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This week, President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping spoke about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, speaking personally for the first time since last November. In early February, before the invasion, Xi and Russian president Vladimir Putin met and issued a 5000-word statement pledging limitless “friendship.” But it is not clear Xi expected either the invasion or how badly it would go for Russia, as Ukraine has held its own against a military eight times its size and as countries across the globe have isolated Russia.
The White House readout of the call indicated that Biden explained the position of the U.S., and “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians.” Xi called for a diplomatic solution and Biden agreed, but it is clear the two leaders mean very different things from that understanding: Xi blames the U.S. for supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons; the U.S. hopes for help putting pressure on Putin.
It does not appear that Xi indicated what China intended to do, and later in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it is a “concern” that China might provide military or financial support to Russia. Still, Xi is facing a historic election in October, and there is little indication that tying China to Russia right now would help his political position. Certainly, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has relied on Russian support, appears now to be rethinking that reliance and is reaching out to rebuild former alliances. He has just visited the United Arab Emirates for the first time since 2011, when the Syrian war broke out.
An update from the Pentagon did not suggest that Russia is winning its war of aggression. It began: “This is Day 23 of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Russians remain largely stalled across the country.”
Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina warned that Russia could treat that Balkan country the same way it is treating Ukraine if Bosnia and Herzegovina decides to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The immediacy of the hot war in Ukraine has driven some important issues out of the news.
First, the war has affected not only Ukraine’s people and infrastructure, but also its ability to produce wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Before the war, Ukraine was the world’s second-biggest exporter of grains and biggest exporter of sunflower oil. It provided over half of the corn imports to the European Union, about a fifth of its soft wheat, and almost a quarter of its vegetable oil. (Soft wheat has less protein—gluten—than hard wheat, corn feeds Europe’s animals, and sunflower oil is in processed foods, including baby food, where it is hard to replace.)
Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged farmers to plant as much as they possibly can, but Russians are moving into valuable farming land and killing farmers. Supply chains for fertilizer and animal feed are breaking down, causing prices to skyrocket just at planting season; roads and bridges are bombed out; and ships cannot leave ports in the Black Sea, meaning they cannot transport crops. Food prices in Europe are almost certainly going to spike this year.
More immediately, millions of the world’s poorest people, who are dependent on Ukrainian grains, are going to suffer. Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, and Turkey all depend on wheat from Ukraine. A disruption in grain supplies will send those countries into the market, driving up prices globally, especially as countries with their own grain slap controls on grain exports to make sure their people have enough. That will hurt the world’s least food-secure countries, like Bangladesh and Yemen. The U.N. World Food Programme has predicted 2022 will be “a year of catastrophic hunger.”
Second, here in the U.S., Biden’s nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, announced on February 25, has been proceeding as Jackson meets with senators who will cast votes on her confirmation. The American Bar Association today rated Jackson, a 51-year-old graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School with an impressive career history including service as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, “well qualified” to serve on the court. This is its highest rating.
Republicans are opposing Jackson on the grounds that she has been easy on sex offenders who hurt children. This is easy to debunk—in fact, Jackson’s sentences were consistent with those of other judges—but it is enormously telling, since calling opponents sex predators is a common theme in today’s global right-wing movement as oligarchs or autocrats try to solidify their power by mobilizing an angry voter base.
In 2013, Putin shored up his waning popularity by passing legislation that banned allowing children to see “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” launching an attack on LGBTQ Russians. He said that Russia would defend “traditional” values against an assault of “genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance” that he said “equals good and evil.” He equated modern liberal democracies, with their defense of the rights of all, with pedophilia.
American evangelicals embraced that connection. Franklin Graham wrote: “In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues…. [H]e has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” Since then, those opposed to modern liberal democracy have doubled down on the idea that they are opposing pedophilia, circulating stories about an underage sex ring in a Washington D.C., pizza parlor, for example.
That smear of liberal democracy with the stain of pedophilia covers over the destruction of democracy and covers up the concentration of power into the hands of a favored few. While Republicans are hinting that the well-respected Judge Jackson is soft on sex criminals, they are working to gather power into their own hands.
The third story that has flown under the radar is that the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Florida senator Rick Scott, has provided a blueprint for what the Republicans will do if they get a majority in the next election. In “An 11-point plan to rescue America,” produced by the group responsible for electing Republican senators, Scott promised that the Republicans “will protect, defend, and promote the American Family at all costs.” The plan continues: “The nuclear family is crucial to civilization, it is God’s design for humanity, and it must be protected and celebrated. To say otherwise is to deny science. The fanatical left seeks to devalue and redefine the traditional family, as they undermine parents and attempt to replace them with government programs. We will not allow Socialism to place the needs of the state ahead of the family.”
The plan promises that children will say the Pledge of Allegiance and “learn that America is a great country,” they will not learn critical race theory, and discussion of race will be banned from American society. The country will build former president Trump’s border wall and name it after him.
To protect the family, the Republican plan calls for destroying the business regulation, social safety net, federal promotion of infrastructure, and protection of civil rights that Americans have embraced since the 1930s and handing power over to the wealthy. It promises to “grow America’s economy, starve Washington’s economy, and stop socialism,” by which Republicans mean not international socialism in which the government owns the means of production—factories—for that is not on the table in the U.S. Instead, they mean a system in which voters can create a government that regulates business and uses tax dollars to provide services for all Americans.
Republicans, the plan says, will dramatically increase taxes on Americans earning less than $100,000, raising $1 trillion over ten years, although since they will also cut the Internal Revenue Service by 50%, the government might be hard-pressed to collect those taxes. Since “government should not be doing anything that the private sector can do better and cheaper,” they will make sure all laws expire after five years, ending them with the idea that Congress will simply repass good laws. They would end Social Security (which, by the way, protects children as well as the elderly and disabled), Medicare, Medicaid, and so on. They will sell off all “non-essential” government assets, buildings, and land (are national parks essential?) and cut funding to states “other than disaster relief.”
This plan is “easily the most radical document put forward by a member of the leadership of a major political party in modern times,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote.
“Americans deserve to know what we will do,” Scott said in his introduction to the plan.
Indeed, we do.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared on her Substack, Letters from an American.