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Chinese President Xi Jinping and then–Vice President Joe Biden shake hands.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then–Vice President Joe Biden shake hands. (Photo: Lintao Zhang / Getty Images)

US Corporate Media Fixin for a Cold War Fight With China

Inflaming tensions like these has a very long and bloody history.

US media are fixin’ for a fight with China, Russia—or both. Commentary on the recent G7 and NATO summits, as well as President Joe Biden’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was replete with examples of news outlets alternately praising the Biden administration for ramping up new cold wars with China and Russia, and criticizing it for not being even more aggressive. As it propagandized about the US supposedly fighting for democracy, this coverage betrayed a total indifference to the potential costs of these hostilities.

Putting missiles to ‘actual use’

A Wall Street Journal editorial (6/22/21) explicitly praised Democrats and Republicans for escalating the possibility of nuclear war:

A bipartisan consensus is forming that accepts and capitalizes on President Trump’s 2019 exit from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This is good news for American security.

The INF treaty between Washington and Moscow banned all nuclear and non-nuclear missiles with short and medium ranges, except sea-launched weapons; the Journal argued that the INF constrained a US nuclear build-up, while China was free to develop its nuclear arsenal. Yet China has an estimated total of 320 nuclear warheads, less than 6% of the size of the US’s 5,800-warhead nuclear arsenal (The Nation, 5/19/21).

Nevertheless, the Journal’s editors want the US government to pursue the means for nuclear holocaust even more voraciously than it has: The 2022 Biden defense budget, they write, doesn’t let the INF restrain the US, but “doesn’t take as much advantage of the post-INF possibilities as it should.” They go on to argue:

The biggest failing is that the budget doesn’t fulfill the Marines’ $96 million request to buy 48 Tomahawk missiles, part of the corps’ proof-of-concept for a more versatile force in and around Pacific islands. That could suggest some remaining skittishness in the Biden Pentagon about putting ground-launched weapons with significant range into actual use.

The cataclysmic consequences for human life and the environment of putting such weapons “into actual use” apparently does not merit the paper’s contemplation. But a typical modern nuclear weapon can flatten the downtown of an entire city, “burn everything flammable in an area at least four miles across,” while the “burning cities could inject enough soot and smoke into the stratosphere to blot out the sun, dramatically disrupt the climate, ruin crop production, and put billions of people at risk of starvation” (Progressive, 6/1/19).

The ‘Chinese challenge’

William A. Galston of the Journal (6/22/21) was similarly upfront with his warmongering:

It remains to be seen whether we can agree on the investments and strategic decisions that an effective military response to the Chinese challenge will require—and whether we can restore a sense of common purpose across partisan lines without which such a response cannot be sustained.

Galston’s use of the word “will” is the key here: a costly arms race between the two nuclear powers is, in his view, an inevitability, rather than a dangerous possibility that strenuous efforts should be taken to avoid.

Galston’s rationale for maximum hostility toward China is partly based on “28 Chinese fighter jets and other aircraft conduct[ing] exercises over waters south of Taiwan.” He wrote as though the US hasn’t been carrying out such exercises to menace China since well before Chinese flights near Taiwan: The US has sent a nuclear-capable B-52 to the South China Sea, along with cruisers, destroyers and submarines, while also overflying the area with two nuclear-capable B-1B supersonic bombers, and sailing a guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of Chinese military bases (The Nation, 7/30/20).

US/Russia bombast

Bombast about US/Russia relations was roughly as plentiful as anti-China warmongering.

In the Washington Post (6/20/21), George Will criticized NATO members for not “stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will deepen Europe’s, and especially Germany’s, dependence on Russian energy.” He didn’t say exactly which means he thinks NATO should employ to stop the pipeline. However, Will was clear that he favors having US troops on European soil to try to intimidate Russia, increasing the chances of a ground war in the continent: “President Biden,” Will said, “has wisely reversed his predecessor’s order reducing US forces in Germany.”

Will’s preference for a military standoff with Russia was that much more apparent when he complained that NATO members aren’t spending enough on their militaries, writing that

it is probable that only the United States, Britain and five smaller nations will in 2022 spend the 2% of their gross domestic product on their militaries that is the minimal target that NATO adopted seven years ago to be reached by 2024.

Will doesn’t note that NATO’s combined military budget in 2020 exceeded $1 trillion—as compared to Russia’s estimated annual military expenditure of $61 billion.

Will ridiculed past NATO rhetoric that suggested the possibility of sustained cooperation with Russia, presenting a litany of reasons he thinks Russia can’t be trusted. He omits the context of NATO growing by 14 countries since the end of the Cold War, reaching Russia’s border in 2004, in violation of promises that presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton made to Russian leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin (Jacobin, 7/16/18).

‘Steady pressure’ on Russia

Alexander Vindman, director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council from 2018 to 2020, penned an essay in the New York Times (6/16/21) that praised Biden for promising a “muscular response” to Russian activities. He endorsed “steady pressure” on Russia, arguing that “the United States will need to remain engaged with Russia in order to provide clarity on the severe ramifications of further transgressions.”

Vindman further claimed that

constraining Russia’s belligerence will take far more than tough talk or unilateral US actions. It will take unwavering toughness from Mr. Biden and a solid front among allies—all united and clear-eyed in the belief that Mr. Putin is fundamentally an adversary who needs to be kept in check.

The author said that he wanted to avoid “full-blown confrontation” between the US and Russia, even as he advocated confrontational policies of the sort that “muscular,” “severe ramifications” and “unwavering toughness” to keep Russia “in check” call to mind.

Besides the phrase “Russia’s belligerence,” Vindman wrote of “Russian aggression” three times and “Russia’s growing aggression” once. Casting Russia as an implacable enemy, and the US and its allies as helpless victims, points readers to the conclusion that Russia must be stopped, and that the only way it can be stopped is through force. The US’s plans to co-host annual NATO military exercises with Ukraine in the Black Sea, right in Russia’s neighborhood, from June 29 to July 10 (Newsweek, 6/7/21) complicates this narrative, which could be why Vindman doesn’t mention them.

Democracy-washing

Former foreign service officer Elizabeth Shackelford wrote in the Chicago Tribune (6/17/21) that “America today is arming up economically and diplomatically, as well as militarily, to take on not only a rising China but growing authoritarianism across the globe.” Despite professing a desire to “keep a hot war at bay,” Shackelford democracy-washed the US’s “arming up,” casting moves that increase the risk of war as standing up to repression.

One of America’s more puzzling strategies to “take on . . . growing authoritarianism across the globe” is giving the Colombian government approximately $300 million per year, roughly half of which goes to country’s military and police, forces that appear to have killed at least 41 protesters in two weeks in May, and are accused of dozens of sexual assaults against demonstrators (Foreign Policy, 5/19/21).

A Washington Post op-ed (6/17/21) from E.J. Dionne Jr. on the Biden/Putin meeting uncritically repeated US government talking points about its noble intentions. Dionne wrote of “the gulf between the thuggish habits of the Russian leader’s regime and Biden’s hopes for a world friendlier to democratic liberties.”

Dionne saw no contradiction between Biden’s supposed ideals and his government’s policies, which include continuing to transfer arms to Israel (Wall Street Journal, 5/23/21) despite its use of such arms to kill 247 Palestinians—66 of them children—a people to whom Israel denies “democratic liberties”  (FAIR.org, 4/26/19).

Human rights ‘their’ problem

Vindman in the New York Times (6/16/21) wrote that what he

found most reassuring were Mr. Biden’s statements that he would stand firm on defending democratic values, be critical of human rights violations, protect the free press and seek justice for American citizens wrongfully detained by the Russian government.

Vindman appears only to be concerned with human rights violations inside Russia, and perhaps in nations where Russia has influence. Even though he lives in the United States, he evidently does not seek “reassuring” that Biden will seek to curb human rights violations that the United States carries out both inside and outside its borders. Yet, as FAIR founder Jeff Cohen (Salon, 6/22/21) pointed out:

There is no more precious human right than the right to be free from jail or prison. So it’s a human rights violation of epic proportions that the United States has more than 2 million people incarcerated, way more than any other country.

There’s also the human right to not be shot to death by the police, but more than 5,000 American have died that way since 2015. These extrajudicial killings are also discriminatory: Black people are 140% and Latinx people 80% more likely to be killed by police violence than whites (Washington Post, 7/30/21).

The US tortures migrant children (Pediatrics, 1/21). It executed 17 people last year, 22 the year before that, and has been the only country in the Americas to execute anybody for 12 years running.

The US government, of course, also habitually curtails thousands of humans’ rights by invading their countries and killing them (Jacobin, 6/19/14; In These Times, 8/1/18, 8/18/20). Nothing in Vindman’s article betrayed a concern for such rights violations, which unlike anything that happens in Russia, his audience might actually be able to affect.

Cold wars turn hot

Helping to create a climate for a great power confrontation is not the only problem with the media inflaming new cold wars with China and Russia. While the US and the Soviet Union avoided a direct, full-scale military conflict with each other during the original Cold War, it was in that context that the US directly and indirectly killed millions in Korea, Southeast Asia, Central America and Africa. Already the present century’s US/Russia cold war is one dimension of the scorching wars in Libya, Syria and Ukraine. When corporate media advocate for the new cold wars, they are endorsing more slaughters like these.


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Gregory Shupak

Gregory Shupak

Gregory Shupak teaches media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto. His book, "The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media," is published by OR Books.

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