Butterfly Effect: Is Biden Ready for a Hot Summer? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Is Biden Ready for a Hot Summer?

Butterfly Effect: Is Biden Ready for a Hot Summer?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi


Ukraine, Taiwan and the Middle East look set to boil over, testing Biden's bandwidth and America's resolve.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

President Joe Biden has made clear that tackling climate change is a priority. Next week, he’ll host 40 of the world’s leaders in a virtual summit on dealing with global warming. But carbon dioxide isn’t the only culprit behind the heat that’s bearing down on the world.

Soaring geopolitical tensions are threatening to explode, even more imminently than the Arctic glaciers are breaking away. And how Biden responds to these crises could determine how some of America’s closest friends and most bitter enemies deal with his administration over the next four years.

On Sunday, a dramatic cyberattack hamstrung one of Iran’s biggest nuclear facilities. Tehran blamed Israel, which has all but confirmed that it was behind the strike that has set back work at the Natanz nuclear facility by nine months. Meanwhile, Israel is opposed to the negotiations that have resumed between Iran and the U.S. in recent days to restore the landmark nuclear deal. Former President Donald Trump had pulled America out of that pact in 2018.

Both Tehran and Washington are seeing the strike at Natanz as a message from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who issued a stern warning during a Holocaust Remembrance Day memorial last week: “To our best friends I say: An agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction … an agreement like this will not bind us.” Iran on Tuesday responded to the Natanz attack by declaring that it will raise its uranium enrichment levels from 20 percent to 60 percent, though that’s still well below what’s needed for a bomb.

Meanwhile, up north, Russia is amassing troops along its border with Ukraine at levels unseen since its 2014 invasion of Crimea. Policymakers and experts from Kiev and Washington are trying to decipher Moscow’s moves. “If Russia acts recklessly, or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday. Biden on Tuesday spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggesting a summit between them and asking him to withdraw troops from the Ukraine border. Putin made no such commitment.

If that’s not bad enough, as many as 25 Chinese air force jets entered Taiwan’s airspace on Monday in the largest such violation to date. America is committed to defending Taiwan from aggression by China, which claims the territory. “It would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force,” Blinken has said of the crisis there.

So what’s really happening with these multiple hot spots, all flaring up together? Can Biden effectively juggle these myriad new challenges in a summer when his priorities must naturally focus on America’s vaccination program and the economy? After all, he also has to figure out how to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, as his administration has decided.

It isn’t surprising that Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, are challenging the limits of Biden’s resolve with their aggressive moves toward Ukraine and Taiwan. The new president is still finding his feet, three months in office — and though Israel is formally an ally, Netanyahu’s calculations are similar.

There’s a second common thread running through these crises that are on the boil: domestic politics. Netanyahu is trying to cobble together a governing coalition after a fourth election in two years left Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, even more fractured than earlier. Muscular military action has served the conservative prime minister well in the past and should help him with the parties he’s wooing on the Israeli right. Iran is also headed for presidential elections in June, and conservatives who are opposed to a deal with America are expected to gain. That leaves Washington and Tehran with a short window to arrive at a breakthrough — and Netanyahu knows that.

Russia too is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections later this year in the shadow of growing protests against Putin and support for jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. And Xi’s China is facing tough new sanctions from Europe, Canada and the U.S. over human rights violations in Xinjiang. Showing your domestic audience that you’re undeterred and stronger than ever is a time-tested approach that authoritarian leaders frequently adopt when confronted with a perception battle. Putin and Xi are only following that playbook.

But unless Biden takes firm steps in response, and sticks by them, what started out as provocations could easily turn into ticking time bombs. Those measures could include steps toward Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO, greater military support for Taiwan and an unambiguous message to Netanyahu that America won’t be blackmailed — even as it remains committed to Israel’s security.

To be sure, any such move would be fraught with its own risks. For instance, sections in Moscow and Beijing might argue that they need to expedite their expansionist plans before Ukraine and Taiwan move closer to the West’s orbit. China might start by nibbling away at some of the smaller uninhabited islands that belong to Taiwan.

But not responding at all, or doing so only with boilerplate warnings of “consequences,” could prove even riskier for America in the long run. Putin, Xi and Netanyahu are drawing lines in the sand, effectively reminding America of what they could do if pressed. Biden must draw one of his own.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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