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It is a bipartisan article of faith within the American foreign affairs establishment that Vladimir Putin is our implacable foe, and that the Russia-China axis is a natural alliance of two powerful, like-minded despotisms set on global domination. This axiom, a toxic byproduct of our recent domestic political meltdown, is as unquestionable as it is wrongheaded and short-sighted.
In the American imagination, still laboring under a post-Cold War hangover, Russia looms large as a font of hostility, anti-Americanism and illiberal ideology. And indeed, there is little question that the Putin regime is authoritarian and hostile or indifferent to Western values like human rights, individual liberty, and law-bound, accountable government. There is also little question that Russia’s intelligence services have been spectacularly successful in exploiting our political divisions and sowing havoc and discord in our domestic politics. And, Putin continues to poke Uncle Sam in the eye, witness for example, Russia’s most recent meddling in Venezuela.
However, some sober perspective is in order. While Mr. Putin is surely an SOB, his regime is not nearly as wicked as others that we do not demonize to nearly the same extent and is in every respect an improvement on the Soviet Union. Russia is not a rogue state, and Putin’s hostility is mostly a reaction to American meddling in Russia’s backyard stretching back across Democratic and Republican administrations to before the turn of the century. Most recently, the U.S. and our European allies actively supported the overthrow of Ukraine’s legitimately elected government and its replacement by one hostile to Moscow. Moreover, since April of 2008, it has been NATO’s explicit policy that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of the alliance. This remains NATO policy today, though this fact is almost never mentioned by the mainstream Western press. Following on the heels of two earlier waves of eastward expansion, which brought NATO’s frontier to within 80 miles of the Saint Petersburg suburbs, these stunningly provocative policies would be a bridge too far for any Russian leader. Like every other country, Russia has legitimate security interests along its frontiers, and most especially where its bloody historic heartland is concerned. American and European leadership would have been wise to respect those interests.
Consider what would happen if the shoe were on the other foot. On this question, we need not speculate, as the historical record is quite clear: the United States reacts with fire and fury when confronted with similar provocations in its backyard. When in 1917 Germany attempted to entice Mexico into a hostile alliance, the United States declared war and dispatched the Kaiser’s Empire to the boneyard of history. In 1962 the United States came close to global thermonuclear war with the Soviets when they took their interference in Cuba a step too far. Russia’s reactions to NATO’s and America’s interference in Ukraine and Georgia have been relatively restrained by comparison.
The fact of the matter is that Russia is a relatively weak and declining power that spends less than one-tenth of what the United States does on defense, and is able to punch above its weight only by cannily deploying asymmetric strategies that maximize its strengths in cyber-warfare and intelligence operations. Russia has little military capability to seriously threaten Europe, and even less demonstrated intention to do so. While we obsess over Putin’s meddling in our elections and squander our resources on pointless distractions like prying Ukraine loose from Russia’s sphere of influence, we lose sight of the one central fact of our time – that we are in the early stages of conflict with China, a conflict that has the potential to dwarf all of America’s earlier great power confrontations.
China is well on its way to becoming a major peer competitor of the United States. Currently China’s per capita income level is comparable to Mexico’s, and the size of its economy stands at roughly $13 trillion, compared to approximately $20 trillion for the U.S. China will match the U.S. in nominal economic terms when its per capita income grows to the level of Argentina. If its per capita income were to match Taiwan’s, the Chinese economy would be 72% larger than that of the United States. Since economic power equals military potential, China represents an unprecedented strategic challenge for the United States. Because China faces serious internal constraints, it is far from clear that it can ever reach Taiwan’s income level. But nobody knows where China’s growth limits lie. What is clear is that China has already left the United States in its rearview mirror in terms of industrial capacity, is gaining on us in aggregate economic terms, and has not yet reached its full potential.
What’s more, like the old Soviet Union– but unlike Putin’s Russia – China presents a formidable ideological challenge to liberal democracy, a fact to which our intelligence community has finally awakened. The CIA publicly assesses that “Chinese leaders will increasingly seek to assert China’s model of authoritarian capitalism as an alternative—and implicitly superior—development path abroad, exacerbating great-power competition that could threaten international support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” Beijing has been aggressively reshaping the international discourse in the area of human rights, seeking not only to block criticism of its own system but also to erode accepted norms and advance narrow definitions of human rights based on economic standards. China also seriously challenges our liberal establishment’s preferred “multicultural” model of state-building. China is an old-fashioned 19thcentury-style ethnostate whose leadership regards our obsession with diversity and multiculturalism with a mixture of amusement and contempt. The coming U.S.-China rivalry will be a contest, among other things, between two very different approaches to nation-building, whose outcome depends to a great extent on how we think of ourselves as a nation.
A quick glance at a world map suffices to make one thing perfectly clear: a Russian-Chinese alliance is not in America’s interests. Eurasia covers more than 36% of the earth’s land area and contains nearly 70% of the world’s population, as well as 70% of its energy resources and 75% of its GDP. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project aims to tie the Eurasian landmass into a single economic zone. If successful, this strategy would threaten American economic dominance and dethrone the dollar as the world’s preeminent reserve currency. The emergence of a single hostile economic and political bloc dominating this vast landmass, from the South China Sea and Vladivostok in the east to the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas in the west, would be a geopolitical disaster for the United States. And yet, for some two decades, as presidents of both political parties sleepwalked through our holiday from history, we have heedlessly and inexplicably turned Russia into an enemy and driven it into the arms of China.
Let’s understand one thing: taking on both Russia and China, which appears to be our policy, is insane. There is still time to reverse our foolish course. However, to do so would require a bold diplomatic gambit that drives a wedge between Russia and China – a kind of Nixon-to-China moment in reverse. Richard Nixon’s surprise appearance in Beijing in February 1972 was a stunning diplomatic coup with far-reaching consequences – it hastened the breakup of the Communist bloc, tipped the balance of the Cold War in America’s favor, and helped launch China on a course of economic openness and reform. Today the situation is reversed – Russia is now the junior partner. But as in 1972, Russia and China have differences that can be exploited by a clever American foreign policy; and the U.S. and Russia have common interests including, notably, the containment of Chinese power.
The contours of a bargain with Putin are clear: reversal of the 2008 NATO policy of expansion into Ukraine and Georgia and internationally recognized neutrality for those two countries; recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea; and the easing and eventual lifting of sanctions. In return Russia would withdraw support for the Maduro regime in Venezuela and the Castro regime in Cuba and curb arms sales to Iran. These would be just the first steps leading to a long-term U.S.-Russian realignment directed at containing China. Knocking Russia out of the Chinese orbit would serve as a strong signal to other Asian countries that jumping on the Chinese bandwagon is not their only option and that balancing with the United States against a rising Chinese colossus is a viable – and preferable – alternative. In addition, breaking up China’s domination of Eurasia would contribute to maintaining America’s economic dominance, including preserving the dollar as the world’s trade currency – an enormous boon for U.S. influence that China does not yet possess.
It is to President Trump’s credit that his instincts towards Russia are not ones of reflexive hostility. It is also to his credit that he recognized from the beginning of his campaign that China is America’s primary adversary — and he is to be commended for beginning to shift the establishment’s view of this subject. Unfortunately, the tragicomedy of our present political moment is that the two-plus-year-long Russian “collusion” circus and our near-pathological neo-McCarthyite demonization of Russia have ensured that no rapprochement is possible during the Trump administration. And even if it were possible, where is our Nixon? Where is our Kissinger?
America’s geographical distance from the world’s zones of conflict, which makes us virtually invulnerable to invasion or domination by hostile powers, encourages two kinds of thinking about world affairs: isolationist and messianic. Americans are unused to and uncomfortable with realpolitik, and it is our natural tendency to view world affairs through ideological lenses, rather than from the perspective of power relations. But in an era when for the first time in generations we face a rising global competitor and enormous budget deficits, a little cool-headed realism is necessary. Instead of frittering away our limited resources on pointless, non-strategic causes, we must husband them and concentrate on the core strategic challenge – containing China’s power. In this context, international realities dictate that a rapprochement with Russia is not only desirable, if historical precedent holds, it is also – eventually – inevitable. Tragically, our toxic domestic politics make it nearly impossible for the Trump administration to make this necessary pivot and undermines efforts to reorient America toward meeting the Chinese challenge. Allowing our Russia policy to be driven by hysteria and undermined by partisan domestic political squabbles is a serious self-inflicted mistake that we are likely soon to regret.