Washington is nonplussed that Russia has conducted what the US calls a “dangerous and irresponsible” missile test. It targeted one of Russia’s own satellites as part of an apparent anti-satellite missile system. The US says that the test endangered the crew of the International Space Station (ISS).

Meanwhile, H.I. Sutton at USNI News noted that “a second suspected missile target in the shape of a US aircraft carrier has been spotted in a remote Chinese desert, according to satellite photos.” The carrier looks to be a target for missiles. “Carrier target is about 300 miles away from a larger suspected missile range in the Taklamakan Desert,” first reported by USNI News on Sunday. “The two sites share similar characteristics and are aligned on a map with the carriers facing the same direction – as if in a convoy. Like the first, this new target shares the same dimensions as a US Navy aircraft carrier,” the report notes.  

China is also building new aircraft carriers, one of which may be launched as early as next year. The US appears to be reacting every week to new reports about these kinds of threats, whether it is hypersonic missiles or “carrier destroying” missiles, or threats to space and America’s global role.  

There are other threats as well. The US and Western allies are talking about defending Ukraine against Russia. They are also embroiled in a potential clash with Belarus. At the same time US President Joe Biden is warning China not to take action against Taiwan.  

The list of crises is growing and the US has signaled that it wants to move from 20 years of the global war on terror to face down “near-peer” adversaries like Russia and China. But Russia and China have watched the US withdraw from Afghanistan and be pushed around again and again in other places. Turkey, for instance, got the US to withdraw from part of Syria and even attacked its partners on the ground and the US has stayed silent.

Can Washington simultaneously deal with all these emerging problems? It appears to have been surprised by the Chinese hypersonic missile gains. The stories about China using mock US ships for target practice and Russia destroying a satellite all seem to be potential new challenges to the US.

While America has the most sophisticated military technology, such as F-35s, it is generally slow at procurement and has rested on its laurels for years. There are new weapons in the pipeline and the US wants to invest in its navy but at air shows like Dubai it tends to be countries like Russia that steal the spotlight, most recently with their new “Checkmate” warplane. Whether those planes are actually as good as the designers say is unclear but what matters sometimes is perception and the perception is that the US is being challenged everywhere.

The US has been here before. In 1970, President Richard Nixon said in a speech, “if, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

Today this appears to be more true than ever. The new cover of The Atlantic says “The bad guys are winning.” In the important article, Anne Applebaum  writes the following: “If the 20th century was the story of a slow, uneven struggle, ending with the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies – communism, fascism, virulent nationalism – the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.”

Indeed, the authoritarians are on the march everywhere. Turkey has been deporting Syrian refugees for Tik Tok videos and has crushed all dissent. NATO-head Jens Stoltenberg was pressed on why Turkey is a member of NATO when it has become a totalitarian regime. He tried to answer, but the answers are hollow.

Ankara no longer upholds any of the values that NATO was designed to protect. Ankara works with Russia and China as well as Iran. All the dictatorships work together. Venezuela and Belarus are key partners of Turkey, Iran and Russia.  

These countries all sense weakness in the US and the West. But they know the US is still strong when it comes to military technology and also when it comes to the US network of allies, whether the Five Eyes network, or other groupings. The authoritarians by contrast are just beginning to work together in forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

While some far-right regimes, like Imran Khan’s in Pakistan, have argued that a multi-polar world is important, replacing US hegemony, getting there is difficult when countries like Pakistan barely govern their own borders. But the alliance of authoritarians is making gains. These achievements in hypersonic missiles and in space will begin to eat away at the US role.

It’s clear that while the US spent 20 years fighting extremists, it largely ended up withdrawing and handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban. It has to partner with governments like Qatar that are authoritarian and also with groups in Iraq that are close to Iran. Meanwhile, US adversaries, who were not engaged in these “endless wars” were building their arsenals and also selling influence around the world. China was moving into Africa and South America, Russia was spreading its weight and so are Turkey and Iran.  

While the satellite test and the target ships in the Chinese desert are just symbols, the headlines show that the US is constantly trying to shift its focus from places like Ukraine to Taiwan. Can it defend both? Time will tell. 
Russian bear by Julie R is licensed under WikiMedia Commons
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