Tag: great powers

Great Gaming Russia in Central Asia

For the sake of Afghanistan, U.S. officials routinely invoke the importance of nurturing economic growth across South and Central Asia. But when it comes to advancing policies meant to increase regional trade, Washington has shown little effort to ease the geopolitical differences between itself and one of Afghanistan’s key neighbors: Russia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed late last year in Dushanbe, “we want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it’s so critical to more fully integrate the economies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia.”

That sounds promising. So what is the problem? As George Washington University Research Professor Marlene Laruelle writes, present U.S. policies, like the “New Silk Road” initiative that Clinton hints at above, reflect an underlying economic rationale “to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations.”

Echoing this interpretation is Joshua Kucera, a Washington-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Slate and ForeignPolicy.com. He points to Washington’s call to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as well as Washington’s placement of the Central Asian states in a new State Department bureau. He writes, “What these all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.”

Moscow already thinks that Washington’s promotion of NATO’s eastward expansion is a U.S.-led containment strategy. As we have seen in that part of the world, however, Washington’s attempts to marginalize Russia in its Central Asian post-Soviet sphere will bump up against the region’s deep historical ties, cultural influence, and geographic contiguity with the Kremlin. This all might seem obvious, but apparently not, as it would require foreign policy planners to appreciate the overriding interests of neighboring great powers as they pertain to Afghanistan, even the ones we abhore. That will be difficult, and it is important to illuminate why.

Too many in Washington equate a less confrontational approach as a sign of weakness, and militant internationalism as a sign of strength. But in South and Central Asia, U.S. officials must understand that what they perceive to be in America’s interest does not always line up with the prospect of regional connectivity. Washington’s pursuit of primacy in this region is erecting hurdles to the very liberal-internationalist goals that it claims to promote. If economic growth is to have any reliable chance of success, then the U.S. should not be attempting to foreclose constructive avenues for increased integration.

Pursuing policies that place the region’s general interest before America’s does not convey weakness. Rather, it is a recognition that some countries are better positioned to be key players in the region, especially in light of the last 11 years, which have amply demonstrated the limits of Washington’s ability to impose lasting change in Afghanistan.

As my colleague Doug Bandow alluded to the other day, Russia is not America’s “number one geopolitical foe”—it is a declining power with nukes. Whether officials in Washington are willing to countenance such thoughts is anyone’s guess. However, given the disproportionate power of foreign policy hawks inside the Beltway—from the liberal and conservative persuasion—I wouldn’t bet on it.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Romney and Russia: Complicating American Relationships

Mitt Romney has become the inevitable Republican presidential candidate.  He’s hoping to paint Barack Obama as weak, but his attempt at a flanking maneuver on the right may complicate America’s relationship with Eastern Europe and beyond.

Romney recently charged Russia with being America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”  As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.”  Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

It is important to separate behavior which is grating, even offensive, and that which is threatening.  Putin is no friend of liberty, but his unwillingness to march lock-step with Washington does not mean that he wants conflict with America. Gordon Hahn of CSIS observes:

Yet despite NATO expansion, U.S. missile defense, Jackson-Vanik and much else, Moscow has refused to become a U.S. foe, cooperating with the West on a host of issues from North Korea to the war against jihadism.  Most recently, Moscow agreed to the establishment of a NATO base in Ulyanovsk.

These are hardly the actions of America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Romney’s charge is both silly and foolish.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. should not confront Moscow when important differences arise.  But treating Russia as an adversary risks encouraging it to act like one.

Moreover, treating Moscow like a foe will make Russia more suspicious of America’s relationships with former members of the Warsaw Pact and republics of the Soviet Union—and especially Washington’s determination to continue expanding NATO.  After all, if another country ostentatiously called the U.S. its chief geopolitical threat, ringed America with bases, and established military relationships with areas that had broken away from the U.S., Washington would not react well.  It might react, well, a lot like Moscow has been reacting.

Although it has established better relations with the West, Russia still might not get along with some of its neighbors, most notably Georgia, with its irresponsibly confrontational president.  However, Washington should not give Moscow additional reasons to indulge its paranoia.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

What Was the Point of Romney’s China Op-Ed?

Mitt Romney has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that Dan Drezner has aptly characterized as “Romney SMASH China!” Drezner takes Romney’s arguments on their own terms, but I’m more cynical, and accordingly I’m interested in why Romney wrote this piece. Sure, sure, maybe it’s possible that he just has strongly held ideas about U.S.- China policy and chose to voice them, but let’s be real: the man is trying to get the GOP nomination and then get elected president. He or someone in his campaign decided that now was a good time to reach out to the largest circulation conservative op-ed page in the country—one that gets read by a lot of people from whom he’d like to get contributions—with this message.

And what is the message? There’s the usual inchoate American nationalism (making the 21st “an American, not a Chinese century”) and criticism of Obama’s extravagant spending, sure, but there are also some fairly clear signs that Romney wants to signal he’ll get tough on China. He argues that Washington must “directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation.” On the latter, he goes so far as to promise that “on day one of my presidency I will designate [China] a currency manipulator…” despite gradual appreciation in the renminbi highlighted in today’s New York Times.

On the security side, he unsurprisingly suggests that the United States should bolster its role as the balancer-of-first-resort in the Asia-Pacific, claiming without evidence that our allies are worrying that we’re going to leave the region.

Now let’s go back to my question: What’s the play here? Does he think that this is some sort of mass appeal argument that will burnish his credentials in the eyes of the median Republican primary voter? Is he trying to tie economic malaise to the looming ChiCom menace? Maybe so, but does he think that the wealthy potential contributors who read the Journal op-ed page are going to be aroused by this message? That doesn’t seem right to me at all.

There are lots of people who’ve gotten wealthy running political campaigns who no doubt got this piece placed (and probably wrote it), but the questions remain: Why this message? Why this outlet? What was this piece supposed to accomplish? I can’t figure out a persuasive answer.

Explaining Aircraft Carriers

Yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made the following comment regarding China’s maiden voyage in the old Varyag carcass it has been tinkering with for over a decade:

We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment.

This echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks at the 2005 Shangri-La Dialogue in which he puzzled in quintessentially Rumsfeldian fashion:

Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder:

* Why this growing investment?

* Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?

* Why these continuing robust deployments?

Maybe, like me, the Chinese are reading Aaron Friedberg’s new book on U.S.-China security competition (Friedberg worked on Asia for Vice President Cheney). Perhaps high-ranking military officials there shudder a bit when they read, on page 184, that someone very close to the levers of power in Washington admits mildly that

Stripped of diplomatic niceties, the ultimate aim of the American strategy is to hasten a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, that will sweep away China’s one-party authoritarian state and leave a liberal democracy in its place.

Given this, as Friedberg sensibly notes later (p. 231),

It is difficult to believe that the present Beijing regime will accept indefinitely a situation in which its fate could depend on American forbearance, and hard to see how it can escape that condition without building a much bigger and more capable navy.

I actually agree with David Axe’s characterization of the Shi Lang as “a piece of junk,” and given the geography of the region, I wouldn’t—as the Chinese aren’t—pour many resources into aircraft carriers to remedy this predicament. But if the roles were reversed, and China spent four times as much as we did on our military—and if China had naval bases ringing my coastline and fancied itself the “hub” of a “hub-and-spokes” set of alliances between itself and a variety of Latin American countries and Canada—I’d probably think that these facts, when assembled, constituted a pretty strong argument for spending more money on anything I could use to defend myself. Especially if China had recently gone on an ideological rampage trying to “hasten revolutions” and leaving smoldering wreckages in its wake.

At any rate, what’s good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, so I anxiously await the Pentagon’s detailed explanation for why we need each of our 11 aircraft carriers, every one of which is enormously more powerful than the PRC’s puny flattop.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.