Double Trouble

Two days ago The National Interest held an important discussion on what they gamely called “Avoiding Catastrophe: The Future of US Relations with China and Russia.” Harry Harding focused on the US-China relationship; the always sharp and engaging Nick Gvosdev emphasized Russia. Leon Hadar was also there, and his bottom line @TAC is this:

Washington, reflecting a bipartisan consensus or definition, is continuing to secure its position as a global superpower which supposedly has the right and the obligation to promote its interests and values around the world, including in Russia’s “near abroad” and in East Asia.

This is not an academic issue. The reason we ascribe to Russia and China “aggressive” tendencies and are willing to confront them, is because we define as “aggression” any move to challenge our global supremacy. That should be the starting point for any serious debate in Washington and around the country over our foreign policy.

My take is a little different. A distinction must be drawn between the prudence involved in promoting our interests and values in, say, the Middle East and asserting them in Russia’s near abroad. Simply dropping out of global leadership would correct a few important problems and exacerbate many more. The real challenge for US foreign policy over the next generation is to accommodate the rise of Asian powers to a level of global influence appropriate to the reality of their power — namely Russia, China, India, and Japan — while simultaneously cultivating the rise of non-Asian powers to a level of global influence that will help offset the tectonic shift of the world’s geopolitical center of gravity to the East — i.e., a truly unified Europe, a more stable and prosperous (and probably more united) Africa, and a healthy Brazilian state with a big rain forest that isn’t run by prison gangs. Attaining this goal means modulating, through prudent improvisation, different kinds of responses to different kinds of challenges to our unnatural, unsustainable, and therefore at least sometimes undesirable planetary domination. That’s where I’d start serious debate over our foreign policy.

That said, an interesting — and troublesome — understanding started to emerge from Thursday’s talk. Had I not been driven half mad by the onset of allergy season, I would have stuck around TNI to talk about it, but from the safety of my cheesecloth-draped desk area, I can do so now. To wit, the US and China have a much closer and more important economic relationship than the US and Russia, but in the short, medium, and long term, the rise of China poses a far bigger set of problems and ‘threats’ to American interests than does the recuperation of Russia. On the other hand, Europe and Russia have a much closer and more important economic relationship than Europe and China, but the recuperation of Russia poses far more problems and threats for Europe than the rise of China.

The double paradox is as clear as it is treacherous: the US and Europe will find it increasingly hard to coordinate policy when it comes to managing the growth of Russian and Chinese power. Ironically, and hopefully not tragically, only the US can help Europe mitigate and resolve its Russian problem set, and only Europe can hedge against China in a way that prevents US countermeasures from pushing toward a crisis relationship that neither the US nor China wants. The heartening European — and especially French — response to the Olympic situation is an excellent example of the latter dynamic; see Richard Just’s post at The Plank. And in the case of the former, as I’ll continue to urge, the US needs to focus its military energies in Europe away from NATO expansion into former SSRs and toward the recuperation of Europe itself as a political entity that can take its own side in an argument and live to tell the tale. Such a Europe will be of even greater value in balancing the complexities of the US-China relationship. It’s exactly the sort of win-win situation that should underpin the Western alliance for the next twenty-five years.