn to the DPRK highlights the failure of Washington’s policy of war against all. Although still the world’s most powerful nation, the U.S. has encouraged the formation of a growing antagonistic coalition. 

For years, Moscow and Beijing were divided on key issues, and both governments tempered their cooperation with Pyongyang and Tehran. Today, American hostility has driven all four together. Their grouping remains ungainly, but both the DPRK and Iran are strengthening Russia’s war effort and likely will gain much in return. China has increased its political influence with and won economic concessions from Iran, while the DPRK offers a potential military deus ex machina that could greatly complicate Washington’s task in any war with the People’s Republic of China.

Indeed, a few years ago, both Moscow and Beijing were generally opposed to Iranian and North Korean nuclear efforts. Today, perceived necessity has degraded or even dissipated those sentiments. Russia is expanding economic ties with both governments to ease the impact of American sanctions. Forging a new relationship with Moscow has been especially important for the North, which is suffering from serious food shortages. More worrisome for Americans, Russia might also aid Pyongyang’s missile development, including ICBMs capable of targeting the U.S. If so, Washington officials have no one to blame but themselves, having bragged about helping to kill Russian generals and sink Russian ships. Moscow now has a chance to return the favor. Unfortunately for the U.S., proxy wars don’t run only one way. 


China has been more cautious, but has nevertheless benefited from the purchase of cheap Iranian oil. The PRC has also helped keep North Korea afloat. Although Beijing would prefer a pliant, house-broken ally without nukes, a well-armed, aggressive North offers at least two benefits. The first is to unsettle Northeast Asia and especially Washington’s allies, discouraging them from looking beyond their own security. The second is to pose an especially serious threat if Seoul supports the U.S. in a conflict with China. 

To allied officials, the failure of much of the so-called Global South to commit to the West in its campaign against Russia has been a shock. History weighs heavily on onetime colonial relationships. Moreover, the U.S. of late has proved to be inconsistent, reckless, and destructive. Not even its friends feel comfortable dealing with arrogant officials who have carelessly, and often callously, started or supported wars that ended up killing hundreds of thousands of people while insisting that “the price is worth it.”

Most members of the Global South still oppose Moscow’s aggression. Nevertheless, they rejected the West’s claim to moral leadership and eagerly took advantage of discounted oil shipments and sanctions-busting opportunities. Even India, seen as a major counterweight to Beijing, has resisted allied affections.

Yet Washington has learned nothing. For instance, the Biden administration fulminated against North Korea for aiding Moscow. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan suggested that the DPRK would suffer from global scorn: Its support for Russia is “not going to reflect well on North Korea and they will pay a price for this in the international community.” Alas, Pyongyang’s rulers are not known for feeling shame. Countries that maintain relations with the North are unlikely to change their position because of an arms deal with Russia. Other states aren’t likely to pay much attention. 

Indeed, an air of unreality surrounds Washington’s well-demonstrated ability to make enemies. The Russia-China axis is of greatest concern. Neither country has any interest in warring against the U.S., but mutual cooperation makes it more difficult for Washington to counter their activities in their respective regions. And when their efforts align, as in the Middle East, where both are engaging Iran and Saudi Arabia, American influence suffers.

Unfortunately, antagonism toward America, or at least American policy, is the strongest force pushing them together. For instance, Beijing and Moscow compete for influence in Central Asia and elsewhere, including North Korea. Territorial disputes between China and Russia reach back in history. Beijing has brazenly stolen Russian technology and is ruthlessly using its current geopolitical advantage for economic gain. The PRC also is concerned about its ties with the West amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Sino-Russian entente looks solid.

Rather than consider revising policies that have backfired so spectacularly, some U.S. policymakers assume that eventually one of the contrary powers will defect. For instance, three years ago the Atlantic Council’s John Herbst wrote: “The Chinese-Russian temporary alignment of interests is unlikely to overcome the fundamentals of geopolitics.” Alas, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine undercut that theory, with Russia becoming dependent on the PRC. Nevertheless, Herbst still insists that Russia will eventually come the West’s way, choosing to be a docile junior partner to America rather than China. 

There is similar talk about the PRC and North Korea. American analysts insist that Chinese support for the North is not to Beijing’s benefit, which should give its nominal ally to the U.S. If only Xi Jinping properly understood his own nation’s interest, he would encourage Korean unification under a government allied with America, strengthening Washington’s containment policy toward the PRC. Moreover, Moscow’s burgeoning dealings with the DPRK, assert American policymakers, should spark concerted Chinese pressure against the North’s ongoing military expansion. If only American officials explained Beijing’s interests to Beijing’s solons, the latter would enthusiastically advance U.S. interests.

These are charming sentiments of the “wouldn’t it be great” variety. Wouldn’t it be great if the U.S. could do whatever it wanted without the slightest response from its adversaries? Wouldn’t it be great if American officials merely needed to state their wishes and foreign leaders would rush to comply? Wouldn’t it be great if even the most foolish, self-serving, and counterproductive American policies were greeted with wild acclaim and complete acquiescence around the globe?

Unfortunately, that isn’t our world today.

The anti-American coalition might not last because its internal pressures are so great. Washington, however, is doing its best to hold its adversaries together. Warring against Moscow and threatening other states both politically and militarily creates an obvious common bond. Challenging the serious, even vital interests of such governments cannot help but foster shared antagonism toward America. Absent a change in American policy, confrontation seems certain and conflict possible.

Yet American policymakers never seem to learn. Today, Capitol Hill is filled with demands to wage war in (and effectively on) Mexico in the name of combating the drug trade. If the U.S. invades, one can imagine the hostile reaction in Mexico and across Latin America, which long have bridled at imperious Washington policies. Some of those governments might seek greater cooperation with China and Russia in response. 

The Putin-Kim détente reflects decisions made in Moscow and Pyongyang—but also in Washington. Myopic American policies are encouraging cooperation among several unfriendly governments. The U.S. may outlast or overcome any such combinations. If the past is prologue, however, many brave Americans may end up dying unnecessarily along the way. Such is the price of Washington’s “war against all” approach to the world.