SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – "Asia Firster" is the term applied to those who argue that the threat Beijing poses to Taiwan should be Washington's top national security priority.
I think Asia Firsters are right about that, but wrong to jump to the conclusion that Americans must therefore resign themselves to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin crushing Ukraine and Iranian dictator Ali Khamenei becoming the hegemon of the Middle East. As for other corners of the world – they mostly ignore them.
By now we should have learned that when America retreats, America's enemies advance – as Mr. Putin did after President Biden surrendered to the Taliban in 2021; as Mr. Khamenei and the terrorist founders of the Islamic State did after President Obama pulled out of Iraq in 2011.
If Mr. Putin succeeds in using force of arms to alter the European balance of power – I hope you're not so naïve as to suppose he'd be satisfied with Ukraine alone – expect Mr. Khamenei to double down on his attempt to dominate the Middle East. At that point, how likely is it that Mr. Xi would regard American resolve and power as credible deterrents to his plans for Asia?
A broader strategic point: Mr. Xi's doctrine may be Asia First – but it's not Asia Only. The leader of the most powerful Communist Party in history has global ambitions.
"There are changes – the likes of which we haven't seen for 100 years – and we are driving these changes together," Mr. Xi told Mr. Putin on his visit to the Kremlin last month.
Replied Mr. Putin: "I agree."
In the Middle East, Mr. Xi has brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Riyadh also recently approved partial membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Beijing-led political and security bloc that includes Russia and India.
In Africa, China is now a major economic power with a People's Liberation Army base in Djibouti.
In Canada, there have been allegations of Chinese interference in recent elections. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems – I'll phrase this diplomatically – insufficiently troubled.
And here in Sao Paulo, as I'm tapping away on my laptop, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is paying a visit to China. "Partido Comunista Chines Chama Lula de 'Grande Amigo'" is the chyron I'm seeing on a television news channel: "The Chinese Communist Party calls Lula 'a great friend.'" Among the reasons: He's endorsed terminating the U.S. dollar's dominance in international trade.
Brazil has been drifting away from the U.S. and toward the CCP for years. The same is true of many other South American nations.
China is today South America's top trading partner, and a major source of foreign investment and lending. According to Gen. Laura J. Richardson, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, China also is "conducting gray zone activities to expand its military and political access and influence." The CCP is alleged to routinely meddle in elections to achieve outcomes it seeks – with even less scrutiny than in Canada.
Chinese diplomats are not staunch opponents of corruption, especially if such means achieve their ends. They never admonish local leaders over human rights, carbon emissions, and other matters not central to the CCP's interests.
Should we simply say to our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere: "Goodbye and good luck! We're a clumsy giant, currently obsessed with gender, race, and saving the planet, so what can we do?"
In fact, U.S. policy has long been heading in this direction.
For example, ten years ago, John Kerry, then Secretary of State, helped open the doors of Latin America to China's rulers – and any other interested parties – by announcing, at a meeting of the Organization of American States, that the "era of the Monroe Doctrine is over."
A kernel of history: In 1823, President James Madison warned the powerful European empires of the day that the U.S. would oppose further colonization of the Western Hemisphere, and regard as provocative the installation of proxies to rule "our southern brethren." He added that it was the "true policy of the United States to leave the parties to themselves."
I can't imagine a clearer statement of anti-imperialism. Why would Mr. Kerry cancel it? Perhaps because he embraces the fashionable leftist view of the U.S. as a nation that may not – as empires had in the past – plant flags, take territory, and seize resources, but does, nevertheless, seek to advance its own interests and values. How dare we!
Last year, President Biden went further, demanding the resignation of Mauricio Claver-Carone, the first-ever U.S. president of the 64-year-old Inter-American Development Bank. Mr. Claver-Carone saw his primary mission as boosting U.S. influence in the region and limiting the increasing dominance of the Chinese Communist Party within the bank. Why would Mr. Biden cancel that? Your guess is as good as mine.
Elsewhere in the region, Cuba – despite President Obama's eager attempt at rapprochement – remains unfree and hostile to the U.S., with leverage over the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan regimes which, by the way, have become amigos with Iran's rulers.
And in February, President Lula, disregarding U.S. disapproval, permitted two Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro for an unprecedented one-week stay.
Does it matter if Brazil and its neighbors pivot away from the U.S. and toward an expanding geopolitical ecosystem that includes Tehran and Moscow, with Beijing as the apex predator?
Americans can decide that it doesn't, or that only Taiwan is of serious concern, or that unlike China we're incapable of tackling more than one national security challenge at a time. But it would be wise for us to think hard about what that choice will mean for America's future, not to mention that of the wider world.