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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-02-2023 06:50

The great balloon scare

All significant countries spy on one another, so it is hardly surprising that the Chinese dictatorship is busily collecting data about the US and the rest of the world, though it is a bit strange that it would use such a primitive device.

Apart from fans of zombie movies, few people think the streets of major cities will soon be full of the sheetless dead, squeaking and gibbering away because they know something dreadful is about to happen, but even so people who like being frightened do not lack for portents of doom, what with Vladimir Putin hinting he might lob nuclear missiles against countries whose leaders displease him and Joe Biden ordering air force pilots under his command to shoot down any “unidentified flying object” found hovering above parts of the United States or Canada. 

While the White House spokeswoman assured us half-jokingly that the ones so far detected did not look much like alien spacecraft sent to probe the Earthlings’ defences, she evidently did not know where they came from or what they were up to. The most likely explanation is that most, apart from the odd Chinese surveillance balloon, are merely things belonging to commercial enterprises or academic institutions and are no more dangerous than the flocks of high-flying birds that airliners may encounter. 

The way the US government reacted after being informed that a Chinese balloon had been spotted floating above Montana told us more about the current mood in Washington than about anything else. All significant countries spy on one another, so it is hardly surprising that the Chinese dictatorship is busily collecting data about the US and the rest of the world, though it is a bit strange that it would use such a primitive device when, according to specialists, satellites, which now number in their thousands, can do a far better job.

Nonetheless, US officials let it be known that they were profoundly shocked by the behaviour of their Chinese counterparts and immediately called off a programmed visit to Beijing by their top diplomat, Antony Blinken. Are they spoiling for a fight? Perhaps not, but Biden certainly feels that his own political circumstances oblige him to act tough towards any autocrat who may be inclined to think him a weakling. This must be why his subordinates insisted on reminding those interested that Donald Trump did not order the military to bring down the suspicious objects that allegedly entered US airspace when he was in the White House. 

Like most other governments, Biden is looking for a sense of purpose, for something big that will mobilise people and make them overlook the mounting difficulties so many face and which, as is habitual the world over, many blame on whoever is in charge of their country. Until fairly recently, it seemed reasonable to expect that life would continue to get better for almost everyone, but then, after a long period characterised by economic growth which benefitted most middle-class and working-class people, this ceased to be the case. Almost overnight, millions realised that their own personal future would probably be bleaker than they had been led to expect.

To make things worse, the traditional political movements, whether left wing, right wing or somewhere in between, proved unable to provide satisfying answers. In their place arose others which, instead of promising good times for virtually everyone, promote the interests of increasingly narrow ethnic, sexual or ideological groupings which fight viciously for their own particular causes. This is where we are now. Few people have much faith in any overarching and comprehensive view of what society should strive to become. Unless they are feverishly militant activists of some aggressive faction, most limit themselves to keeping their heads down and hoping that somehow or other they will not be hurt by whatever is on the way.

Putin invaded Ukraine because he thought that reviving the Tsarist Empire would give Russia back her lost sense of purpose. For a while, the ploy seemed to work, with most of his compatriots showing they welcomed the imperial mission he had undertaken on their behalf. However, no doubt to his chagrin, it worked even better in the United States, the United Kingdom and much of Europe, where helping the Ukrainians defend democracy against a ruthless tyranny has done much to concentrate minds. It certainly gave Biden an opportunity, which he seized with enthusiasm, to present himself as “the leader of the free world,” and allowed three British prime ministers – Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now, Rishi Sunak – to claim a similar mantle in the European context.

As all these politicians must be aware, in wartime, leaders can concentrate on far simpler matters than those that obsessed them before the fighting began. They can worry less about the evidently intractable problems of the local health services, demographic challenges, unwanted immigration on a massive scale, the long-term dangers attributable to climate change, the enormous costs that, they are beginning to realise, will have to be met if they make a serious attempt to do without fossil fuels and what to do about the elimination of well-paid jobs by wave after wave of computerisation.

Just how much will be changed by Putin’s willingness to drag Russia, the rest of Europe and the US back into the 19th century is still unclear, but it will certainly not be restricted to the renovation of military establishments which had been run down by governments persuaded that they could always enjoy benefits deriving from the post-Soviet “peace dividend.” Before the invasion of Ukraine, nuclear energy seemed to be on the way out, but now governments almost everywhere are planning to multiply the number of power stations. Progressive concerns which, barely a year ago, were considered all-important, now look like trivial distractions because there are other priorities.

For Western politicians, the war in Ukraine has served as a reminder that humankind has not left the past behind. For many, the feeling that they would be well-advised to get back to basics must have come as a relief, though there is a risk that they will overreact, as the Biden administration seems to have done by lashing out so furiously against those pesky UFOs and giving China’s overlords an excuse to feel they could soon come under attack. In Washington, some look back with nostalgia to the days when a brutally totalitarian power, the Soviet Union, threatened the democratic West. China is now playing the same role, which is why those balloons sparked such a remarkable uproar.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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