No one is rocking in the ‘free world’

Secretary Antony Blinken on the guitar during his recent visit to Israel. PHOTO: Videograb from syndicated service

It was a little bit on the nose. On a trip to Kyiv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken swapped his suit for a more casual button-down and appeared, a guitar slung over his shoulder, at the front of a stage in a bar in the Ukrainian capital. There – before a crowd of locals, U.S. diplomats and the traveling press pack that accompanies him on his official trips – Blinken performed a rendition of the 1989 song “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” by Canadian American musician Neil Young.

According to my colleague Michael Birnbaum, who was in attendance Tuesday night, the audience “erupted in applause when Blinken belted out the chorus: ‘Keep on rockin’ in the free world.’” Before the United States’ top diplomat did his crooning, he offered an explanation for his chosen performance.

“The United States is with you. So much of the world is with you,” Blinken said as he readied to perform alongside a Kyiv punk band. “And they’re fighting, not just for a free Ukraine, but for the free world. And the free world is with you too.”

The next day, though, Blinken had to face up to some more sober realities. At a news conference next to his Ukrainian counterpart, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the duo reckoned with Russia’s new offensive on the major Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and the stretched resources of Ukraine’s embattled military. Kuleba pointed to the harmful impact of delays in foreign military aid, including a major holdup by Republicans in Congress that stalled the delivery of desperately needed munitions and arms to Ukraine’s front lines.

“When a Ukrainian infantryman or artilleryman has everything that he or she needs, we are winning,” Kuleba said. “Every time there are delays in supplies and insufficient supplies, we are not winning. The law of the war is cruel but very clear.”

The “free world” invoked by Blinken is struggling to win. In the shadow of the war in Ukraine, the world’s two great autocratic powers – China and Russia – are finding strength in each other. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing, a visit that reflects not simply Russia’s dependence on China in the face of Western sanctions, but a growing convergence in values and political priorities. “Together, we defend the principles of justice and a democratic world order that reflects multipolar realities,” Putin said after their meetings, invoking talking points that set their countries in opposition to a U.S.-led international order.

“China’s ongoing diplomatic and material support for Russia and the war against Ukraine – even as Beijing portrays itself as a potential mediator – troubles democracies,” The Washington Post reported. “Xi is particularly interested in Russia winning in Ukraine because of what it could mean for his oft-stated ambitions to take control of Taiwan.”

More than two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin and Xi may engage in a substantive debrief. “It is time to compare notes with China now that Putin believes Russia is gaining an upper hand against Ukraine and has a bigger say in whether and when to end the war,” Wan Qingsong, an associate professor at the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai, told The Post. “China may have a different assessment but needs to listen to what Russia has to say.”

Beyond the strategic deliberations, a major cultural shift is taking place within Russia, thanks to its pivot to China. “From the other side of the Iron Curtain, Europe was seen as a beacon of human rights, prosperity and technological development, a space that many Soviet citizens aspired to be part of,” wrote Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Now a growing number of educated Russians, on top of feeling bitterness toward Europe for its punitive sanctions, see China as a technologically advanced and economically superior power to which Russia is ever more connected. With no easy way back to normal ties with the West, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.”

Meanwhile, in the West, liberal democracies and the principles they supposedly espouse are broadly under stress. The Biden administration’s moral grandstanding that complements its more tangible support for Ukraine has cratered in the war-ravaged moonscapes of Gaza, where the United States finds itself aiding and abetting a military campaign that has led to more than 34,600 Palestinians killed – many of them women and children – and triggered a rolling humanitarian disaster and an ongoing trial over alleged genocide at the International Court of Justice.

Elections and other political developments in Europe are seeing the steady advance of illiberal forces. These include factions more sympathetic to the Kremlin than the government Blinken was backing in Kyiv. On Thursday, it appeared that the Dutch far right – once kept firmly out of the political mainstream – will be a major player in a new government in the Netherlands after weeks of wrangling over a ruling coalition. Over the objections of E.U. officials and liberal politicians, as well as mass protests in Tbilisi, Georgia’s Russia-friendly government approved a controversial “foreign agent” law that critics fear will restrict civil society in the country. The legislation, which borrows in spirit from existing laws in Russia, may be aped by nationalist politicians in other European countries.

And then there’s the United States itself, where the return to office of former president Donald Trump, no matter the sprawling legal cases against him, looks a distinct possibility. Speculation is rife that a Trump second term could see the United States either formally leave NATO or functionally turn its back on the Western military alliance.

“Without U.S. leadership in NATO, cohesion and unity among members would be difficult to maintain,” wrote Hans Binnendijk, Alexander Vershbow and R.D. Hooker Jr. (who briefly served in the Trump White House) in an essay in Foreign Affairs.

“NATO without the United States might limp along, but it is more likely that the alliance would collapse altogether,” they added. “The European Union is not in a position to take NATO’s place any time soon, as its military capabilities are limited and more capable of managing regional crises than fighting major wars. Even if a rump NATO survives without strong American involvement, the challenges of divided leadership, inadequate deterrence capabilities, and an assertive adversary would heighten the risk of war with Russia, a major power bent on overturning the liberal international order.”

The free world, in other words, could get all the more rocked.



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