If you, like me, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, you probably know how to discourage aggressive bullies.
As with many other parts of life, it’s not so much reality as appearance that matters. Your whole demeanour, from gait to facial expressions, should communicate menacing strength. Your body language must be sending a signal: don’t mess with me.
A bully usually gets the message. He is bigger and stronger than you, but attacking you may be more trouble than it’s worth. He may eventually win a fight, but at an unpredictable cost. So why bother if there’s easier prey about?
Extrapolating such street smarts to geopolitics, you’ll find the same survival tactics work there just as well. It’s not so much strength as projection of it that matters.
Switzerland is a good example of that: her resolute government and small but well-trained army kept the Nazis at bay during the war. Hitler weighed the costs of invading Switzerland against the benefits and turned his gaze elsewhere.
Another example is Finland that showed so much courage and martial skill in the Winter War against Stalin’s hordes. Towards the end, the Soviets had a good chance of occupying the whole country, but the cost began to look prohibitive. (Britain’s threat of using the RAF Iraqi base at Mosul to take out the Baku oil fields also added a few zeros to the possible cost.)
Conversely, JFK took the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe by betraying the Cuban refugees at the Bay of Pigs. Their force, trained and armed by the CIA, landed at playa Girón to advance towards Havana and unseat Castro’s communist regime.
The Kennedy administration had promised air support, without which the mission was doomed to failure. Yet at the last moment Kennedy got cold feet. No air support arrived, and the invading force was cut to pieces on the beaches. The Soviets got the message: the president was a weakling. The Cuban Missile Crisis followed a few months later.
That is the real problem with weak governments: they emit wrong signals. Rather than implying with their every move that their countries will fight to the death for their interests, their body language communicates weakness and vacillation. They are scared of a fight, which means they are more likely to get it.
That’s why Joe Biden, for all his pacifist instincts, creates a real danger of war, possibly setting the whole world on fire.
Now, I don’t know if he really has Alzheimer’s or other forms of serious senile dementia. He obviously suffers from some form of cognitive decline, but take it from me: most people his age or thereabouts aren’t what they used to be.
But, unless a serious degenerative problem exists, we learn to adapt, compensating with wisdom and foresight for any loss of sharpness. For example, I never used to rely on written notes when speaking in public, but now I do. Jotting down the odd note also helps to keep one’s appointments.
Even though I occasionally poke fun at Biden’s bloopers, I have no bona fide reason to doubt he has found ways to keep himself on the straight and narrow when it comes to policy decisions. And if he does need help, he has a large staff of advisers to provide it.
That’s not the point. The point is that, every time the president confuses his sister with his wife or a congresswoman with his dead son, he sends a message of weakness urbi et orbi.
That emboldens the neighbourhood bullies by giving them ideas of impunity. And it terrifies America’s allies who feel the protective umbrella just might have been folded.
The two major geopolitical bullies are Russia and China, whose Damocles sword is hanging over the heads of the West’s allies: the Ukraine and other former Soviet colonies, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, perhaps even Australia.
The bullies know that even at his best Biden’s instincts pulled him towards pacifism or at least isolationism. Now that he is no longer at his rather puny best, far from it, his chaotic retreat from Afghanistan, relatively unimportant as such, sends an invigorating message to enemies of the West: America appears to be ready to renege on her international security commitments.
“What if…” questions are flashing through the minds of global bullies, and their eyes light up. Of the two I mentioned, Russia is more dangerous by far, even though she may be physically weaker than the other bully, China.
China is becoming the world’s economic powerhouse, and the Chinese may well feel they have more to lose than to gain by challenging the West militarily. They too have learned the value of projecting, rather than using, strength. Everybody knows their regime is both evil and well-armed, and that knowledge suffices as China’s protective mechanism.
Xi and his communist clique have an ideological commitment to annex Taiwan at some point, but they may well be pragmatic enough to wait until their growing economic strength turns into outright dominance. The Chinese have infinite reservoirs of patience, and they may feel that time is on their side.
With Russia things are different. Putin’s kleptofascist regime is running the country into the economic ground. There is no guarantee that the Stalinist mythology of Russia’s greatness will keep the impoverished populace docile indefinitely, especially in the absence of Stalinist violence. In what the Russians call a war between the TV set and the fridge, the TV set may suffer defeat at some point.
Foreign adventures are a well-known stratagem for distracting the populace from empty fridges, and Putin’s sabres are rattling with an ear-piercing jangle. Looking at Biden’s feeble attempts to negotiate the steps or to remember which country is which, Putin may well decide to grab what’s left of the Ukraine – or even to attack the NATO members in the Baltic area.
That by itself would be catastrophic, regardless of whether or not America will honour her security guarantees, or who will emerge the winner if she does. That’s why it’s vitally important that Biden be removed from office, be that by invoking the 25th Amendment or forcing him to resign of his own accord.
Looking at his possible successors, it’s hard to expect them to be much better. In fact, hard though it may seem to believe, they may well be much worse.
But at least they may be compos mentis, sufficiently so not to communicate exploitable weakness. I’d love to tell you their names – but I forget.