Substantial commentary subsequent to the Russian invasion of Georgia is declaring the advent of a Cold War II. Estimable voices have concluded, not unreasonably, that with the Russian exercise of a military force against a democratic neighbor and ally of the United States, antagonisms dormant since the end of the Cold War will soon define future US-Russian relations and impact international matters accordingly. Acts once derided as mere posturing, such as conducting long-range aerial bomber patrols, are now ominously seen as indicative of growing tensions “not seen since the Cold War.” Fortunately, current American policymakers are uninterested in second global contest of wills. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates aptly commented in 2007, “One Cold War was quite enough.” Russo-American relations are indeed deteriorating but a second Iron Curtain dividing the European continent is unlikely. Nonetheless, but one potent play from the Cold War remains handy – the China Card.
The international landscape is radically different than the one inherited by the two superpowers in the wake of World War II. International affairs no longer pivots on just ideology and military capabilities, but also the breadth and depth of global economic integration and the manner in which each nations exercises its sovereignty in response to the challenge from globalizing forces.
For America, the period subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union defied easy categorization, much less insightful policy prescriptions. Recently, American scholars Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier summarized how the United States stumbled between the “indispensable nation” and “arrogance without purpose” in their aptly titled book “America Between the Wars.”
Chollet and Goldgeier recount how America, as the world’s sole superpower, retained tremendous freedom of action, but lacked a clear purpose and foundered from crisis to crisis, all the while professing its best intentions. However, as noted in a previous essay, a gap exists between how America perceives itself and how other nations perceive America; even worse, America is usually unaware of this gap. Accordingly, when America attempts to uphold its “values” (Kosovo) or its “interests” (Iraq), many countries conclude American unipolarity is hardly benevolent and only portends a threat to state sovereignty and integrity. Such apprehension is evident when contrasting Russian and PRC support for the American ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 with the vehement opposition to American regime change in Iraq only twelve years later.
Numerous estimable observers will argue the divergence between America, Russia, and the PRC results from their inherently conflicting ideological stances. Under the Clinton and Bush Administrations, the United States has enthusiastically identified itself as a champion of democratic capitalism and has supported its propagation around the world. In contrast, the PRC and Russia have essentially espoused “authoritarian mercantilism,” whereby the state exercises considerable leverage in directing the countries’ economic priorities while also minimizing the citizenry’s political liberty. (Neither the PRC nor Russia has been deliberately spreading this concept with the same energy as the United States has democracy, but the two nations are extremely sensitive to calls for greater liberalization within or on its borders.) Thus, as Robert Kagan notes in his insightful analysis, “End of Dreams, Return of History”, Russia and the PRC interpret President Bush’s proclamation to stand – and act – on the side of liberty as ultimately destabilizing. “To ask one dictatorship to aid in the undermining of another dictatorship is asking a great deal.”
While postulating another global ideological conflict is tantalizing, characterizing current international affairs in this manner is misleading. By linking the two countries on the basis of their similar regimes, Kagan is obscuring a key point of divergence between them.
The PRC leadership has been historically reluctant to assert the nation’s growing heft on the world stage, traditionally protesting Western interference in underdeveloped countries and, more recently, asserting its ascendance constitutes nothing more than a “peaceful rise.” Russia, under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his coterie of KGB comrades, is far more ambitious and fully expect to restore the nation to its historical greatness. Furthermore, the Russian leadership has determined the nation’s resurgence and re-establishment as a major player grants it the opportunity – and the right – to emulate America’s example. As demonstrated by the invasion of Georgia, Russia is fully prepared to intervene in another nation’s affairs and justify the action in terms employed by the United States. In this regard, Russia’s course of action runs counter to the PRC’s worldview. To paraphrase Kagan, Russia is more ready than the PRC to undermine a democracy.
Indeed, when Russia defiantly defended its invasion of Georgia in the face of Western opposition and expected support from the PRC and other anti-Western states, the leadership was rebuked. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev turned to the PRC-led Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) for diplomatic support and called for its conversion into a counterweight to NATO. Instead, the SCO declined to support Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway Georgian regions, and instead the members issued a declaration “[reaffirming] their commitment to the principles of respect for the historical and cultural traditions of every country and to efforts aimed at preserving the unity of each state and its territorial integrity."
Kagan’s bloc of autocratic states is not monolithic and the divergence between Russia and the PRC presents an opportunity for the United States to re-calibrate its foreign policy as the period of unipolarity comes to an end and to rethink how American power will be wielded in the future.
The China Card Updated
In the relationship with the PRC, America can begin the process for capitalizing on this opportunity. The PRC, in contrast to Russia, has embraced globalization and connectivity, making a sustained and comprehensive attempt to modernize and integrate with the global economy. Conversely, Russia has declined to diversify its petroleum-based economy and has permitted the political elite undue control over major sectors. Furthermore, the PRC leadership is violently opposed to liberalization, but espouses non-interference in other states; China has its own share of Kosovos within its borders and Iraqs on its borders and does not need the principle of intervention legitimized. Conversely, Russia has utilized its energy resources to blackmail its neighbors and has just invaded Georgia.
This course of action would spur opposition on the part of American policymakers opposed to accommodating the PRC dictatorship, especially when it is poised to emerge as a peer competitor. Unfortunately, as the experience in Iraq demonstrates, exercising regime change can serve American interests, but the comprehensive set of capabilities necessary to execute such an ambitious mission are absent. Moreover, America’s financial and fiscal crises are certain to take priority over expansive foreign policy goals in the near term.
Global responsibilities need not be abandoned and regime change can serve the nation’s interests, but the apparatus of national security needs to be restructured. American objectives will be just as effectively secured by being more judicious with military power and enhancing corresponding diplomatic and stabilization capabilities. (Recently, Russia has started to raise its profile in Latin America via its increasingly close relationship with Venezuela. Coincidentally, the US has begun re-shaping US Southern Command to be an “interagency” prototype. Latin America won’t be a “battleground,” but lessons learned will be important.)
In due time, the division between states will not be ideological, the historical anomaly, but between “status quo” and “revolutionary” states, the historical norm. If Russia persists, its isolation1 will only worsen, and will similarly sideline those nations, like Venezuela, choosing to bandwagon with it.
A second round of global ideological competition between democracy and autocracy should remain just that – a war in the realm of ideas.
1 In addition to isolation, the consequences to its economy are clear as well. Russia will be denied entry into the World Trade Organization and the Russian stock index, RTS, already declining since May 2008, fell even further just two weeks after the invasion of Georgia, reaching its lowest point in two years . On Sept. 26, Moody's Investors Service assigned a “negative” outlook to the country's banking system as it grapples to contain its worst crisis since the 1998 default.