Russia and China think the US is in “irreversible decline” and no longer interested in the world, says Edward Luce in the Financial Times. That’s why they’re trying their luck with Ukraine and the South China Sea. But they should be more cautious – history proves America “can switch rapidly from cold to hot”. In 1990 the US ambassador to Iraq told Saddam Hussein that Washington had no opinion on “Arab-Arab conflicts”. Three months after Hussein invaded Kuwait, the US assembled a huge force in Saudi Arabia. Papers retrieved from Osama bin Laden’s lair showed he thought 9/11 would trigger America’s exit from the Muslim world. We all know how that panned out.
President Biden is “bending over backwards” to avoid going to war in Ukraine. But he is a “consummate politician” and, if American voters get incensed about “hordes of Ukrainians fleeing as Russian tanks churn up their towns”, he could quickly change his tune. Remember: America has a bigger military than both Russia and China. It has fought more wars than either and, compared with other democracies, has a “martial culture” that venerates the military. “The fact that it is in relative decline only sharpens that trait.” Russia and China might have their own red lines, but they should be equally mindful of America’s.
Why it matters America has Iran to worry about as well, says Gideon Rachman, also in the FT. It’s believed to be weeks away from creating enough “fissile material” for a nuclear weapon. If the US gives ground on Ukraine, Iran will be tempted to exploit this perceived weakness by stepping “on the nuclear accelerator”.