Washington’s Foreign Policy Folly

A basic requirement of a wise and effective foreign policy is the ability to establish priorities and make tough choices. Unfortunately, U.S. officials seem increasingly incapable of accomplishing such a task. That grim reality is all too evident as the Obama administration drifts into confrontational relationships simultaneously with Russia and China.

Even Henry Kissinger, hardly an opponent of a muscular, interventionist U.S. role in the world, warned against committing such a blunder. Reflecting on the Nixon administration’s decision to normalize relations with China, Kissinger emphasized the underlying geostrategic rationale. “Our relations to possible opponents,” he wrote in White House Years, should be such “that our options toward both of them were always greater than their options toward each other.” In other words, he believed that Washington should make certain that its ties to both Beijing and Moscow are always closer than their ties to each other. The Obama administration is violating that prudent principle and thereby creating grave risks for the United States.

Both China and Russia are clearly major players in the international system and have the capacity either to ease America’s international problems or create serious headaches. As the main successor state of the defunct Soviet Union, the Russian Federation inherited most of the Soviet Union’s military might, most notably its arsenal of several thousand nuclear weapons capable of reaching and obliterating the American homeland. A program of military modernization under Vladimir Putin has enabled Moscow’s conventional forces to rebound after a period of decline and neglect in the 1990’s. Russia’s air and naval forces, while definitely less capable than their American counterparts, would be a dangerous adversary in any confrontation. Even economically, Russia is in the ranks of the major powers, with the world’s ninth-largest economy. The country occupies a pivotal position in the global energy market.

China has become an even more serious factor than Russia in the international system. Beijing lacks Moscow’s status as a nuclear heavyweight, but that capability is rapidly rising as President Xi Jinping’s government both expands and modernizes his country’s nuclear deterrent. And China’s economic clout dwarfs that of Russia. China’s gross domestic product is now larger than Japan’s and second only to that of the United States. Indeed, according to one calculation by the International Monetary Fund, based on purchasing-power parity, China just passed the United States to become the world’s largest economy.

A basic requirement of a wise and effective foreign policy is the ability to establish priorities and make tough choices. Unfortunately, U.S. officials seem increasingly incapable of accomplishing such a task.

Moreover, Beijing’s economic power cannot be measured solely in terms of its GDP. China has become the world’s greatest creditor nation. Chinese institutions now hold more than $1.3 trillion in U.S. Treasury debt, a huge potential source of economic and political leverage. Given Washington’s financial profligacy, Beijing’s holdings of U.S. government debt will certainly expand. Despite the professed bipartisan concern about the evils of deficit spending, the U.S. government budget continues to bleed red ink at the alarming pace of $500 to $600 billion per year, with no end in sight.

One might think that, given the military and economic importance of Russia and (especially) China, U.S. officials would seek to avoid being on bad terms with either country. Instead, the Obama administration has been even worse than the preceding Bush administration in antagonizing both.

There were multiple sources of friction with Russia even before the invasion and annexation of Crimea, including sharp disagreements over policy toward Syria and Iran. The Crimea episode and its aftermath, especially Moscow’s support for secessionist forces in Eastern Ukraine, have made matters dramatically worse. Washington and its European Union allies retaliated for the Crimea annexation by imposing economic sanctions, and they adopted a second, tougher round of punitive measures in response to the Kremlin’s subsequent meddling in Eastern Ukraine.

Suspicion is running rampant on both sides. Hawks in the United States and some European members of NATO (especially Poland and the Baltic states) insist that Putin is trying to reconstitute the Soviet empire, and that he is contemplating military aggression akin to that of Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. During his September trip to the NATO summit meeting, President Obama issued a pointed warning that Moscow should not even toy with the idea of using military force against a NATO nation, reminding Kremlin leaders that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty considers an attack on one member an attack on all.

Angry Russian officials accuse Washington and Brussels of having encouraged the overthrow of Ukraine’s duly elected, pro-Russian government through mob violence, and they charge that Russophobes in the West want to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO as the latest installment in a continuing effort to intimidate Russia and undermine Russian influence even in her geopolitical backyard. The language coming out of both Washington and Moscow is characterized by a shrillness that has not been heard since the chilliest days of the Cold War.

Even more worrisome are the military gestures that both sides are adopting. In response to Russian moves regarding Ukraine, Washington and other NATO capitals promptly approved a series of military exercises that amount to an ongoing deployment of forces (especially air units) in alliance members on Russia’s border—the latest violation of promises that U.S. officials made to Moscow in the 1990’s when NATO enlargement began. Alliance leaders then announced the establishment of a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a rapid-reaction force to respond to any aggression on NATO’s “periphery.” The Obama administration has been coy about whether the United States might contribute personnel to the VJTF, but Washington certainly is not ruling out that possibility. Even more provocative, in mid-September NATO units began conducting joint military exercises with Ukrainian forces. American hawks openly advocate sending materiel to Kiev and even flirt with the idea of stationing U.S. troops in Ukraine.

Russia has engaged in provocative moves of her own. There have been incidents in which Russian submarines allegedly violated the territorial waters of European neighbors. And in late October, Russian military aircraft allegedly entered the airspace of the Baltic republics on several occasions. Apparently, those actions were designed merely to test NATO radars and other defense capabilities, but the potential for a miscalculation and a resulting dangerous military clash is worrisome.

Both sides are at fault for the escalating tensions, but the bulk of the blame lies with Washington. The Obama administration and its European allies crossed the line by meddling in Ukraine’s internal political affairs. They clearly aimed to remove Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence and move her into the West’s geopolitical orbit. One can readily imagine how the United States would react if a rival great power engaged in similar conduct in Canada or Mexico. Moreover, historical context is important. The interference in Kiev followed more than a decade and a half of NATO’s inexorable eastward expansion, despite warnings from Moscow as far back as the late 1990’s that it considered such actions pisive and menacing.

The onset of a new cold war with Russia would be alarming even viewed in isolation. But at the same time that Washington’s relations with Moscow are deteriorating, tensions with China are on the rise. That trend has been developing for several years. The announcement early in Obama’s presidency of a “rebalancing” of U.S. military forces to produce a greater presence in East Asia was widely viewed as directed against China’s growing influence in that region. Chinese leaders certainly interpreted the much ballyhooed U.S. strategic “tilt” to East Asia in that fashion.

Washington’s subsequent actions have reinforced Beijing’s suspicions. The conclusion of a new bilateral security agreement with the Philippines, the stationing of additional U.S. forces in Australia, multiple moves to broaden and intensify the military alliance with Japan, and, most recently, the lifting of the long-standing U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam all suggested the development of a containment policy directed against China. Beijing clearly interprets the Obama administration’s various actions that way. The growing friction was highlighted during then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s visit to China in the spring of 2014. A series of testy exchanges culminated with a pointed warning from Defense Minister Chang Wanquan that efforts to “contain” China will never succeed.

Beijing has been increasingly irritated at the U.S. stance on a variety of issues. Washington’s position regarding China’s territorial disputes with neighboring states in both the South China and East China seas is an especially prominent grievance. U.S. leaders are extremely unhappy about the vast extent of China’s territorial claims in both arenas, fearing that China seeks to supplant the United States as the hegemonic power in the western Pacific and East Asia. Washington especially frets that Beijing’s growing power threatens freedom of navigation in vital sea lanes. As the world’s leading maritime power, the United States views that prospect as more than a minor concern.

From Beijing’s perspective, the Obama administration has exhibited blatant bias and hostility toward territorial claims that Chinese leaders believe are fully justified on both historical and legal grounds. Chinese leaders charge that, instead of evaluating the competing cases in a fair manner, Washington has engaged in an unsubtle backing of Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other rival claimants—even prodding them to take a stronger stance against Beijing.

As in the case of the surge in animosity between the United States and Russia, both sides share blame for the growing Sino-American tension. Beijing’s territorial claims are breathtakingly broad, and they are considered unacceptable not only by the United States but by nearly all nations in East Asia. Moreover, China has pressed her claims in ways that amount to bullying her smaller neighbors. But Washington’s policy has been at least as clumsy and provocative. All too often, the Obama administration has adopted what amounts to an “anybody but China” approach to the competing territorial claims. And despite pro forma assurances that the United States is not pursuing a containment policy toward China, U.S. actions suggest otherwise.

Ideally, the Obama administration should follow Thomas Jefferson’s advice to seek “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations.” Washington would be wise to take steps to repair relations with both Russia and China. If U.S. leaders cannot bring themselves to adopt that approach, they should at least choose one major power to be the designated adversary, not antagonize both governments. The current approach is likely, however inadvertently, to reverse the split between Moscow and Beijing that began in the late 1950’s. Mutual anger and apprehension regarding U.S. power and arrogance is driving the two countries into a de facto alliance against the United States.

Avoiding that undesirable—and potentially very dangerous—outcome means setting policy priorities and making choices. Policymakers need to ask themselves which country is more important to the United States, strategically and economically. Which country has the greater capacity to harm important American interests? Which country has the greater intent and capability to disrupt the status quo in its respective region? Which country may have the intent and ability to alter the global status quo to the disadvantage of the United States?

Those questions have no easy answers. Russia may seem to be the more worrisome potential adversary in some categories; China in others. But any effective foreign policy must conduct an array of such complex assessments. Dodging that task and making adversaries of both Moscow and Beijing is extremely unwise. Down that path lies frustration and potential catastrophe.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is the author of ten books and more than 600 articles on international affairs.