China, the Peacemaker?

Historian Alfred W. McCoy discusses China’s rapid economic and political rise and how Beijing is well positioned to broker an end to the war in Ukraine.

Chinese warships participate in the China-Russia Joint Sea 2021 military drill near the Peter the Great Gulf on October 15, 2021. in Russia. Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept;Photo: Getty Images

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a long call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which Xi appealed for negotiations to begin between Ukraine and Russia. This week on Intercepted, hosts Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain are joined by Alfred W. McCoy, the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of “To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.” As McCoy explains, China’s role in brokering a peace deal could be instrumental. And it also signals that the U.S. government is no longer the most powerful and influential world power in every region of the world, as it once was. McCoy says, “If Putin sat down with Xi Jinping and Zelenskyy and they sign an agreement, Putin couldn’t break that agreement. He can break any other agreement, he’ll break them, he’s done it many times, but that’s one he can’t break.”

[Intercepted theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.

Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussein.

JS: Well, Maz, there’s a lot of hawkish talk in Washington, D.C. these days. Not just the discourse around the war in Ukraine and the confrontation of Vladimir Putin and Russia, but also increasingly about China. And on both sides of the official political aisle in Washington, D.C., there is a sort of emerging consensus that, sooner or later, the U.S. is going to be in a dramatically escalated reality with China, maybe even a military war. And much of the microfocus of this discourse surrounds the fate of Taiwan, but it certainly extends beyond that.

And if you look at recent history, you see that the U.S. has been on a steady arc toward more focus on China as the primary U.S. adversary in the world, and that has brought increased spending on military planning for potential hot conflict, or a defensive response to a potential Chinese attempt to take Taiwan by force.

But buried not so deeply underneath this public display that often manifests as chest-thumping in Washington, D.C., lies a much more complex web of social, economic, political, military, geographic battles that are being waged between Washington and Beijing. And China has steadily adopted a quiet public posture — certainly recently — as a world leader capable of major international diplomacy, and as the central player in leading this multipolar battle to challenge U.S. hegemony.

And today, we’re going to be speaking with one of the most important historians of the U.S. empire, of the politics and history of the Asian continent. His name is Alfred McCoy. He’s probably very familiar to listeners of this podcast. In fact, when we had him on the show a few years ago, it was by far one of our most popular and most downloaded episodes.

Alfred McCoy is the Harrington Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s the author of several really important books, most recently, “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.” His newest book is “To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.”

Al McCoy’s latest article, which was published on Tom Dispatch, is titled “The Rise of China (and The Fall of the U.S.?): Tectonic Eruptions in Eurasia Erode America’s Global Power.” And in the article, Professor McCoy writes, “Unlike the U.S., China hasn’t spent significant effort establishing military bases, while Washington still maintains some 750 of them in 80 nations. Beijing has just one military base in Djibouti, on the east African coast, a signals intercept post on Myanmar’s Coco Islands in the Bay of Bengal, a compact installation in eastern Tajikistan, and half a dozen small outposts in the South China Sea.”

Professor McCoy continues, “Moreover, while Beijing was focused on building Eurasian infrastructure, Washington was fighting two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in a strategically inept bid to dominate the Middle East and its oil reserves (just as the world was beginning to transition away from petroleum to renewable energy). In contrast, Beijing has concentrated on the slow, stealthy accretion of investments and influence across Eurasia from the South China Sea to the North Sea. By changing the continent’s underlying geopolitics through this commercial integration, it’s winning a level of control not seen in the last thousand years, while unleashing powerful forces for political change.”

So, we have a lot to discuss with Professor McCoy, and he joins us right now. Thank you so much, Al, for joining us once again on Intercepted. 

Alfred McCoy: Jeremy, lovely to be here. Thank you. 

MH: So, Al, the first question I want to ask you — and kind of framing it for our listeners — Americans obviously see themselves as people who are very blessed by their geography: they’re surrounded by two major oceans, they have peaceable neighbors on both sides. So they don’t tend to think as much, perhaps, about Eurasia, as people living in Asia, or Africa, or the Middle East, or Europe, may think.

Can you talk a bit about the importance, however, of Eurasia as a geopolitical concept, and the origins of this idea of Eurasia as a world island, control of which is very, very important to domination of the rest of the world by any power?

AM: First of all, let me talk about the first part of your statement, about Americans’ obliviousness to the importance of Eurasia, and it’s a product of our education for decades, for nearly a hundred years. Those maps hanging in every schoolroom across America of the world, which show North America, South America in the center of the map, and then these two inconsequential blobs on either side, right? And those inconsequential blobs were, in fact, the enormous Eurasian landmass. And so, by virtue of our education, we have this hemispheric centrism that privileges these two continents — North and South America — above all else. And in fact, that’s not the way the world works.

The modern science of geopolitics was started a little over a hundred years ago in 1904 when a then-obscure, now somewhat famous, British geographer named Sir Halford Mackinder published an article in the Royal Geographical Journal. And he said that that Europe, Asia, and Africa were not three separate continents, they were a unitary landmass that he called “The World-Island,” this tricontinental world island. And he said that, for the past 500 years, that there had been a struggle. So that all major powers — whether they be land powers like the Mongol Empire, or sea powers like Britain, Portugal, and Spain – there, they have struggled for dominance over this vast landmass of Eurasia.

And we can actually extend that by another century, and say, for the last 500 years, every major power on the planet has based that global power on the control over Eurasia. Portugal did it first with their feitorias ringing Africa and Asia all the way to Indonesia. Britain did it next. And then, in our day, at the start of the Cold War, that generation of generals who had spent all of World War II actually fighting, from the Pacific and from the Atlantic and from North Africa, they had one objective in mind, was the capture of Eurasia, OK? And for four years, this was their objective. And from that they intuitively understood, they had learned the centrality of Eurasia to global power.

And so, after World War II, when the United States became the world’s great global hegemon, within five years of the start of the Cold War, we had anchored ourselves in Europe through the NATO alliance of, then, a dozen powers, and then, off the Pacific littoral, the eastern antipode of the vast 6,000-mile-wide Eurasian landmass, we began the process of signing, not a multilateral pact like NATO, but basically five bilateral pacts with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia. And that Pacific littoral, that first island chain, became, if you will, the fulcrum of U.S. global power that allowed us to defend one continent — North America — and dominate another: Eurasia.

And during the Cold War, we ringed the Eurasian landmass with three fleets; the six in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the seventh in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, later the fifth in the Persian Gulf. We arrayed thousands of jet fighters on hundreds of bases to ring the Eurasian landmass, and we effectively dominated that landmass. After the Sino-Soviet split of 1962, the Soviet Union was isolated inside that landmass, and every time they tried to break out, they suffered, usually, reverses until that culminated in that great disaster in Afghanistan, which led to the implosion of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War.

So, during the whole of the Cold War, for the past 75 years, the United States global power has rested upon its dominance over Eurasia through the NATO alliance and those bilateral security pacts along the Pacific littoral. And that remains, even today, the center of global power.

Now, what’s happened is that back in 2001 — at this moment when we were the world’s sole superpower and Washington elites were just absolutely full of themselves, brimming with imperial hubris — they decided that they could bring China on board into the world’s system on America’s terms. And so, bipartisan —Republicans, Democrats alike, all the foreign policy elites — decided that China would be admitted to the World Trade Organization. For the first time, a developing country — a major developing country — got to join this exclusive club of industrial powers who were balancing their trade by swapping, let’s say, American Boeing aircraft or German Mercedes, that sort of stuff, you know? The industrial powers sort of swapping goods and services, and really balancing their trade.

And when China came on board, between 2002 and 2013, they increased their reserves from $200 million — which is pretty small — to an amazing, unprecedented $4 trillion. And then, in 2013, at the apex of foreign exchange resorts, president Xi Jinping stood up in in Kazakhstan and announced something called the Belt and Road Initiative, and said that China was going to spend — which turned out to be over a trillion dollars — to turn the Eurasian landmass into a unified market, stretching from the Baltic Sea all the way to the South China Sea.

And China has, in the last ten years, according to latest figures, expended a little over a trillion dollars in massive development loans. And they’ve done two things: They’ve laid a steel grid across the Eurasian landmass, for the first time actually overcoming that distance, and unifying Europe and Asia. So that, really, we shouldn’t speak of them as separate continents anymore; they were only divided by that great distance in the center. China has filled that distance with a steel grid of pipelines and rail links.

And then, they’ve also ringed the whole world-island — that tricontinental world island of Europe, Asia, and Africa — with 40 ports, stretching from Sri Lanka, around the coast of Africa, and then ringing Europe, all the way from Piraeus in Greece to Hamburg in Germany.

And then, here we have to get almost metaphysical, a little bit mystical, OK? Because everybody talks about geopolitics. You know, you can pick up The Washington Post and New York Times and, probably, in every issue find the word “geopolitics” popping up all over the place. What is geopolitics? What might geopolitics mean? How might geopolitics actually make a difference? What’s the relationship between geographical formations and political events?

And here’s what I think is happening, OK? That geopolitics is kind of like a substrate beneath the visible, tangible surface of events. Now, China has changed the Eurasian politics by investing this trillion dollars and laying down this infrastructure, so that China has an infrastructure for dominance of Eurasia. And then what happens? It’s kind of like the grinding of the tectonic plates beneath the earth’s surface that periodically manifests themselves in earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. When the liquid rock breaks through the earth’s surface and you get an enormous eruption, and then, suddenly, you realize that the tectonic plates are shifting.

Well, that’s what’s happened. China has changed the substrate of Eurasia’s geopolitics. And now, just now, after — It’s only been ten years that China’s been doing this. They started this in 2013, we’re in 2023. It’s [been] ten years. That’s not a long time. But they’ve done it fast, and they’ve done it, actually, pretty well, despite what you might read in the U.S. press about white elephant investments and all the rest.

And so, there are all these manifestations. One was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. I mean, what China did was, they ran a geopolitical squeeze play around the U.S. position in Afghanistan. They signed very lucrative development deals with the six countries ringing Afghanistan, particularly Pakistan.

And mind you, how does the U.S. military fight? We have troops on the ground and we have air support. And it’s that combination that’s absolutely central to all U.S. warfighting strategy. No planes, then no soldiers on the ground. And where’d those planes come from? The nearest air base that they could fly from after this geopolitical squeeze play was the Persian Gulf. They had to fly 2,000 miles, which means their ability to loiter over the battlefield and provide close air support was very limited. They could refuel, of course, but it was impossibly inefficient, and it was dangerous for the troops on the ground. And that meant, bang, we had to get out of there as fast as we could.

The next manifestation we saw which, you know, seemed to be absolutely unrelated — But, again, think of that substrate and the periodic eruption. The next eruption was this sectarian division, as deep as the history of Islam, over a thousand years between Sunni and Shia —Shia, Iran, Sunni, Saudi Arabia — locked in the confrontation. But China signed a $480 billion development deal with Iran, and China’s top source of oil — and it’s the world’s leading oil importer — was Saudi Arabia. And so, China suddenly was in a position, because of this change in the geopolitical substrate that makes China the dominant economic presence of the Eurasian landmass. They could mediate between them.

And so, the two foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia didn’t make a trip to Washington, D.C. to pay court, as it’s been going on for decades. They turned up in Beijing with the new Chinese foreign minister to sign their entente. And the latest shocker, the latest eruption coming out of this substrate was, of course, the French President Emmanuel Macron — who is Europe’s preeminent leader — turns up in Beijing announcing, first of all, signing billions of dollars of deals for French companies, which is testimony to China’s power and influence on the continent. And then, announcing that China and France are in an historic alliance, and that France will not, in fact, follow American dictates on Taiwan.

And these are just three recent ones that we’ve seen, and they’re going to keep happening. And what’s the sum of these? There’s a constant threat. Diminishing U.S. global power, diminishing U.S. influence on the Eurasian landmass. 

MH: Alfred, you’ve said so much to explain this emerging Chinese web of influence over Eurasia. And what you’re describing seems, in large part, not overt use of military force or coercion, but the use of economic leverage, and increasingly diplomatic and political leverage, to bring these countries very subtly but very thoroughly into China’s ambit, or under its sphere of influence.

So, as you’re seeing this take place, year over year, especially over the last decade, as you said, when the U.S. was mired in a series of very resource-intensive and political-intensive conflicts, which did not seem to bear much relation to ultimate U.S. national interests. So, it sounds very much like an increase of Chinese influence over Eurasia — if not domination — is almost inevitable.

I’m curious of two things: How do you see the emergence of China as expressed on Eurasia impacting its relationship with the United States in terms of the possibility of a conflict, or even the inevitability of a conflict? And secondly, if there is a world in which China is the dominant player, or a far more dominant player for many, many countries in Europe, Africa, and elsewhere in Asia, what might such a world look like, in terms of how countries handle dealing with China as a preeminent power?

I think we’ve had a couple generations now seeing what it’s like with the U.S. as a unipolar power, and there are some clear negatives of that for many countries, but I’m curious what you think about Chinese hegemony — if you want to use that word — as it emerges over the coming generations. 

AM: I think, so far, based on the last few decades of performance by both powers, we could establish a clear contrast between the way the U.S. has exercised its hegemony since it became unipolar power at the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the way China is going about its business. And for most Americans, I think hegemony means military power. And I think we have to get out of that mindset, and realize that we’re dealing with another power, which has another way of running its world system.

You think about it, you know, in the last few decades, the United States has fought two disastrous wars, one in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan. Currently we have the Joint Special Operation Command, last time I looked, had its forces arrayed in 75 percent of the countries on the planet, OK? Sometimes it goes down to a mere two-thirds. So, as Americans, we equate the exercise of global hegemony with military power. That’s not the way China does its business.

As Jeremy pointed out when he read from my article, China doesn’t have a whole lot of military bases. And what China is doing is, it’s building this substrate of economic and commercial power across the Eurasian landmass, and then it makes its political military moves very cautiously.

Back in 2014-2015, when China began dredging those half-dozen outposts in the South China Sea, I thought those were geopolitically significant, I started lecturing about them. And at one of my lectures done at Northwest University, a man who was a recently retired intelligence major in the Singapore Air Force popped up, and he said, “You seem to be implying that China was going to be exercising military power from those bases.” He said, “That’s not the way they operate.” He said, “They go very subtly, you know? They don’t want any eruptions, any confrontation. They just keep pushing very quietly.”

And indeed, you know, think about it. First, China began dredging in the South China Sea. And then they formed the islands, and then they built a few huts, and then they built some runways. And then they put on some radar, and then some jets. And then some anti-missile technology, linking those islands with China’s mainland missile capacity. And effectively, they’ve taken control over the South China Sea — one of the world’s most navigated waterways, linking the Middle East, let’s say, with Japan, on oil shipments, not to mention everything else. It’s one of the most trafficked corridors in the world. They’ve basically taken it over, they’ve captured a sea, and there’s never been a visible moment of confrontation. The United States Navy runs these freedom of navigation patrols constantly through there, but that doesn’t stop the Chinese. They just built it up steadily, pressure, pressure. You know, sort of sedulously, steadily, never provoking a confrontation.

So, the way I see that China is going to continue to operate, let’s say, around Taiwan, and let’s put ourselves in historical perspective. This sudden emergence of Chinese power has only been since 2013. It’s only been a decade. The nature of world politics has been transformed in just ten years through this extraordinary Chinese commercial program of, essentially, building infrastructure on three continents: Asia, Europe, and Africa, and they’re also in Latin America very actively as well. And they’ve acquired all this power.

It’s just in the last few months that we’ve seen, if you will, the diplomatic eruptions coming from China’s investment of control over the geopolitical substrate of the Eurasian landmass. They’ve done that in the last ten years. Good heavens! Now that they are the world’s largest economy in purchasing power equity — I have no question about it — and they’re still growing steadily, what might they accomplish in the next ten years?

And one of the things I think that their clear objective is going to be, of course, is Taiwan. And although there’s much speculation about war over Taiwan, that’s from an American/U.S. perspective, which equates global power with military power. China will just conduct a kind of geopolitical squeeze, play the way they got us out of Afghanistan, without firing a shot on the part of the Chinese, without doing anything, actually. They wanted us out of there and they got us out of there, in the same way that they got those islands in the South China Sea.  They built those islands in the South China Sea. They effectively laid claim to that entire sea, and avoided a military confrontation. What I see them doing is continuing to build their military presence.

How do naval powers exercise their power? You know, we think of these great battles, like the Philippines Sea, or Midway, or Lepanto, or Trafalgar. You know, they happen every 1500 years, OK? That’s not the way naval power is exercised. Naval power is exercised by tracing a cat’s cradle of patrol lines across the maritime commons until that ocean is functionally yours. And that’s what China is going to do, and is doing it, and they’re going to continue. They will just patrol incessantly, so those waters between China and Taiwan become their water. They will maneuver diplomatically and economically, putting pressure on Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

The Philippines swung towards China under Duterte, swung back towards the U.S. under Marcos Jr. It’ll swing. It’s swinging back and forth, all of those powers are going to be swinging back and forth. And, you know, China then will just announce that, One China policy, that this is their territory. Maybe they’ll just put a customs zone around Taiwan. They’ll cut the cables — the undersea cables. They’ll just put some patrols around Taiwan. They’ll overwhelm the Taiwan Air Force — not with combat — just with constant overflights.

And the United States will be in a position where we’re going to have to steam a full naval armada into the maw of Chinese power. And, you know, let’s face it, we have anti-missile capacity, but China’s got, right now, about 2,500 missiles that they can throw at our armada. One of them is going to hit. How many aircraft carriers are we going to lose? Two, three aircraft carriers? I mean, you know, what price are we going to pay? And we’re going to look like an aggressor. We’ll be attacking them. They won’t be attacking anybody. They’ll just be sailing ships and flying aircraft.

And so, Taiwan could, very readily, through this kind of geopolitical squeeze-play, fall into Beijing’s grasp. And what does that mean? Well, think about what I said earlier. The United States achieved its dominance over Eurasia at the end of World War II through two means: the NATO alliance, which is standing pretty strong these days, and then these bilateral pacts with five powers down the Pacific littoral and the first island chain. And if Taiwan goes, that breaks that chain, and maybe we get pushed back to the second island chain, which runs, basically, from Japan, due south, to Guam. And then, you know, our geopolitical position, which has been the basis of U.S. global power for the last 75 years, is essentially broken.

So, that’s the way I see the possibilities, that this growing geopolitical power can be translated into palpable diplomatic influence, palpable political military power. 

JS: Everything you’re saying is really, really fascinating, on multiple levels. And you, of course, mentioned the Philippines there, and its role. And of course, President Biden this week is meeting with the Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the White House, and the way it’s being portrayed in the press is that the visit is meant to send a message to China that the Filipino leader plans to deepen his country’s relationship with the United States.

And of course, we’ve heard a lot recently in the news about the United States putting more military assets in the Philippines, and I know this is one of your micro-areas of great expertise. And I would love to just hear you talk about that development, specifically regarding the Philippines, and the significance of the visit this week of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. 

AM: It’s very important in terms of diplomatic visuals. I mentioned earlier the fact that the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia  were signing their entente in Beijing rather than Washington. Where you go, what power you pay court to, is a sign of where the center of global power lies in terms of, at least, your perspective on the world.

The fact that the president of the Philippines is, in one of his first foreign trips, turning up in Washington, having a tête-à-tête with Biden, right at the time where the Philippines has swung back into the U.S. orbit. In March, the U.S. Defense Secretary went to the Philippines, and the Philippines gave the United States four more bases fronting on the South China Sea — a major concession. That’s a very important diplomatic statement.

Now, in terms of where the Philippines sits — First of all, China has begun investing substantially in the Philippines. It’s begun courting business elites, intellectual elites, OK? But the one inroad that China has not been able to make is with the Philippine military. The Philippine military has a civil military doctrine, very sympathetic to the United States. The People’s Liberation Army in China is integrated fully into the apparatus of power. There is no such idea of civil supremacy.

Moreover, for decades, we’ve been inviting Filipino officers to train in the United States. And although there was a rupture after the U.S. bases in the Philippines — the big base, Naval Base Subic Bay, the Air Force Base at Clarkfield — after those closed down at the end of the Cold War, there was a decade of hiatus when China began pushing into the South China Sea. Slowly, as the two nations sort of separated, and ended that very unequal post-colonial relationship that was an absolute affront to Filipino nationalism. And [the] Philippines is a nation with a long history of, you know, they had the first national revolution in Asia in 1896, alright? And then we intervened and colonized them. So they have a very strong national identity, and those bases were an absolutely affront to that national identity.

Now that they are out, and that has ended, and the two sides sort of pulled away and have come back with a clearer sense of their mutual national self-interest, with the military still basically oriented towards an American model, preferring American equipment, comfortable training in the United States, etc. You know, that is a very important basis for a continuing U.S. alliance. Whether that alliance will persist, as Chinese subtle pressure builds over time, that remains to be seen. They’ve already swung, under the last administration — President Duterte — towards Beijing, very clear that they could swing again. But, for the time being, that’s an indication that that part of the Pacific littoral from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, all the way down the straight, that’s holding firm, OK?

But, you know, China’s only been this major world player for ten years. What the next five or ten years hold is going to be a continued development of that geopolitical pressure, of the kind that I just described. Allowing them to break Taiwan. And once Taiwan is broken and incorporated, there goes the first island chain, there goes the Pacific littoral, there goes the fulcrum for U.S. geopolitical power, dating back all the way to 1945. 

JS: I wanted to get your assessment of how China is reacting to, and also involved with, the war in Ukraine right now. In the recent piece you wrote, you talked about some of the moves that China made in advance of Russia’s invasion last February of Ukraine, and it essentially delayed the window of opportunity that Putin would have had to take much more of Ukraine, or have an easier time militarily because of the weather conditions. And then, eventually, in March of last year, they faced really atrocious conditions trying to get their ground forces into Ukraine.

But we’ve seen — in recent weeks and recent days — China making a lot more diplomatic moves, and asserting itself as a potential broker of peace. You had this phone call between Zelenskyy and Xi Jinping that both sides seem to say went very well, and that’s an interesting development coming on the heels of this very public visit of President Xi to Moscow, which ended with he and Putin basically making joint declarations about shattering the unipolar world dominated by the United States.

But I would love to hear your assessment of how China views what Russia is doing in Ukraine. And also, the complex diplomatic maneuvers that seem to be intensifying right now.

AM: Let’s look at the diplomatic optics that we talked about, where people go to pay court. You know, Iran, Saudi Arabian foreign minister is going to Beijing, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. going to Washington. And let’s wind back to the start of the Ukraine-Russian war.

In February of last year, Putin came to Beijing on the eve, the very start, of the Beijing Winter Olympics. And he desperately needed a strong statement from Xi Jinping, essentially giving him an alliance, because he knew what he was going to be rupturing. He was going to be breaking the decades-long relationship with Europe. If he didn’t know that, he’s a fool, and he’s not a fool, OK? And so, he needed a diplomatic counter on the Eurasian landmass to his loss of support — the antagonism that he would be provoking by his invasion in Europe — by going to China.  And they made that 5,000-word statement, they proclaimed a relationship that was stronger than the Cold War alliance, as a reference to the Sino-Soviet Alliance signed in 1950 between Mao and Stalin.

And then, of course, it was clearly understood that Putin couldn’t disrupt China’s party for the Winter Olympics. They’d hosted this, this was their moment on the global stage. And so, his troops were massed, sitting in frozen February, right on the Ukraine border, 200,000 troops, a couple thousand tanks ready to roll across the border. And they basically had to wait until the Olympics were over, so that, by the time they rolled, the frozen ground of February had become the mud of March. And of course, those very heavy Russian tanks can’t maneuver offroad in mud. They formed the world’s longest traffic jam — a 40-mile traffic jam on that one highway going down to Kyiv. That set them up so that the Ukrainian forces could destroy, I think, 2,500 armored vehicles. And every time they tried to maneuver offroad, they foundered in the mud. And the bold strike to capture Kyiv with his massive armored invasion ended. And that was the sacrifice that Putin had to make.

Now, what does this mean? Is Washington in a position right now to negotiate an end to the Ukrainian war? Clearly not. We’re totally wedded, for good or ill, to Ukraine, you know. Our position is that we don’t want negotiations. We want to arm Ukraine to the point where they can achieve a total military victory and push Russia out of Crimea, push Russia absolutely out of the Donbas region, all the territory they’re occupying. That’s, basically, the U.S. position right now. That doesn’t give us much of a negotiating position. That means that we’re marginalized.

And think about it: Beijing has been very clever. Holding back, making that nice little declaration with Russia. They’ve also, basically, turned Russia into a colony. China is the world’s largest consumer of the two major commodities that Russia exports: China’s the world’s largest importer of grain, and it’s the world’s largest importer of oil and petroleum products, and Russia has both in abundance. And so, they’re getting cut-price on both of these critical commodities that are necessary to feed the Chinese people, and to move that society, and power that society.

And so, they’ve turned Russia very quickly, into an economic colony. Part of their growing control over the Eurasian landmass, because you can’t control Eurasia if you don’t dominate Russia. They are now economically dominant in Russia. And that also puts, with each passing month, Xi Jinping in a position where he could actually make Putin come to a bargaining table.

And they had very good relations with Ukraine. Ukraine was very heavily integrated. China had concentrated, particularly in Eastern Europe they had a formal entente with the Eastern European countries, they were investing very heavily, and they invested very heavily in Ukraine. And so, China’s in a position, just as they were in a position between that equally and even more entrenched rivalry between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam. China could mediate that one. China’s a position where they can mediate, and they can negotiate an end to this war. And whatever you might think, whatever side you might be on — You know, how could I put it? The U.S. position, can Ukraine really drive the Russians all the way back to Russia out of Crimea? And if so, at what cost? Maybe some negotiations prior to this bloodletting that has potential for ratcheting up to the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, maybe if the Russian Army is pushed out of Crimea? I mean, that’s a pretty powerful emotional symbol for Putin. Wouldn’t he think about deploying tactical nuclear weapons? Do we really want to do that?

And so, China, at that point, can come in and negotiate this, and they’ll probably negotiate it to have perfect diplomatic optics in Beijing. Zelenskyy and Putin turning up, sitting at a table. I mean, what? That would look like a very, very different world. And the United States, with all of its artillery shells and its missiles, and all the rest of it would be sitting on the sidelines. And that would be one more sign of a major diplomatic eruption coming out of that geopolitical substrate of China’s control over Eurasia.

In the end, not only avert a potential thermonuclear war, or at least a use of nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945. Very serious precedent for other powers elsewhere in the world. I mean, very important to preserving global peace and to avoiding nuclear war. And resolving this bloody endless conflict that has so profoundly disrupted the global economy. I mean the loss of low-cost grain shipments to the Middle East and East Africa, for societies that are calories-short. East Africa’s in the midst of a terrible drought and famine. You know, this is important to keep the grain moving, to reestablish the normal function of the global economy, which has got some kind of balance, and which feeds poor people, gives them food, allows them to function.

So, at multiple levels, what Beijing’s intercession, timely intercession, and resolution of this in a way that forges an agreement without a nuclear or bloody military showdown, and restores some guarantees. China could not only press Russia and Ukraine in an agreement, but they could actually, probably, the way things are going, they could make Putin observe the agreement. Not through military pressure, but through diplomatic pressure.

I mean, think about it. You know, if Putin signs an agreement with Xi Jinping sitting at the head of the table, he cannot break that agreement, but with anybody else, he can. So that means that China’s — I mean, I’d never thought of this before. Who asked that question? This is a really smart question.

You know, if Putin actually sat down with Xi Jinping and Zelenskyy, and they signed an agreement, Putin couldn’t break that agreement. But he can break any other agreement, and he’ll break them, he’s done it many, many times. But that’s one he can’t break. That would be a diplomatic agreement that could stick, you know?

That’s very interesting. A very interesting possibility. 

MH: You know, to that point, Alfred, you’re making, about how Russia becomes kind of dependent or even colonized by China to some degree as a result of the war. I remember reading, before the Ukraine war, takes by U.S. Defense officials about their strategy for containing China and Eurasia, and Russia actually was a very important part of that. They thought that, if you cannot flip Russia onto our side — because they have an interest, too, because China has claims on some of their territories, and they have a negative history in the 20th century — they really wanted to get Russia on board with the West against China as part of this containment strategy. But now, because of the war and everything that’s happened, it’s all gone out the window. And the idea of Chinese ascendants in Eurasia is much, much more plausible than it was two or three years ago, before the war started, for all the reasons that you laid out there, Alfred.

So, you know, I was curious to get your take on this as well, because we’re talking a lot about China building this web of influence diplomatically, economically, across Eurasia and across all these areas where it’s seeking to establish itself to the exclusion of the United States. Beyond the mere fact of having the power, what exactly is China’s motivation for how it would like to change the world order, from what currently exists today, where the U.S. is a very privileged place? What would China do if it itself was in that privileged place?

And secondly to that question, how intolerable would the situation be to U.S. elites, such that they might actually be willing to use force to try to stop it, and may actually be willing to send naval armadas into the maw of Chinese power, as you mentioned earlier? What would be the red line that may trigger that? Or might they accept it, or might they find it acceptable? What is your take on that?

AM: First of all, China as a world power — again, speculating — strengths and weaknesses. One of their weaknesses is a tendency towards arrogance. How can I put it? I mean, this is the oldest civilization in the world, and one that, historically, was at the epicenter of a self-contained Asian tributary system, which gives them an inclination to being enormously self-referential and arrogant, and you can see that with Duterte. They had this tremendous opening in the Philippines. He went to Beijing in October, 2016, and he proclaimed an end to the U.S. alliance and an opening with China. And China, weighing up relation to the Philippines, versus grabbing a pile of rocks in the South China Sea called the Scarborough Shoal  — which [is] partially inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — China just decided that they would just bully the Philippines, grab the Scarborough Shoal. They harass Filipino fishermen. They harass Filipino naval vessels. They’ve driven the Philippines into Washington’s arms. It didn’t have to happen, but China’s arrogance towards this lesser power accomplished that. So, that’s one of their liabilities, they have that inclination.

Their strength, however, is that they generally avoid the complex array of democracy, human rights, and rule of law that the United States — and one can say, you know, thankfully — has made a part of its relations with nations around the world. China has a very limited standard for doing business with other nations. Basically, business. You know, the lowest common denominator of mutual interest. You’ve got resources and we’ve got a market, let’s do business. You’ve got labor, we’ve got processing, let’s do business. Your government might be corrupt, your military abusive, your jails inhumane, but we can do business. OK?

So, China has strengths and weaknesses as a global power. In terms of American elites and red lines, if China continues in its current strategy of developing its geopolitical substrate, investing in infrastructure, building diplomatic relations, avoiding military confrontation, then having those geopolitical forces that I’ve been describing, trying to analyze and explain, having them produce an eruption like we’re seeing so many of recently, then the United States wouldn’t really have an opportunity for using its military force to counter China. If China managed the situation in Taiwan, took a longer period of time to get to its objective, and then did something like I described earlier — of imposing a web of naval patrols, overflights by ships, and then basically imposing a customs control over its sovereign territory in Taiwan, that would be Beijing’s words — that would put the United States and its allies, Japan and the Philippines, where we would have to be going to war, we would be the aggressor. We would be the ones disrupting world peace, threatening thermonuclear war. Would we really do that? If China does it right, they can — as they have so many times in recent years — accomplish their objectives without sparking an overt military confrontation.

So, you know, it depends on how China plays it. If they keep going with their current playbook, then there’ll be pressures and visible pressures that produce these diplomatic eruptions, surprising diplomatic eruptions.

But the first one to look for, the first one to look for is the one that we just talked about. If China can actually come — I mean, when they first made their diplomatic initiatives and talked about their neutral position, their peace plans, The New York Times, The London Times, you know, everyone around the world was snickering away, right? But, actually, as this war stalemates on the ground, and China begins making serious overtures, it’s becoming much more of a diplomatic reality that they could maybe do this. And if they do, that would be another one of our eruptions. 

JS: When you were on this program back in 2017, it was on the eve of your publication of a really, really phenomenal book — that I encourage everyone to get, if you haven’t read it — called, “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.” And I want to ask you if you stand by something that you wrote in that book, which got a lot of attention after we had you on the show. So, just bear with me for a second as I read you your own words, and I want to ask you if you stand by this.

From 2017, you write, Professor McCoy, “For the majority of Americans, the 2020s will likely be remembered as a demoralizing decade of rising prices, stagnant wages, and fading international competitiveness. After years of swelling deficits fed by incessant warfare and distant lands, in 2030, the U.S. dollar eventually loses its special status as the world’s dominant reserve currency. Suddenly, there are punitive price increases for American imports, ranging from clothing to computers, and the costs for all overseas activity surges as well, making travel for both tourists and troops prohibitive. Unable to pay for swelling deficits by selling now devalued treasury notes abroad, Washington is finally forced to slash its bloated military budget. Under pressure at home and abroad, its forces begin to pull back from hundreds of overseas bases to a continental perimeter.” 

“Such a desperate move, however, comes too late. Faced with a fading superpower incapable of paying its bills, China, India, Iran, Russia, and other powers provocatively challenge U.S. dominion over the oceans, space, and cyberspace.”

Do you stand by that? 

AM: Well, every detail? Good heavens, no, 

JS: You can go on. Take any part of it. I’m not asking it as, like, a “gotcha.” I actually think some of this is already happening before our eyes. But, I guess the precursor to it is just to say, I think you’re right about a lot of things already, but I’m just curious what you think now, hearing your own predictions from a few years ago.

AM: Now, first of all, let me point out that historians have a terrible track record of predictions. Not only do we get it wrong, but risibly, almost laughably so. But the core of that argument is really the U.S. dollar. You know, what I’m arguing is, think about the nature of American society, OK? We have a very weak social safety net. We pay, historically, very low wages. And the only way that American workers — all the way up to even the middle, middle class — can survive, is because our goods are the cheapest in the world. Because the U.S. dollar is the global reserve currency, we can issue treasury notes and the world will buy them. And basically, nations of the world send us oil and machinery, and we give them brightly colored paper called “T Notes.” And that’s why we’ve built up these massive debts.

And once the U.S. dollar is no longer the dominant component of the basket of currencies that the IMF proclaims, once it’s just one of the currencies along with, let’s say, the Euro and the renminbi, the Chinese currency — and that’s happening, the renminbi is now part of the basket of the currencies — then, suddenly, we won’t be able to issue those Treasury notes in quite the same way, and the price of our commodities are going to go up to world prices. And that whole social contract that we have — of lousy wages but cheap products — that social contract begins to break down. And the adjustment of that social contract is going to produce all kinds of tensions in what is a delicately calibrated, balanced social arrangement in the United States — not a particularly strong one, not particularly resilient. We’re a fragile superpower.

If China continues to grow at anything like the level that it has — It’s going to slow down, of course. India’s going to come on strong. But, again, both of those powers are going to take away U.S. markets, they’re going to take away U.S. power, U.S. prestige. As China grows, and then India grows right along behind it, our power comparatively erodes, the dollar fades, and then that delicate social safety net gets shredded, and that social balance collapses into tensions.

I mean, that’s still very possible. You know, by 2030, I would be surprised if the dollar’s percentage of the IMF’s — the International Monetary Fund’s — basket of currencies remains what it is today. I’d expect further declines. 

MH: So, you know, Alfred, that, to sum up — or ask one last question, I would say — predictions of U.S. decline have kind of come periodically, every generation or so, and there have always been good reasons to think that perhaps the U.S. was entering the twilight of its primacy. But so far, at least, it seems to have been able to be resilient as the world’s unipower till the present day. And I think that post-Afghanistan withdrawal, it seemed like maybe the fulcrum moment when the power was unraveling, but the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the relatively — so far, at least — competent U.S. security responses given a lot of American elites’ confidence again, that, well, you know, our challengers are paper tigers to some degree. And some people have said that, in light of this growing Chinese investment campaign and political ascendence in Eurasia, there have been naysayers to say that, well, a lot of these investments are white elephants, or a lot of the diplomatic arrangements are quite fragile for various reasons.

Is there a possibility, or is there a case in which this dissent of the United States may not be inevitable? And what do you say to those who say that, well, we’ve heard this before, in terms of U.S. decline, and somehow they’ve been able to overcome [it]? Why, in this case, is it different? 

AM: It’s the geopolitics, OK? The Eurasian landmass is home to 70 percent of the world’s population and productivity. 70 percent. So, if you dominate Eurasia, to go back to Sir Halford Mackinder, if you dominate the world-island — this tricontinental landmass of Europe, Asia, and Africa — you’re dominating more than 70 percent. You’re actually getting up to 75 percent, even close to 80 percent of the world’s population and productivity. And that means that then there are these outlying islands like Iceland, and Greenland, and North America, and South America.

Let me tell you a story, OK? My wife’s uncle grew up in Iowa, and he married a Swiss woman, and he moved to Switzerland. And he restores cars, and he’s got a beautiful old Mercedes, and he’s got a 1937 Ford Coupe. And there was something called the Peking to Paris Auto Race in 1907. And so, in 2007, they restaged it for the centennial.

So, my wife’s uncle turns up in Beijing, and he’s part of a group of about 70 or 80 antique cars that drive across the Eurasian landmass for 6,000 miles, from Beijing to Paris, right? And he described to me — Uncle David — at one point, he was somewhere in Mongolia, and somehow he got separated from the pack. And suddenly, there he was, in a car — it was like a movie — he was in a car and there was this infinite horizon. There were no satellites, you know, for GPS. There were no houses, there was no nothing. There was just this infinite horizon. He hit the pedal on that machine and he just started driving as fast as he could in a single direction, figuring that that’s where the pack might be. And suddenly, after hours, way out in the horizon, he saw a little bit — a tiny bit — of dust rising, and that was the pack. And he caught up with them. And he didn’t die of thirst and starvation in the middle of the Gobi desert.

Well, that was how empty that center of Eurasia was, back in 2007. It’s not like that anymore. Now, he would’ve found rail line or, more likely, an oil pipeline to guide him that he could have followed. China has overcome that distance that separated Europe and Asia, and brought them together as a single continent, and fulfilling Xi Jinping’s idea of a single market that’s going to dominate 70 percent of the world’s population and productivity. And that’s what’s going to change.

And so, China is clearly dominant in Eurasia, and becoming more so every single day. And we are just falling back to becoming an influential regional power in North America and — if we’re maybe lucky and play our diplomatic cards right — maybe South America as well. If China continues its strategy of building that geopolitical substrate and then letting these periodic eruptions, these diplomatic eruptions erupt by natural course of events, U.S. power is just going to slowly ebb away. There won’t be any dramatic change. The changes are already evident. 

MH: Well, Alfred, we could talk to you all day. This was a phenomenal conversation. But I think we’ll leave it on that note. Alfred McCoy, thank you so much for joining us today. 

AM: Let’s all look forward to one thing: let’s keep our eye on those negotiations, OK? Because if they take place, and if they take place in Beijing, that’ll be another eruption. That will be one that everybody in the world will recognize. That, you know, whoops, Washington’s time has passed as the world leader. Maybe it really is now Beijing.

Yeah, that’ll be interesting to see. So, let’s just keep our eye on that one, OK?

MH: Absolutely. That’s Alfred McCoy. He’s the Harrington Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s the author of “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.” And his newest book is, “To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.”

[Intercepted end theme music.]

JS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Intercepted.

Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

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Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

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