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China’s Vast Sovereignty Claims Are Becoming Reality

 

On June 13, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin held an extraordinary press conference in which he made a series of audacious statements about the sprawling reach of the Middle Kingdom’s territorial sovereignty. Placed in the context of China’s other recent actions and statements, the incredible size and shape of its regional ambitions are brought into sharp relief.

In simple terms, Beijing is determined to thoroughly dominate its region.

Wang began by addressing Canada’s protests over China’s harassment of its reconnaissance aircraft, which were enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea. It was China, Wang countered, that had reason to be “threatened” by Canada, complaining about “the Canadian military aircraft that flew thousands of miles to harass China at its doorstep.”

This is patent nonsense, of course. China voted for the sanctions in question, together with the “enhanced vigilance” against illicit petroleum transfers the unarmed Canadian plane was deployed to ensure. This wasn’t about threats to China. Rather, it was part of a brazen pattern designed to deter and intimidate foreign ships and aircraft from operating legally in China’s rapidly growing sphere of influence—specifically the international sea and airspace that China wants the world to accept as its own sovereign territory.

And make no mistake, that claimed territory is massive, including well over 3.5 million square miles of the maritime commons and the skies above it. Of course, China has not yet gained complete control over all this watery space, but its effective control is growing and its ambitions are increasingly clear.

Just ask the crew of the Australian P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft that on May 26 was buzzed by a Chinese fighter jet near the Paracel islands. The fighter also released flares near the Australian plane, followed by aluminum strips called chaff, some of which were dangerously ingested into the Poseidon’s engines.

Again, Beijing’s military spokesperson was quick to pin the “dangerous and provocative” label on the target of its aggression, declaring that the unarmed Australian plane “threatened China’s sovereignty” because it “approached China’s territorial airspace” over the Paracels. It is noteworthy that China did not claim the aircraft actually violated its (already exaggerated) territorial claims in the Paracels, but disinformation is central to its rhetorical strategy.

This strategy begins by effectively nullifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which it signed in 1996 and has never formally abrogated. While still giving occasional lip service to this agreement, Beijing pivots to claim “historic rights” over the entirety of its preposterous nine-dashed line around the South China Sea. Under this formulation, this vast maritime commons is unilaterally reclassified as China’s domestic territory, ostensibly marking it outside of UNCLOS’ purview.

China’s government then embarked on a bold campaign to back up its claim by sheer force of overwhelming presence. It did so by building out its occupied rocks and reefs into bases capable of sustaining both forward-deployed military assets and—more immediately—its rapidly expanding maritime militia.

Thus, when a UN tribunal ruled in 2016 that its claims were nonsense, Beijing could simply shrug its shoulders. Having already changed the facts on the reclaimed ground to ensure its smaller neighbors would dance to its tune, China has determined that might will eventually make right in the South China Sea.

Further north, China’s claims rely on a somewhat different obfuscation, as evidenced by Wang’s June 13 comments. Referring to the Canadian flights, he said that “none of the relevant Security Council resolutions mandated any country to deploy forces for surveillance operations in the sea or airspace under the jurisdiction of another country” (emphasis added).

Where specifically was this alleged violation of China’s “jurisdiction”? Wang didn’t elaborate, but we know that China has increasingly expansive views on this, and makes liberal use of smoke and mirrors to justify these as somehow consistent with international law.

We need only to look at another of Wang’s June 13 assertions to see this phenomenon in action: “According to UNCLOS and Chinese laws, the waters of the Taiwan Strait, extending from both shores toward the middle of the Strait, are divided into several zones including internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and the Exclusive Economic Zone. China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”

Wang’s device here is to conflate the definition of the territorial sea, which extends a mere 12 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline, with that of the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. While UNCLOS does grant a degree of sovereignty over the former (and even that does not prohibit straight-line innocent passage), the latter grants the coastal state only the right to exploit maritime resources, while explicitly retaining the uninhibited freedom of navigation and overflight for “all nations”.

The bottom line here is that China is engaged in a long-term power play. Its mouthpieces will continue to muddy the rhetorical waters, believing that while it cannot win the debate on the legal merits, it can keep its intimidated rivals off-balance while strengthening its military position until such time as it no longer matters what the law says.

Spider-Man Defies Beijing over Statue of Liberty

 

Chinese authorities tried to tell Sony to edit the Statue of Liberty out of the most recent Spider-Man film. Sony told them to pound sand and left hundreds of millions of dollars on the table.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Chinese regulators reportedly modified the original request to remove the action-packed sequence, instead asking for the removal of certain shots from the sequence that they deemed too “patriotic,” such as the scenes where Tom Holland’s Spider-Man stands on the Statue of Liberty’s crown. The regulators also suggested dimming the parts when the statue is shown to make it less noticeable.

Sony ultimately rejected the request, resulting in Chinese authorities preventing the latest Spider-Man film from being released in the biggest film market in the world. The film lost a potential $170 million-$340 million in sales from China, according to reports.

With that much money on the table it’s hard to imagine Sony’s decision was entirely based on patriotism. If you’ve seen the movie it would be very hard to lose Lady Liberty as she was the site of the final battle. Editing her out would have been a little too brazen even for Hollywood.

Even so … good for Sony.

The Solomon Islands’ Pact with China

 

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Beijing on October 9, 2019.

Recent news about the Solomon Islands’ new security agreement with China sent Americans scrambling for their atlases. Not so in Australia, which has been watching this issue closely for years and sees this issue as potentially existential. To understand why harkens back to World War II.

When I was the U.S. defense attache in Canberra, around this time of year I found myself giving speeches and laying wreaths at the annual Battle of the Coral Sea events. To be honest, I had to get a lot smarter on the Coral Sea, as I hadn’t previously assigned as much importance to it as to other Pacific naval battles–Pearl Harbor and Midway, for example. But for the Aussies, who had just seen their primary security partners (the British) surrender in Singapore, the fact the Yanks showed up and stopped the Japanese fleet before it reached Australian shores meant everything, and we became their new best “mates”.

Thus do the Aussies make it a point to remember Coral Sea, as well as the fact that Imperial Japan sought to cut their sea line of communication (“SLOC” in military lingo) to the US by taking the islands that lay along it. That’s why rumors of a Chinese base in Vanuatu four years back — barely noted in the U.S. — constituted a five-alarm fire for Australia.

Since that time, both the U.S. and Australia have increased their attention to the South Pacific islands, though in very different ways. The U.S. has largely concentrated its efforts on the Compact States, with which we have our own security agreements, while letting Australia take the lead for those places closer to its shores. This was for two very simple reasons: (1.) we can’t be everywhere (we don’t even have an Embassy in the Solomons at present), and (2.) Australia just knows these places better.

The basic problem, simply put, is that Beijing practices a corrupt form of diplomacy called “elite capture“, which is simply the willingness to pay bribes to a country’s decision-makers, a phenomenon last reported when the government was enticed to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. In fact, when 60 Minutes Australia sent a camera crew to the Solomons that same year, they found leaders willing to talk on camera about the Chinese bribery attempts they’d personally experienced. Prime Minister Sogavare knows his people aren’t exactly crazy about relations with China, but Beijing knows he likes money, so …

Australia isn’t done, and may yet avert a Chinese military base. Just last year they provided the Solomons new patrol boats under a successful program they’ve run for three decades with nearby island nations. This book is far from written, but the opening chapters have been ominous.

Eight Important Lessons on Deterrence from Ukraine

 

There’s nothing that complicated about deterrence theory. To successfully deter potential adversaries from doing bad things to you and your friends, they need to believe you are willing and able to do unacceptably bad things to them and their friends in response. The degree to which they believe this is the degree to which deterrence is effective. Hence, successful deterrence employs the tactic of ambiguity to create doubt in adversaries’ minds over how far you may be willing to go, which is where the phrase “all options are on the table” has often been employed through past conflicts and crises.

So, what lessons have we learned about deterrence over the past two months?

  1. To the extent it was tried, deterrence failed to keep Russia from invading Ukraine. Putin did not believe that Ukraine was able to thwart its invasion, or that its leaders were willing to stay and fight. He also did not believe that NATO nations would be willing to provide aid or endure prolonged risk and economic hardship.
  2. The shambolic withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan undermined deterrence by increasing Putin’s sense that NATO was unwilling to fight, and perhaps also that its forces were less able than previously believed.
  3.  Our pre-invasion messaging undermined deterrence, as the U.S. removed ambiguity about our willingness to fight by clearly stating the limits of how far we would go. In particular, President Biden’s repeated public announcements that the U.S. would not send troops worked directly against deterrence objectives.
  4. After the invasion NATO engaged in acts of self-deterrence, especially in its way-too-public debate over what to do with Poland’s MiG-29s. By labeling this action “too provocative”, we managed to communicate to both ourselves and Putin that we were afraid of him and drew the circle of our options tighter around ourselves.
  5. On the other hand, Russia’s own conventional deterrent has taken a huge hit by its abysmal performance on the field of battle. The world’s estimation of what Russia is able to do via conventional military means has been drastically reduced.
  6. This effect is marginally offset by Russia’s wanton destruction of Ukrainian cities and other war crimes, as its adversaries are vividly reminded of the extent to which Russia is willing to inflict pain on civilian targets.
  7. The failure of Russia’s conventional military gives vastly increased significance to its nuclear deterrent. NATO nations would almost certainly be debating a much more robust and even direct response against Russian forces in Ukraine were Putin not sitting on a pile of nukes; meaning that we believe he remains able to inflict unimaginable pain on us, and that we have some reason to believe he might be willing to use them (the now infamous “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine).
  8. The importance of nuclear weapons as a deterrent has thus been dramatically elevated as a result of this war–not only by #7 above, but recall that Ukraine gave up its nukes in ’94 for what turned out to be a sack of magic beans (worthless assurances of Russian non-aggression). This will severely undermine the case for nuclear non-proliferation across the globe, as any country with significant security concerns will now have to recalculate the risks and rewards of having its own nuclear deterrent.

Casualty of War: Russia’s Arms Industry

 

One of the many casualties of Putin’s war in Ukraine will likely be Russia’s global arms industry, which was already in trouble both financially and reputationally.

The appeal of Russian gear to foreign markets has long been:

  1. Its low cost compared to western counterparts.
  2. Its unconcern over such messy details as the client’s human rights record or intended use for the weapons.
  3. Its under-the-table generosity to corrupt government officials and purchasing agents.

Unfortunately for Russia’s arms merchants, the war has made their job much more challenging for three key reasons:

  1. Sanctions. US law imposes sanctions on countries that buy arms from Russia. Many countries have been able to avoid CAATSA penalties by securing waivers through the State Department, but these were intended to be exceptional and transitory, and will now be much harder to get. Even before the war kicked off, Indonesia gave up on its quest for Russian fighters in favor of US and French models, due in large part to tightening CAATSA enforcement.
  2. Supply chains. Russia will have far fewer weapons to sell internationally if it needs them to fight its war. In this sense, the arms merchants gain a short-term boon while they’re meeting the increased domestic demand. However, you can’t sell abroad an artillery shell that’s otherwise employed raining death on Mariupol, so the longer the war drags on the more their international customers will be forced to find new suppliers.
  3. The poor performance of the Russian army has exposed it as a pretty hollow force. Sure, there are lots of other reasons Putin’s army has performed badly, but for Russia’s arms manufacturers this has been the marketing equivalent of the great Ford Pinto gas-tank debacle of the 1970s.

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One Final Military Thanksgiving

 

Today marks my final Thanksgiving Day in uniform. I have spent it largely alone, as the Middle East dust has been playing Old Harry with my sinuses, sharply limiting my opportunities for fellowship. I did make an exception to go serve the troops at the dining facility, or “DFAC” in our military lingo. I was entrusted with the corn-on-the-cob, collard greens and gravy. They kept me away from the carving knives, which was probably the right call, manual dexterity not being my strong suit.

I can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic–indeed, thankful–as I tic off each of these “lasts” through this final year on active duty, an extraordinarily fulfilling 35-year adventure from start to finish. The Air Force collected me from a disastrous early college experience, gave me a trade and sufficient structure to get me through those undisciplined early adult years, and then let me go back to school once I’d grown up enough to handle it. It sent me to amazing places and introduced me to even more amazing people–including my lifelong friend and soul-mate, who willingly signed up for the rest of the journey.

The Air Force also gave me the chance to have incredible experiences, some carefully planned but most completely unexpected. I have briefed Congressional delegations and cabinet secretaries, organized Presidential visits abroad, and flown with an allied Prime Minister to the deck of an American aircraft carrier. I’ve walked to the summit of Mount Fuji, upon the ancient birthplace of Abraham, through what’s left of the Hanoi Hilton, and beneath the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate at Auschwitz. I have marched down Constitution Avenue on the Fourth of July and laid our veterans–including one U.S. Senator–to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. I have lived through typhoons, earthquakes, coup attempts, insurgent attacks, Australian bushfires, and a Philippine volcanic eruption. I’ve been evacuated from one country by air and another by sea. I have organized medical outreach missions in developing countries, as well as urban outreach projects in Southeast DC.

All this in just three and a half decades! For this and so much more, I am deeply thankful this year–this final Thanksgiving in uniform.

Trump’s Disruptive Foreign Policy

 

The following began its brief life as a comment on another recent post, but after reflection I thought maybe it was cogent enough to stand on its own. On the foreign policy front, I suspect I may be the only one here who has served in Embassies, including during the Trump era. This is what I will say about that.

  1. I’m sure I won’t break any news when I say that most of the foreign policy establishment leans left and is distressed when any Republican is elected but was especially so in 2016. This is not only true of our dear State Department friends but across the entire transnational community of foreign policy elites.
  2. Continuing as Captain Obvious, DJT is a norm-breaker, and the foreign policy community seriously loves it some norms–and resents when they are broken.
  3. Of course, some norms badly needed to be broken. In particular, the national and international foreign policy consensus on China urgently needed to move, and this administration succeeded in catalyzing that movement. The 2017 National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy were masterfully done. They met a critical need to generate a global awakening about the failure of the previous consensus on Beijing, probably best summarized by Robert Zoellick’s 2005 “Responsible Stakeholder” speech. Someone had to end the charade, and it’s worth wondering whether a more conventional administration of either party could have overcome the entrenched consensus to have boldly introduced major-power competition as the new normal–so successfully that even the professionals now agree that we can’t go back to the status quo ante on China.
  4. Israel and the Middle East is the other major area where the foreign policy consensus simply had to be sidelined. I recently spoke to a State Department official who–in the context of a discussion about normalization with the UAE and Bahrain–seethed angrily about how this Administration had trashed 70 years of foreign policy consensus on Palestine. Without irony. Sometimes the conventional wisdom must be firmly rejected.
  5. Getting our allies to finally invest in their own defense is also a plus.
  6. Having said that, we are paying a price for appearing capricious and unnecessarily dismissive of our allies. Sure, they can be difficult, but they remain our allies and we do need to keep them on our side. Those same national security documents make it clear that major-power competition is a team sport, and we have to bring the team along if we’re going to win. And we must win.
  7. Also, the incessantly revolving door of senior officials (especially SecDefs and National Security Advisors) has been extremely disruptive to getting important work done in the international space.
  8. Finally, there’s been a dearth of consistently strong and vocal leadership on our American principles (democracy, rule of law, human rights, etc.), particularly since Nikki Haley stepped down as U.N. Ambassador. Foreign policy requires salesmanship, and ours would benefit from some strength, steadiness, and consistency on these themes.

Bottom line, this administration has served as a corrective to some badly flawed policy. Disruption was absolutely necessary, but at some point should start to give way to stability and focused team-building.

My humble opinion only.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Volcanic Apocalypse …

 

A pick-up truck desperately tries to outrun a cloud of ash spewing from the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. (Photo: Alberto Garcia)

I was just 24 years old on June 15, 1991 … the day the world ended. I waited quietly for the apocalypse at a rectangular folding table with a beige telephone, a green logbook, and a squadron personnel roster. My station that day was at Subic Bay Naval Base, which was not my home.

Up until five nights previously, my home had been the cozy little two-bedroom apartment that the recently married Mrs. Jailer and I had been assigned at Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines. Clark was about 30 miles–as the indigenous F-4 Phantom flew–southwest of Subic Bay.

But that was before the vulcanologists showed up in April and said we had a problem.

Mount Arayat

Strangely enough, this particular “problem” was not Mount Arayat, that very volcanic-looking dormant volcano that dominated Clark’s western skyline. Rather, Mount Pinatubo was all but hidden within the comparatively modest Zambales Mountain range to our east, where it had sat quietly dormant for the past 500 years or so–planning our doom.

So when the experts showed up, pointed at the steam coming off that range, and explained we might need to evacuate this massive American military base, we the unwashed masses mostly responded with, “Whatever, dude.”

Just two months later we found ourselves frantically executing emergency-destruct protocols–burning, shredding, and mulching reams of classified documents in anticipation of an imminent bug-out order.

That order came on June 9. We gathered around our televisions as the base commander explained over a Far East Network broadcast how 15,000 people would pack up our essentials and drive our private vehicles from Clark to Subic in the morning. So began Operation Fiery Vigil, the evacuation of US forces from the Philippines.

The following day, at our appointed time, Mrs. Jailer and I climbed into our car and drove to the flight line, where we joined the procession out the little-used Mabalacat Gate and down the road toward Subic Bay. On a normal day, the trip might have taken a couple of hours, but the two-lane roads were not built for the wholesale relocation of a small city in a single day.

We crawled slowly along from morning to evening. All the while, MH-53 helicopters patrolled overhead to watch for mundane problems like vehicle breakdowns, as well as far more serious threats like the “Sparrow” units from the communist New Peoples Army which had recently killed two Airmen outside Clark.

We were pretty exhausted when we finally rolled through the gate at Subic, where we then faced the next logistical challenge: where would they put 15,000 people? We stood patiently in long lines waiting for someone to tell us where we could go.

One of several “minor” eruptions, June 12-14, 1991.

While waiting, I have a vivid memory of a guy walking by us with one of the common “I Survived Clark Air Base” t-shirts that listed the myriad calamities we’d grown used to over recent years: typhoons, earthquakes, general strikes, assassinations, coup attempts, etc. I said to him, “Now you’ll have to get a new t-shirt!” He said, “Nah, they took care of it” and turned around. On the back was a picture of a volcano.

The text read, “Now what?

After spending our first night in a movie theater, Mrs. Jailer and I were finally placed with a Navy couple with a spare bedroom, where we settled in to see what would happen next. We didn’t have to wait long, as the mountain began to belch plumes of ash the very next day. It was almost beautiful from a “safe” distance.

Satellite photo of the volcano-typhoon confluence just before The Big One.

On the morning of 15 June, Sergeant Jailer awoke and prepared to take a four-hour shift on the 6922nd Electronic Security Squadron desk at the Sampaguita Club, where the Clark-based squadrons had set up their command posts at Subic. As I walked out to the car I could see a very large plume forming in the distance. Still pretty oblivious, I drove down the hill to the Club. Along the way the first drops of muddy rain struck my windshield, causing my wipers to smear the glass with wet ash. This was the leading edge of Typhoon Yunya, meeting the leading edge of Pinatubo’s major eruption.

Because in the Philippines, we couldn’t have just one natural disaster at a time.

The Big One, June 15, 1991.

The guy I was replacing at the Club took just enough time to say, “Thank God!” before heading straight out into what remained of the morning sunlight–the last sunlight I would see until the next morning, it turned out, as the typhoon pulled the 100,000-foot-high ash cloud over and rained it down on us.

The next several hours were a confusing mess. Wet ash heavily layered the base, turning the landscape into a moonscape and collapsing several buildings. The ground began to shake constantly, and I edged myself ever closer to the nearby pillar which helped support the roof of the Sampaguita Club. The beige phone rang intermittently with questions about what was going on (How the hell should I know?) or requests for help (What do you mean your car is stuck at the Shoppette? What are you doing there? Can’t you see the world is ending?).

I’m afraid I don’t recall the intrepid Sergeant Jailer being much help to anyone.

Collapsed building near Subic Bay.

Eventually, whoever was in charge of our motley crew decided that we couldn’t simply sit and wait for our own roof to collapse. We were assembled and sent out into the lunar landscape to find the necessary tools: ladders, shovels, flashlights, goggles, and surgical masks. These last two turned out to be a waste, as wet ash does not get into your lungs, but it does cake up on goggles quite nicely.

We shoveled the roof in teams of four, with one holding flashlights while three tossed ash over the sides of the building. The roof shook continuously as lightning bolts struck on base (which is too damn close when one is wielding a metal object on top of a building).

Stranded DC-10 at Cubi Point.

When my turn on the roof was over, I climbed down the ladder, crawled under my little folding table, and fell into the sleep of the exhausted.

The next morning the sun rose, a sight almost as glorious as the face of the dude who came in to replace me after I’d spent 24 hours on my planned four-hour shift. I walked out to try to identify which lump of ash was my car and was eventually able to extract it. When I arrived back at our temporary home, Mrs. Jailer’s face was streaked with tears of anxiety.

U.S.S. Roanoke.

Over the next several days, several things became clear: we couldn’t go back to Clark, we couldn’t stay at Subic, and no aircraft could fly into that mess to get us out. So they called the Seventh Fleet. My wife and I were embarked on the U.S.S. Roanoake, a replenishment vessel that was not used to passengers, but nonetheless celebrated its first-ever delivery of a baby during our voyage.

Upon reaching the island of Cebu in the central Philippines, we went via amphibious landing craft to the beach, then on to Mactan airfield where a C-141 Starlifter took us to Guam, where my Philippine-born wife officially immigrated into the United States. Contract commercial aircraft then ferried us to Hawaii and then McChord Air Force Base, Washington.

We arrived at McChord on June 22, which also happened to be my little brother’s wedding day. I managed to sweet-talk my way through to the front of the processing queue, where they cut orders so that we could go on leave before our follow-on assignment, and then put us on a flight down to San Jose. After a quick stop at Sears for some presentable clothes and then to Papa Jailer’s house for a shower, the two Ash Warriors arrived just in time to upstage the wedding.

Mount Pinatubo was the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, ejecting 10 billion tons of magma from as much as 20 miles below the earth’s surface. Over 800 people died in the eruption, typhoon, and subsequent pyroclastic mudflows–a number which would have certainly been far higher without some really heroic work by those vulcanologists, whose quick and accurate predictions led to the evacuation of more than 60,000 people from harm’s way.

Including your humble correspondent.

Note: The above is my contribution to the October Group Writing Theme, “It was a Dark and Stormy Night…“. 

INFP: Frodo Goes Job Hunting

 

My generation grew up in the era of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I’ve honestly lost track of how many times I’ve taken this test, but my results are always the same: I am an INFP (introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving):

“Idealistic, loyal to their values and to people who are important to them. Want an external life that is congruent with their values. Curious, quick to see possibilities, can be catalysts for implementing ideas. Seek to understand people and to help them fulfill their potential. Adaptable, flexible, and accepting unless a value is threatened.”

This sounds quite impressive, but it has actually made me something of a square peg among my military officer colleagues. I just don’t encounter a lot of people like me in my current profession. It’s the FP part that’s different, according to a 2001 study of military officers in which the authors assert that:

“Ninety-five percent of senior military leaders are thinkers, leaving only five percent as compassionate feelers.”

In fact, I remember one staff psychologist looking at my MBTI profile in open astonishment and asking me flatly, “How on earth did you make colonel?”

She wasn’t trying to offend, and I wasn’t offended. I have long since come to terms with being a unicorn among my military colleagues. Every personality type has strengths and weaknesses as applied to various environments, so I have tried to capitalize on the former while taking steps to mitigate the latter. That’s not revolutionary; it’s really just simple self-awareness.

It does serve to point out one of the truisms of a military career: personality isn’t everything–adaptability is key. I’ve had dozens of assignments over 34 years, and have had to survive and thrive in a wide variety of jobs. Some were a more natural fit than others, but I had to deliver in all of them. There was no option to go to my boss and say, “This assignment really isn’t me.” In fact, I’ve generally found all of them to be interesting and enjoyable in various ways.

Moreover, just because Myers-Briggs thinks I’m intuitive and feeling doesn’t mean I don’t value the systematic application of logic and data analysis. I would say instead that I have a healthy respect for such things and deep admiration for people who master them, even as I personally gravitate more naturally toward context and narrative.

Every once in a while, of course, I really did fall into jobs that seemed to fit like a glove. 16Personalities describes my type as The Mediator and places me in the “Diplomat Role group”, which perhaps explains why I thoroughly enjoyed my time working in embassies over the past decade (well, except maybe the receptions–introverts aren’t much for large crowds and small talk). I’d go so far as to say that wife and I would have been perfectly content to continue doing diplomatic work forever, but that road isn’t very open to a transitioning military officer at my stage of life.

What does make this stage so fascinating is that for the first time in my life I am completely free to choose a career that suits my personality preferences. My financial and family situations are such that I don’t have to chase a paycheck. The road is wide open.

So, what exactly should I do now? Well, the MBTI gurus at 16Personalities have deemed Frodo Baggins as one example of the INFP type. So … does anyone have any problematic jewelry they need tossed into a distant volcano? I have a Top Secret clearance, so expect no issues with polygraphs, elf-queen magic mirrors or questioning by orcs.

I also have an extremely faithful companion who has proven willing to follow me just about anywhere. Happy 30th anniversary, Mrs. Jailer.

Mission: Transition

 

Soon to be unmasked for the civilian world to see …

Three and a half decades after I first took the oath that has defined my professional life thus far, I am facing a very different kind of mission: military retirement and transition to civilian status. It is hardly my first big project, and a great many fine colleagues have gone before me and testify that, with careful planning and preparation, it may be done quite successfully. Yet the prospect seems strangely daunting. Why?

I suppose that in some part it is because, for the first time since I was 19 years old, the choice of what to do next is entirely my own (with all appropriate acknowledgments to my amazingly supportive wife of 30 years, who definitely gets a vote). Nor have I been without choices throughout my military career, but in the end, the “needs of the service” were ever paramount.

One might say I have until now chosen off the career menu, and even then the cook always had the last word on what I would eat.

This has led to an extraordinarily broad and interesting collection of life experiences, and like most military officers I’ve learned to be very adaptable by necessity. I have worked in a variety of fields, including operations, intelligence, communications, and diplomacy. I have led people, programs, projects, and enterprises. I have served in a dozen different countries and two combat zones. I read, write, and speak passable Vietnamese (long story).

Yet when asked to name my value proposition for a civilian employer, I … um … change the subject. You see, “Jack of all trades” is not actually a marketable skill.

I don’t think my fundamental challenge is one of self-awareness. All these life experiences have given me a pretty good sense of what I do well and–just as importantly–where I’m weak. For example, I’m better at context than details; I’m a natural introvert who loves to teach and is comfortable in leadership, but can be awkward in large gatherings; I’m more intuitive than analytical; in negotiations, I’m usually the stabilizer who seeks consensus; I’m effective at crafting an argument, though I’m also an idealist who really needs to believe in the product I’m selling.

As I said, I have a pretty good idea of who I am at my core.

Rather, my current struggle is to envision a role for which my strengths and experiences translate into a job that I am both excited to do and confident will return value to an employer. Once I can get my brain around what that happy, productive, effective, civilian version of myself looks like, I’m confident I can package and sell it.

So that’s where I am today.

So why am I telling you this? Well, writing has always been therapeutic for me, helping me to define and enunciate my thoughts on important matters. At times it has also proved useful to others, which adds a special joy to the process.

US Navy ‘Expelled’ by China?

 

USS Barry (left) and USS Bunker Hill (right) underway in the South China Sea, April 18. Both vessels conducted FONOPS this week. (USN)

This past week, the US conducted two “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPS) in the South China Sea (SCS). US and Chinese rhetoric following these events was pretty much standard fare: measured on the US side, hyperbolic on Beijing’s.

In the first instance, Beijing claims to have “expelled” the USS Barry from Chinese territorial waters. From the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) version of Tokyo Rose:

The provocative actions of the United States seriously violated relevant international law norms, seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, artificially increased regional security risks, and were prone to cause unexpected incidents.

Translating from the original Propagandese, “expelling” is what happens when a US ship sails along its planned route, which in this case went both into and out of the vicinity of the Paracel Islands (or what China calls Xisha, now under its very own Chinese administrative district as part of Beijing’s ongoing SCS lawfare campaign). Presumably, the Barry would not have been “expelled” had it sailed in circles forever within the archipelago but, of course, it had other places to be.

The more insidious rhetoric–and a primary reason FONOPS exist–is the liberal PLA use of the words “provocative,” “international law norms,” and “sovereignty”:

  1. Provocative? US FONOPS have existed for four decades: universal, worldwide, country-agnostic. We challenge every country’s excessive claims. The only thing that has changed is the now-massive scope, scale, and audacity of Beijing’s maritime claims, especially in the SCS.
  2. International law under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is actually quite clear and important when it describes how a nation may claim territorial waters. Were the Paracel Islands to constitute an independent, archipelagic country, it would actually merit such a claim. Instead, it is an archipelago claimed and occupied by a continental state, China. Because China is not an archipelagic state, even if its claim was formally recognized, the waters around the Paracels would still not merit a territorial sea.
  3. Sovereignty is a term China uses liberally to describe anything it wants to own or exclusively control.

This is important because it demonstrates one way in which Beijing attempts to expand and consolidate its territory simply by making and repeatedly asserting excessive claims. The longer and more stridently it asserts these claims, it calculates, the more it will encourage the rest of the world to acquiesce.

China’s illegal straight baselines in the Paracel Islands

In the case of the Paracels, China has unilaterally established “straight baselines” around the outermost islands of the entire archipelago, and says, “This is all ours–you need our permission to enter.” The USS Barry‘s FONOP challenged that claim by crossing those baselines and carrying on normal naval operations, because China’s straight-baseline claim cannot be allowed to stand simply because China says so. Were we to stop doing this, we would de facto cede the argument and establish a new norm: whatever China wants badly enough, China can have.

The USS Bunker Hill then challenged a second excessive claim by sailing within 12 nautical miles (nm) of a Chinese-occupied and -claimed feature in the Spratly archipelago further south. In this case, China has not (yet) attempted to draw straight baselines around the Spratlys, because in doing so it would immediately look impotent, unless it also occupied all of the features, which would require actually expelling the Vietnamese, Philippine, Malaysian, and Taiwanese forces which currently occupy many of those features (yes, we FONOP those too, but nobody really notices). Expelling them is China’s eventual goal, of course. After all, China asserts sovereignty over the entire SCS within its “Nine-Dashed Line.” Since it’s not ready yet for that step, however, China contents itself with aggressively building up its military presence, bullying its competitors, waging a vocal lawfare campaign, and of course vociferously protesting every passing FONOP.

Example of an innocent passage, Jan 2016

The Bunker Hill’s Spratly FONOP was classified as “innocent passage,” which means that we recognize that a particular feature would merit a 12nm territorial sea for someone, though in the case of the SCS’s many claimants we don’t take a position as to which country’s sea we’re recognizing. Instead, we simply assert the right of ships to pass “innocently”–in a straight line without conducting any naval maneuvers–by sailing inside that 12nm limit.

Again, this is something we’ve done worldwide against every country’s excessive claims (yes, even those of our friends and allies) for four decades, but in China’s evolving lawfare campaign, it is important to them that we are the “provocateurs.”

Mischief Reef FONOP, May 2017

Though not exercised this past week, the US also frequently challenges claims in which China has artificially built-up a feature that does not merit a territorial sea, and then claims that the resulting construction changes its nature. For example, Mischief Reef was once an ordinary low-tide elevation (meaning it was submerged at high tide). Then China built an island on top of it, complete now with its very own port and airfield. UNCLOS does not allow a country to artificially change a feature’s status, however, so when we conduct FONOPS within 12nm of Mischief Reef, we make sure we always conduct some kind of naval maneuver (i.e., not innocent passage), so as to make clear that we do not recognize any territorial sea.

Here’s the bottom line: US FONOPS will continue, both in the SCS and around the world. They must. There is no other country with such a program, and the day we stop is the day Beijing will be able to claim victory for its audacious assertions of SCS sovereignty. That is the day that, for all intents and purposes, the SCS–through which a third of global shipping transits–would effectively become a Chinese Communist Party-owned lake.

Note: The astute reader may be aware that UNCLOS was never ratified by the US Senate. Thus we are left with a perverse circumstance in which the US systematically observes and asserts UNCLOS without having ratified it, while China has ratified but systematically violates it.

Pass the Popcorn: China Threatens Australia

 

The Australian government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison has generally been restrained in its criticism of China, which is by far its top trading partner. This past week, however, the gloves came off.

In characteristic fashion, it began slowly with “ScoMo” steering a middle course, declining to follow President Trump’s lead into defunding the World Health Organization, but calling for an independent investigation of the origins of the virus and a reform of the WHO. This was too much for China, whose Ambassador Cheng Jingye strongly implied that Australia was acting as a US lapdog. He went on to suggest that China’s full-tuition-paying students might not feel so welcome in Australia anymore, and Chinese people might decide they don’t enjoy Australian beef and wine as much as they used to.

For those of you who don’t speak CCP: Nice little economy you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.

[Oh, and for good measure, the ambassador reminded us that nobody really knows where the virus came from. But it wasn’t China. Or something.]

To get the sense of how epic this PRC own-goal was, check out this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald for Peter Hartcher’s take-down entitled, “China’s man in Canberra has unmasked the regime’s true face“:

As for the foolishness of Cheng’s position, it’s threefold. First, he’s been foolish enough to expose the reality of Beijing’s intentions towards Australia. The CCP seeks dominance, through any means possible. This has long been the reality of the Xi regime. I recounted examples of China’s economic coercion against 11 countries in my Quarterly Essay, Red Flag, published last year.

But, to now, the party’s functionaries have delivered their threats and pressure tactics in private and coercion has never been declared openly. Now we all see the truth – there is no goodwill, only gangsterism.

Second, “it’s a pretty inept piece of Wolf Warrior diplomacy because he’s huffing and puffing after the house has already blown down – China has already done more damage to our economy than any boycotts could,” says Rory Medcalf, head of the ANU’s National Security College. Wolf Warrior was a hugely popular piece of Chinese hypernationalist cinema released in 2017.

And third, Cheng’s comments are foolish because an open attempt to intimidate Morrison can only serve to rally Australia around the Prime Minister.

But surely it can’t be that bad?

But Cheng’s foolishness is Australia’s fortune. It is now plain for all to see that the CCP is waging political war on Australia, using trade as a weapon. This is Australia’s moment of clarity. Australia has allowed itself to become more dependent on Chinese trade today than it has on any single nation since Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.

That ended in profound shock when Britain cut its trade preferences with Australia to join the European Common Market in 1973. We failed to remember our history and we have repeated our error.

Now the virus, and the Chinese Communist Party’s conduct, have exposed the urgent imperative for Australia to diversify its risk and defend its sovereignty.

Australia does not accept threats and intimidation from any other nation as the basis for relations. Thank you, Ambassador Cheng, for removing the mask so that we can all clearly see the features of the gangster beneath.

More popcorn, please.

Born Again 1: A Letter from Sharon

 

The e-mail is titled simply: “A letter from Sharon“. It begins a bit ominously:

Hi! I wrote the following letter last week and contemplated as to whether to send it to you or not. The desire to send it to you didn’t go away, so here it is. Please don’t be mad.

Eh? I hadn’t seen Sharon for a quarter-century before a recent surprise encounter when a business trip took me back home to Santa Cruz. We’d once been very close, and it had been nice to see her again. She’d appeared well–healthy and happily married, with a little daughter who was the apple of her eye. But … “please don’t be mad“? It isn’t without some apprehension that I read on.

In the past couple of days, I have had a chance to read some of your articles … At first, when I received a few on my Facebook page, I thought that maybe you were just sharing articles that you found were of interest to you. I had no idea that YOU wrote the articles. That is fantastic! You have certainly found a niche to be able to share your views that, as I remember, were and apparently are, still so dear to you. I gotta admit though, when I first started to read the articles, they went over my head. It was likely that I had too many distractions around me when I was reading them. I finally got some quiet time yesterday and today and have, so far, enjoyed those I have been able to read.

Hm. Not sure what there is to be mad about here unless she suspects I am ill-disposed towards flattery.

You probably don’t want to hear this but I have to let it out. I don’t have anyone else to talk to about this and I feel like I will explode otherwise if I don’t say anything.

Bracing for impact …

The articles you have written and published on the Internet sound similar to the letters you sent me while you were in basic training. Your articles now are just more refined; more mature, and your bible quotes are complete. I read names I have forgotten. You scolded me on the topics of abortion, astrology and mysticism. I have no idea where that came from because I’ve always believed that I was (and still am) against abortion and anyone who cites astrology in my Facebook and email accounts annoys me!

Well. I do recall I could be, shall we say, a little strident back in 1986–especially when talking about my new faith in Christ.

It made me sad to read about your step father and how he affected your life. It made me laugh when you admitted that you “talk too much” and that you didn’t have a problem with blood being drawn from you for tests but that you had fears of embarrassing yourself from fainting. But most importantly, in your letters, you really tried to show me how you felt about your love for God and how important it was for you that I walk in that same path. I think I remember now that that was the downfall of our relationship. I could not relate to religion on the same level that you were. It was uncomfortable.

OK, so when I was 19, I could be really quite an intolerable nag strident.

I have gone through life wanting and needing more when it comes to my relationship with God. I get so choked up even as I write this because I know there is a need and I don’t know how to fill it. I have always believed that it was enough just to be born and raised in a religious home, but then I meet people like you who remind me that I must be more proactive in my quest for inner peace. I will admit it, that I am one of those you call “half-Christians”.

I said that?

Let’s summarize, shall we? Young Jailer was once an enthusiastic new believer, full of fire and impatience. Young Sharon had been insufficiently receptive to maintain his interest, so Young Jailer eventually got frustrated and went his way. Jailer and Sharon then took a couple of decades to grow up and think about all that … and so now here we are.

We had such a short meeting time, you and I, when you came to Santa Cruz. I never even got the chance to tell you how proud I am of you for what you have done with your life. I don’t know why our paths crossed again. I don’t know why I was here when you happened to come back. I just know that you have once again challenged me on an issue that I have struggled with ever since I can remember. I guess I’m writing you this letter to tell you that I appreciate you, and for what it’s worth, to thank you for allowing me back into your world by ways of reading your written messages. I feel very fortunate that I was once a part of your life and I suppose, whether I like it or not, you are “back” and I think, spiritually, I need that.

So, keep writing and sharing your views. I’ll be here to listen.

Note: This will be the first in a series–a story which, as it unfolds, I hope you will find as challenging and encouraging as I did living it. Also a quick thank you to Sharon, for agreeing to let me put this up. I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.

Next: Born Again 2: Assurance and the Quest for Inner Peace

Hot Take: Electoral Shock and Awe in Australia

 

G’day from your friendly neighborhood Yank Down Under.

Australia went to the polls yesterday, and the result has the pundits in shock this morning. A Labor Party victory was widely expected after polls had indicated for well over a year that the country had soured on the right-leaning Liberal Party (yes, we’re talking classical liberalism Down Under) coalition. Conventional wisdom seemed to have coalesced around the idea that this was a change election. Not so much, it turned out.

Incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison was also thought to be burdened by the collective disgust of voters tired of the constant drama of leadership “spills” which had produced six different prime ministers since 2007, and most recently last August when Morrison emerged from the Liberal tussle that saw previous PM Malcolm Turnbull pushed aside by a party nervous about this very election. While it is true most Australians are embarrassed about these palace coups, it is also true that once the deed was done, “ScoMo” pulled out the upset.

So here’s what the shocked pundits are saying this morning: Labor went too hard after “change”, including climate change, which was a big issue for them. Liberals were able to cast Labor’s agenda into a threat to jobs and pocketbooks. While urban Australians are quite progressive on many social and environmental issues (they overwhelming chose to allow same-sex marriage in a 2017 national referendum, for example), Australia’s economy has been very much dependent on the export of raw materials. They are therefore put in the strange situation of feeling queasy about using their own fossil fuels and minerals, but accepting that they need to keep digging big mines and shipping coal and iron ore off to China.

So the bottom line is that Australia will continue to have a center-right government led by an Evangelical conservative, and the pundits and pollsters will spend the next three years trying to figure out how they missed it.

Australia Strikes Back Against Beijing’s Influence Campaign (and America Should Pay Attention)

 

G’day, this is your intrepid American Canary reporting from the Coal Mine Down Under.

While Americans are trying to make up their minds about the little-league Russian interference in its recent politics, Australia has been fending off the major-leaguers from Beijing. Chinese Communist Party influence operations have swamped Australia in recent years, and from academia to media, business to politics, the CCP has encountered very little organized resistance.

Until now. The Aussies have awakened to the threat, and this week the Turnbull government passed two laws through Parliament aimed at turning the tide against China’s campaign of espionage and interference.

It’s hard to name a precise turning point because there have been several. Some hearken back to outgoing U.S. Ambassador John Berry’s pointed remarks in late 2016, while others recall the 2017 television report by Four Corners and Fairfax Media — one which now finds itself the subject of a pair of lawsuits under Australia’s alarmingly expansive defamation laws.

Those with more recent memories may point to this year’s long-anticipated publication of a book by progressive academic Clive Hamilton. In Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, Hamilton begins his account with the shock he experienced in 2008 when unexpected throngs of pro-regime counter-protestors pushed around a small band of Free Tibet activists in Canberra during the passing of the Olympic Torch on its way to Beijing. An outraged Hamilton wondered where all these people came from and at how they had the audacity to stage such a display in his own country’s capital. After taking his reader through a litany of examples of Chinese interference in Australian public and private institutions, he bookends the saga with another personal story about how three different publishers were pressured to reject his book for fear of lawsuits (before a conservative member of Parliament effectively took the threat off the table by entering the manuscript into the Parliamentary record). In a book launch event I attended a couple of months ago, Hamilton scoffed at how his supposed friends on the political left and in Australian academia abandoned him, while at the same time crying crocodile tears over the threat to “free speech” which the legislation finally passed this week is alleged to pose.

In fact, it may be that the heavy-handed opposition to the legislation by the CCP and its acolytes actually boomeranged (sorry … couldn’t resist) and carried the anti-interference legislation through in the end. Though it can be extremely clever and patient in its gray zone, win-without-fighting influence operation campaigns, Beijing has recently become much bolder, leading it to forget that aggressive tactics and bullying can be a two-edged sword when dealing with democracies. The cumulative effect of tactics like blatantly buying the influence of a prominent member of Parliament and angrily calling an Australian news program to demand it censor its programming (“You will listen. There must be no more misconduct in the future!”over time finally appears to have tipped the scales.

This doesn’t mean Australia’s struggle is over. Far from it. The Middle Kingdom did not come to dominate the Asian geopolitical landscape by quietly slinking away after a bloody nose, and as Australia’s top export market by far China still wields a very big stick. There are always consequences for pushing back, and you can be assured we have not seen the end of economic coercion, lawfare, and other tactics to show Canberra and its neighbors that there is a steep cost to be paid for poking the dragon.

That’s why the U.S. needs to pay close attention to what has happened down here. Not only is Australia an ally and a Five-Eyes partner, it is a microcosm of the struggle taking place across this half of the globe. Many smaller countries across the Indo-Pacific have already in large part succumbed to Chinese sharp power while others are contemplating the lure of its predatory economic offerings. China wants the region to know that it is the inevitable rising power and that America’s friends would do well to make the “China Choice“.

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“Not Long I Think. He is So Afraid. He Needs Jesus.”

 

When I was in middle school, my best friend Stephen had a little dog named BJ, who was about the size of a loaf of bread. One day while we were running around the house, BJ was yapping at my heels. I picked him up and kept running, but BJ wanted to be free, so he wriggled out of my hands. He fell to the floor and broke his neck.

Watching the life flow out of BJ’s little body was a childhood trauma that lingers to this day. The fact that it had been my fault was a big part of it, of course, but also that it was simply the most poignant encounter I’d had with death to that point in my life, or indeed for quite a long while afterwards.

In fact, on the whole I’d say my 51 years have thus far been quite remarkably free from the near pain of death. When I consider those many I’ve known who have prematurely lost a spouse, child, parent or sibling–including my dear wife–I am quite fortunate indeed. For whatever purposes, God has chosen to shield me to a great degree from death’s cold touch.

Yet recently I have felt death’s specter drawing nearer, most especially with the untimely passing of a number of friends old and new. In doing so, I have had to grapple with the reality that I have been a poor excuse for a friend, and that my capacity for compassion is severely constrained by both my fear and my addiction to comfort, to a degree that has shocked me and largely shattered my noble self-image.

Fear and death. They go together like peanut butter and jelly.

I recently got a message from someone very close to me, who described the pain of her brother’s deterioration: “Not long I think. He is so afraid. He needs Jesus.” 

These words grab at my heart. They convey the torment of a soul confronting the terrifying reality of what lies beyond the veil, and they convey the reality of my life as well. Because you see, it is really not long for any of us, and the fear of death hangs over all of us, though often we hide it beneath a veneer of activities and distractions. We all, therefore, desperately need to know Jesus–now, today–and to cast these deepest fears upon Him. This is true even of those of us who have already declared our love for Him and put our hope in his mercy. It is certainly true of me.

Addiction to comfort. This remains perhaps the most conspicuous evidence of the perniciousness of sin in my life.

My dear friend Bill died recently. Bill was a man with whom I once shared some of the richest fellowship of my life, and with whom I am ashamed to say I barely communicated through his final years. I had spoken with him after he had won an early victory over cancer, but as I began to sense the battle turning against him, I neglected to reach out. Again, it wasn’t hard … I just found other things to do.

The news of his death was therefore not entirely a surprise, which only made my failure that much harder to rationalize away. Had it been unexpected, I could have more easily just chalked it up to the busyness of my mobile military lifestyle. But I had known–or at least suspected–that Bill’s disease may very well return and take him, and I had made no effort. In truth, I had been afraid of what the knowledge would mean to me.

Bill himself faced death with admirable and characteristic courage. He wrote his own obituary, in which he testified to his confidence in Christ and his eternal hope beyond the grave. In fact, had I behaved like a real man and a true friend, I would likely have found myself even more comforted and uplifted by his faith near the end than I had been before. In typical fashion, my proclivity to sin was exposed as both selfish and foolish.

My own little dog Salo also died a few months ago. He lived his final year in the Philippines with my wife’s family, so I hadn’t seen him for a while, but the news still hit me very hard. I was at a business lunch when I got the word, and had to retreat to the bathroom to compose myself. The part of my wife’s message that really tore me up was how her family felt so badly that Salo had died overnight at the vet’s office. He was clearly ill, but they had not expected him to die that night, and felt they would have rather he had died at home, surrounded by those who loved him.

I want to believe I am the kind of man who is likewise driven to be there for those whom God has given me to love, and who is moved to action by the compassion that says, “They should not die alone. I should be there for them.” I want to believe that … but I fear that I have instead become the kind of man who, for want of courage and love of comfort, seems to find somewhere else to be.

How the Church Can Still Save the Country

 

What the heck happened?

Once upon a not-so-distant time, a solid majority of American society still looked to organized Christianity as a strong and sure moral compass. The church may have been countercultural and nerdy, but it was still generally respected for its principled stands on a broad swath of important public issues: life, family, law, ethics, morality, etc.  Smart politicians were careful to stay in its good graces—or at least not needlessly provoke its wrath—and carefully consider its favored positions.

But let’s be honest: does the country really care much what the church thinks today … about anything?

Consider that overall Sunday attendance is down to 36%, and is still plummeting. Even more ominously, less than half of Millennials and Gen-Xers have ventured inside a church in the past six months. The church’s once-central place in American life is disappearing, and its traditional moral causes are seen as almost embarrassingly anachronistic by many, even among its own dwindling congregants.  

Can there be any doubt that the Christian church, which once enjoyed a commanding position in the national conversation, has been largely marginalized as a organizing force in contemporary American society? Forget whether the church can save the nation … can it even inform the conversation without being laughed off the stage?  

If so, how?

Actually, the answer is fairly simple … and has not really changed in over 2,000 years: exalt Christ, make disciples.  Everything else flows from this basic mission. Our problem is that the (rapidly fading) era of relative prosperity lulled us into forgetting that basic purpose.  

We came to think public respectability was our birthright, so we learned to demand it. As it has slipped away, our only response has been either (a) increasing frustration about being ignored, or (b) increasing compromise in our desperation for “relevance.”

But the American church’s capacity to influence public culture was never automatic. The good reputation we once enjoyed was built upon centuries of patient Great Commission work by our spiritual ancestors.  

After all, public culture is only as healthy as its overall spiritual condition–that soil which feeds its dominant beliefs, values and ethics. Cultivating and transforming the soil of human spirituality, one soul at a time, is precisely what the church is for.

But we got lazy and comfortable, and we forgot.

Over time, we became collectively enamored with our influence over our public institutions—government, media, law, politics, etc. While these are the most visible manifestations of the culture, they are merely the leaves on the tree. They can be dazzling and give the illusion of permanence, but they are, in fact, extremely malleable.

This is why the church’s primary public responsibility was laid down clearly by its Founder: first, exalt Christ—that is, clearly, lovingly, and boldly represent Him in word and deed; then, make and grow His disciples. That’s why we exist.

When healthy, the church nourishes our surrounding society by faithfully performing this God-given mission. When unhealthy, we merely reflect the dominant culture, then wonder why that same culture finds no nourishment in our soil.

If the message the church is entrusted with is true, then we can still save the country. However, it won’t happen because we elect the right candidate, or pass the right laws, or see talented Christian actors and athletes win popular acclaim. These may make us feel better about ourselves, but they don’t transform society any more than a tree is suddenly healthy just because some of its leaves are green.

The church can save the country when we remember who we are … and why we’re here.

Jailer

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@jailer