Intellectuals can’t stop denouncing the West for its legacy of imperialism. But the imperialism on the march today is in the East. Russia and China are determined to consume Ukraine and Taiwan, legacies of the Romanov and Qing dynasties respectively, into the latest versions of their historical empires. Technology has intensified this struggle for imperial geography. Great-power war has become entirely imaginable because of the reduced emphasis on thermonuclear bombs in an era of hypersonic missiles, automated weapons systems, and information warfare. Russia and China demonstrate that the struggle for empire has rarely had such nerve-racking stakes.
The notion that we can play Russia off against China—as the Nixon administration played China off against the Soviet Union—is a fantasy. President Biden’s reward for giving up opposition to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany has been the advance of nearly 100,000 Russian troops to the Ukrainian border area. National security adviser Henry Kissinger’s secret 1971 visit to Beijing occurred in the context of dramatic military tensions on the Chinese-Soviet frontier. China was in desperate need of U.S. help. Russia today has no such need.