The rationale for détente with Russia and China, then as now, derives from a change in American foreign policy philosophy. The drive to pursue a rules-based order around the globe is perceived by the current White House as over-optimistic and unrealistic. With Russia, talk of international law must be replaced with an uneasy but workable compromise to maintain the European peace. With China, future disputes will be about commerce and the balance of trade.
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By Matthew Parish
What is the contemporary US perspective towards each of Russia and China, the two Great Powers with which it has the most contested relations? Prima facie these are mysteries. President Trump’s sometime Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, was known to have observed that the real enemy or danger to the interests of the United States is not Russia but China. But Bannon is out of the US government and (for now at least) apparently out of US politics. It is not obvious that the rest of the Trump administration, or Congress, agree with him. President Trump has proffered a more conciliatory attitude towards Russia than has Congress.
Whereas Congress imposed anti-Russian sanctions upon President Trump (enacting legislation with a sufficient majority in both Houses that it could override his veto – an exceptional course), in June 2018 Trump announced that in his view Russia should be invited to join the G7 group of industrialised nations, to recreate it as it once was, the G8, until it was ejected for falling short on standards of democracy, human rights and rule of law. Hence the United States is divided upon whether to work with Russia or treat her as an implacable foe, at least internally.
On China, President Trump has fostered agreeable relations with President Xi and they have cooperated intimately over negotiations on the future of the Korean peninsula. On the other hand, Trump has threatened and imposed trade tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium from China – but then he has done that to his European and Canadian allies as well. Reading the runes of President Trump’s miscellaneous public statements, as well as those of his advisers and Cabinet ministers, is likely an unsatisfying exercise, not least because stances may change rapidly depending upon the issue and fundamentally, both US-Russia and US-China relations have in different ways become US domestic policy footballs. bounced chaotically around Washington, DC in advance of mid-term legislative elections scheduled for November 2018. What is said In the interim, particularly by anyone who has a vested interest in the outcome of those elections (and that includes most people in Washington), may not be reliable. As is usual in politics, it is necessary to look beneath public statements and observe the internal dynamics of the foreign relationships at stake.
The United States formulates its foreign policy via the executive branch of government and the office of the President. While Congress provides oversight of the foreign policy actions of the executive, it is very limited in its capacity to direct the President. The United States has little strategic interest in conflict with Russia, and in fact has little strategic interest in Russia per se. The scope of Russian foreign policy – sometimes known as Russia’s “near abroad” – is a series of military-territorial conflicts relevant to the country’s national security interests, including Crimea (where Russia maintains its Black Sea military base), Donbas (the area of eastern Ukraine where a number of factories relevant for military purposes are located) and Syria (where Russia has her only Mediterranean military base).
The other principal foreign policy issue for Russia is her sale of oil to Europe, currently restricted by reason of miscellaneous European-imposed sanctions and poor Russia-Ukraine relations (Ukraine being an important transit state for Russian petrochemical products lucrative European markets). The United States has only tangential interests in any of this. The profits made by Russia or the prices paid by Europeans for gasoline do not affect the USA in any significant respect. The EU’s desire to expand its confederation eastwards, seemingly to incorporate Ukraine, is of interest to the United States only insofar as it increases the prospect of military conflict between Russia and a NATO member state.
Nevertheless the United States has expressed the view recently that potential European military conflagrations are principally a matter for Europe to manage. This attitude reflects a historical American attitude towards involvement in European conflicts. The United States was reluctant to become involved in both World War One and World War Two, and remained at a distance from Europe between the two World Wars. It was only after World War Two that Washington, DC started to serve as the world’s policeman, supervising peace in Europe under the auspices of NATO. The current White House apparently gives that less emphasis than its predecessor.
As to Syria, the United States has interests but they do not stand in direct contradiction with those of the Russian Federation. There is no intrinsic strategic disadvantage to the United States of Russia maintaining a naval base in the Eastern Mediterranean, even if the United States could eliminate it as a practical matter (which it cannot: Russia has shown willingness to use all the military forces at its disposal to retain its Syrian military base). The United States has vastly superior military forces at its disposal in the Middle East, and they are not confined to a base at the far end of the Mediterranean. Russia has no aircraft carriers in the Middle East. However Russia’s occasional ally Iran menaces Israel from time to time. Moreover the United States has supported the Kurds in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Nevertheless neither of these considerations seem sufficient for the United States to come into conflict with the Russian Federation.
Russia has has no intrinsic problem with the Kurds occupying a northern tranche of Syria of no interest to it. The Kurds have a diplomatic presence in Moscow, suggesting cordial relations. Us interest in the Kurds is waning. The Kurds were valued as a fighting force to defeat the Islamic State. But now the Islamic State has fallen, the usefulness of the Kurds to the United States has become relatively modest. The Kurds create a point of friction between the US and Turkey, its NATO ally, as Turkey sees the Kurds as an anomy mortal to its territorial integrity.
On the other hand, were the Kurds to lose power and influence in northern Iraq and beyond, it is not clear that the Iraqi Shia alone could repulse a new insurgent Sunni movement that might emerge to replace the Islamic State. The only way Baghdad must be able to achieve that would be with increased Iranian military support, that Israel would be hostile to. While the United States might ratchet down its support for the Kurds, and cannot abandon them entirely, none of this is a source of confrontation with Russia. As to the problems with Iran (that include American’s ally Saudi Arabia’s unrelenting hostility), the United States’ view, likely correct, is that the Russian and Iranian challenges can be decoupled.
The two nations are principally allies of convenience via their common cause in the Syrian Civil War. But Iran has nothing strategic to offer Russia even in the medium term. Russia does not need Iran’s oil or any trade with Iran. Russia has no interest in Iran’s desire to needle Israel. Moscow maintains good relations with Jerusalem. To the extent that Iran maintains operations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the United States is likely to remain longer in Syria which is not in Russia’s interests who wants to operate in Syria free of US oversight of risk of inadvertent confrontation with US forces. Russia does not support Iran in any of that country’s Middle Eastern manoeuvres impacting adversely upon US, Israeli or Saudi interests. Russia itself has no desire to confront the United States in the Middle East.
Given that the Russian Federation has no strong interests in conflict with those of the United States, why did relations between the two countries fall to such depths under the Obama administration? The answer is because the Obama White House harboured a dramatically different foreign policy philosophy. Still thinking of the United States as the world’s policeman, Obama-era officials saw Europe as the principal US ally in maintaining a rules-based global order, and saw the Russian Federation as the principal danger to the project advanced by America’s European allies.
The reason the Obama White House became so involved in the Ukraine crisis – the Maidan Revolution, occupation of Crimes and war in Donbas – was because Russia’s actions in Ukraine threatened the European project to absorb Ukraine into European Union structures, which would have expanded precisely the rules-based international order the Obama administration espoused. Once the Obama government had given up on the idea of a Sunni-majority insurgency toppling the government in Damascus, and realised that the Sunni military presence in Syria was mostly associated either with Al-Qaida or with the Islamic State, the US was able to cooperate with Russia over Syria. Ukraine was the principal point of division; relations between the US and Russia were relatively amicable before the events in Ukraine of 2014, and Russia was not the subject of sanctions. The anti-Russian narrative in the United States commenced from then.
Accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections have been demonstrated to a sufficient extent by US authorities to be the subject of an indictment. The accusation is that Russian persons or entities propagated social media and/or political advertising that might be expected to have been intended to influence how people would vote. It is unclear why anyone in Russia did this; or at whose behest. It is probably impossible to measure what effect this Russian attempt at influence actually had.
Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had notoriously bad relations. Putin might have thought that a Republican US President had to be better than Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That might have been a conceivable motive for Russian interference in a US election. But this is all speculation. This is no publicly available evidence at the time of writing that the Russian President actually ordered anything, and it is not clear that whatever efforts were made were likely to have changed the result. The “Russian meddling in US elections” issue is bizarre and ultimately inconclusive. If anything, the event teaches us all to be wary of social media.
What has changed between the Obama and Trump White Houses is that the United States no longer sees. it so much as the world’s policeman, particularly in Europe. The United States is less interested in the success of the European Union as an international legal enterprise, propagated a rules-baed international order. Therefore the fate of Ukraine, which was the catalyst for current US-Russian hostility, is of relatively moderate importance. For the United States, Europe has a dispute with Russia but the USA does not necessarily have one.
The foregoing is a stereotyped view of what has changed in the Trump administration, and why Russia might be viewed through a different lens. Nevertheless there are plenty f voices in Washington who understand that Russia’s foreign policy is and always has been predatory, as befits a country whose borders have constantly shifted throughout history. Wherever she gets a chance, Russia will seek to seize more territory; when she is forced to, she will relinquish territory. European stability is important because Europe is historically unstable; whenever Europe descends into conflict – for example in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s – the United States finds itself having to step in.
To the extent that Russia contributes to European instability, its actions are to be opposed by the United States. But should Russia wish to act as a partner with the United States in maintaining European stability(something Russia might well welcome because she is afraid of invasion from the west, as well as Europe serving as her primary hydrocarbons market), then she can be embraced.
US foreign policy towards China is a different species of problem. Until very recently, the principal foreign policy frictions with China were historical hangovers from the end of World War Two and the 1949 Communist Revolution in the country. Those events created a de facto independent Taiwan, to which the US-supported and exiled Kuomintang Chinese regime retreated when Mao Zedong took power in Beijing; and North Korea, a remnant of an ideological struggle in the 1950’s.
To protect Taiwan from Chinese invasion, to protect South Korea from invasion by North Korea; and to reassure a demilitarised Japan that she was safe from invasion by China, the United States has been required to maintain a permanent military presence in the South China Sea for some 70 years. The United States’ strategic interests in these East Asian issues has always been tenuous, once Japan had been neutered at the end of World War Two.
While South Korea and Taiwan are both valued US allies, the Pacific Ocean separates them from the United States. During the Cold War, a strategic value was observed in preventing states worldwide from falling to communism. Taiwan and South Korea were both perceived to be at risk from the communist ideological menace, particularly with the Chinese communist giant upon their doorsteps. With the end of the Cold War, and the transformation of China into a free market economy, the ideological premise of American military and diplomatic engagement in East Asia started to look more tenuous. There was no danger of China imposing communism upon Japan or Taiwan, because China was no longer communist in anything but name. Moreover while China has been developing its military capacity significantly, she has shown no inclination to use this capacity beyond her borders save by way of contribution to the Unite Nations peacekeeping forces.
China has been installing military outposts in the South China Sea, such as the Spratley Islands, a series of manufactures islets distant from the Chinese shore that have been developed as military bases. It is believed that the geopolitical logic underlying this may be the prospect of discovering natural resources in the South China Sea, although at the current time the prospect of doing so upon a commercial basis is entirely speculative.
So far, China seems a gentle giant. Moreover with the current US-North Korea negotiations, the United States appears determined to demilitarise the Korean peninsular and introduce North Korea to the international community. The United States appears to be eliminating its final strategic premise for military involvement in a region that is surely more properly considered China’s proximate political geography.
The genuine American interest in the region is not strategic but commercial; the US interest in the South China Sea is China. The United States uses China to fund its citizens’ consumer lifestyles with products that are provided cheaply by reason of a relatively cheap Yuan. The key to understanding America’s contemporary approach towards China is through the lens of allegations of exchange rate variations; subsidies, and dumping, and the damage that may be said to have upon domestic industries; and trade tariffs. The entire discourse with China is about something else, compared with Russia.
In the early 1970’s, President Nixon reached détente with both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The premises of what Nixon was trying to achieve then were much the same as they are now. The Soviet Union had enough internal problems that there was no interest in promoting European instability, so Washington, DC and Moscow agreed to let their ideological disputes lie. The Soviet Union also wanted to sell its oil to Europe as it does now. As to Nixon’s détente with China, China wanted to open up and to develop its economy. The South China Sea disputes were of less relevance at that stage. The United States now, as then, is extending feelers to the world’s other two largest non-European powers to maintain stability in Europe on the one hand, and to place trading interests above disputes over strategic assets on the other.
The rationale for détente with Russia and China, then as now, derives from a change in American foreign policy philosophy. The drive to pursue a rules-based order around the globe is perceived by the current White House as over-optimistic and unrealistic. With Russia, talk of international law must be replaced with an uneasy but workable compromise to maintain the European peace. With China, future disputes will be about commerce and the balance of trade. Finally, note that unlike then, now there are also inklings of détente per se between Russian and China. Russian hydrocarbons can barely be efficiently transported to China at the current time. Nevertheless this may change. China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, seeking to join China to Europe and beyond overland, may change that. There may be a three-way détente in the offing.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.