Don’t Wreck Relations with Russia and China over Syria

Most opponents of the Obama administration’s plan to launch missile strikes against Syria have rightly focused on the possible costs in American blood and treasure if the United States becomes entangled in that country’s civil war. There is, however, a more subtle, yet extremely worrisome, cost: the potential damage to America’s relations with other important nations, especially Russia and China.

Russian leaders have been extremely outspoken in opposing military measures against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially if such actions are taken without approval from the UN Security Council, on which Russia possesses a veto power. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has warned that a U.S.-led attack on Syria could further destabilize the Middle East, proving “catastrophic” for that region and beyond. Moscow has now dispatched three naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean to show support for Assad and warn Washington against rash action.

China has been less vocal than Russia in criticizing U.S. policy toward Syria, but Beijing is also opposed to the course that the Obama administration has adopted. The Chinese government shares Moscow’s anger at Washington’s growing tendency to bypass the UN Security Council on matters of war and peace. That is a source of discontent that has been building for a decade-and-a-half. Western (especially U.S.) policy regarding Kosovo—both the war in 1999 and the decision to bypass the Council and grant that province independence from Serbia in 2008—became a prominent source of irritation. The U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003, again without Security Council approval, added to the list of Sino-Soviet diplomatic grievances against Washington and its allies. Most recently, the West’s cynical misuse of a Council resolution authorizing air strikes in Libya, supposedly to prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from attacking innocent civilians, antagonized both Beijing and Moscow.

The Obama administration’s transformation of the Libya resolution into a vehicle for regime change makes Russian and Chinese officials especially suspicious that the proposed limited missile strikes to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons will be perverted in the same fashion. And it is clear that Beijing and Moscow are tired of having Washington disregard their views and flout the interests of their countries.

U.S. leaders need to do a far better job of calculating America’s foreign policy priorities. Maintaining good relations with Russia and China outweigh any theoretical gains that might flow even from a well-executed policy regarding Syria. And the prospects of a meaningful U.S. policy “victory” in that country are midpoint between slim and none.

Conversely, we need cooperation from Moscow and Beijing on a host of important issues. Without Russia’s help, there is little chance for serious progress on nuclear issues, either reducing the bloated U.S. and Russian stockpiles of such weapons or discouraging Iran and other countries from barging into the global nuclear weapons club. China’s cooperation is even more important. Not only is China a major purchaser of U.S. government debt, which in an era of chronic budget deficits is no trivial matter, but the country is an increasingly crucial U.S. trading partner and a vital factor in the overall global economy. An angry, recalcitrant China would not be good for America’s or the world’s economic health.

China is also the most important player in efforts to discourage North Korea from engaging in reckless, destabilizing conduct. During the first half of 2013, Beijing appeared to grow weary of Pyongyang’s disruptive, provocative conduct and began to exert pressure on its obnoxious client. That pressure has been at least one factor in North Korea’s more conciliatory behavior in the past few months. But China will have little incentive to continue that course if Washington tramples on Beijing’s interests in Syria and the rest of the Middle East.

Obama administration officials must avoid policy “tunnel vision.” Pursuing a dubious strategy in Syria is bad enough, even taken in isolation. Doing so when it will likely damage U.S. relations with two major powers in the international system is dangerously myopic.