More Piñatas

Estimated read time 10 min read

More Piñatas

State of the Union: Sometimes, others need to get hit, too.


I want to address something I said in my Friday column “Nimarata the Piñata” that has, to my surprise, been the source of controversy on social media.

“Haley then lays out quite the conspiracy: Russia, China, and Iran are essentially working in lockstep to destroy America,” I wrote on Friday. “Hamas’s invasion of Israel, she implied, was a birthday present to Putin: ‘Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin’s birthday.’”

Let me state the obvious from the outset: Haley’s position is anathema to the school of foreign policy realism. Haley’s position is from the school of liberal internationalism, which has two main premises: First, the goal of foreign policy is to export a state’s domestic preferences across the world, and, second, that those preferences, rather than considerations of power, ought to dictate a state’s action.

For a candidate who cannot name three oblasts in eastern Ukraine, this is a very convenient world view. There’s no need for diplomacy; no need for true statesmanship; no need for understanding escalatory action; no need for a rudimentary understanding of geography.

Jake Kroesen, the submissions editor for the little-known Vital Center Magazine, took a screenshot of the first sentence quoted above and posted it on Twitter, cropping out the following sentence and the rest of Haley’s remarks.

Kroesen wrote, “Basic facts are conspiracy theories to The American Conservative.” Unfortunately for Vital Center, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the English language knows that conspiracies and conspiracy theories are different things. Nevertheless, I understand Kroesen’s confusion, because Haley is trying to have it both ways. First she claims a simple conspiracy: Russia, China, and Iran are together plotting the demise of America. Then, she slides into what one might suggest is the realm of conspiracy theory: Hamas’s barbarism on Putin’s birthday was a gift to the Russian president to pull America’s attention away from the war in Ukraine.

Like all conspiracy theories, however, there is a much more probable explanations as to why Hamas attacked when it did, one day after the 50th anniversary of the start of the Yom Kippur War. It is widely known that Islamic terrorist groups often choose to mount attacks on such significant anniversaries.

Nevertheless, a strike on a symbolic date is predicated on the right conditions and capabilities on the ground. Reportedly, Israel and Egypt had intelligence that Hamas was preparing for an attack. Egypt obtained and shared this intelligence with the Israelis, and Hamas may have been aware of the warning Egypt issued to Israel, intelligence which Israelis reportedly did not take too seriously. Or, they might have just gotten it from the Iranians. In any case, Hamas might have felt pressure to invade quickly or lose their chance. Furthermore, Israeli relations have increasingly soured with Hamas. Hamas mostly stayed out of skirmishes between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in August 2022 and May 2023. In August, however, Israel took over 1,200 Palestinians in administrative detention in Israel without charging the individuals or putting them on trial—the largest such action in 30 years. Israel claims this is necessary to fight terrorism—as do I. But Hamas likely saw the conditions and their capabilities offered the best chance of success for their wicked deeds.

But the more important point, the point that Kroesen attempted to home in on, is my skepticism of Haley’s assertion that China, Russia, and Iran are a united front against America because they hate freedom. I’m not denying that relationships between these powers exist, and, with further imprudent American activity abroad, could force them closer together. I’m challenging her belief that the fundamental nature of the relationships between these powers means they are in complete lockstep. 

According to Haley’s liberal internationalist worldview, a state that does not cater to the preferences of America is the enemy and can be considered exactly the same as any other state that does not share U.S. preferences. And, when states do foster balancing relationships, it is not because they perceive a threat from a global hegemon further extending its tentacles around the globe, it’s because they have identical preferences that they want to supplant. Under these circumstances, there are very few political or military actions that could escalate the conflict because it is already a professed battle for survival. 

The crux of Haley’s survey of the geopolitical landscape is that there is no meaningful difference between a Communist regime in China, an Islamic theocracy in Iran, and an authoritarian, pseudo-Orthodox regime in Russia. Haley surprisingly expressed her worldview well in March. Addressing Russia and China, Haley said, “both agree on the fact that they think the U.S. and the West are the great sinners. They think we’re sinners because we enjoy freedom, and they think we’re sinners because we enjoy democracy, and they will continue to work together until they can destroy it.” 

Noah Rothman, a writer over at National Review, quote-tweeted Kroesen’s tweet and wrote, “You have to actively avoid seeing it. Our enemies make no pretense about their efforts to coordinate in support of a shared goal: putting an end to the age of American dominance.” Rothman’s tweet also linked to a piece he wrote for National Review titled, “Israel, Hamas, and the End of Pax Americana.” One wonders what America Rothman has been living in this century to have the confidence to declare America was ever at peace—surely, it sounds nice. One also wonders why the end of Rothman’s Pax Americana has to do with a nation 6,000 miles away. But I digress. In his piece, Rothman gives further treatment to Haley’s worldview, which he appears to agree with.

Rothman lays out in some detail the connections between Iran, China, and Russia:

Moscow has received hundreds of attack drones from Iran over the course of the war. It has also sought, though Western officials cannot yet confirm that it has received, ballistic missiles, helicopters, and radar systems from Iran in exchange for Russian fighter jets… And, according to European sources, China’s support for Russia’s war has been exposed by both the Chinese components in Russian weapons and the Chinese military hardware Ukrainians are recovering from their battlefields. China’s role in exacerbating geopolitical instability at America’s expense is not limited to the killing fields of Ukraine.

None of this, to my knowledge, is objectionable. It is the conclusion Rothman and Haley want the American public to come to given this information. “The enemies of the United States do not observe the careful distinctions between them that advocates of a humbler American foreign policy often emphasize,” predicting rebuttals such as mine before getting to the brass tax:

The nominally Marxist regime in Beijing has no problem joining hands with an Islamist theocracy. Decades-old historical grievances deter neither Iran nor China from supporting Russia’s murderous military campaigns on Syria’s eastern plateau and the steppes of Ukraine. They are united in their foremost goal: ending the age of American dominance. Challenges to American hegemony anywhere are challenges to it everywhere. America’s enemies recognize that, even if its friends do not.

A politics without limits. Again, sounds nice. I wonder if it’s a holdover from the Pax Americana Rothman previously enjoyed. The prudent statesman, however, would naturally understand that even the closest relationships between states have limits based on their power, capacities, and interests. When these states are adversaries, such a statesman would seek to identify these pressure points and seek to exploit them.

Such pressure points between Russia, China, and Iran are plentiful.

For Russia and China, the two nations have experienced decades of poor relations due to the American-facilitated Sino-Soviet split. For the past half-century, they’ve also been attempting to resolve tensions along their more than 2,500 mile-long border. The project has largely been successful. The last major border dispute was officially settled in 2008 when Russia gave China territory on some islands at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers. Nevertheless, such tensions persist, and constant vigilance from both sides is needed to maintain peaceful border relations. What’s more, though China has provided Russia some limited support, China has consistently pitched itself to lead peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, even when Russia was making territorial gains in Ukraine.

China also has some issues with Russia’s sale of military equipment and arms to India, a regional power to China’s west that also has conflict with China from time to time over their shared border. Then, there is the issue of Russia’s stagnation, which has somewhat been exacerbated since the war began. This introduces increased amounts of asymmetry between the two powers, which China surely hopes to capitalize on for Beijing’s interests, not Moscow’s.

What about Russia and Iran? Iran has provided substantial material support for Russia over the course of the war in Ukraine. Western sanctions and American activity in the eastern hemisphere have also resulted in an increase of bilateral trade to the tune of 20 percent. 

Nevertheless, Russia has not been a good historic partner to Iran when it comes to managing previous nuclear power agreements and control over the Caspian Sea. Historical skepticism of this relationship is particularly acute in Iranian domestic politics. One of the current drivers of that continued skepticism is over control of the countries’ energy market share. As Russia has oriented itself towards China and other growing, Asian markets, they find themselves in increasing competition with Iran. This has sped up since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Russia’s crude exports to Asia have doubled, posing a significant threat to Iran’s interests and capacities.

In short: Russia and Iran are two regionally large powers with border disputes and an energy driven economy that share a body of water. They are more suited to be enemies than friends.

As for China and Iran, the two nations signed an agreement to deepen their relationship in 2021. Yet, Russia’s increased imprint on the Chinese-dominated energy markets has caused some discontent with not only the supplier, but the market’s main customer. 

Furthermore, while China brokered a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this year, Iranian interests have come under threat by China’s slow-growing economic and military relationship with Israel. China remains Israel’s largest trading partner in the hemisphere and is second only to the United States. China has also increased their presence on the ground in Israel: In 2018, the Israelis signed a 25 year lease with the Shanghai International Port Group for part of Haifa’s northern port. 

China and Iran have also been on opposite sides of territorial disputes in the recent past. China signed on to a statement from the Gulf Cooperation Council over the islands dispute with the UAE.

The “first step on a path back to sobriety,” Rothman claims, “is to recognize that a coalition of anti-American states is congealing into a formidable alliance.” But after decades of failed interventions all over the world because of the logic Haley, Rothman, and the neocons espouse, the first step is putting America and her interests first.

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